Less 'Man Drought', More 'Woman Flood' - A Conversation on No Country For Old Maids

Joan Fleming talks to Dr Hannah August about her new text.

In No Country For Old Maids?: Talking About the ‘Man Drought’, Dr Hannah August complicates the dominant mythologies of coupledom with a method that’s so straightforward it invites the question of why countless pieces have avoided it before – that is, she bothers to talk to actual women about their experiences of being single in New Zealand.

Here, Dr August, in conversation with Joan Fleming after the book’s August release, discusses ‘frothing rabies mad’ comment feeds, the decline in valuing strong women’s voices, and why it’s easy to forget that every number collected by demographers represents a real human being.

Joan Fleming: In the book, you take issue with the narrow and frequently offensive ways that the New Zealand media talks about the ‘man drought.’ Most of the coverage of this issue is either empty clickbait, or the engine for a piece about how poor desperate single women are surviving in drought-stricken New Zealand. Or else it’s an advice piece, encouraging women to lower their standards and up their erotic capital in order to ‘land a man’ – a frankly illogical take on the issue, considering that the demographic disparity between men and women is real and no amount of makeup is going to change that. Why did you feel that this text needed writing, and in what ways do you hope it complicates the often two-dimensional discussion around single women in New Zealand?

Hannah August: When I was back visiting New Zealand in the summer of 2012, I remember reading an extract in the Sunday Star Times, syndicated from a longer article about single women living in America. I realize now it may in fact have been the start of Kate Bolick’s 2011 piece for The Atlantic, ‘All the Single Ladies’.

I remember thinking two things: one, it was a shame that a New Zealand paper couldn’t be bothered to fund a New Zealand writer to write about the topic from a New Zealand perspective. Two, I thought of all the wonderful, smart, attractive single Kiwi women I knew, and what had always seemed like a comparative dearth of smart attractive single Kiwi men. A couple of weeks later, in a morning of bored Googling when I was back in London and supposed to be working on my PhD, I discovered the ‘man drought’.

I discovered it first through the types of mainstream media articles you describe in your question, and which I take issue with in the text, and then quite quickly through the academic papers written by the demographer most often cited in these articles, Paul Callister. I became concerned at the cross-pollination of what I was reading – the way the statistics from Callister’s papers were lifted wholesale by reporters, without further interrogation, and the way the language favoured by the media (terms like ‘cougar’, ‘trophy wife’, ‘man drought’ itself) then made its way back into the academic papers, often without the required distancing effect of inverted commas.

What I wanted to see, I suppose, was a treatment of New Zealand’s imbalanced sex ratio from a feminist perspective – and not even necessarily a particularly militant feminist perspective, simply one that placed female experience at the heart of the analysis. The more I read the term ‘man drought’, the more I became exasperated at the way the very term perpetuated male privilege, by placing ‘men’ at the forefront of the discussion. Okay, ‘woman flood’ is a less than ideal alternative, but at least it opens itself up to a possible interpretation in which the ‘extra’ numbers of women in New Zealand are valued, rather than one which designates men as the desirable commodity whose scarcity is a cause for concern.

Of course, for some heterosexual women who have been unwillingly single for a long time, the lack of men really is a cause for concern, and part of what I thought it was important to do was to collect the testimonies of a significant number of these women, rather than just the random one or two whose comments are used as colour for articles about the ‘man drought’ that appear in the mainstream media. I believe that one of the most important tasks for feminism is to, as you put it, ‘complicate the two-dimensional discussion’ – and depiction – of women, and I felt that one of the most effective ways of doing this would be to present a diversity of women’s voices together, speaking about their experiences of singledom in ways that were honest, and considered, and contradictory.

I do realize there’s a disproportionately low number of women featured in my text who are perfectly happy being single. When I put out a call for single female interviewees, I ended up with a lot of interviewees whose singledom is an acknowledged part of their identity – I suspect because it’s something they feel uncomfortable about or dissatisfied with. There are probably quite a lot more women out there who are not bothered by their singledom, and have either deliberately chosen it, or at least don’t see it as impacting upon their day-to-day happiness.

Because I wanted to widen and complicate the terms of the pre-existing discussion around the ‘man drought’, which focuses predominantly on the effect of the sex ratio imbalance upon partnering, there’s less in my text than there could have been about the ways that single women are just getting on with living full and fulfilling lives. When you reach the end of a book project and the book has crystallised into its final and fixed self, you can’t help looking back at the other selves it could have had: I did think as it went to press that it would have been nice in some ways to have published something called No Country for Old Maids? Talking About the ‘Man Drought’ that featured interviews with single women speaking about anything except for their relationship status and their thoughts about men.

I doubt my publisher would have gone for the joke, but it would have been a way of addressing what many of my interviewees identified as an issue affecting their happiness: the fact that, as a society, we fixate on whether women are single or not, in a way we don’t necessarily do with men. This fixation, which is perpetuated by the way women are depicted in so much of our popular culture, can be internalized by women in a way that isn’t particularly helpful to them – the first step is to take note of what unwillingly single women have to say about how the dominant mythologies of coupledom and singledom have affected them, and the second is to circulate a much wider variety of mythologies.

JF: Yes! This, for me, is the most thrilling thing about the text. It presents perspectives that flip (or flip the bird to!) those dominant mythologies, as well as gesturing towards even more diverse perspectives that the text didn’t have space for.

The academic conversation around this issue has largely been based on quantitative, not qualitative, research. This is fine and appropriate if the intention is to analyse the numbers and work out if the ‘man drought’ is really ‘a thing.’ However, when commentators and writers make glib suggestions for women –– for example, try being a “mistress”, or mail-order a husband from the former Soviet Union (!) –– without actually speaking to women about their experiences, it is dangerous territory.

What was the overwhelming message you took away from your in-depth discussions with actual single women?

HA: It’s true that several of the behavioural changes posited by academics were anathema to many of the women I spoke to – non-monogamy, more attentiveness to self-presentation, use of technology to facilitate dating. But other women were certainly considering them.

I think what I hoped to be able to demonstrate by juxtaposing some of the quantitative research around the ‘man drought’ with testimonies from actual women - and of course this is trite and self-evident, but also surprisingly forgettable – is that every number gathered by demographers represents a group of unique human beings. And some of them will act in accordance with the trends hypothesised by demographers, and some of them won’t; and of those that do some will feel good about it and some won’t; and they’ll all have individual sets of experiences that have led to their actions at that point in time.

And I suppose I can’t help feeling that it’s more valuable – if more difficult – to try and understand women’s experience by aggregating these stories, than by reducing their outcomes to numbers or lines on a graph.

JF: Who do you believe is the audience for No Country For Old Maids, and how do you hope it will affect them?

HA: I suppose the book is, in the first instance, written for the type of reader who features within its pages: smart heterosexual thirty-something single women. It’s these women who’ve so far given me the most positive feedback on the text, and they’ve said what I’d hoped – that it’s affirming to see the voices of women like them given weight, and their concerns and life trajectories taken seriously.

But I’ve also been surprised by the positive feedback I’ve had from male readers, who’ve written to say that they found it informative and thought-provoking. This, too, was something I’d hoped for but hadn’t necessarily expected; that it would deepen understanding across the gender divide of what is too often depicted as a ‘women’s issue’.

JF: New Zealand has always been progressive in terms of feminism. We were the first country to give women the vote. At one point we had women holding our three highest public offices simultaneously – Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Governor-General. Still, there’s a perception, evidenced by comment feeds on Herald and ONE NEWS articles about the 'man drought', that NZ women need to become more “feminine” in order to “get a man.” How did the women you interviewed respond to the idea that they needed to spend more time, money, and energy on their appearance and increase their ‘femininity’ in order to partner up?

HA: Many rubbished it, because they were aware that the type of man with whom they would be compatible would place little value in the trappings of performed femininity, just as they did themselves. Any man who wanted a stereotypically ‘feminine’ partner wasn’t going to be the right man for them.

However, some had begun to feel it might be worthwhile, even though doing so would bring with it an unease at the fact that they were compromising their self-identity, which was tied up with the way they liked to dress. They were navigating what I think is a tricky territory of female self-presentation in New Zealand.

On the one hand we have a tradition of physical readiness and affinity with the outdoors, which doesn’t lend itself to high heels and immaculately applied make-up, and on the other we have an increasingly globalised media, which bombards us with homogenised images of women who look a certain way.

Some of the women I spoke to were aware that perceptions of how women ‘should’ look were becoming more entrenched, not less, and had begun to feel that they needed to change their self-presentation in order to ‘compete’ with other women. They were, however, reluctant to do so, and worried that it would affect their ability to be authentic and relaxed around a potential partner.

JF: These are nuanced considerations, in stark contrast to the comment feeds responding to coverage of your research, which I read described as “frothing rabies mad.” I found the ignorance, seething anger, and sexism on display there extremely disturbing. Did you anticipate that your research would be so misinterpreted by this slice of the general public, and that you yourself would be vilified? If so, why did you choose to do it anyway?

HA: You’re probably talking about the comment feeds on the Facebook pages for the TVNZ shows that I was interviewed for (Breakfast and Q+A). I haven’t read them, for reasons of self-preservation. Few people actually enjoy reading vitriol directed towards them, even when it’s pretty clear that this is coming from a place of ignorance or personal grievance.

I also have a pretty good idea of what they’d say, given that part of the research for Chapter 2 of the book involved examining the comment feeds of articles on the ‘man drought’. I did this because I was interested in the discourse around the topic, and while I wanted primarily to critique the language and biases in actual articles about the ‘man drought’, I was also interested in the ‘meta-discourse’ of the comment feeds, which – by dint of their location on the websites of news outlets like Stuff or the NZ Herald – become an extension of the media’s presentation of the topic.

I realise this is a controversial viewpoint, but I strongly believe that a media entity needs to take responsibility for the type of commentary it allows to be published on its website or social media page. I think it’s easy to moan about the quality of the mainstream media in New Zealand, and I think sometimes doing that’s fair and sometimes it’s not. I know a decent clutch of smart, hard-working journalists who are doing the best they can in a profession that’s uncertain and under-resourced.

But I think it’s entirely justified to say that the comments feeds that supposedly stimulate ‘healthy debate’ are far too often filled with abusive bigotry of a type that any self-respecting newspaper editor would never, ever publish in a letters page. I find it interesting that the Herald’s ‘Rules for Your Views and Blogs Comments’ page tells users to refrain from making “comments that can be considered discriminatory on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual preference, nationality, age, disability, etc”, when many of the comments I read while researching No Country were incontrovertibly sexist or racist.

So when I call for New Zealand to talk differently about the ‘man drought’, one of the things I’d obviously like to see is less implicit encouragement of an online discourse that’s heavily coloured by misogyny. It’s sort of an accepted fact that stories about women – and particularly stories about women by women – will inevitably attract the wrath of a particular section of the internet, but it does seem a little surprising that that should be the case in New Zealand.

I suggested in a piece I wrote for Metro in April 2015 that New Zealand, by dint of its small size, might be a less hospitable place for out-and-out internet abuse of women, because of the likelihood a troll will at some point actually bump into his trollee. And of course there’s what you invoke as our progressivity in terms of feminism – our history of suffragism and women in power. This history certainly implies that women, and women’s voices, have a strong place in this country.

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I deliberately call it a history though, because I’ve been a bit perturbed at some of the casual dismissal of women’s voices by New Zealand public figures over the past couple of years. I thought John Key’s response to Eleanor Catton’s voicing of her political opinion set a very bad precedent (and I found Sean Plunkett’s tirade abhorrent); and Graham Lowe’s recent comments about Jacinda Ardern quite literally belittled her political capabilities, which – as she points out – rest in her power to speak out against the government. A book documenting women’s personal thoughts and feelings is obviously doing very different work, but it was partly because I felt that we were living in a NZ where women’s voices were no longer as valued as they seemed to be as recently as the 1990s that I wanted to write it. I wanted to put as many women’s voices out there as possible, so that they become the norm, rather than the exception to be objected to.

JF: In your analysis, you unpack some of the language academics use to encourage single women to change their behaviour in order to find a partner. One New Zealand research article urges women to make “an active and positive choice” to live alone, or in a same sex couple, or to ‘partner down’. However, as you rightly point out, it can’t be an “active choice” to partner down – with a less educated man – if there is no choice to also ‘partner up’ or ‘partner across’ with someone similarly educated. This kind of vague language also elides tricky issues around sexual orientation and choice. Female sexuality is generally acknowledged to be fluid, but a heterosexual woman can’t simply choose to be bisexual or queer. It’s not a meaningful option to “choose” to partner with a woman if your orientation is towards men. Do you think this discourse promotes the viewpoint that women should partner up at any price, even if that price is their fulfilment and happiness?

HA: I should underline that the authors of that paper aren’t actually suggesting to women that they might follow a certain course of action. They’re trying to hypothesise trends and behaviours that women might adopt. The problem lies in the language they use, which is – as you pick up on – problematic because of its imprecision.

I’ve been trained to analyse language, and in a way it’s unfair to bring that analytical training to bear on a different discipline, but I think doing so acts as a reminder that when we write about population statistics we are also writing about real people.

And I also think the fact that the trends they consider involve actions that are anathema to many real women is concerning in and of itself, and that it’s worth interrogating the underlying assumptions that cause those trends to be hypothesised in the first place. One of these is, I think, that singledom will be less appealing to women than some form of coupledom, regardless of whether that form involves making compromises. I wanted to place pressure on the language. Why must it be a “positive” choice if a woman remains single, rather than just a choice? The very fact of the unnecessary adjective implies a defensiveness. “Hey, look on the bright side, it might not be so bad being by yourself after all!”

I suppose what I really consider problematic is the way we still fixate on the topos of the single woman in a way we don’t on the single man. Or rather, one is problematized whereas the other is celebrated. The Bachelor can be the star of a TV show, but the words that describe single women largely still carry negative connotations. (And where is the New Zealand series of The Bachelorette?)

I knew that the text was going to generate a lot of media interest, because that was partly what it was about – the disproportionate amount of interest that gets paid to the ‘man drought’. But I can’t help but think that if it had been about single men, it wouldn’t have generated quite so much interest. Or perhaps the interest would have been more jocular, treating relationship fulfilment as solely a women’s issue. Whereas of course it’s an issue for all parties involved in the relationship, regardless of their gender.

No Country For Old Maids?: Talking About The 'Man Drought' is available now through Bridget Williams Books.

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