How the Media Peddle the Myth of the Miserable Woman

11/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The new buzz in the blogosphere is an old media chestnut: Unhappy Women.

A new study purporting to show that women are now more unhappy than men has drawn commentary like lemonade draws bees. And feminism is the suspected culprit.

On the New York Times Op Ed page, Ross Douthat wrote,

... [A]ll the achievements of the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness. In the 1960s, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of 'the problem with no name,' American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that gender gap has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, and female happiness has dropped. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.

On Huffington Post, Marcus Buckingham, a personal advice writer, scribbled,

The advances of the last 40 years were supposed to have changed things for the better. And not just for womankind, but for each individual woman. The hard-won rights, opportunities, and advantages were supposed to have netted women more than just another burdensome role to play--"you at work." They were supposed to have fostered in each woman feelings of fulfillment and happiness, and even, for the special few, the sustained thrill of living an authentic life. 

This hasn't happened. Over the last 40 years or so, life is not trending toward more fulfillment for women; life is, in most ways we can measure, becoming more draining instead.

But is it true that men are happy and women are unhappy? Not really. These media reports illustrate what happens when journalists wade into the thicket of statistics and large-scale studies.

The researchers, Wharton Professors Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, reported on data collected each year since 1972, in the United States General Social Survey. It has asked men and women: "How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 3." Over the years, some 50,000 men and women have participated, making it a huge study.

Dr. Rosalind Barnett, senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis and my frequent co-author, points out that in large scale studies, very small differences can rise to the level of statistical significance. However, the differences between the sexes in this study are so small that generally they are less than one half of one percent. This tiny difference tells you nothing about men, women or happiness.

And when the researchers looked at men and women in particular domains of life--employed, married, single etc.--they found virtually no differences in overall happiness between men and women. It was only when they looked at the sample as a whole that very small differences emerged.

The researchers, who had no ax to grind, made no bones about the limits of the study. It was only the journalistic commentators who exaggerated the importance of the findings.

The true story, notes Dr. Barnett, is the enormous overlap between men and women as far as happiness is concerned. The differences are so small as to make it nearly impossible to say anything other than that the sexes are basically identical.

The researchers themselves caution that they don't really have a firm handle on what this all means. If there is indeed a small difference, they suggest that the women's movement may have created a new metric about what happiness is:

The increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood of believing that one's life is not measuring up. Similarly, women may now compare their lives to a broader group, including men, and find their lives more likely to come up short in this assessment.

In other words women now have broader goals and ambitions, and while this gives them many more chances to succeed than in the past, they also have more ways to fail. Or at least, not to measure up to what they hoped and dreamed.

"Similarly, women may now compare their lives to a broader group, including men, and find their lives more likely to come up short in this assessment."

But again, the difference between the sexes is so small that this speculation may not hold water at all, as the researchers freely admit. The data just don't tell us much. Ross Douthat could have written, "In post-feminist America, men are one half of one percent happier than women." But of course, there's no sizzle to that.

So why did the study get so much attention? Because it presented Bad News about women, which is always big news, whether it's right or not.

It happens all the time. Remember the 1985 Newsweek cover story that women over 35 have as much chance of getting married as they do of getting killed by a terrorist? This story really had legs, exploding in the media and even ending up as a line of dialogue in Sleepless in Seattle. It never was true. Twenty years later, in 2006, Newsweek apologized in another cover story:

Twenty years ago, Newsweek predicted that a single, 40-year-old woman had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married.

We were wrong.

The story was a misreading of a complicated demographic study. In fact, women over 35 had no problem finding husbands, then or now, as Newsweek admitted.

Another bogus story was the New York Times Magazine cover piece about the Opt Out Revolution, claiming that the best and the brightest women were leaving the workplace in droves to return to home and hearth. Critics pounced, including economist Claudia Goldin. She pointed out (in a Times op ed) that reliable data prove that a greater percentage of college women are mixing family, work and career than ever before. There is no Opt Out Revolution. Denying that reality, Goldin said, "is ignoring the facts."

No matter how many times the myth of the miserable woman is stomped, tromped and hacked to pieces by facts and figures, it always arises, like the Phoenix, from its own ashes.

It's just too sexy for the media to ignore.

Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women, and co author, with Dr. Rosalind Barnett, of Same Difference: How Gender Myths are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs.