The gendering of the current economic downturn was the subject of a page one story in the New York Times today: Still on the Job by Making Only Half as Much, by Louis Uchitelle – but that’s not what Uchitelle intended. His story demonstrates an utter cluelessness in his coverage of how hard it is for men to lose their identities as “breadwinners,” find themselves home taking care of the children, while earning less income than their wives. The fact that the New York Times printed this story at all, no less put it on the front page, is flabergasting. Uchitelle tells the story of Bryan Lawlor, a good guy who tried to do right for his family by becoming a commercial pilot, but whose pay and status were cut in half when airline revenues dropped in the last year. As a result, Lawlor’s blue pilot hat sits, not proudly on his head, but idle on a bookcase at home. You see, with his new downgraded status, he is prohibited by airline rules from displaying authority as he used to by wearing his full uniform. He can’t walk through the airport wearing the captain’s hat anymore – it “made me feel in command, and capable and powerful.” It’s hard not to laugh out loud at the unwitting (really?) reference to the well-known trope of the “hat” as penis-fetish and hatless-ness as a sign of castration. But just in case you missed the subtle implications of Lawlor’s downgrade to his masculinity, Uchitelle connects the dots for you: Lawlor underwent a vasectomy shortly after his “downgrade” because he could no longer afford his former potency. Uchitelle, (who did the Times coverage of the Nobel prize in economics this year that went to Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win this prize, and failed to appreciate the gendered nature of her research) fills out the story with another (phallic) anecdote about how, after the downgrade, Mr. Lawlor had to sell his prized Harley which he had bought when things were going well, “imagining that he would take it for spins on his days off, the wind blowing in his hair [sic] as he raced along the sparsely populated roads in Richmond’s semi-rural suburbs. ” Yes, Uchitelle really wrote this. The photograph that accompanies this part of the story has Mr. Lawlor looking wistfully at his Harley while his son figures in the background next to a bicycle – and with his father’s captain’s hat on. Get it? There’s so much wrong about this piece. Editorializing such as: “Mrs. Lawlor praises her husband’s adeptness in the routines of child care. But money also drives him.” Or, in describing Lawlor’s work for the pilots’ union mediating (yes, mediating – clearly a feminine approach to conflict) pilot disputes, Uchitelle writes: “That is not the same as commanding an airliner “” walking through the airport wearing the captain’s hat “” but it brings him part way back.” Or maybe my favorite (but it’s so hard to choose): “His father’s two unmarried sisters, both retired teachers, insist on helping their only nephew [Bryan]“” the one family member perpetuating the Lawlor name not only in this generation but, through his three sons, the next generation.” It seems that not only is Bryan Lawlor’s masculinity at stake in his “downgrade” at work, but so too the entire Lawlor family patrimony. Uchitelle hesitates not in bringing the women in Bryan’s life into the gendered picture as well. His mother, who surely loves her son, Uchitelle uses to round out the masculinity harm here:
“His mother, Patricia Lawlor, anguishes over this scaling back of his exuberance and the psychological effect of the pay cut. “œLet me put it this way,” she said of her only son, the oldest of her three children. “œWhen we went out to dinner and he was a captain, with a captain’s pay, he for the first time picked up the check. He would say, “˜I’ll get it, Dad,’ instead of letting his father pick it up. It gave him a great deal of pride to do that. “˜Let me buy, Dad, for once.’ And now he does not say that anymore.”
I somehow thought we were beyond this kind of reporting, reporting that is really loosely-veiled melancholia for the loss of a never-realized ideal of a particular form of masculinity.
-Katherine Franke, cross posted from Gender & Sexuality Law Blog