If you’ve been online over the last couple of days, you might have noticed a number of women sharing an essay called “The Crane Wife.” Written by C.J. Hauser, it ran in the Paris Review on July 16th, and it’s gone viral for its delicate portrayal of a feeling many women know all too well: the constant dread and self-management to avoid seeming “needy,” which they’re told is the ultimate relationship killer, ugly weeds protruding out of what could’ve been a beautiful garden if tended to properly.
In “The Crane Wife,” Hauser ditches out on her wedding 10 days before the big day to go study cranes for a week, because she realizes she’s too invisible in the relationship, she doesn’t count enough to merit more concern from her fiancé and she can no longer contort herself down to nothing so as to pretend to be happy.
For his part, Hauser’s fiancé comes off as remote, oblivious and unwilling (or unable) to see the things she needs, even though she takes great pains to state those things explicitly and reasonably:
“One particular time, I had put on a favorite red dress for a wedding. I exploded from the bathroom to show him. He stared at his phone. I wanted him to tell me I looked nice, so I shimmied and squeezed his shoulders and said, ‘You look nice! Tell me I look nice!’ He said, ‘I told you that you looked nice when you wore that dress last summer. It’s reasonable to assume I still think you look nice in it now.’”
On the crane-studying trip, Hauser discovers the Japanese folktale “The Crane Wife” in a bookstore. In it, a crane tricks a man into thinking she’s a woman so she can marry him. As Hauser writes:
“She loves him, but knows that he will not love her if she is a crane so she spends every night plucking out all of her feathers with her beak. She hopes that he will not see what she really is: a bird who must be cared for, a bird capable of flight, a creature, with creature needs. Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.”
Like the crane, when Hauser doesn’t get her needs met, she plucks out her own feathers one by one, so to speak, erasing herself into the sort of woman who doesn’t need things. And so, the only time she gets something she needs from her fiancé is by pretending she doesn’t need it. “I did not want to feel like the kind of nagging woman who might exist in a sitcom,” she writes. “These were small things, and I told myself it was stupid to feel disappointed by them. I had arrived in my 30s believing that to need things from others made you weak.”
Online, there are millions of results about women in relationships fearing that they’re too weak or needy, boyfriends and husbands telling women that they are or experts telling women what it really means when he says you’re needy (and what you can do not to seem that way, even if you are). On the latter count, experts specifically explain that men do want women to need them, but not enough to make them feel bad, as if they aren’t doing enough — only enough to make them feel really good and wanted, but not insecure or inadequate.
Or per one male therapist, “Of course, women are somehow supposed to figure out where this sweet spot is and stay within it without any guidance from us, because it’s unlikely that we will talk much with them about it.”
Likewise, the question “Am I needy, or is he emotionally unavailable?” makes a recurring appearance.
Still, the impetus in such questions is less on making men realize their part in this, and more on helping women figure out how to ask for their needs to be met without the men realizing they’re being asked for anything, which would be off-putting. (There’s a remarkable theory in couples therapy about something called Love Maps, which insists that both partners must want to learn and know the intricacies of each other’s inner worlds to better respond to them; but often this feels like a secret tucked away on a Rosetta Stone somewhere we’ve yet to translate.)
The status quo has long been treated as an essential tension for women to master in the success of heterosexual relationships, alongside the advent of marrying one’s best friend: Women tend to men’s needs, and men offer generalized support and protection in return. Women are to engage a large network of friends, family and other support staff to discuss feelings so as to not overly burden men with their frivolity. Men, tired from working and earning a living, aren’t to be bothered with such issues or else it robs them of masculine essence.
Which brings me back to the “The Crane Wife.” Women are OMG-ing it, and THIS-ing it, because they see in themselves a crane-wife-like response to the continual pressure to erase themselves so as not to appear too needy. They’ve clearly given the advice above their best shot and have come up wanting.
In many ways, the essay’s quiet, profound frustration with the gendered status quo is a tale of a society that’s modernized relationships between equals in almost every way it can, minus the dust it still can’t reach: At home, under the covers, on the couch, in the car on road trips. All the stuff that plays out between men and women that betrays our sense of egalitarianism, the way our Mars-Venus emotional states clash if we’ve been fed too much of the messaging that swears how different we are from each other.
Basically, “The Crane Wife” is “Cat Person” for women in their 30s.
“Cat Person” was a viral short story by Kristen Roupenian that ran in The New Yorker at the tail end of 2017. It laid bare a white, thin, attractive twentysomething woman’s inner life as she dated the pudgy, sadsack thirtysomething Robert. That life was more or less an internal struggle to reconcile the need to cater to his needs so as to be perceived as nice, good and desirable by him above all else. It essentially obscured her ability to figure out how she actually felt toward Robert emotionally (crushy to indifferent to contemptuous) and physically (crushy to attracted to repulsed). Meanwhile, Robert is never actually concerned with her inner life at all. He only sees his desire to have her on the terms he prefers, which he clearly expects to get without too much work.
“I’ve never met a guy who says, ‘I really want to understand my wife,’” a male dating coach for women recently told my colleague C. Brian Smith. “When women turn to me, they’re looking for insights about men that they don’t possess. They always ask, ‘What is he thinking?’”
In “Cat Person,” the female protagonist is always trying to figure out what Robert is thinking (his moods, his intentions, his interest) to no avail. He turns aloof and cold toward her after a brief two-week school break where she visits home. Upon her return, though, they still advance toward awkward sex. After telling her “I’ve always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits,” he explains that while she was on break, he wondered about her, too. But not her inner life — more whether or not she was with another man. He reveals that he imagined an entire scenario where she was with some high school boyfriend and wouldn’t want him anymore upon her return.
Some women find it easier to game this problem on their own — we call them “Cool Girls,” for their ability to not bother their men with any of their needs as well as to always remain both hot and understanding simultaneously, a turnkey good time. Yet where’s the male equivalent for women — you know, a guy who gives it his all?
In “Cat Person,” the protagonist imagines such a perfect future boyfriend who will be able to laugh with her about the horrors of indifference in her interaction — that a man lived who could even call what happens between them a date. But, she laments, she knows that boyfriend will never exist.
In “The Crane Wife,” Hauser doesn’t imagine a future better man, but nature at least has made her more hopeful. In studying the species, she connects to their habitat and the many small things they need to survive — the wind, the water’s salinity, the crabs, the berries. And then, when a fellow man on the trip seems to notice what she’s going through and offer something like a solution, she concludes that it isn’t that crazy for a man to see what someone needs after all.
What’s remarkable about the recent uptick in these portrayals of such men (and such dread) is that for the first time in history, men and women have begun to unpack toxic masculinity and review the very traits society conditions men toward that leave them cut off from real intimacy with women — at great cost to their marriages, relationships with male friends, family members, their own children and their own happiness.
But if we’re to take this as anything like a pulse read — that men are beginning to accept how cut off they are, and perhaps starting to make inroads toward us — it also means that women seem to be going in the opposite direction. They’re learning to live without a man’s attention — and most especially, the attention of men who have no interest in understanding them, much less meeting their needs.
What comes next is anyone’s guess.