The XX Factor

Long Live the Soccer Mom

So, Mark Penn writes in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that “heyday of the soccer mom is passing.” Darn. Here we are just completing our first season of soccer, and already I’m uncool. Or so I thought until I actually read the article. What we have here is what my Slate colleague Jack Shafer would call a ” bogus trend story .”

Unlike some articles that allegedly highlight a new “trend” but are actually vaguely worded pieces based on anecdotal evidence that make you think the author just talked to a few friends, Penn’s piece has actual numbers. But the numbers are largely meaningless. And he carefully crafts his definition of “soccer mom” to fit his theory of what those meaningless numbers mean. His lede, under the headline of “The Declining Soccer Mom”:

Married, middle-class but working suburban moms whose primary concern is how to enrich their children while they are away at work are declining in numbers, in influence and even as a key swing vote.

Got that? To be a soccer mom, you have to be married, live only in the suburbs, and have a job. Oh, and you have to drive a minivan. Seriously. Penn cites as evidence of the decline of soccer mom-ism that minivan sales peaked in 2000, “replaced by SUVs, new crossovers, and a resurgence in just plain old cars.” So if you traded in your Chrysler Town & Country for a Chrysler Pacifica, because it schleps the kids around just as well as the boxy minivan, you’re out. Has he been to a soccer complex in the last 10 years?

The most ridiculous notion? To be a soccer mom, you also have to long for the days of Family Ties or Home Improvement or The Cosby Show . He writes: “And on TV fewer top-rated shows are about family life, as more and more focus on crime …  ABC’s new comedy “Modern Family”-a mockumentary of new family life-didn’t make it to the top 10.” Like Mad Men ? Dexter ? God forbid, Weeds ? Sorry, you’re out.

Penn might be correct that the political influence of suburban women with kids is on the wane. (I don’t get the impression that suburban families who spend their weeknights and weekends racing between school and sports and activities are going to wither anytime soon.) But I’m not sure why that warrants a piece in the Wall Street Journal . Our politics, and our society, are constantly evolving. Only when we look at his statistics about the decline of households with children do we see the direction in which Penn thinks we’re headed. He notes that only 30.7 percent of households have “their own” children under the age of 18 living with them, down from 48.9 percent in 1960. 1960? We didn’t talk about soccer moms in 1960! As this exhaustive Wikipedia entry demonstrates , the soccer-mom meme started in the mid-’90s and became an annoying buzz word during the 1996 presidential election. Why is Penn using numbers from his 1960?

Because what he really wants to say, and what he gets to at the end, is that Americans are becoming less about their kids and more about themselves. We’re abandoning the suburbs for the hipster life in the city. We’re waiting longer to get married, having fewer kids, and, once we kick them out, staying home and cruising the Internet. So we’re becoming more selfish and more isolated. Is that supposed to be a good thing? Is that the lifestyle that our politicians should be catering to?