I missed the legal thriller Damages when it came out in 2007 and only just got hooked on Glenn Close’s reprehensible super-bitch lawyer, Patty Hewes. Patty is powerful as few women characters on screen today are. She’s got a host of traditionally “female” strengths– a (falsely) nurturing demeanor, an instinct for emotional manipulation, a great beauty package [wardrobe, grooming, interior decor]–but these are mixed in a venomous and compulsively watchable brew with “masculine” professional aggression and bravado.
I think part of my fascination with Patty’s suberbitch is that she’s a Halloween version of the reality Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests in the Atlantic article that freaked American women out so badly: “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Patty emphatically doesn’t have it all: her second husband is a minor character, her son a troublesome regret, her professional colleagues either jealous or murderous and her underlings a set of pawns. In this way she reconfirms a subconscious personal, cultural, or familial bias that many of us have been trying hard to shake: that there are good choices for women to make and bad ones. If a woman makes the latter, well, then she’s the type that would have a key witness’s dog murdered to frighten that witness into testifying. (Read: Bitch.)
The gist of Slaughter’s essay was that a high-powered 80-hour-a week office career like Patty’s, or the the one my husband has, is in direct conflict with pretty much everything else in life, from responsive parenting to an involved marriage to civic participation. I largely agreed with Slaughter, particularly her calls for school schedules to match work schedules and the end of office “macho” facetime, all-nighters and unnecessary travel. But Slaughter’s article enraged a friend of mine, who felt it sold short her professional successes as a corporate lawyer asking for flextime and a nursing room, and her personal success at re-examining, with her husband, the management of family and household labor.
While I do love Close’s Patty Hewes, I think many of us–my angry friend, my own husband, all of us struggling to loosen the tie of corporate America while fortifying its heart–are ready to move beyond manipulative bitches who half-heartedly wish they’d been better mothers, as well as greedy assholes who frequent strip-clubs to win business deals. We need Millenial villains, and may even be ready for a character in Patty’s exact situation to be a hero, however flawed. Next up on the list of programs to watch while John and I fold laundry? Borgen, about an ambitious Danish Prime Minister and the man who loves her.
Here’s why Pitch Perfect rocks: it’s funny, it’s gross, it has a female DJ musical genius as its lead and it mashes up stereotypes with an acute self-consciousness about them. Having lived through a real life barf-o-rama, I’m not a huge fan, and body part jokes don’t always have me rolling, but in a comedy like this they signal the barfers’ or joke tellers’ complete ownership of the material. When the characters in Pitch Perfect are baptised in their own puke or tell tit-and-clit jokes on themselves, then the actors, writers, directors and producers all demonstrate that this is their game, their audience (advantage female), and in such company they are not afraid of looking bad or saying something unbecoming. Comedy is all about looking bad and sounding bad and saying the wrong thing and letting yourself get hit in the face with a pie (or a burrito in this case). Women sometimes get accused of being less funny than men; these accusers must have missed the Carol Burnett Show and every woman who’s ever been on SNL. While not all of us can be Molly Shannon or Tina Fey, Pitch Perfect is a sign that more of us are not afraid of letting our bad bad selves show.
Go Fat Amy.
When my friend related the contents of a study she’d read linking high self-criticism to artistic and intellectual achievement we both groaned. We had the first in spades, but didn’t seem to be reaping any of the other. When I mentioned said study to my husband, he scoffed openly. “You really need a study to prove that?” His tone set off a bracing round of marital bickering about genial intellectual discussion, but within ten minutes I came around to embrace his point, if not its delivery.
Self-criticism gets an astonishing amount of bad press in women’s media. We worry about it causing eating disorders, self-hatred, bad haircuts, unnecessary plastic surgeries, poor role modeling, servile attitudes, passive-aggression and chronic depression. Self-criticism makes me think of teary confessions on daytime talk shows while, for my husband, it calls to mind “the practice of protecting and enhancing best assets in the current business model of paranoid self-reflection.” Self-criticism, according to my husband, is the best thing a project or business can have going for it. “What about a person?” I’d like to ask him now, but he’s not here.
I suspect the problem lies in the way many women think of themselves (or feel thought of) as product-project—physical selves inherently connected to external actions or work. Whether this is a gender-specific trait or an effect of acculturation or neither or both doesn’t matter. The question stands: what would happen if women thought more about what self-criticism could do for us instead of to us?
This would require a few things.
First, we’d need to recognize self-criticism for the firehose it is: Stand in front of it and it can kill you. Wrangle it expertly and you can keep your own house and business from burning down. You can save lives even, if you know what you’re doing and get there soon enough.
Second, women might need to draw a few more lines in the sand demarcating what is and is not fair game. Job choices, financial decisions, social or romantic alliances and injurious habits might be, whereas the shape of a nose or a taste for harp music might not. Health concerns do ride this line problematically, in men’s lives as well as women’s, but men seem more comfortable deciding: if it’s not killing me, I’m not going to sweat it.
Thirdly, if the positive psychologists are right and focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses truly makes us happy, then we might need to take a more Buddhist approach to happiness. Is happiness what we want in all corners of our lives? Affirmations and self-love alone will not free us from obesity, bad relationships, bad habits, weak prose (see above) or unrealistic expectations. Better decisions will. Nor will scathing self-criticism free us from irrational fears, insecurity, sadness or history the way a positive self-image will.
Today’s affirmation then:
My ability to spot weaknesses is one of my greatest strengths.
I vow to always use this power for good.
It’s probably telling that I had no interest in women’s studies in college. I was so young, so ambitious, and felt so many avenues open to me that studying only half the world seemed limiting. My disinterest was a sign of progress, I thought, suggesting that this kind of scope was a thing of the past, or more accurately a thing for those who were still struggling to have their identities and choices accepted by the mainstream.
I didn’t think I had one—a gender agenda.
Then I got married and gave up my job so my husband could take a better one. We got pregnant and I gave birth in a hospital where hopes for a natural childbirth were laughed at. I breastfed that baby in a country where it is still uncommon among the middle and upper class. I struggled to find childcare that did not offend my sense of what is fair and responsible as an employer and human being. I took on wholeheartedly the management and maintenance of a family and began to feel my identity slipping, sometimes in the direction of a wiser, kinder, more empathetic self but usually in the direction of a harried, brittle, lonely one. I cried a lot, thinking about my mom, the decades of meals and laundry she’d waited through until she could take up painting again.
One night, sick to death of the inflexible schedule of meals, baths and bedtimes I had constructed, I stayed up late watching a movie, reading books, thinking and writing. The time alone was narcotic; I couldn’t couldn’t stop using it. Just as I was crawling into bed with my clothes on, drunk on the life of the mind –the baby began to cry. I was tired past the point of reason but I had done it to myself. For my own stupidity, for my selfishness, for my utter indulgence, I slapped myself across the face.
And that’s how I discovered my gender agenda.
If you haven’t read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, you might want to check it out.