Thursday, 7 March 2013

nope, not all of this is a backlash

i was directed to this article at slate by someone on twitter, who was lauding it as a good defence of successful women.  i was pretty hopeful, but having read the thing, it pretty much leaves me seething.  there's this:

Mayer was attacked recently for her decision not to allow employees to work at home. She is a woman, this line of thinking goes, how could she think women should have to work away outside of their houses, away from their children? But why should Marissa Mayer have some special responsibility to nurture her employees with a cozy, consummately flexible work environment just because she is a woman? Isn’t her responsibility to run a company according to her individual vision? If we want powerful female entrepreneurs shouldn’t we allow them to pursue entrepreneurial power?

and then there's this:

Think of Lena Dunham and the outsized rage she has attracted for her large book advance, for attracting huge amounts of attention with her show. These could be greeted as welcome signs of success for a woman in the largely male world of comedy, but instead she too is attacked for “not being like us.” She too is expected to create a mini utopia on the set of her show. She is attacked for not hiring minorities, or not representing people without college educations. In one cranky piece in Slate, Amanda Hess complains: “so far Dunham hasn’t appeared to use her position to give a leg up to less-privileged voices.” To which one can only wonder, “Is  she supposed to run a home for starving comedy writers of other races?”

and that last line pretty much had me ready to scream: "way to completely miss the point!!!"

reading the piece as a whole, i get what the writer is trying to say: that we should be supporting successful women, and that successful women get judged in a way that successful men don't.  particularly women in the business world, and particularly when they challenge notions of how women are supposed to be ie always in angst between their roles as caregivers and as ambitious working women; always supposed to feel guilty for not doing enough and/or not suffering enough for their families.  men, on the other hand, don't need to have any angst and are allowed to have it all - successful job and family with kids - without any questions about whether or not they should be trying to have it all.

but this piece in slate?  reads less like a defence of successful women and more like a defence of privilege.  the privileges of class and colour in the 2 paragraphs i've quoted above. and all it makes a case for is that those who don't have those privileges should shut up and stop complaining, should be unquestioning cheerleaders of these women who have finally MADE IT, cos weren't you all complaining that there weren't enough  women CEO's anyway?  b*tches are never happy, are you?

it's somewhat like the republican defence of sarah palin: here you go, we've given you a woman in a position of power, shut up and support her.  if her policy positions are anti-women, well so what?  any criticism of her means you women don't really want women in positions of power do you?

which is pretty stupid, because yes, we want more women in positions of power.  but just because they get there doesn't mean they suddenly become immune to criticism.  it doesn't mean they get some special status that prevents then from being called out, and especially when they do things againsts the interests of the majority of other women.  having them there serves a great purpose - it breaks down barriers when we become accustomed to seeing women in such positions.

but we are allowed to expect more.  we allowed to expect that once women get into these positions, that they actually do what they can, in that position, to improve the lives of others.  and we expect this because very often the women who have MADE it, they have direct experience of discrimination and the difficulties involved in trying to succeed in a system that has been designed for people who are not like them.

is it wrong to expect empathy?  i don't think so.  is it wrong to at least expect an absence of hostility towards the issues of importance of other women?  not at all.  so i don't see it in any way wrong to criticise marissa mayer's policy which prevents employees from working at home, particularly in a society where the larger part of the burden of caregiving work is still borne by women.  and i think it's perfectly valid to criticise lena dunham for being extremely dismissive of any concerns raised about the lack of women of colour in her shows.

but more than that, these are things that men would and have been criticised for - often and for a long time by feminists, by activitists, by people of colour.  i don't understand the position that men can be criticised for these things but women in the same position doing exactly the same thing can't.

where i draw the line is misogynist attacks against successful women, and i know that this blog and most other feminist blogs defended sarah palin against misogynistic attacks while continuing to denounce her destructive policy positions.  because it's absolutely very easy to do the latter without doing the former, and because doing the former is never acceptable.

so have people been unfairly hating on successful women? absolutely, and i would love to see a piece which details that.  but this slate piece wasn't it, not by a long shot. by conflating valid criticism with sexist putdowns, the article harms rather than helps these women.


Anonymous said...

Hey stargazer, thanks for the post :-) I think the article conflates criticism and mockery towards successful women with critique of the actions of those women and as you point out, while the first is always problematic, the second is important and necessary.

I was interested in your argument that we should expect more from successful women, because so often they have experienced discrimination and difficulty on their way to success. I'm not so convinced of this... I think some of the advances of feminism over the last few decades have meant that there are now successful women who don't experience a lot of discrimination and difficulty, and whose understanding of other women is built on a basis of their own privilege, with everything that brings with it. More and more I am starting to think that unless people have lived through discrimination, disadvantage, othering and so on, they don't actually understand it, and it is a much harder journey for them to realise what needs to be in place to stop it happening. Lets face it, they often are starting from a place where they don't think it is happening to begin with.


AnneE said...

This is a really spot-on, useful post, and the comment above is good too - very impressive thinking, thank you.