I Fear This
Maybe there’s a better writer working in the feminist blogosphere than Sady Doyle, but then again, maybe there isn’t. She’s best known for her acid wit, but some of her stuff shows that she has a reservoir of penetrating analysis to draw from, too.
Doyle just wrote something that cuts right to the heart of my fears as a parent. As a parent to a son, I feel like I know what to do. But as a parent to my daughter, I feel like there is a gauntlet of soul-destroying ugliness waiting for her that starts in middle school, and I have no idea how to prepare her for it.
Doyle set out to say, essentially, that Clay Shirkey’s piece, while poorly framed, missing the structural issue and raising hackles, puts its finger on the way women are hamstrung by the culturally mandated self-censorship and self-deprecation. I started this post by saying how good Sady is, but she can’t say it about herself, and she can’t even agree when her friends say it. She knows Shirkey well, and she summarized her conversations with him about her own abilities like this:
“I, Clay Shirky, believe you to be capable of more than you are doing right now! Allow me to offer you some advice on this particular front.”
“Oh, my goodness, NO! I believe you to be severely deluded as to my capabilities! Allow me to present you with a list of reasons why I would not be qualified for doing anything, ever, in the entire world.”
FIVE HOURS LATER:
“And so, Clay, those are the reasons that I suck. I can provide you with further proofs of my sucking, drawn from personal history reaching back as far as kindergarten! But I think you have the basics. You see why you must rescind your advice and belief in me as a person, as clearly I would only bring shame upon you. I am but an idiot child, who spills things frequently upon my wretched frame. How did I even get dressed this morning? I don’t know! It is a fluke, clearly.”
“Um, okay. But I was trying to help…?”
“CEASE THIS FUTILE CRUSADE AT ONCE! I must go now, and mortify my flesh, perhaps with whippings. As I do so, I shall review my sub-standard grades from middle school, that I might never aspire above my due station. Thanks for coffee!”
How does this happen? Doyle draws the line back to childhood:
But I will say that I have, recently, been reading a book called Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons. One passage in this, which grabbed me and blew my mind and suddenly made about a thousand troubling incidents way more easy to understand, was about how female bullies pick their victims. The author interviewed a whole bunch of girls about this, and she came up with a really good, really obvious answer. So, do you want to know how they pick their victims?
They pick the girl who seems the most confident.
Yes, that’s really it! In the particular seething cauldron of insecurity, unhappiness, and fear that is female adolescence, girls tend to feel shitty about themselves for about a million reasons, and to think that they need outside approval – from friends, from boys, from the culture at large – in order to be worthwhile. But if a girl seems not reliant enough on outside approval – if she doesn’t hate her body enough, if she’s too successful at getting guys to like her, if she’s not interested enough in getting guys to like her, if she thinks she’s smart or cool or worthwhile or pretty (or if she just is smart or cool or worthwhile or pretty, and it’s pronounced enough for the people around her to take notice) – then the wolves start circling. Because they’ve all been bullied, too; they’ve all been undermined; they’ve all made the mistake of standing out, at one point or another, and they’ve been punished for it. And now, because they feel like shit about themselves, you have to feel like shit, too. A girl who doesn’t feel like shit is a threat to the entire social order, the extensively complicated and crappy system whereby women have to earn their way into a pretense of self-esteem by getting enough approval from other girls or from other outside sources in general.
What girls learn to do, in order to survive in this particular dynamic, is to race each other to the bottom. It lasts for a lifetime. They maneuver, hiding the urge to matter and succeed under an appropriately self-loathing demeanor, so that they can get ahead and climb up without ever appearing to do it.
For example: have you ever gotten the Complinsult? It is a wondrous and immensely complicated thing, the Complinsult. Here’s one of the best I have ever received, which I keep close to my heart: “Your outfit is amazing! I think it’s so great that you can wear that out in public. I’d never have the nerve.” The words are saying “I suck and you are awesome,” and yet? That is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what it means…
Or: the Fat Talk. You know about the Fat Talk, right? Lots of people have written about the Fat Talk already… the thing where, before ordering dinner at a restaurant, you all talk about how you should order this and you absolutely cannot order that, because you are so disgusting and you cannot stick to your diet and eating a cheeseburger will literally send you right straight to hell, and if you are the girl who straight-up says she wants some nachos so covered in cheese and guacamole and various meats that they might as well not even have any chips involved – just a big mess of meats and milk fat and squished-up avocados, that is the experience for which you are aiming, and also it would help if the entire thing had sour cream all over it – well, you just might have earned yourself a Complinsult about how brave you are with your dietary habits, young lady.
The weird thing is that, in this scenario, it seems not to ultimately matter whether you get the cheeseburger or the nachos or whatever: what matters is the extensive ritual of saying bad things about yourself, and contradicting other ladies about the bad things they have said about themselves, and giving each other permission to order the nachos, before they’re ordered. And if you don’t get permission to order the nachos, if you’re the one girl at the table who doesn’t get contradicted when she says she’s fat and shouldn’t be allowed to eat what she wants, then you know something is up. You know someone at the table, or maybe everyone at the table, has a problem with you. Which is why you don’t place your order without doing it: for a long time, I thought I was just demonstrating my good body image by ordering a cheeseburger and not participating in the Fat Talk, and then I sort of figured out that I was straight-up declaring that I was so hot I got to do whatever I wanted and was too insensitive to appease the body insecurities of my friends, who were (my actions declared) less hot than myself. I still think the Fat Talk is destructive and body-hating and stupid, and I don’t want to do it, but the way I get around it is to talk with the girls I have lunch with about why I think it’s destructive and body-hating. Not to just bypass it. Because that’s how self-esteem, and self-promotion, and social status, tend to work with girls: it’s a series of very subtle interactions in which you say you’re not good enough so that other girls can tell you that you are.
I’ve got this little girl to raise. She’s smart and loving, she’s strong and physical, she’s brave, and she is gifted with the relentless tenacity of her mother. She’s a whole, wonderful person. And I wonder if she will be when the evil vortex of middle school gets through with her.
I wish it were as simple as, “well, if we teach her to recognize it, it will go away.” But it won’t. As Doyle writes, just refusing to do it is itself a way to start trouble. Refusing to ritually self-insult is to insult the group.
If it were easy, the dynamic would not be evident among women who were more aware of it, or who were more confident. Yet Doyle uses quotes like this one to illustrate that even among feminist women there is plenty of tendency to trash anyone who rises to prominence:
I have been watching for years with increasing dismay as the Movement consciously destroys anyone within it who stands out in any way. I had long hoped that this self-destructive tendency would wither away with time and experience. Thus I sympathized with, supported, but did not speak out about, the many women whose talents have been lost to the Movement because their attempts to use them had been met with hostility.
If I do everything in my power to raise a smart, confident daughter, will the social world around her work just that much harder to tear her down? That’s the prospect that ruins my sleep. Will I make her a target just by teaching her to be brave and love herself?
The commenters add a lot to this piece. Fnord Prefect wrote:
Oh lordisa. My response to Shirky’s article can be summed up as, briefly, “This is news?” for exactly the reasons you state. I have been doing this experiment wherein I no longer apologize for things that are not my fault, and you will not be surprised to hear that I am more frequently addressed as “difficult” (to put it euphamistically) than in the halcyon days when I acquiesced and ate a little piece of my own liver every day. It is amazing how fast the hammer comes down on a lady who dares to not apologize, for all the girl-power(tm) Beatrix Kiddos in pop culture. All of this is basically to say, I agree. Thanks for saying it better and at greater length.
Patriarchy has always been about no-win situations for women. They can self-sabotage, or they can be attacked for refusing. The real answer is that change has to affect the whole culture, but that systemic answer neither gives me comfort nor guidance. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that my spouse and I have discussed homeschooling her through the middle school years to keep her out of the toxic cauldron.
She’s still in pull-ups (there’s that stubborn streak!), so we’ve got time to think about it.