A few weeks ago, after handmade pasta and a few too many specialty cocktails, my friends and I got into it over Lena Dunham. Empowered by that special brand of self-righteousness unique to personal opinions about popular things, we loudly and enthusiastically debated the merits of the Dunham Phenomenon—two of us against and one (me) in favor, with a fourth maintaining a wishy-washy neutrality that belied the definitive nature of Dunham’s fame. Indeed, if we’ve learned anything from the post-Girls age, it’s that one is either pro-Lena or against, impressed by her or annoyed, on the same page or reading a different book entirely. There is no Switzerland when it comes to Dunham.
Without even touching on the specifics of her body of work—wry stories of self-involved 20-somethings fumbling their way through adulthood—it would be hard to overstate the size of Lena Dunham’s zeitgeist footprint. She became a household name seemingly overnight, at first because of the critical reception to Girls—both good and bad—and later because of the critical reception to Lena herself: Why so whiny? Why so frequently naked? When clothed, why so much like a toddler? Over time, Dunham’s fame became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and talking about being so over talking about Lena Dunham morphed into the cultural high ground, like hating Uggs or giving up on post-1990 Saturday Night Live.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Sheryl Sandberg’s lady-empowerment book, Lean In. My reaction to the book was cautiously pro—I feel Sandberg has some great points about conducting oneself in the workplace and, for females in particular, not getting caught up in the kind of insecurity that might prevent one from securing a promotion or taking on a new project.
My objections, however minimal, were not to Sandberg’s status as a gainfully employed and happily married wealthy person, someone with the resources and support system to truly balance work and family. (For the record, I find this criticism—that Sandberg is only speaking to fellow rich people—off-base, and think people who latch onto it are missing the point. Sure, many of the things Sandberg has done personally to achieve a work/life balance are feasible because of her perch atop Facebook, but just as many of her overarching themes apply to women of myriad financial means. To disqualify a successful person from making suggestions to those of lesser means is senselessly limiting, especially as people like Sandberg are in a unique position to effect real change.)
I’ve also found myself ambivalent about the revelation this week that a Sandberg PR person laid into former Facebook employee Katherine Losse for writing a tepid review of Lean In. Yes, using the infamous “special place in hell” quote on someone who was simply less than thrilled with your boss’ book is a dickish move, but if we’re really going to have a conversation about feminism and gender equality—the conversation that Sandberg, whether you agree with her approach or not, is attempting to initiate—it serves no one for us to get sidetracked by Internet-fueled cat fights.
But I do have a sizable objection to one facet of the Lean In roll-out, which in addition to Sandberg’s book includes a website, Facebook page (natch), media partnerships and about a zillion public appearances. My objection is this: In a society struggling to move past judgments of females based on their appearance or relationship to men, I find it more than a little hypocritical to peddle your feminist message through Cosmopolitan magazine.
The woman of Sheryl Sandberg’s world is a timid creature. She’s smart but not savvy, ambitious but afraid to appear so, confident and driven but plagued by self-doubt. She’s wary of participating in meetings, wary of asking for promotions, wary of taking on new assignments. And don’t even get me started on motherhood—this woman has been ruminating on the work/life balance basically since she learned where babies come from.
For this woman, Sandberg has a wealth of advice, which in its entirety boils down to the central conceit of her book: Lean In. This woman—this hyper-sensitive, underutilized and challenge-averse woman—needs to stop sitting in the back row at meetings, stop taking flak from colleagues, and stop turning down opportunities because she’s unsure about her abilities. She needs to build organic and mutually beneficial relationships with coworkers, and worry less about being liked and more about being respected. She needs to speak her mind with colleagues and bosses, and if and when she decides to throw a bun in the oven, not start sacrificing her career the second she realizes she’s pregnant. She could also stand to snag an understanding, supportive and equally driven husband, who won’t hesitate to pitch in on 50% of the child-rearing and housework. In short, Sheryl Sandberg wants this woman to sack up (which, incidentally, would have been a way better book title.) Continue reading
It’s only through sheer fortuitous timing that the week I read a book on feminism, Seth MacFarlane goes on national television to offend a zillion people with uninspired jokes about actresses’ boobs. And since I’ve been presented with such a timely opportunity to discuss gender as it’s portrayed in modern society, let’s conduct a bit of a thought exercise—looking at Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance through the lens of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman.
Throughout her book’s 300-odd pages, Moran eschews characterizations of feminism that rely on lofty terminology or soul-searching investigations of social mores. Her own definition on the subject essentially boils down to two key tenets: 1) An environment of equality is one in which, quite simply, “everyone is being polite to each other” and 2) When one is unsure whether or not they’ve been presented with a bit of sexism—or, as Moran sometimes puts it, a bit of “total fucking bullshit”—one must simply ask oneself: “Are the men doing it?”