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Forget the B-word; if you want to hit a woman where it hurts, one word’s sure to do it, according to longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in this month’s Elle magazine, and that word is Ambitious.

Here’s Bennetts’ lede:

Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Hillary Clinton? Oprah? Condoleezza Rice? Um, no.

Soon after Catherine Zeta-Jones married Michael Douglas, I met her at their baronial apartment overlooking Central Park West. Waving a hand bedecked with a diamond as big as a grape, Zeta-Jones gestured toward the mantel, where her husband’s Academy Awards were displayed, and confided that she wasn’t satisfied with his reflected glory. ‘I want my Oscar up there too,’ she said, her dark eyes glittering with determination.

Why so taboo? It seems a logical assumption that a film actress should want an Oscar… but, Bennetts writes, “in all my years interviewing movie stars, nobody had ever admitted to coveting one.”

And even after women have scored mega-success, they minimize what it took to get it. Bennetts’ piece outlines the ways some of the most successful, prominent, and groundbreaking contemporary women have refused to own their ambition. Hillary Clinton described herself as “stunned” when President Obama asked her to be his secretary of state, to the point that “‘I kept suggesting other people: ‘Well, how about this person! How about that person!'” Oprah (as Bennetts reminds us: “the richest self-made woman in America and the country’s first black billionaire”) said she doesn’t think of herself as a businessperson. From Drew Gilpin Faust–the first woman president of Harvard–to Michigan state governor Jennifer Granholm to former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, women seem more likely to attribute their success to luck or to describe it as something that “just happened” than to own it. Can it really be that women still haven’t learned to take a compliment? Or is it that to be seen as ambitious is no compliment at all, but (much like being dubbed ‘opinionated‘) risky, dangerous, unladylike?

Um, probably. According to Celia Lake, a pollster and political strategist Bennetts quotes in her piece:

When men are being tough, voters define it as strength, but when women show toughness, the voters think they’re bitches… The research shows parallel stereotypes of women in executive management.

And, while we might be inclined to say but things are changing! Girls today are surely more confident than that! Bennetts offers up evidence to the contrary, quoting a recent Harvard grad, who recalled her experience in high school, and why she opted out of running for class president.

I was afraid people wouldn’t like me. And the truth is, they probably wouldn’t have. There’s this attitude that if you’re a girl, there’s a limit on how much success you’re allowed. When I was nominated for a major award, the friends of another candidate went around telling people that they shouldn’t vote for me because I already had ‘too much.’

I’d venture to say aspiring class presidents of the male variety do not face such “he has too much” anti-campaigns.

But why do we buy into it? One reason, according to longtime women’s rights advocate and former president of Planned Parenthood Gloria Feldt, is socialization.

[Feldt's] interest in power was sparked by research she did on women in politics. ‘Millions of dollars are being spent to help recruit, train, and support women to get elected, and yet they’ve scarcely moved the dial at all,’ Feldt says. ‘The problem was not that the doors were not open. The problem was that women were not walking through those doors–and that just blew me away.’

One reason women hang back is what Feldt calls a lack of ‘intentionality.’ It seems that from their earliest days, boys know they’re supposed to have a specific interest; they can decide to be and do whatever they want,’ she says. ‘Girls are now told they can be and do anything, but they’re much less likely to be taught that they should have a life plan that’s intentional. Girls are socialized to be reactive; boys are socialized to be the askers, girls the askees.'”

We’ve written about that before, and we think there’s something to it: boys are brought up knowing their job is to slay the dragons, to go, to see, to conquer. While the girls… well, we were the pretty princesses waiting to be rescued. And if that’s indeed the case, and if it’s further the case that we fear being seen as ambitious, for (perhaps) the more grown-up version of I’m afraid people won’t like me–well, is it any wonder so many of us are so undecided? We’re given the message that we can do anything, but we’re not socialized to be the doers. And even if we decide what we want and that we will do what it takes to get it, there’s no guidebook that shows us how. Even the women who’ve gone before, rather than saying, well, I did this, and I did that, and these things were really important, are more likely to sweep away the footprints they left, with a self-deprecating “it was really just a fluke.”

Perhaps the proper first step would be to wear our Scarlet As with pride. I’ll go first: I’m Shannon, and I’m Ambitious!

Feels kinda good.


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I write today of two strong women.  One recently deceased, one very much alive.   On the surface, they’ve got nothing whatsoever in common — I’m sure they’ve never been mentioned in the same article, much less the same sentence — except for the lesson they have to teach us.

It has to do with being real.  Despite being judged.

I once met the late Elizabeth Edwards at a fundraiser for George Mark House, a children’s hospice founded by a good friend.  Edwards, the keynote speaker, had left the stage and was heading off to her next engagement, when I jumped up to shake her hand.  Her husband had just begun his campaign for president, she had just announced that her breast cancer had returned, and I babbled on about how I hoped to see her in the White House.  (At that point, the primary campaign was pretty much a dead heat, with John Edwards espousing the most progressive positions.  Funny, that.)  Anyhow, we chatted for more time than I thought we would and here’s what happened:  I reached out for a handshake, she instead gave me a huge hug.  A real one.  Unrehearsed and warm.

Sold.

And so, like many of us, I was shocked and disappointed when her husband crashed and burned and, at least at first, she supported him.  Huh? Like Hillary, we castigated her for living in denial, for standing by her philandering man.  As if, when a powerful man has a fling with a silly woman half his age, it is the wife who looks like a fool.   She ultimately left him —  but not after getting raked over the coals despite the fact that it was her husband’s mistakes she was just trying to deal with.  And yet.  Most of us turned away.

I’ll get to Cher in a minute, here, but first:  One who didn’t turn away from Elizabeth Edwards was Salon’s Joan Walsh, a huge admirer of Edwards’ ever since she conducted a long interview with her back in 2007.  This week, Walsh wrote an elegant obituary, which she ended thus:

At the end of our 2007 interview, I asked [Edwards] whether she was bothered by critics who said she shouldn’t have continued to campaign after her cancer recurred; she should have stayed home with her young children. Her answer can stand as her last word, again:

“After all I’ve been through, I realize: You don’t know exactly what life lessons you taught your kids until much later. You don’t. And maybe the most important life lesson for them is for me to say, When bad things happen, you don’t let them take you down. If I hadn’t continued to campaign, I’d be sending the opposite message: When bad things happen, go hide. Do I know with absolute certainty we’re doing the right thing? I don’t. Having been through what I’ve been through, I hope people trust I wouldn’t risk my relationship with my children. I think this is the right choice.”

And this is what brings me to Cher, the cover girl for this month’s Vanity Fair.  Like Edwards, she’s been judged — for everything from her big hair to her tiny outfits, to her plastic surgeries and tabloid relationships to whether or not she’s been properly supportive of her daughter’s sex change.  And like Edwards, she willingly admits that life is complicated and that she sometimes gets it wrong.  That she has gotten it wrong.  From VF writer Krista Smith:

At 64, she has been up and down too many times to count. “I feel like a bumper car. If I hit a wall, I’m backing up and going in another direction,” [Cher] says, adding, “And I’ve hit plenty of fucking walls in my career. But I’m not stopping. I think maybe that’s my best quality: I just don’t stop.”

Now do you see it?  What the political wife and the Vegas diva have in common?  What they can teach us, and why, deep down, we love them both?  Let’s check how salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams calls it:

Underneath all the many layers of wigs and sparkles, what makes Cher so enduringly special is her realness, her willingness to say to the world that she gets confused and she gets it wrong sometimes, but she keeps trying anyway, because that’s the right thing to do. And that’s what makes the spangly, big-haired queen of Vegas a role model for us all.

And this is what we learn, from both Elizabeth Edwards and Cher:  Life is messy.  Whether or not we actually clean it up doesn’t much matter.  What makes us real is that we’re willing to try.

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Partially fueled by good champagne, we had some silly chitchat with good friends on New Year’s Eve regarding stupid celebrity “news” stories. My husband won the “top this” prize with a rumor that made the rounds a while back about Morgan Freeman planning to marry his step granddaughter.

Huh?

Apart from the very obvious yuck factor, there’s this: Freeman is 72. His intended is 27.

Now, at the risk of starting out the new year in a pair of the cranky pants, I can’t help but notice that nowhere (yes, I googled) is Freeman referred to as, ahem, an “older” actor. But women actors? Once they become old enough to be, say, Freeman’s daughter, “older” becomes their middle name.

Case in point, a recent post on Broadsheet riffing on a CNN.com piece by Breeanna Hare about the new screen stereotype of the woman-of-a-certain-age: the boozy grandma. First, from Hare’s post:

“These women, they’re not knitting — they’re more interested in mixing their drinks than watching kids,” said Entertainment Weekly’s pop culture writer Tim Stack. “They’re more inclined to offer a witticism or a barb than to give you sweet advice. These ladies aren’t cooking — I don’t think they even eat. They drink their lunch. And their dinners. And their breakfasts. … Maybe they eat the olives.”

They’re the exact opposite of the stereotypical grandmother, said TVGuide.com’s senior editor Mickey O’Connor.

Or, apparently, the over-50 woman. While Broadsheet rightly bemoans the fact that good parts for veteran women actors are slim and none, I couldn’t miss a certain patronizing subtext in the way writer Kate Harding brings up Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon, both playing real women on the big screen this season, and her need to frame them in terms of their age. Ugh. From her post:

For all the talk of Meryl Streep rocking Hollywood’s socks off this year (and believe me, I’m as thrilled about that as any other female moviegoer who’s not invested in Edward vs. Jacob), let us not forget that she’s Meryl Freakin’ Streep. Is her recent wave of success really going to help other women her age to open movies and land the cover of Vanity Fair? TVGuide.com senior editor Mickey O’Connor provides the reality check: “Maybe it’s become, play a drunk grandmother and you get to work past the age of 60. Even if you’re Susan Sarandon …

I suppose the boozy grandma is better than the dotty — or nonexistent — older woman character, in that she at least has a discernible personality, opinions and enough brains to produce just the right clever, cutting remark on the spot. But does she have to be a functional alcoholic for the audience to accept those things? Does a woman over 60 — or 50, even — have to be snobby and self-absorbed to be interesting?

Et tu, Broadsheet? Do we ever categorize men in terms of their last birthday? It may be celebs we’re talking about here, but make no mistake: the trickle down hurts us all.

One of the things we talk about in journalism classes is the damage done by unwitting stereotyping – see above — often, a reporter’s form of shorthand. One of the most insidious forms that affects marginalized groups is overcompensation: “gee whiz” features on 75-year-old marathoners, for example, or inspirational series on the academic success of the so-called “model minorities”. All of which leads me back to the way that Meryl Streep’s over-50 sexual being in “It’s Complicated” or Susan Sarandon’s smoking, drinking granny in “The Lovely Bones” have been framed in the media: as novelties, the anti-stereotypes who, apparently, are the exceptions who prove the rule. The unkindest subtext of all: that they – apparently, unlike most women their age – not only have lives of their own but are attractive to boot.

Shouldn’t they be in the kitchen, wearing frumpy clothes and sensible shoes, humming 1950s show tunes?

Clearly, Streep, currently gracing the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair, is not. The VF profile of her does one great job of thumbing its nose at the stereotypical way the media treat women of a certain age. Consider this:

Any inhibitions notwithstanding, a vibrant sexuality has remained a crucial aspect of Streep’s appeal, despite her advancing years and the limitations that others might try to impose in response. When Clint Eastwood cast her to star opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County, which won Streep an Oscar nomination for best actress, in 1996, his reason was simple: “She’s the greatest actress in the world,” he said with a shrug.

That said, Streep reports, “There was a big fight over how I was too old to play the part, even though Clint was nearly 20 years older than me. The part was for a 45-year-old woman, and Clint said, ‘This is a 45-year-old woman.’”

When casting female roles, directors and producers have often applied a comically exaggerated double standard about age. With Streep now playing the ex-wife and current love interest of Alec Baldwin, who is actually nine years younger than she is, many observers have started wondering whether such old-fashioned biases are really changing in ways that will affect other actresses, or only in relation to Streep, who has always been sui generis. In any case, a good part of her aforementioned glee may have to do with her ongoing amazement that, after all these years, she’s still getting away with doing what she loves. “I’ve been given great, weird, interesting parts well past my ‘Sell by’ date,” she says. “I remember saying to Don when I was 38, ‘Well, it’s over.’ And then we kicked the can down the road a little further.”

Refreshing, no? But back to the case in point, we – that’s the collective “we” – rarely box in men in terms of their age. Did anyone but me bat an eye when Michael Douglas was paired with Demi Moore in Disclosure? When Sean Connery’s love interest in Entrapment was Douglas’s wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones? Oldies yes, but you could pull just about ANY movie made today to prove the same point: The leading man needs only a recognizable name. His costar, on the other hand, needs not only a name — but must be young and stunningly beautiful, too. Men in their 50s and 60s not only get to be leading men who still get the girl, but in the real world, they also run companies and countries. They’ve got status that is earned by (wait for it…) AGE. Their female counterparts, on the other hand, generally are considered redundant at best, silly at worst.

All of which makes me wonder if ageism holds us back every bit as much as sexism does, whether the tyranny of the ticking clock that Shannon wrote about here and here may be one reason why we agonize so much over our choices. Sure we’re raised to know that we can be or do anything. But that nasty little voice keeps on whispering: we better get it done before we turn 40.

Maybe we ought to just take it from Meryl. The best way to ring in 2010 is to silence that voice — not to mention the clock — once and for all. As Streep points out in the VF profile, Julia Child did not become, well, Julia Child until she was 50.

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