Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘The Devil Wears Prada’

More than you might think.

Especially for us women, who are often sabotaged by words in ways most of us don’t even recognize.  Language, says Santa Clara University professor Laura Ellingson, an expert on gendered communication, can shape our thoughts and perceptions, uphold double standards, and reinforce stereotypes.

Half the time, we don’t even notice.

All this came to mind this weekend when I came across a piece in the New York Times by business writer Phyllis Korkki, who explored the reasons why women’s progress into the top tiers of the workforce had stalled. Many of those reasons related to entrenched — and often unconscious — sexism. No real surprises there. But one paragraph in particular caught my eye:

[Ilene H. Lang, president and chief executive of Catalyst] maintains that unintentional bias is built into performance review systems. Words like “aggressive” may be used to describe ideal candidates — a label that a man can wear much more comfortably than a woman.

More comfortably?  There’s an understatement for you. Which prompted me to start making a list of other ways in which words can keep us in our place.

One of the first contenders in my  double-standard category — after aggressive, of course –is “ambitious”.  An ambitious man is the type of guy most parents want their daughters to marry.  But an ambitious woman? Think Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”.  The media tell us ambitious women are calm, cold and conniving.  They not only lose their friends, but their bedmates, too.  Which may be why, as longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts once wrote in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in Elle magazine, owning our ambition may be the last taboo:

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.

Ouch. Another double-standard for the A-list is “assertive.”  For men, that’s an admirable trait. When they step up and ask, they often receive.  For women? We often don’t bother to ask. And when we do, we run the risk of being tagged pushy.  You know, not feminine. Or, a little more charitably, “feisty”  Which itself is more than just a little demeaning.

Santa Clara University communication professor Charlotta Kratz, whose area is the portrayal of minorities in the media,  points out that performance evaluations are often based on the measurement of what are generally considered to be male traits.  Organization — think linear thinking — is one.  Another is the fact that while women process — we talk things through –  men act.  “Process is female, action is male, and the female talk gets looked down upon as unnecessary,” she says.

True, that.  And then there are words used to characterize our moods. When a male colleague goes wiggy on us, we’re likely to say “he’s lost it.”  As in, momentary aberration.  When a woman does the same, however, she’s often dismissed as “emotional” (read: bad).  Or “menstrual” (read: worse).  Or even menopausal (read: worse yet).  In any case, not to be taken seriously.

Let’s not forget the tear factor. When Speaker of the House John Boehner wept on “60 Minutes” a while back, he was “sensitive.”  When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton cried back in 2008 when she was on the campaign trail, she was portrayed as “emotional” — there’s that word again — as in not presidential.

Other double standards have to do with parenthood. As we point out in Undecided, studies show that a female employee who wears her mom-hood on her sleeve is likely to be perceived as a flight risk.  Other studies, however, show that when a man plays the dad card, his stock often rises.  He becomes a “family man”.  To wit: what a guy! What’s funny is that when that same mom stays home with the kids while dad takes a business trip, she’s, well, home with the kids.  Turn the tables, and dad is babysitting.

Language slaps our personal lives into submission as well:  A woman without a mate is either unmarried — as in, poor thing — or a spinster. Ugh.  A man in the same boat, however, is single. Or better yet, a bachelor. We all know what that means. He’s a catch.  Throw sex into the equation and we’ve got another humdinger of a double standard.  When it comes to bedroom action, as Jessica Valenti wrote in the first essay of her book of the same name: “He’s a stud, She’s a slut.”  Enough said.

The list goes on.  When a man takes charge, especially in the boardroom, he is forceful.  A good thing.  When a woman does the same, especially at home, she’s often called controlling.  Likewise, when a man pushes his staff to the limit, he’s a good leader.  His female counterpart? Excuse the term: A ball-breaker.  Even clothing carries its own weight.  As Ellingson points out, when a male prof wears an old pair of jeans to class, he’s cool.  When a woman does the same: sloppy.

Back to that piece in the New York Times, Korkki hits on another double standard that comes to kick us in the bank account: the ability — or lack of same — to self-promote.  It’s a plus for men, who are expected to “showboat a little.” But women? Not so much. We’re expected to be modest, to praise others instead of ourselves.  Or else we’ll take a dive on the likability scale. Which might, in fact, jeopardise our position. But you know what’s coming next: if there’s a promotion to be had, you can guess who’s most likely to get it.

Ahem.  Word.

 

Read Full Post »

Ahead of September’s “I Don’t Know How She Does It”–a movie based on Allison Pearson’s best-selling novel about the realities of life as a working mother, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker as the harried “She” in question–this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine ran a story about the film’s screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, whose other credits include “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Morning Glory,” and “27 Dresses.” 27 Dresses aside, McKenna’s films represent a new guard. As writer Susan Dominus puts it,

McKenna makes romantic comedies in which the romance is not so much between a woman and the perfect man but a woman and the perfect career.

…McKenna’s solution to romantic-comedy fatigue is not to ironize the genre or make fun of its characters’ (and therefore its audience’s) quests for fulfillment, but to give them what they want: a great guy and a great job, a happy family and professional success.

…McKenna plays out, in a frothy, mass-market format, the fantasies promised by ’70s feminism: that you can have a big career without sacrificing a personal life.

Which begs the question: to what extent is the idea of having it all a fantasy? And, in the same way fairy tales are demonized for conditioning little girls to expect some Prince Charming to appear and “rescue” them, can a frothy portrayal of a woman charmingly overcoming the struggles associated with having both a great job and a happy family cause us to expect that sort of juggling act to be easier than it really is? Does it prompt us to pile more onto our plates, to toss more balls into the air, to beat ourselves up more, when our job or our family isn’t the stuff of a summer blockbuster and we still have trouble managing it all?

Interestingly, in the book “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” the protagonist ultimately gives up her high-powered job in favor of a part-time gig that allows her more time with her kids. But McKenna opted to change that:

She decides instead to test the boundaries and carve out a better personal life while keeping her full-time job. (Another fantasy: Work-life balance, with no professional cost.)

A fantasy as dreamy as any Prince Charming. On the other hand, do such tales represent a step forward? After all, an ambitious–if naive–journalist’s attempts to succeed at “the job a million girls would kill for,” or the story of the daily struggles that comprise a working woman’s life–well, they’re infinitely more relatable than, say, Cinderella. Women today were raised with big dreams. Why should we–or our big-screen counterparts–give them up?

The thing is, though, in chasing them down, I’d venture to say most of us have found ourselves juggling. Most of us have likely found that juggle a little crazy-making, too. Most of us have probably worried that we could do better, more. Most of us have likely wondered if we’re measuring up.

And most of us have likely found that there’s no such thing as having it all. So maybe the happiest ending is in a contented acceptance of that. Maybe the new-new happily ever after looks more like happily chucking that ideal, once and for all.

Read Full Post »

Here’s a scary thought: What if there were a formula that could take your age, education level, income level, proximity to a city center, and field of employment and spit out a prediction for how skinny the jeans you’re wearing right now are? Or how likely you are to eat organic? To drive an SUV? To believe a car crash would make a more beautiful subject for a photograph than would a woman-with-kitten? To be or not to be… a hipster?

Well, hate to break it to you, you delightfully original little snowflake you, but there kind of is. And it’s been around for a long time. In this Sunday’s “The Hipster in the Mirror,” from the NYT Book Review (ahem, how predictable is it that I save that section for last? eek!) Mark Greif writes about he and his colleagues’ experience investigating “the contemporary hipster”–and the fiery debate that arose, once they went public with their endeavor:

The responses were more impassioned than those we’d had in our discussions on health care, young conservatives and feminism.

(No! Not feminism!!)

I wondered if I could guess the root of their pain. It’s a superficial topic, yet it seemed that so much was at stake. Why? Because struggles over taste (and “taste” is the hipster’s primary currency) are never only about taste. I began to wish that everyone I talked to had read just one book to give these fraught debates a frame: “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste,” by Pierre Bourdieu.

What’s so fantastic about Bourdieu’s work? Check it:

Bourdieu chose to make it his life’s work to debunk the powerful classes’ pretensions that they were more deserving of authority or wealth than those below. He aimed his critiques first at his own class of elites–professors and intellectuals–then at the media, the political class, and the propertied class.

“Distinction,” published in 1979 was an undisputed masterwork. In it, Bourdieu set out to show the social logic of taste: how admiration for art, appreciation of music, even taste in food, came about for different groups, and how “superior” taste was not the result of an enchanted superiority in scattered individuals.

…Over several years in the 1960s, Bourdieu and his researchers surveyed 1,200 people of all classes and mined government data on aspects of French domestic life. They asked, for instance, Which of the following subjects would be most likely to make a beautiful photograph? and offered such choices as a sunset, a girl with a cat or a car crash… The statistical results were striking. The things you prefer–tastes that you like to think of as personal, unique, justified only by sensibility–correspond tightly to defining measures of social class: your profession, your highest degree and your father’s profession.

Ahem. Rather a harsh blow to the ego, no?

I mean, of course we are each of us a special little snowflake. And our work in this world is to figure out who we really are, way deep down, and then figure out a way to be her. Which is why this is so disturbing — I mean, I kinda thought becoming my own little special self was what I’ve been doing: I attributed the fact that I like to listen to NPR on my morning jog to the fact that I am a news geek. That I only eat meat that I get at the farmers market to fears over hormones and Food, Inc.-spawned disgust. That I have bangs because if I deal with them, I can rightfully ignore the rest of my hair and still look cute–and a little bit younger. That I think a car crash might make a more lovely photo than a cliche sunset or girl-with-cat to the fact that I made a brief cameo at a photography school in the early ‘aughts. But… is that really the truth? Or am I just a pawn??

In a way, the whole thing gets me thinking about the best (in my clearly conditioned opinion, anyway) exchange in The Devil Wears Prada, when a decidedly unstylish, somewhat uppity, real-journalist-wannabe Andy is knocked down to size by the evil editrix Miranda. Check the dialogue (thanks Wikipedia!), and you’ll see what I mean:

[Miranda, To Andrea] This… stuff? Oh.. okay. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out–oh, I don’t know–that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? (I think we need a jacket here.) And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Causal Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

That’s what’s so funny–especially in light of the almighty hipster. That even when we’re styling ourselves as above-it-all, well, we’re just not. Which is not to say that we are all mindless followers, because I don’t think I really believe that, though I do take issue with anyone who chooses to order a PBR when there’s Guinness on tap. I guess my point is this: everything is worth thinking about, everything is changeable. Even who we think we are. And if that’s the case, perhaps we’d do well to cut everyone around us a little bit of slack, too.

I have this friend who lives in San Francisco, in the Marina–a very nice neighborhood. She loathes hanging out in the terminally trendy Mission–not because it’s beneath her, but because she feels the hipsters are judgmental. They say they’d never live in the Marina, it’s too uppity. Yet they also won’t talk to her when she finds herself there and in need of a coffee fix, because she’s a lawyer and dresses as such. So, who’s uppity?

Here’s a bit more from Greif:

The attempt to analyze the hipster provokes such universal anxiety because it calls everyone’s bluff. And hipsters aren’t the only ones unnerved. Many of us try to justify our privileges by pretending that our superb tastes and intellect prove we deserve them, reflecting our inner superiority. Those below us economically, the reasoning goes, don’t appreciate what we do; similarly, they couldn’t fill our jobs, handle our wealth, or survive our difficulties. Of course this is a terrible lie. And Bourdieu devoted his life to exposing it. Those who read him in effect become responsible to him–forced to admit a failure to examine our own lives, down to the seeming trivialities of clothes and distinction that, as Bourdieu revealed, also structure our world.

So, perhaps the moral of the story is this: Live and let live; Be hip and let be hip. Who is any one of us to judge?

Share

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 229 other followers