I. In Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, Marisa Metzer spends a bit of time talking about the pressure girls feel to be perfect. I liked the book a lot, but this sentence had bells going off for me all over the place: “The desire to be perfect, while not unique to girls, is a persistent hurdle that often stops girls from feeling like they could be legitimate performers.” I’m not a musician and really have no musical aptitude, but this kind of thing doesn’t limit itself to women in music. You start feeling like you could never be perfect, so you don’t even want to try. Metzer cites a study done at Duke University that found that “its own undergraduate women felt the need to be ‘effortlessly perfect,’ combining beauty, intellect, success, style, and a slender body without looking like they were even trying.” She also quotes The Blow’s Khaela Maricich talking about how scary it is to put yourself out there: “My experience of being a girl is that you don’t want to show off in front of people unless you really know what you’re doing. [...] There’s a huge dividing line between girls and boys. Guys just do it without thinking. They’re so balls out, they just keep throwing their shit out there.”
I mean, yeah. This is definitely a dynamic I’ve read about before, but now, maybe because I’m in full-on quarter-life crisis mode, I really feel like this tendency – to not want to put it out there until it’s perfect, and you can never totally be perfect, because no one’s perfect – actually probably affected some of my life decisions. There are a lot of reasons I never really tried to be a writer despite doing the campus paper thing and the having a blog for, like, 8 years now thing, most of them stemming from the fact that I really think the kind of writing I want to do is better suited to grad school than to being a freelancer, but certainly the fear of failure was a big factor.
I’m not saying that my failures to live up to all my childhood ambitions are sexism’s fault, or anything like that, but I do feel like the fear of failing publicly is something that women feel a lot more strongly than men, partly because women are not given a lot of room to have flaws or be wrong in public.1 I don’t know for sure why it is, but I have definitely found that my male peers (in academia) are by and large more comfortable about putting themselves forward for things or advancing risky arguments or generally promoting themselves than the women. I’m not talking sexist dudes here, or dudes who are trying to take space away from worthy ladies, or even dudes who have less than total respect for the intellectual capacities of ladies, just dudes who feel more comfortable taking risks and being ambitious than the ladies do. I think there may be social factors behind that. Maybe it’s just me, and other ladies don’t feel the same discomfort about asking for stuff they deserve and promoting themselves, but it’s not just lack of confidence, it’s also that ladies actually get more shit for putting themselves forward and generally promoting themselves.
How is this something we learn to overcome? Metzer takes heart from the DIY ethos of riot grrrl. The riot grrrls built their own network of girl-togetherness and revolution. Even though it was short-lived, it’s left a powerful stamp. I was too young for riot grrrl in the 90s (though not too young for Lilith Fair!), but I still have Bikini Kill albums and I did get a chance to see Sleater-Kinney in concert before they split up.
II. Emily Gould’s book came out recently. Apparently a lot of the reviews have not been good? I haven’t read the book, but I do want to because I like Gould’s writing and I’ve always been a fan. Her book, and she, relates to the above in that she is about my age but has been in the public internet eye for some time, and she has made some mistakes in public. That’s actually part of why I’m a fan. As much as now she appears to be maintaining an internet presence without blurring lines of appropriateness in a Heartbreak Soup kind of way. But here’s the thing. I used to write vaguely “personal” blog-type-stuff on the the internet. Those posts aren’t on the internet anymore (as much as anything is ever not on the internet anymore) because I stopped being 19 and I was pretty embarrassed by some of the more revealing stuff I’d written. I don’t think Gould isn’t embarrassed about some of the stuff she wrote – she says as much – but she left it all up there.
I like that she’s owning these ugly vulnerable moments. Leaving it up where people can see it says “This happened, I own it, it was a part of my life, and it’s still there.” I really admire that she did that, and I am suggesting that part of the reason she gets the negative attention she does is that she is a woman who has allowed herself to be flawed in public.
III. Everyone sure did freak out about Miley Cyrus’s new video! It’s…not very good, but that’s not why people got freaked out. They were freaking out because Miley is “cage-dancing”! A seventeen-year-old girl is being vaguely sexual! Stop everything. Tiger Beatdown already explained this, so I’m not going to re-explain:
SADY: Yeah. And Thinking Of The Children often seems to involve… not a lot of thinking about how The Children actually tend to behave? Like: My shameful secret is that I actually ENJOY THE HELL out of this video. Not because it’s “empowering,” or because I take ANY of its messages at face value, but because — like Miley herself — it’s so goofy and embarrassing in precisely the ways that 17-year-old-girl rebellion is goofy and embarrassing. [...] SADY: Right! I mean: We talk about growing up in public. But Miley Cyrus, despite (DON’T READ THIS PART, MILEY CYRUS) having released some of my least favorite songs EVER, actually seems to be, like… growing up. In public. With all the associated awkwardness. But that’s the thing, about Thinking About the Children: We have this very idealized normative concept of how a “good” teen behaves and it’s just not in line with these realities. At all! And honestly it is, as you said, just about shoving aside what makes us uncomfortable.
AMANDA: Yeah, and why the fuck are we acting like all our insecurities can be resolved by Miley Cyrus not doing some weird shit in a music video? I’ll also add that Miley’s actually doing pretty fucking awesome at navigating all this stuff. In February, she said this: “My job isn’t to tell your kids how to act or how not to act because I’m still figuring that out for myself. To take that away from me is a bit selfish . . . Your kids are going to make mistakes whether I do or not. That’s just life.” Coming from someone who was EVISCERATED for appearing in a magazine with her back visible, that point is well-taken.
I feel like Miley’s an interesting case of being vulnerable in public, because she doesn’t seem to draw the same kinds of lines between controlled public performances and her “real” emotional life as previous teen idols. My favourite instance of Miley-ness is still the “7 Things” video:
It’s a great video, with Miley and a chorus of teddy-bear-hugging tweens trying to be sassy in the face of heartbreak and crying into the camera. But the real thing in it – she’s wearing Nick Jonas’s dog tags. She flashes a real picture of her and Nick Jonas (with Nick’s face scratched out) at the camera. There’s something so painfully earnest about that, the ultimate teen girl moment. I’m not saying that Miley is just being real with no thought to how she’s perceived here – I am sure that the reason that she did use her real stuff was because the director of the video thought it would endear her to her fellow teenage girls – but nonetheless, she is being real, and in a way that will probably make her cringe in a couple of years.
IV. At some point in writing this, “being flawed” somehow morphed into “being confessional” but I don’t think that’s a coincidence. You don’t have to confess things to take risks, but “confessing” is definitely allowing yourself to be flawed in public. I feel like I’m starting to head towards the part where I conclude that being confessional is brave and “raw”, so this has to be the part where I point out that confessing is always also a performance, even if it’s true. (But what isn’t? Am I right?)
I do think the way we live now, on the web, with the blogs and the facebook and whatnot, has really changed our senses of public and private. It’s easy in the heat of the moment to put stuff up online that you wouldn’t want certain people to see and reason with yourself that they probably won’t see it. (Odds are, when you do this, they probably will.) Everyone has to make their own rules about how much they write about online. I have a lot of them. I never write about work, even on my non-public facebook page, like beyond the fact that I have a job. I don’t write anything that I wouldn’t mind saying to anyone publicly. Because once you put something online, you lose control of it and it is very, very easy for people to see it. You’re exposed. I tend to hold things back until the last minute – not showing anyone drafts until I turn them in, totally isolating my ideas until I’m completely confident with them. Now that I’ve fallen out of practice, I work things over, even blog posts, for weeks until I think they are remotely good enough, I’m so cautious about what I’m doing. One answer would be to just write my ideas down in private, but I don’t think isolating myself is really a solution. Obviously earnest pop culture criticism will never really shake people up like playing punk rock with “slut” written on my stomach – though I do think it’s important. I still think we could all use a little bit of riot grrrl in our lives.
And I feel this way as a woman in the liberal arts! Where women are not even a minority in any way! And the field is replete with successful female and feminist role models! And I have never actually experienced any kind of sexism (though I am sure it happens). ↩