Recently Clay Shirky wrote “A Rant About Women”, a piece essentially claiming that women needed to act more confidently, even or especially in situations where confidence would be unwarranted, in order to be more successful. There’s more to it than that, but that was what I took as the core message. I think there are some valid points in there, but I also think that Shirky radically underestimates the ways in which women are frequently punished for acting confident, and that he appears to assume that a system which promotes self-aggrandizers is something that we all (not just women) should accept as the natural way of things.
I might write up a longer response to “A Rant About Women” at some point, but right now I want to bring some attention to a piece that’s probably more important than my response.
That piece is “Girl Culture and the Race to the Bottom: About that Rant About Women”. I suggest you go read it. It contains a number of important but ugly truths, and is focused on the ways that modern Western female culture is focused on undermining women, and how more or less constant undermining from a female peer group is a major feature of women’s lives from adolescence onwards (and maybe earlier).
Just as I don’t think there’s enough discussion about male status and gender role enforcement and how it forms a critical strut of support for society’s patriarchal bias, I don’t think there’s been enough discussion of how female peer groups do similar work to prop up the power structure, and I hope that posts like this one help bring that out more.
It’s difficult territory, and I should stress that I don’t think the answer is anything as simple as “women should act more confident and be nicer to each other”. I do think it’s important to recognize that it’s not at all simple to unravel our responsibility for, and complicity in, the deeply harmful and problematic structure of our society.
The concept of, and importance of, “status” runs through this entire discussion, for example going right down the center of one of the most depressing (to me) things from that piece:
[A]dult female friends have told me they only want to date dudes more successful than themselves, because dating dudes less successful than themselves always sends them through some wacky hell-ride of Let’s Take My Girlfriend Down a Peg that they’d rather not endure again.—Sady Doyle. “Girl Culture and the Race to the Bottom: About that Rant About Women”. Tiger Beatdown, 30 Jan 2010.
My first reaction to that was ”what, really?” followed by a sinking feeling of despair. My second was a desire to get these dudes in a room and shout at them about how awful and pathetic it is to undermine your partner because of your own insecurities. My third reaction was that the phenomenon is so common because of how the whole notion of “success” is constructed, and how it feeds into our conceptions of gender roles. There’s no definition here, partly because the article isn’t about that and partly because for the author’s purpose none is necessary, but what does “success” mean? Here it’s primarily economic, I’m quite sure. So that’s where we really are, in 2010? Where men and women are both subject to status pressure if the man isn’t the more economically powerful of the two? Note that this is self-perpetuating in a variety of ways: if the women refuse to date men less well-off than they are, they reinforce the notion that such pairings are strange and low-status; furthermore, on a large scale this actually creates economic pressure for men to earn more than women. It also reinforces the notion that women should gain status not from their own achievements (economic or otherwise) but from those of their male partner, which is pretty clearly not a recipe for anyone’s happiness.
There’s another larger topic here, one that I suspect is even more controversial: the ways in which status judgments by each gender about the other, including the judgment of who to partner with, are wrapped up in supporting the current social structure. It’s tough to find a messier mixing of the personal and the political than that one, I think, and that’s not something I’m going to explore further at the moment.
Instead, a personal note: I’ve been extremely lucky in having many female friends and acquaintances who have managed to shrug off a lot of the confidence-killing bullshit. I have female friends who are highly intelligent and know it and don’t try to hide it; who are highly successful; who are creative and possessed of the determination to see their creative projects through; who are justifiably loud and forthright about knowing their shit; who lead and direct groups and make things happen. To them I want to say: you rock. The world needs more of you. You shouldn’t feel bad if your confidence is dented by the kind of crap under discussion here, and I’m not exhorting you to act as Shirky suggests, but you should know that you deserve to feel confident and happy about what you’ve done and who you are, and that anyone who tells you otherwise, outright or by subtle implication, is full of shit.