Sunday, May 09, 2010

Are Women Ever Allowed to be Happy?

I know that sounds like a strange question because when I look around me, most women I know are quite pleased with the way their lives have panned out.  But then I open the newspapers and magazines, and when these are not peddling gloom, doom, Botox and thousand pound shoes that have been inspired by Chinese foot-binding, they are telling us about how we are truly unhappy!

Recently there is an absolute surfeit of these unhappy-coz-I-succeeded articles racing around British press. It started with columnist Allison Pearson explaining in dreary details how her terribly successful life made her depressed. Then Marion Keyes, the unrelentingly upbeat author of happily-ever-after chick lit novels went to town about her depression. And lo and behold, we were all depressed! Driven to suicide because our jobs and paying bills were not enough, being able to publish novels and create art were not enough; nor was having children and raising them to be decent human beings not enough.

Then of course the rest of the media circus got into the act, reminding me inexorably of Susan Faludi's brilliant book - and I know most of you have forgotten all about it - Backlash.   And yes, I know it is overambitious and over-reaches at points, but the basic premise of the book seems to have held true since its release back in 1991: every time women make significant social, economic and political progress, there seems to be a knee jerk reaction from mass media against this.  Worse still, it seems we have stopped talking about it, because - as the media (and some of my young students tell me), feminism is so "out-dated" and "unfashionable" almost as if women's right to equality were no different from a pair of Jimmy Choo heels.

And yet, we must talk about it. The recent Dove ads in America drove home the point of how young girls are tyranized by images of physical perfection. But perhaps someone needs to create a commercial about how women are all tyranized by images of other unrealistic fairy-tale perfection: John Lewis, yes, I am talking to you!

Which is what brings me back to this media-driven epidemic of depression amongst 40-something women. Agreed I am looking at a relatively small sample size, and definitely not a random one, but I can't see these depressed-because-of-perfection women anywhere. I find that most women of my acquaintance are hitting 40 and getting a second wind: physical hang ups have melted away, as have ridiculous expectations of fairy tale lives.  Instead they all seem to be living extraordinary lives, perhaps finally enjoying the rights earlier generations of feminist fought for.

Some are marrying while others are single or dating. Some are even having children, although few are ever going to be baking cupcakes for a bake sale; it will be a box of from the local supermarket or nothing! (And no, Laduree macaroons are too precious to waste on a bunch of kids!). But mostly they are challenging themselves, physically, mentally, emotionally, taking more risks and pushing the boundaries: marathon training for a former couch potato, launch of a new business in the midst of a recession, emigrating across the world, buying homes and redoing them with great gusto (and absolute personal style).

In all of this, there is a pattern: most of these very happy women are careerists. They have slaved to build their lives, bank balances and professional profiles for quite a few years. Even when they are leaving high flying city jobs to go farm in Australia, they are backed by a financial portfolio (and practical skills) they have built over two decades.  It reminds me of what my mother has always held as the cornerstone of women's rights and drummed into our heads all through our childhood: economic independence would set a woman free!

Reverting, however, to the backlash driven media narrative unfolding around us, most media stories (written cleverly enough by female journalists) stress that women are unhappy having it all.  That somehow no one told them that there would be a price for "having it all."  The tone in these pieces is not only patronizing (really, grown women need to be told this?) but also implicitly infantalizing (see, little girl, if you want to play with your dolls, you can't play on the swings at the same time).

Worse still, and this brings me back to Faludi, the embedded message is one that has been historically only reserved for women (never the men!): don't excel at anything beyond the confines of your home! Don't even hold ambitions of material and intellectual excellence because not only will you fail, but that success -should you achieve it with blood, sweat and tears - will make you unhappy (depressed and suicidal in modern parlance).   Moreover, should you still choose to test your fate in those fields of achievement beyond the home, you shall be punished: judged for your lack of maternity, derided for your achievements, shamed if your kitchen not meet the same standards of excellence that you bring to your professional life.

Female emancipation it seems is not only about economic independence then, but also about building an enormous strength to withstand the undermining narratives that bombard us.  (Note to self: the happy women in my life - students, colleagues, acquaintances, friends and family - need to be seriously commended for their amazonian abilities to excel in face of such opposition). And just for that, I am planning to include Susan Faludi on my undergraduate reading list for the next academic year. Its about time women - however few of us are ready and willing - started pushing back!


  1. I'll tweet and forward this on. Had this conversation last night about money making us unhappy, but it's not the money, the fame, or success (though I possess none of the above) making a woman or man happy on their own. We need to love ourselves first and foremost in order to be able to appreciate and feel we deserve the money, the fame, the success. But how do you love yourself? Aha... that's something we can live our whole lives exploring and trying to be good at. I believe once we're there, we can enjoy the other things coming our way, whether millions or mansions! Btw look in to the Scandinavian Jantelag! Jante Law, from a book by Aksel Sandemose. As you wrote about Faludi, it reminded me of the Jante.
    I don't know if depression existed in the past at the same extent as it does today, but pre washing machines, microwaves, running water in the homes, women had all these tasks to do, there was no time to sit down and think about the troubles in their lives in the way we can today. But there are for sure cultures and societies, where excelling and being happy is not socially accepted! Check the Jante! So we have to struggle to live our dream, but it's possible!

  2. Makes me wonder.

    Is this "trend" entirely media driven? I can see individual journalists motivated to get more readers, seeing someone else's story that gets attention, and following a copycat strategy by writing a similar piece to ride its coattails, thus creating a completely media-driven trend.

    But is there more to it? Are there men out there worried that women won't need them anymore if they feel too fulfilled by success and independence?

    Are there advertisers out there who fear that women who are too happy won't feel as compelled to buy their products in search of more happiness?

    Are there drug companies out there just looking for more sales of their antidepressives?

    Whether any of the above is a factor here, what's true is that whether you're a man or a woman, there are people who enrich their own lives by convincing you that you have needs that you weren't previously aware of, and they can help satisfy those newfound needs in return for your money, time or effort.

    It can be difficult to sort those folks out from the ones who provide you real value, since you're not always aware of whether the needs you feel are artificially induced.

    Every high school should teach kids to get in touch with the things which make them deep-down happy, and to write them down, so they'll be better prepared to say "no" to those who try to induce new needs in them.

  3. Thanks. Barbara Ehrenreich's book on the history of joy is quite interesting in linking breakdown of community to depression.

    I dont think women were happier back when! I remember the thwarted ambitions of women of older generations. Yes they did their best but if they were so happy with their lot, why did they teach me and my generation to do things differently?

    I get angry that women are being told that success - fame, money, independence (whatever she wants) - will somehow make her unhappy.

    Also thanks for the ref. Will look up Jantelag.

  4. Jonathan, thanks for your comment. For some weird reason, it only turned up today - over a month later!

    I am sure business interests play a part but it doesn't explain why female anxiety is exploited to such extreme levels.

    Thanks again.