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!