Thursday, February 28, 2013

Women Don't Have to Do Everything Before They Can Say Anything

By Sarah M.

After seeing that Kathryn Bigelow was up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, I asked my husband if he had any interest in adding Zero Dark Thirty to our queue. He declined, citing our mutual disinterest in military films ever since we both served in the enlisted military -- lawyers probably don't get a thrill from Law and Order, doctors and nurses might avoid Grey's Anatomy, etc. But something about my own antipathy unsettled me: more than a passive indifference, I realized that I really did not want to see a Bigelow film, even though the Hurt Locker won Best Picture four years ago.

                                                                        Courtesy Michael Caulfield/Getty Images

I felt some unidentified discomfort. As far as I could tell, my preference was based on nothing. I decided to look up Kathryn Bigelow. Her Wikipedia bio prompted the completely unworthy notion that she is a former Gap model MFA ex-wife of James Cameron, a princess of privilege who slides so naturally into the red carpet pose that I could never see her as anything but a Hollywood automaton, someone without the least right to appropriate military storytelling. Of course I don't want to see her movies, right?

I realized instantly that I've never had that thought or any similar thought about a male director in charge of Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, the Hunt for Red October, Starship Troopers... You know, any of the classics.

I had no preconceived expectations about either of Kathryn Bigelow's two major blockbusters, and I have no excuse. Her bio only affirmed what I already wanted to think. I will make a point to see her films now that I have identified this internalized sexism. I questioned her authority to tell the stories; it wasn't about her talent. I questioned her in a way that has never occurred to me to question a male director's authority to tell a military story, and I am a female Marine. Embarrassing. 

Recent controversy surrounding Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg makes me think that I'm not alone in this attitude. Those are two links to major publications; feel free to search for blog posts and op-eds on these two women as well -- there's no shortage. The gist is that Marissa Mayer terminated flex time at Yahoo, a measure which may be temporary, and she only took two weeks of maternity leave. Sheryl Sandberg wants women to "lean in" and commit fully to their workplaces. She gave a popular TED Talk in 2010 about the reality facing women who wish to pursue leadership roles.

Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, courtesy Business Insider

Complaints vary. Either they have no right to speak for every woman, or they coldly disregard work-life balance because they're ambitious, or they're too rich to understand how most households operate.

Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer are not speaking for every woman, they are telling us what worked for them. Do we ever seek clarification on this point when the average male executive publishes his book? I understand the urge to identify with these women, just as I tried to identify with Kathryn Bigelow and ended up rejecting her films because of it. We each want an outlet to assert our social needs, and we have so few powerful women in the public eye that we have no choice but to respond to these few as if it is their job to address our concerns. This is not a reasonable burden to place on them.

Marissa Mayer froze flex time at Yahoo. The company does not publicly discuss internal policies, so the reasoning and duration of the decision are up for debate. Instead of focusing on her role as CEO, much of the criticism facing the policy focuses on how un-motherly she is, how she only took two weeks of maternity leave. There is a nasty undercurrent of "unnatural woman" here. I've seen many comments that a woman who takes only two weeks of maternity leave should not have had children. Meanwhile, we mourn that women still only hold around 15 percent of executive positions at Fortune 500 companies. Perhaps we should thank Marissa Mayer for her personal sacrifice that led to one small inroad into this statistic. Who are we to say she wouldn't have stayed home longer if the timing had worked out? 

As for the flex time itself, oh my the flex time, I can't help but notice that the writers, bloggers, and business-people who call Marissa Mayer out of touch also seem to think that flex time is a normal and expected aspect of American life. I was a service member, and the adults in my family often work retail, maintenance, or as temps, paid by the hour. Try to see this situation in that light. Please don't get me wrong, I would love some flex time when I get into my second career (Yes, please!); but for the time being, the fact that one group of rich Americans is telling a group of richer Americans that they're out of touch because the average hardworking family needs flex time to get by is pure undiluted absurdity.

It's true, they are rich. So what? I loved Sheryl Sandberg's TED Talk. Again, many of these flex time advocates are fabulously wealthy in the eyes of millions of Americans. Does that mean lower income families have the right to shut them down? The only other option is that we are equally entitled to give an opinion. If a rich person says something truly insane, that's one thing, but there's nothing wrong with a wealthy woman telling us how she got there. Some people also want to get there, so that is a nice thing she's doing.

I am in no way advocating for the continuation of the current work-family system in its entirety, for the record. Maternity leave options in the U.S. should be extended and accepted as a building block of healthy families and society as a whole, without consequence to a woman's career. However, I am a mother of two, and I consider it a misinterpretation of maternity leave that it's in place for the mother's sake. Maternity leave addresses the needs of the child, not the mother. Moms are tough, we do not need a soft cradle to land in after giving birth. We need some time to bond with and nourish new babies. Thanks to modern tools and committed partners, if we're lucky, how much time may finally be at our personal discretion. I'd prefer that we never feel at liberty to criticize the choices of other mothers, unless of course we want to be jerks that nobody likes.

I evaluated Kathryn Bigelow along the same inflexible lines that these two business leaders are being evaluated. The onslaught of that realization felt like I'd hit myself in the face. I see the parallel between my disregard of Bigelow's authority as a director, and this trend of disregard for Mayer and Sandberg's authority as executives. If you take one thing from this wordy blog post, please make it this: Quit hitting yourself.

No comments:

Post a Comment