Monday, March 10, 2008

The Perfection Myth

In one of my favorite films, Little Women, when Jo travels to New York, she engages in a discussion with some of her fellow boarders on the issue of women's suffrage. One of the men argues that women should vote because they are inherently good, and would therefore be excellent arbiters of democracy. Jo replies:
I find it poor logic to say that women should vote because they are good. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.
How often I want to echo this sentiment when I hear people disparage Hillary Clinton in ways that they would never dare if she were a man.

In Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney E. Martin describes the great impetus that compels the current generation of young women to be Superwomen, to be Perfect. And I identify with this theory; I gave myself a nervous breakdown in pursuing a 4.0 GPA in graduate school. In creating my professional persona, I present to the world a "perfect" facade, clothed in suits and high heels, standing tall and regal, always in command (no matter if I have a fever and feel like collapsing or I'm in blinding pain from my fibromyalgia). There is the compulsion to be perfect to the outside world, to protect myself from the backlash.

In the New Yorker this week, Talk of the Town opens with a discussion of the character of the new Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev. Writer David Remnick covers a number of trivialities relating to Medvedev: his love of Deep Purple, his morning and evening swims, his yoga practice, his beloved aquarium.

Reading this list, it seems, will give you some insight into his character--he is devoted to strength of the body, the delicate balance of aquatic life, and so forth. In other words, he is human. He is both a politician and a person.

A woman, such as Hillary Clinton, if described by such a list, would be labeled frivolous. If she practiced yoga, she would be seen as a fluffy New Age-r. If she had an aquarium, she would be accused of being soft and overly concerned with nurturing. Rigorous scheduled exercise would be seen as a waste of time that could be spent working or campaigning.

Women are judged harshly because they are considered the Other. If they are ever to enter the world of men, they must be Perfect. As Jo's acquaintance says, women are allowed to join if they play the role of the "good woman," to temper the basic humanity of man. But we are not simply a foil for men; Women are human too. We have imperfections, just like men. Except for women, those imperfections are hurled back at us. We cannot join the world of men unless we are flawless, while men are allowed many foibles--they can be fat, crude, boorish, poor mathematicians, ill tempered, bad judges of character, slow workers--in short, they can be themselves. In the meantime, women must craft themselves into golden idols simply to be equal.

I am willing to say I am not perfect. I have emotions, I ask for help with my work, I am starting to push beyond a healthy BMI. But as long as the men hold the keys to the castle, I will present myself as perfect. I will dress up, I will gird myself in heels and blazers, I will talk the talk, and I will show them that I am just as capable.

4 responses:

Reg Golb said...

I find that poor logic, you are comparing the right to vote with running the country.

Rebecca said...

I LOVE that quote as well.

I do find that women must be better than men to do the same job. I was talking to someone about how a female friend of mine was running for office. He mentioned that she has to have a law degree just to be taken seriously against candidates that don't have law degrees, because she's a woman. Aargh!

KEHutchinson said...

Reg-- voting is how you run a country.

Rebecca-- It's sad how little credibility women are given, particularly in politics. It's disappointing when women have to run twice as fast as a man just to cover the same distance.

Reg Golb said...

Then what happens if Barack wins the popular vote and the delegate count, (he already has more states)?

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