Tag Archives: new york times

No, I Don’t Want To Learn How To Love Criticism, Thanks

30 Sep

Tara Mohr recently wrote a piece in the New York Times about women and criticism. The article is called “Learning to Love Criticism,” but it could probably more accurately be titled “Haters Gonna Hate,” because that’s the type of approach that she advocates. She starts out promisingly enough, citing a recent study done on workplace performance reviews that contains the following fascinating (and appalling, and, if you’re a woman, entirely familiar) statistics: “Across 248 reviews from 28 companies, managers, whether male or female, gave female employees more negative feedback than they gave male employees. Second, 76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental” or “strident.” Only 2 percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.

Yet in the next paragraph, after admitting that women in the workplace walk an “impossible tightrope” in trying to balance competence and niceness, the best advice she can come up with for women in this situation is little better than “learn to deal.” And while I get that none of us are likely to see a monumental change in how women are treated in our lifetime (though god knows I pray for a bloodless feminist coup every night before I go to sleep), it’s still frustrating and angering to be told that, instead of trying to affect any kind of change, women should just suck it up and learn how to better live in a man’s world. I don’t want to be better at playing by men’s rules; I want to change the rules so that they’re fair for everyone.

Women, apparently, just need to learn to be less sensitive, even when the criticism that they receive is personal and heavily gendered. Mohr writes that, “Many women are aware of this problem. “I know I need a thicker skin, but I have no idea how to get it,” one woman, a consultant to small businesses, said to me.

I’ve been told that I need to “grow a thicker skin” so many times that I’ve lost count; I’m willing to bet that the same is true for many other women. It’s the same stuff we tell little kids who are being teased or made fun of – “just ignore them, and they’ll leave you alone.” Stop getting upset. Stop reacting. Stop being an easy target. It’s the kind of pat advice that sounds helpful in theory, but doesn’t really work in practice. Once anyone – another kid, a coworker, a boss – knows how to push your buttons, they know how to push your buttons and that’s that. Even if you stop reacting to one thing, they’ll figure out another way to get your goat. At least, that’s been my experience.

Not only that, but, after thinking about this pretty long and hard, I’ve realize that I don’t want a thicker skin. It’s not my skin that’s the problem. It’s never been my skin that’s the problem. I don’t want to thicken, solidify or otherwise change my skin.

Instead, I want to figure how to rely on myself, how to rely on my instincts, and how to trust in the fact that I am a smart, capable person who is worthy of respect.

It might sound as if I’m splitting hairs, but I can’t help that “thick skin” and self-esteem are two very different things. The former is all about ignoring or disregarding the negative stuff that people say about you; the latter is feeling solid enough in yourself and your abilities that you don’t need to rely on other people’s feedback, be it positive or negative, in order to figure out how to navigate your life. And maybe I want to have thin skin, if that means an ability to feel things more deeply. Maybe having thin skin has its positive sides, like a heightened ability for compassion and a greater awareness of the impact that I might have on other people. Maybe empathy is one of the results of never having developed a thicker skin.

And you know what? I don’t want to learn to love criticism. If the criticism is valid – if, say, someone is calling me out for doing something hurtful or problematic –  then that criticism should feel uncomfortable. If, on the other hand, the criticism is some kind of personal attack or comes from someone who doesn’t have the same values or beliefs that I do, then why on earth should I love it? I want sound criticism to make me feel bad, and I want to use that bad feeling to force myself to continue to grow and learn. I don’t ever want to be stuck in an unbending, call-out proof shell of haters gonna hate. Because sometimes the haters are right, as much as we might not want to admit it.

I also don’t particularly want to learn how to keep a heartless poker face when dealing with people saying shit that’s cleverly designed to find every chink in my armour. First of all because that’s fucking exhausting and sad-making and doesn’t seem to be very sustainable. Second of all because I’m tired of teaching angry little boys on the internet that the more they throw shit at women, the quieter and more patient those women will become. Silence and acquiescence is what those trolls want – it’s exactly what they’re trying to frighten women into doing. And I’m tired of giving them what they want, even if that does temporarily make my life easier.

At the end of the day, it’s all very well and good to give women tips on how to function within the current framework of society; it’s another thing altogether to assume that this framework will never change. It’s never going to stop being a man’s game if women keep playing by men’s rules, and if our only form of resistance is to learn to live with how things are, well, this revolution isn’t going to get very far.

1940s vintage female telephone operator BELL SYSTEMS advertisement illustration by John Falter

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Feminism Killed All The Grownups

19 Sep

The patriarchy is dead, adulthood is in steep decline and A.O. Scott feels Some Type Of Way.

At least, that’s my takeaway from Scott’s rambling 4,500 word essay in this week’s New York Times Magazine. Of course the piece has its supporters (since, after all, Scott is a well-known film critic and noted Man of Words), and some of the folks tweeting about this essay in earnest adulation are people that I typically agree with. But I’ve read Scott’s piece in its entirety three times now, and I can’t seem to get anything out of it other than one lone white dude raging (and raging, and raging) against the dying of the light.

Scott starts out by using the upcoming second half of the final season of Mad Men as proof of the death of the patriarchy. The speculated death Don Draper, he argues, as well as the deaths of Tony Soprano and Walter White, mark a sort of “end stage reckoning” of a certain type of television masculinity. This masculinity is, according to Scott, pretty complicated – after all these men aren’t exactly nice or good (in fact, Scott at one point refers to them as “monstrous”) – but they’re undeniably charismatic and quite often sympathetic. Are we supposed to cheer for them or hate them or just feel sorry for them? The answer, for most viewers, seems to be a strange combination of all three, and their deaths apparently mark a watershed moment in our culture. Scott writes that “Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.”

He then hastens to point out that, although he believes the patriarchy to be dead, that doesn’t mean that he’s denying the existence of sexism or misogyny. No, not at all. In fact, he believes that “in the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life.” But, he adds, “… in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.”

I’m not even going to get into the ludicrousness of a middle-aged white dude announcing that the patriarchy is dead – I trust my readers enough to believe that they can figure out the many ways in which that statement is wrong without me offering them a long-winded explanation. But I do take issue with Scott’s assertion that criticism of male privilege is the uncontested norm in the “universe of thoughts and ideas.” First off, my main concern when it comes to discussions about male privilege isn’t so much that people will “defend” it, but rather that people will ignore it, downplay its cultural effects or flat-out deny that it exists. Those speaking up in “defense” of male privilege are easily discounted; those who don’t even acknowledge it are much more slippery and harder to fight.

Second of all, it is absolutely untrue that assertions of male privilege or belief in the inherent superiority of men (especially when it comes to ideas about the superiority of male intelligence) don’t exist in the “universe of thoughts and words.” Look at Richard Dawkins, for example – even in light of his recent comments on false rape accusations, people are still defending him by saying, “well, he’s still a brilliant scientist.” Or, for a broader perspective, look at the short-lists for the more prestigious book and film awards, and count how many books and films are written or directed by women, versus how many are written or directed by men. Or look at the gender imbalance when it comes to tenured staff at a university. There is plenty of evidence that we still take the superiority of men as the “natural order,” even in the world of deep thoughts and bon mots.

Five paragraphs in, Scott finally comes to what you might call the thesis of his essay. “It seems” he writes, “that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.” So, feminism is to blame for the supposed death of adulthood? Is that what I’m to take away for this? That in exchange for the cultural domination of men, we’ve traded away our ability to grow up? As evidence of this so-called death of adulthood, Scott offers a few brief anecdotes: Nearly a third of young adult fiction is purchased by readers age 30 to 44. Sometimes Scott has seen grown men riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops. There’s a woman in his office who wears plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair; when Scott sees her, he can’t help but make a disapproving face. That’s just how much of a grownup he is.

“God, listen to me! Or don’t,” he cries, sounding exactly like a modern-day Holden Caulfield. He then goes on to list all of the awful shows, mostly dominated by women (think Girls and Broad City) that have replaced more adult television fare like Mad Men or The Sopranos. Writes Scott, “What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore.”

After a lengthy side-step into the apparently childish history of American literature (mostly, according to Scott, “a literature of boys’ adventure and female sentimentality”), and a brief discourse on why the Founding Fathers weren’t really fatherly and should maybe more accurately be called the Founding Bros or something equally un-grown-up, Scott finally swings back around to the cultural force that’s to blame for modern America’s lack of real, bonafide adults: the feminist movement. See, there are lots of young women who self-identify as feminists, most notably Beyoncé (who Scott calls the “most self-contradicting” feminist, which I can only assume is a dig at her overt sexuality and the length of her proverbial hemlines), and they want equality. But these women don’t want the good kind of equality; these women – especially the ones with television shows – want, Scott writes, to be “to be as rebellious, as obnoxious and as childish” as men are allowed to be.

All of which is to say that what Scott refers to as “cultural feminism” (as opposed to, I guess, academic feminism) is ruining being a grownup for everyone. Instead of forcing men to grow up, it’s encouraging women to be just like the man-babies. Instead of fostering a type of equality where everyone has an awesome job and wears a suit, it’s created a slacker equality where we all live in our parents’ basements and make fart jokes. For shame, feminism! What would Susan B. Anthony say? Oh god what hath we millenials wrought?

Finally, in the third to last paragraph, Scott writes what is probably his essay’s most important and most telling sentence: “The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all.” This, you see, is ultimately what Scott believes is holding people back from achieving full adulthood: not wanting to pay attention to critical discourse, a field that, by the way, has long been dominated by white men. And, you see, this is what this whole 4,500 word essay has been about. It’s not about people who read YA fiction or revere Huck Finn or live in their parents’ basement; this whole thing all boils down to the fact that A.O. Scott, and other successful, well-educated white dudes like him feel like they might be losing their audience. This isn’t a brilliant article about the downfall of the patriarchy and who the real grownups are and whether or not Beyoncé is too bootylicious to be a feminist – it’s the sad, dying cry of a white dude who sees all of his unearned privilege slowly slipping away.

It seems worth pointing out that not once in this entire essay does A.O. Scott define what adulthood is; he only tells us what it isn’t. Adulthood isn’t wearing shorts and flip-flops. Adulthood isn’t living in your parents’ basement. Adulthood isn’t liking what you like just because you like it. So from all of these negatives, I guess that we can infer that being a grownup means wearing a suit, living on your own, and only enjoying literature and media that someone else tells you will be challenging and enlightening.

If that’s what adulthood really means, then let me be the first to dance on its grave.

mad-men