Thursday, 02 August 2012

Having It All

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My father, an impeccably coiffed businessman, sat me down one day to tell me about his recent excursion into personal improvement. It was 1987 and he was a self-made, self-educated man and enjoyed bringing home his wisdom, like some shiny grey-suited hunter gatherer, a Paleolithic Tony Robbins. Folding his impossibly long body into a bizarre corporate origami, he told me that no one could have it all. It was a myth destined for failure, he said. Try to do it all and you end up doing nothing, your focus spread too thinly for any meaningful effect. Best bet, he said, was to come up with three priorities and focus on them. Anything more showed you didn’t know what you wanted and were unwilling to spend the time and energy to reach your goals.

Having it all. Whether delivered with a sneer or resigned whine, it seems to be the cry of late. Anne-Marie Slaughter spoke of its failure (pointing a finger at second wave feminists) in The Atlantic. Others responded, all bringing their perspective into the burble of debate.

How do we define having it all, anyway? According to Slaughter’s article, it’s having education, career, riches, friendships, leisure pursuits and a perfect figure, all in elite measure. It’s an increasingly long piece of string that demands polymaths of everyday women.

Are we obsessed with the thought of having it all? From an Australian perspective, it doesn’t appear to be the case. As I asked around, people referred to understanding, contentment and choice. Some knew about the article but it referenced a life and ambition they simply didn’t care for. Others blame second wave feminists for creating a catchy slogan that was deceiving and disappointing. So, the goal or perceived need to have it all is entirely subjective.

Throughout the article Slaughter’s definition of having it all ended up with a list of cultural prejudices that render the point of equality moot — looking good, raising high achieving children, being at the top of your career with access to power and socio-economic privilege — that is otherwise shut off to the majority. In explaining the have it all culture demanded of women in the US, Slaughter was actually confirming gender stereotypes for herself and others and then adding some more. In effect, having it all meant outmoded society expectations of women (perfect appearance, saviour of the family unit) and men (elite education, alpha success in the business/political world). How can anyone have it all when they’re trying to be the best of both gender stereotypes?

In striving to have it all, women are asked to paradoxically conform to both gender stereotypes to prove and justify their liberation. It has become a manacle for women and a sneering rebuke from those hostile to their goals. Fail to balance the stereotypes perfectly and both sides will bray their disapproval.

Why is it only women who feel the scrutiny to have it all? Why are men excluded in this debate? Do they too feel the need to pursue this lofty goal for their gender?

I think back to my father, a man of methodical means, who precisely defined and measured what he wanted to have and pursued it with diligence and thought. I think of men today who pursue their interests, unencumbered with the slogan but still under the weight of society’s expectations.

When we're told that we can have it all, women are set up for failure. You’re greedy if you try and succeed (that woman is a real ball breaker), derided if you fail — another vagina victim of feminism’s destructive vision.

If feminism has failed in this area, it is because the having it all vision is not about feminism, not solely the domain of women fighting to break through for equal access, protection and reward. Putting aside the validity of the vision, this issue drives back to viewing Western culture as a whole and how this dominant culture judges the merit of its people.

Marissa Mayer’s recent appointment as Yahoo’s CEO is a case in point. Heralded as validation for women — implausible given Yahoo has hired female CEOs before — the media’s shock ratcheted into overdrive with the announcement Mayer was pregnant. After the initial wave of “isn’t it nice they hire pregnant women to positions of power now?”, the debate centred around Mayer’s two week maternity leave. It was bad mothering and a failure of the feminine stereotype. Pick whether you’re going to be a new mother or a CEO or, in even simpler terms, be male or female or learn to balance it perfectly.

Would all of this be reconciled by having more women in leadership positions? It depends on the women. There’s little point in expecting women in power to be culture-changers if they validate the dominant culture. This is something that requires both genders.

It’s a vision that cannot be answered, a mountain that can’t be scaled because we’re only asking it of women. Where are men in this equation? Why is it that their need for balance isn’t questioned or probed? Are they constrained by this system too? You can’t walk up a mountain using one leg alone. Why aren’t men and women working together on this?

What would our culture look like if we could strip away the gendered expectations from business, politics and society? It’s a lovely honey-glowed utopian thought that hides a daunting task. Men work longer and harder because it’s how they prove their manhood, women do the same because they think equality is showing they can be just as foolish as men. Meanwhile, the system stands stronger and more profitable than ever, but with the added fun of blaming feminism for trying to empower half of the world.

Outside of western culture, the issue becomes far more academic, an oversized prop to donk people on the head with. Having it all? To the outsider, the overwhelming majority of western civilisation already has it all. To them, this debate would appear as a theoretical slap fight, quite possibly with Yakety Sax playing in the background.

The other danger of having it all is that it often translates to buying it all. You can buy the best home, outfit, figure, education and car. It’s the easy option to circumvent the long-drawn out process of personal fulfilment. Have it all? I sure do — step into my media room. Have it all? Yes and let me drive you there in my new SUV.

Having it all was a great rallying cry for women that allowed them to dream larger than ever before within the defined power structures of our society. Unfortunately, it didn’t direct them to dream as large as they could and it only addressed half of the world’s population.

In many respects, women and men can have whatever they want. Ultimately and with most things in life, it means making choices, compromises and payments. By trying to have it all, we end up with nothing, let alone empowered self fulfilment. Striving for what we want (instead of what society tells us we should want) is larger, scarier and requires a personal stand; a line drawn that explains what we will and won’t do and the comfort to pay the price for the eventual reward.

Can you have it all? Can you buy it all? You can but there’s a price to pay.


Last modified on Wednesday, 08 August 2012
Amy Gray

Amy Gray is a writer and broadcaster from Melbourne, Australia.

Follow her on Twitter @_AmyGray_