Why We Love to Hate Women in Power, 1996 Edition (And Now)

In 17-odd years, the ways we tear down women in power haven't changed a whole lot. Goody.

Jan 28, 2014 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

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Woman, on top of the world.

Let's play a game.

I'm thinking of a woman. She's a woman in power. She's had a few family troubles -- a "non-amicable" separation from her partner, rumored unrest with her only daughter -- but overall, she's on the up-and-up. She's the author of a dozen best-selling books, the founder and editor-in-chief of a widely circulating magazine and (rumor has it) working on a way to secure a media conglomerate of her very own. She's also, of course, routinely vilified by the media and the public for being "perfectly perfect" -- a "hotheaded, cold-hearted control freak." 

Any guesses?

OK, maybe you're quicker on the uptake than I am. Because when I stumbled upon this 1996 thinkpiece in The New York Times about all the ways We Love to Hate Martha Stewart, I was pretty flabbergasted.

Not by the facts of Martha Stewart's life. By the time I really became aware of her existence, M-Stew was already halfway to prison and then out again. I'm used to seeing her as a controversial figure, at best.

What really struck me about the piece, though, was the rhetoric that the Times piece used to justify why women took such umbrage to Martha's existence. According to the article, in 1996, women didn't just hate Martha because she was too WASPy, too blond or too thin. They mostly hated her because she represented a kind of domestic perfection they found unattainable in their lives full of child-rearing and corporate-ladder-climbing:

''All I do,'' says Stewart in her own defense, is ''write cookbooks and teach people how to do good things.'' The trouble is, she is doing it at a time when housekeeping is fraught with anger and, paradoxically, longing. ... It's not that we want to go back (as if we had the choice). But, good as it is not to have to hang our whole identities on clean floors, it's also good to have them. And we haven't figured out how to have it both ways.

That last line in particular rings eerily familiar. Women, pressured to produce a perfect household while also managing to kick ass at their career of choice and maybe, just maybe, have a social life? Where have I heard that one before?

Stewart, the piece continues, offered at least the illusion of establishing order in the chaos. It was an illusion her followers both envied and reviled, however: 

To its 2 million readers, most of them managers and professionals, her magazine presents the prospect of coming home to something more pleasant than ambient mess and frozen fish sticks. ... 
Lots of women, especially women with children and jobs, already have too much to do and nowhere near enough time to do it. You see them zoned out in their rare moments of forced idleness at stoplights or in the checkout line, clicking through the agendas in their heads -- 8 o'clock meeting, plumber, dentist, grass seed, groceries, dry cleaner . . . And hating Martha Stewart is safer than hating your whole life.

Whenever I read pieces like these, my first instinct is to use them as a comparison to today's social commentary. If Martha Stewart existed today in the same capacity, I'd hope the mainstream criticism of her would be rooted more in the fact that she's a white, upper-middle-class woman whose target audience is more of the same. (Plus, the bit about being envious of a friend whose exploits the author "followed in the newspaper" would probably rely a lot more heavily on blaming social media for said jealousy.)

Still, like I said, there's a disconcerting note of déjà vu throughout this whole piece. Seventeen-odd years later, women in power are still subject to the "too perfect" criticism: As they make their way higher in their chosen fields, they risk being labeled as too cold, too distant or too unfeeling.

Take Hillary Clinton or Marissa Mayer -- while there are certainly legitimate criticisms to be levied about their politics or their careers (or the structures of privilege that helped them get to positions of power in the first place), the arguments against them seem to rely more on the fact that they've achieved huge amounts of success without being sufficiently "grateful" for it.

Thinking about it from a "role model" perspective, male figures in power are permitted to be purely aspirational. They can inspire kids to reach for the stars; women, as nurturing, well-rounded individuals, always seem to be expected to crouch down and offer a boost to anyone who needs it. (While I'm never going to dispute the value of women acting as mentors for younger peers, it shouldn't have to mean that they always have to tear themselves down in the process.)

Consider the recent fervor over Wendy Davis's background; though the meat of her story was basically the same, the exact details of just how vulnerable she'd been or how many sacrifices she'd made for her family were thrown into question. Never mind that they had nothing to do with her campaign or her ability to govern the state of Texas -- the image we'd composed of a personal life fraught with very specific setbacks had been compromised, and she had to pay the price. 

Of course, this isn't to say that women in the public eye can allow themselves to actually relax.

Unlike, say, mayors who smoke crack or senators who send dick-pics to Twitter strangers (or members of Congress who never actually pass a damn thing), women in power have to be careful that the vulnerabilities they show don't make them seem incompetent, emotional or otherwise unworthy of their chosen achievement. We want quirky, not sloppy. This is even further heightened with women of color or queer women, who are facing a whole host of additional stereotypes to circumvent or overcome before they even take the proverbial stage. 

Needless to say, this doesn't leave women with much wriggle room. The phrase that keeps occurring to me is "artfully flawed," like a woman's projected image is a mostly-constructed statue with a sculptor ever-so-carefully chipping away at the veneer. Men are allowed to be idols, gleaming and unrealistic; women are forced to show off their cracks. But go too far, or let the hammer slip, and bam. Rubble. 

I suppose on the one hand, that Times piece was refreshing. Rather than tiptoe around questions of overexposure or personality clashes, the writer came out and said it: "Hating Martha Stewart is safer than hating your whole life."

But that article fell short, ultimately, because it didn't ask why. Women don't hate women in power because they hate their lives -- at least, not always. They hate women in power because as far as our society is concerned, a woman without flaws is a woman worthy of suspicion. It was true in 1996, it's true today, and, like it or not, it'll probably be true 17 years from now. 

Give us an apparently impeccable woman, and we'll automatically find ourselves reaching for a hammer.

 Kate is enumerating all her flaws: @katchatters