I’m researching an article on popular culture, powerful women, femininity and ambition at the moment, which sparked a very interesting (45 comments and counting) conversation on my Facebook wall today.
Does Hollywood portray successful woman as bitchy, regretful or lonely, while its loveable heroines are shoehorned into more traditionally feminine professions (like, say, Kristen Wiig’s cupcake shop in Bridesmaids)? And if so, how does that impact our own ambitions? Are we defining ambition in the wrong ways in the first place?
As usual, I think it’s… complicated. I don’t think women are hated on for being successful. If anything, I think it’s part of the ideal that we’re all “supposed” to live up to these days: beautiful, thin, great shoes, cute family, glittering career. But I also think that success is supposed to come easily, something that is bestowed upon you because the powers that be couldn’t help but notice your innate fabulousness.
To try is unseemly. Mostly because it means admitting you wanted something in the first place. It also suggests a certain level of ego: that you thought you were worthy of the thing you wanted and went after it, instead of letting someone else decree your worthiness and hand it to you.
As one young woman is quoted saying in this excellent Elle article from 2010: “There’s this attitude that if you’re a girl, there’s a limit on how much success you’re allowed. When I was nominated for a major award, the friends of another candidate went around telling people that they shouldn’t vote for me because I already had ‘too much’; I was the editor of the school paper and had been accepted early decision to Harvard. So the other person won.”
But I don’t think ambition has to be a bad thing. Ambition doesn’t mean thinking you’re better than the people around you, or walking over them in order to get your own way. Or at least, it shouldn’t mean that.
Ambition is about figuring out what makes you feel alive, and going after it wholeheartedly: whether that’s opening your own cupcake shop (I don’t know why that plot point was ever cast as “unambitious” - starting your own business is no easy feat), transforming people’s lives or the world around you as an activist or social worker, heading up an investment bank, being a top thinker in your field, or building an amazing, tight knit community of friends and family.
I also don’t think downplaying our accomplishments does anyone any good. Pretending things happen effortlessly only makes it harder for people to follow in our footsteps. Far better to say, “This is how I did it, and how you can do it, too” than to act coy and say, “Oh, little old me? I don’t know how that happened at all!”
Related: She who tries, wins.