(Originally published on 9/16/17 in The Buffalo State Record.)
The word “likeable” has been making headlines recently with some women starting to shy away from this paradoxical label.
Reese Witherspoon, an actress that Vanity Fair described as “extremely likeable” and the smiley face of many mid-2000’s romantic comedies recently shut down the term in an essay about female ambition for Glamour magazine. She said she was “allergic” to the word likeable and that she “wants to change the perception that ambition is an ugly quality in women.”
Witherspoon also cited a Columbia study “that concluded that a woman with ambitious traits seemed selfish and less worthy of being hired than a man with the same traits.”
Why is ambition deemed so undesirable in women? Before I delve into the very obvious and relevant political example that everyone and their mother is sick of reading about, I’ll provide a few more pop-culture examples.
Let’s think about movies that portray women as having a high-power, corporate or socially important career. So progressive! Until you watch the woman’s entire life crumble around her in pieces because her seemingly neurotic and baby-fever self can’t handle the stresses of a busy career, love life and budding family.
If you need examples see; I Don’t Know How She Does It, The Intern, The Devil Wears Prada, The Holiday… there are many more, this was a popular story arch after Hollywood decided not all female roles had to be squirrely secretaries and doting mothers.
I’m going to be candid for a minute, I love those movies. Ever since I was a kid, I would watch those beautiful, stylish, wicked-smart women excel in their careers and while their personal life crumbled the only thing I would think about was “yeah but who cares, she works at Vogue!”
And that’s not really that healthy, is it?
While these are just movies, life imitates art imitates life. These movies reflect and portray deeply held sexist stereotypes and social norms that are engrained in our work-life culture. These movies reflect the notion that even if women work so hard that they make it to the top, there awaits a double-edged sword making the woman choose career over family. Why not show women living peacefully in harmony with both? Unrealistic or just bad for ticket sales?
A recent Harvard study found that a majority of female Harvard M.B.A. students “downplayed their ambitions and avoided acting to enhance their careers if they thought that might torpedo their marriage prospects with classmates or co-workers.” These women, students at one of the most elite colleges in the world, feel they need to suppress ambition in their work life to make gains in their personal life.
It hasn’t been that long, in the grand scheme of 60 years, that women have been an integral part of the workforce. And while we’re kicking ass (71% of American women are enrolled in college) there is still a lot of work to do (as of 2013, secretary was still the #1 job for American women, only 5% of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs, and women make up a mere quarter of Congress).
This brings us to Hillary Clinton.
If I had a vote in a swing state for every time someone answered “I don’t know… I just don’t like her!” to the question of what is so wrong with Hillary Clinton she probably would have defeated Trump in a landslide.
Hillary has been very open since the election about the role sexism played in her loss. Many things have been written deeply exploring this topic, so I’m going to focus on just one aspect: likeability.
What is most unique about female ambition and likeability is that it is an impossible paradox. Women must prove that they are competent and tough enough to handle the pressure that comes with the job, yet also be bubbly, friendly and not step on anyone’s toes. We have to be smart and tough… but not too smart and tough where it comes off as “frigid” or “bitchy.”
People compared Hillary to their nagging mother. Yet Bernie could yell and wag his finger all he wanted and he was everyone’s adorable grandpa?
There are legitimate reasons that people did not like Hillary Clinton. Maybe they hold Republican ideals, or liked Bernie’s more leftist ideas, or bought into the media’s disproportionate blowout of the email scandal. But it is nearly impossible to deny that her gender played a significant role in the election.
People may not think that gender directly influences their perception personally because maybe it consciously doesn’t. But we all live in the same country with the same social norms, stereotypes and stigma that infiltrate through everywhere from bias media coverage to ideas about women people learn from their parents. None of us are immune to these.
It is hard to do your job well and smile the whole time. Figure skaters, network TV show hosts and toothpaste models do this well. Women with positions of power shouldn’t be expected to.