I’ve been watching the show Episodes recently—a dirty, funny, well-written lambasting of Hollywood. One of the characters, a TV network executive named Carol, is a complete train wreck. For five years, she has dated the head of the network, Merc, who barely acknowledges her existence, even during their most intimate moments. Carol is beautiful, successful, and miserable because she is devaluing herself by staying in a demeaning relationship.
And then, one night, Carol has enough. Merc has recently lost his job, and Carol was offered the position but turned it down because of her relationship with Merc. She believes that Merc is finally going to leave his wife. When Merc says that he can’t leave her now, not without a job, Carol, who is driving them in the rain at night, stops the car. “Get out,” she says.
When Merc protests, Carol screams, “GET! OUT!”
Merc gets out of the car, and Carol drives off.
This vignette illustrates a question I’ve been asking myself: What will it take?
What will it take to instigate change? What will it take so that we don’t live in a culture in which women are paid less than men, accept objectification as synonymous with empowerment, and generally take what patriarchy dishes out?
The Confidence Conundrum
Many writers are asking this question. A common diagnosis is a chronic confidence problem among women. Women are notoriously lacking in confidence, and female self-esteem plummets as girls enter their pubescent years. This lack of confidence affects every area of life: asking for more money at work, taking control of finances at home, believing in our innate abilities and our agency as human beings, accepting and loving our bodies just as they are, ensuring that we live in a culture in which we are valued rather than devalued.
The books I’ve read take different tacks as they urge women to act with confidence. Gloria Feldt gives women new ways to think about power in No Excuses. Suze Orman lists the qualities of a wealthy woman in Women and Money, and those qualities are all about inner confidence, not outer appearances. In How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran asks us to embrace our bodies as they are, and to recognize that patriarchy has run one hell of a number on our heads. This is all excellent advice, and I have applied some of it in my own life. Some of it is also advice I’ve given, and will continue to give.
But to build inner confidence while battling demeaning cultural messages that have a way of getting inside our heads—well, that can be a losing battle on some days. We are presented with a chicken-and-egg dilemma: a culture that values women would create women of confidence, and yet we cannot have a culture that values women unless women of confidence—alongside like-minded men—create it.
The Victim’s Wisdom
But hang on a minute.
What if confidence isn’t the only problem? What if, related to but separate from confidence, women don’t think they can—or should—advocate for themselves?
Can someone who isn’t confident advocate for herself?
Carol did—sad, no-confidence, gorgeous doormat Carol kicked Merc right out of her life. That was awesome. Of course, it was on TV, that notorious land of exaggeration.
But I think there is insight here, exaggeration or no. Carol was advocating for herself because she’d finally had enough. She’d been building up to it for years, by putting up with circumstances that denied her inner worth. Some people live their entire lives doing that, and cultures go through centuries of keeping one group or another down, living an outer life that denies their inner worth. But eventually, something snaps, and people are done. Slavery ended. The Civil Rights movement happened, and change followed. Incomplete, stop-and-go change, but sweeping change nevertheless.
There is more on the way, because women—confident or not, ready to advocate for themselves or not—are being devalued.
The question remains: What will it take? When will women finally reach the point at which, en masse, we have had enough?
This I cannot answer. Perhaps I won’t even try.
Instead, I will encourage the rising of the Self. The rest will follow, in its time.
For the past few years, completely separate from my feminist work and yet deeply intertwined with it, I have been working in a spiritual book by Carolyn Myss entitled Sacred Contracts. The book, which is informed by the Jungian theory of the collective unconscious, posits that we each resonate with twelve archetypes: eight we choose ourselves and four that are universal. One of the universal archetypes is the Victim.
We have all been a victim—of pain, of circumstance, of others, of our bodies. Ms. Myss dubs the Victim the guardian of self-esteem: when a person has had enough, she must say, loudly and clearly, “Enough!” This does not mean that, if a victim has not spoken out, she is responsible for another’s hurtful behavior. No, that’s not the lesson at all: we are all responsible for ourselves. But within the experience of victimhood lies the wisdom that we must tap into: the wisdom of advocating for the self.
This wisdom isn’t intellectual: it is blood-deep, and soul-deep. It speaks from the pain of injustice, and says, “GET! OUT!”
Then the real work begins: keeping your word to yourself. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Carol and Merc, but I bet he’s gonna come crawling back to her. I just hope she stands by the cry of her internal Self, and refuses to resume her victimhood.
These are lessons of the soul, and lessons of the world: the two are intertwined, and we will learn them again, and again, and again.
We will learn them until we are free, and whole.