I think that Penelope Trunk sometimes gives great career advice. I like that she values being lost, being open and honest, and making interesting mistakes on the way to finding an interesting and happy life. And even when I strongly disagree with her she never bores me.
She really pisses me off sometimes, but she never bores me. Until last week, when she basically tried to pass off “make it your life’s ambition to find and keep a husband” as groundbreaking life advice for women.
I debated posting about her “Blueprint for a Woman’s Life,” which is a plan she wishes she had followed between 18 and 45 and now wants to give to young (straight, educated, wealthy) women (who want marriage and kids with a wealthy man), because I think she’d loooooooove to have the attention of pissed-off feminists. But then I started reading all the blog comments that were like “OMG, this is the best and wisest thing that you could ever have said!” and then I Feminist-Hulked out.
Trunk argues that women should get plastic surgery to make themselves prettier and go to B-school right out of college to find smart, wealthy husbands (the MRS degree: it’s not just for 1965). Even though she thinks that gender-diversity is bad for startups (because she cries at work and is difficult to work with, ergo, all women cry at work and are hard to work with), women should try to find men to do startups with because men focus on work while women are distracted by their families. I guess all-lady startups will never get any work done, due to crying?
Among other things, she also argues that:
Let me interrupt this post to say thank you to my parents for not home-schooling me! I am so glad that I was raised by a badass woman who went to work every day and had a great career that made her happy, and who gave me the opportunity to learn from such a fantastic and smart and caring group of teachers without the emotional baggage of our constant mother-daughter power struggles!
Yay for teachers! Yay for working moms! Yay for stay-at-home moms! Yay for home-schooling! Yay for Feminism! Yay for choices!
Boo for another way to make women feel like shit if they don’t completely yoke their own lives to their children’s lives all day every day!
I now return you to Penelope Trunk’s list of what women should do.
I’d like to offer some suggestions to young humans that might help you live a happier life.
1. Fuck the research.
When it comes to most life choices, data points are not a prescription. There are many possible right ways to live your life, and playing a game of Family Feud where you try to figure out what most other people would do is not going to guarantee you a happy time on this earth.
Especially fuck the research when it’s presented as “Well, women don’t even want to do _____ because research shows that they really want to have families” and given as a reason not to hire women into competitive fields (that’s called discrimination).
This is literally the exact same sexist argument that people have given about why women can’t be (insert any career in the world that actual women now do). Doctor. Astrophysicist. Supreme Court Justice. And since it’s close to my heart, every year around Oscar time we get the very concerned “Why aren’t there more famous women film directors (even though now there are lots of women finishing film school and making shorts and features and generally doing excellent work that shows that women are just as talented as men in every possible way)?” article which eventually puts forward the argument that “Well, most women don’t have what it takes since they want to have families so they drop out?” even though there are plenty of men who both direct films and have children?
Let me just write next year’s article for you with my own blood harvested by Occam’s razor. “Why aren’t there more big women directors?” “Because: Sexism.”
Whatever the research shows (and however loudly it’s trumpeted when it confirms existing prejudices), it is only descriptive and cannot predict what any given person actually wants to do or should do.
When I hit a big dilemma, I ask myself “What will Old-Me wish I had done?” I picture Old-Jennifer, all grizzled and shriveled up, lying on her deathbed, turning over old memories. I try to choose the thing that will make her look back with the least amount of regret. It usually sends me towards challenge and adventure, though doesn’t mean that the safe choice is always the wrong choice. It doesn’t mean I never fuck it up. Mostly it means that she’s the one I’ve got to please. She’s the ONLY one I’ve got to please.
2. You look fine. No, you look great!
Whether and how much appearances *should* matter is obviously a subject of hot debate in feminist spaces. For the purposes of this post I’m going to accept that whatever face and body you were born with, fashion (clothing, hairstyle, personal grooming) is a means of expression and communication that *most* people can make *some* choices about.
If fashion and beauty are important and inspiring to you and you want to use them to express something about yourself or the world, rock on!
And if your workplace or chosen career has a dress code, you will do yourself many favors early in your career by a combination of figuring out how to make that dress code work for you to the extent that is is possible for you and doing work that is so awesome that people don’t care. If you obey the dress code, you will communicate to your bosses and clients and coworkers “You can trust me to get it and fit in here. Let’s focus on work.” And from there, choose your battles. Definitely fight ridiculous and harmful double-standards (like mandatory makeup for women, because the idea that our faces must be painted but men’s faces can be naked is just crap). Definitely fight for diversity and freedom of expression and for the right to be judged by the quality of your work.
That said, the less you ask yourself the question “Am I pretty enough?” and the less you think of attractiveness as something you must attain and perform before you deserve good things in life, the more personal power and freedom you will have and the happier you will be. Stop tearing yourself down. Stop tearing other people down. People who try to remind you that you are not good-looking enough are trying to get you to buy stuff or put bullshit in between you and the things you deserve from life. Don’t listen to them. Your face is a good face and your body is a good body. You look fine. Go do your thing.
3. It takes two to make a thing go right.
Boundaries and reciprocity are important in relationships. Your relationships (marriages, friendships, family, colleagues) will be better if you can learn how to directly ask for what you want from other people. Figure out what your needs and boundaries are and honor them. Communicate your expectations. If people are bad at communicating their expectations, ask them to spell it out for you.
One of the most powerful questions you can ask someone you’re disagreeing with is: “In a perfect world, where you get everything you want, how does this work?”
Make them spell out a positive vision rather than just picking part yours. Start your negotiations with the best case scenario.
And listen – you can compromise, you can forgive, you can tolerate, you can try to “make it work”, you can invest, but there is no way you can heroically “save” a bad relationship by completely effacing yourself and putting 100% effort into pleasing the other person. Don’t make yourself smaller to preserve a relationship. That shit is bananas.
4. Don’t make your happiness and economic survival contingent on your romantic relationships.
What disturbed me most about Trunk’s post was the extent to which she emphasized hunting for a successful man and then “keeping him happy” as strategy for economic security and happiness.
If it’s your dream to get married and have children, and you can’t imagine your life without them, then make it a priority for yourself absolutely without apology and look for partners who want the same thing. Feminism = choices, and I don’t think Trunk is entirely wrong to say that if you want to have children, make sure you choose it and make it a priority.
But also make sure you are exploring your own intellectual and creative interests in your 20s and at every age. Work really hard in school and get addicted to learning stuff and excellence. Make sure you become financially literate and can support yourself financially. There is no guarantee that you will ever find the right romantic partner. There is no guarantee that if you do, that love will last, or that you’ll be able to have kids.
I’ll admit that I am one of the women who thought “Bah, kids, whatever, it will happen eventually if it’s meant to happen” and did not make it a priority….and now I’m unexpectedly and suddenly single and 37 and I do not have kids. Which maybe I would have if I’d made it more of a priority? But I’m definitely glad I didn’t do that with any of my exes? And do I even want kids? I can’t lie to you – when I ask Old-Jennifer about it, she has awkward questions, like, “Who is going to visit us and change our adult diapers now?” and I have to say “I don’t know, Old-Me. I’ll try to at least make a lot of money so we can hire some hot young people to take care of us.” Ask again later, Old-Me, the reply is hazy.
And for the love of Mike, if you do decide to form a permanent pair-bond and become a parent, don’t just rely on “traditional” ideas about how to handle money and divide housework and parenting duties and assume it will work itself out according to some script. Don’t assume how it will be, decide how it will be. Write the script. Negotiate how you will handle money. Plan for what happens if the one partner becomes unemployed or unable to work, or if the relationship fails.
5. We can do better.
We can fight. We can argue. We can strive. We can win, or maybe we can lose really creatively and interestingly and still end up better than we were. We can risk.
We don’t have to accept or conform to a fucked-up status quo as a tradeoff for some promise of security and happiness.
If your dream is to be really pretty, marry a fellow b-school graduate, and work to keep your marriage happy while you homeschool your kids and try to figure out when to start your Botox treatments, go nuts! Feminism = choices.
I’ll be over here with Old-Me, looking forward/back on the times when we will be/were one hell of a film director.
In closing, readers, I think Penelope Trunk’s “blueprint for a woman’s life” is really narrow and small and not forward-thinking or cutting edge and all. It’s basically “be Betty Draper, but have an MBA and maybe start a small business to keep you interesting to your husband while you home-school your kids.”
So I’m curious to know, what does your Old-You wish you would do with your life? In a perfect world, if you get everything you want out of life and everything works out the way you want it to, what happens? What does your blueprint for humans look look like?