I used to have an image of the woman I wanted to be. It was one perfect, still moment in time: I would be out on a deck (I would have enough money for a deck — also, presumably, a house to attach it to) in the early morning (I would get up early), drinking green tea (coffee being too harsh for my by-then serene personality).
This got very detailed. I’d be wearing yoga clothes — I would do yoga — and my hair would be messy yet perfectly untangled and gleaming. I was not wearing makeup, signifying that I was confident and low-maintenance, but I also had clear and glowing skin, the (high) maintenance of which I paid for with the same money I’d used to build the deck. I don’t know where I got the money. This imaginary me seems much too relaxed to have a job. I do know that she meditates, which must be a nice way to fill all the time she spends not working.
This image seems to have just popped into my head, inexplicably. But deep in my grease-encrusted, black-coffee-pounding heart, I know its origin. It floated into my mind in the late 2000s, along with a recommendation for hibiscus-infused salts, and never floated back out. The woman in my fantasy isn’t me. She’s Gwyneth Paltrow.
Paltrow and her lifestyle brand, Goop, were the subject of a recent, excellent New York Times profile by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. You can’t understand Paltrow without understanding Goop, in part because it started as her personal list of product recommendations. This makes Paltrow a very smart businesswoman, whatever else she might be. Goop’s premise is now the basis of countless Top Shelves. But it also means that Paltrow has spent the past decade marketing herself as the ideal to which other women ought to aspire. Paltrow’s business, Brodesser-Akner writes, “depended on no one ever being able to be her. Though I guess it also depended on their ability to think they might.”
In fact, the ideal that Paltrow is marketing isn’t a new one, nor is it specific to her. She’s selling a feminine ideal that has been part of women’s media ever since second-wave feminism made it taboo to publish articles about decorating to please your husband: The Effortless White Woman.
The Effortless White Woman is successful both personally and professionally. The Effortless White Woman is married, usually to a white man. The Effortless White Woman is a mother — she is not too barren or too busy with work to fulfill her feminine obligations — yet her children seem to raise themselves, to self-maintain, like potted cactuses. The EWW does not raise children—she enjoys them, is fulfilled by them. The EWW ponders her children, with great regret, as she goes off to work. The Effortless White Woman makes a kajillion dollars at work, so she must not ponder her children that much, because, unlike most women, her earning potential has not been compromised by them. The Effortless White Woman also enjoys and is fulfilled by her career. In between the time spent maintaining her children and her marriage and her job — this amounts, somehow, to endless free time — the Effortless White Woman finds ways to enjoy and fulfill herself.
The Effortless White Woman is the role I was trying to imagine myself into, with the deck and the yoga and the green tea. There’s been plenty of pushback against her — in critiques of supposedly low-maintenance “French girl beauty,” in the endless feminist discourse about skin care, in derision directed at Gwyneth Paltrow — but she remains stubbornly dominant, in part because she represents such a canny marriage of feminist principles with pre-feminist ideals. The EWW is still white, still wealthy, still straight and married and fertile and domestic and beautiful. But she is doing all this because she likes it. She is not trying to meet anyone else’s standards. She is doing what makes her happy, caring for herself, loving herself, except that doing so accidentally makes her beautiful and stylish in ways lesser women have to work to achieve.
This image, with its connotations of smug superiority, has always elicited resentment. I mocked Paltrow viciously for years, even as some barely repressed part of me wanted to become her. As far back as the ’90s, I remember my (sometimes-single, working) mother bitterly mumbling about Martha Stewart telling her it was “easy” to set aside the time and focus for ludicrously detailed three-hour crafting projects — and, in 2004, when Stewart was sent to prison, many women erupted in celebration. It was only after she’d been brought down a peg, through the prison sentence, that Stewart became the beloved figure she is today.
The most devastating reveal of the Times profile is that Paltrow intentionally harnesses this resentment and capitalizes on “cultural firestorms” (read: hate-clicks). Every time the press calls Paltrow an out-of-touch ice queen or mocks her gentrified New Age aesthetics, she earns converts. Brodesser-Akner captures Paltrow in front of a Harvard business class, coolly assuring them that “I can monetize those eyeballs.”
This seemingly leaves women stuck in the familiar, dreary bind always created by internalized misogyny: hating ourselves, and hating other women because they remind us of how much we hate ourselves, with only a few callous opportunists getting out ahead. But the anger under the Effortless White Woman has, of late, been transforming into something potentially illuminating—not deferred self-loathing, but an actual recognition of injustice.
Brodesser-Akner’s profile of Paltrow was released the same week misfortune befell another Effortless White Woman: Ivanka Trump, who is shuttering her clothing line after years of pushback and boycotts.
Prior to her father’s presidential run, Ivanka was a sort of low-rent Paltrow, who translated “aspirational” style into knockoffs available for purchase on Amazon, and who ran a “lifestyle” website where one story appears to be premised on the idea that people don’t know how to put seasoning on their food. She promoted an image of herself as a doting mother to preternaturally clean and quiet children, a businesswoman who could wear pastels to work without worrying that someone on the subway would spill coffee on her, a woman whose spotless appearance and eternally well-rested skin spoke to a bevy of uncredited domestic workers and beauty professionals just outside the frame.
But, as her father’s regime grew more monstrous, Ivanka’s “effortless” glamour became increasingly uncanny. She posed in an evening gown as people gathered at airports to protest her father’s Muslim ban. She paraded her superhuman mothering skills at important diplomatic meetings. She posted a portrait of herself cuddling her son at the height of the family separation crisis, finally leading late-night host Sam Bee to — wisely or not — call her a “cunt” in front of a live studio audience.
That anger is about more than Ivanka. Ever since we heard about that fatal 53 percent of white women who cast their votes for Trump, the public has been primed to see idealized, wealthy white femininity as the handmaiden of oppression. That bitter recognition has led to public outrage at all sorts of women, whether it be Louise Linton posing with a sheet of dollar bills, Taylor Swift conspicuously refusing to call out her Nazi fans, or, yes, Gwyneth Paltrow herself. Betsy DeVos just got her yacht set loose to wander the Ohio waterways. It’s rough out there.
Not every Effortless White Woman is equally guilty. There are important moral distinctions between serving as an apologist for the Trump regime and telling people to stick crystals up their vaginas. But the rejection of the EWW is an inevitable product of the populist moment. The careless sophistication women attempt to buy with Charlotte Gainsbourg–branded makeup or Gwyneth-approved supplements is primarily a marker of aristocracy — of whiteness and wealth worn lightly, of privilege so entrenched that the bearer doesn’t need to impress anyone in order to survive. That image has always lived next door to the veneration of white femininity itself, or to medieval hierarchies in which excessive paleness or ample flesh were “beautiful” because they showed that the woman who had them wasn’t tilling the fields. Many women are increasingly unwilling to venerate even glamorous privilege.
But the anger at the Effortless White Woman strikes at something deeper than the politics of the moment. It’s about womanhood, and about rejecting any vision of the world in which being a woman is easy. “Female anger” is almost a cliché these days, but it is safe to say that, since at least 2016, formerly apolitical women have come smack up against the brutality and unfairness that misogyny entails, the system that keeps them subject to violence and career derailment and the casual, daily diminution of their personhood at the hands of men. It’s become increasingly clear that life as a woman is dirty, stressful, unglamorous business, and to think that you can rise above with a little meditation and a juice cleanse has become laughable. When you live in a garbage dump, no amount of detoxing gets you clean.
The poreless glamour of a Gwyneth or an Ivanka seems more and more like a lie, and a harmful one, meant to indoctrinate us into the idea that everything could be easy if there weren’t something wrong with us. The woman I wanted to be, all those years ago, was just a mirror image of everything I disliked about myself — a deferred way of calling myself uptight, dirty, fat, ugly, lazy, poor. She represented, most of all, the idea that my unhappiness was my own fault, and that I could escape it if I would only transform myself into someone worthy of contentment.
Women’s relationships with feminine ideals will always be complicated and ambivalent; we live in a system designed to make women hate themselves, and most of us swing back and forth between punishing ourselves and lashing out at the impossible standards that make us feel so much self-loathing. In destroying the Effortless White Woman, we may only be paving the way for a new, equally impossible ideal to take her place. But if there is any lasting value in this moment — and I think there is — it comes down to the fact that women are rejecting the idea that happiness is an individual responsibility, or that we should aspire to inner peace when the outer world is a catastrophe. Women will be happy when we live in a world that supports women. It’s not individual effort, but collective protest, that will bring that world into being.