‘Be better’ & be secure in yourself’ — why bad advice for women is the worst
The Hollywood Reporter recently held its Women In Entertainment breakfast, with big industry names like Tina Fey and Megyn Kelly in attendance. At the event’s red carpet entrance, reporters lined up to grab interviews with the women. One question was asked repeatedly: “What is your advice for women?” The answers went along the lines of “be secure in yourself”, “trust your intuition” — and even literally “be better”. Apart from being bad cliches that have been rendered meaningless over time, if you really care about lessening disadvantage for women, this ‘advice’ is useless.
Such advice is really platitudes that fail to challenge structural disadvantage. Neoliberal feminism likes to focus on the ‘empowerment’ of the individual woman. You, just you, need to be better. It sells us the story that if each individual woman just improved her own circumstance, gender inequality would disappear. It’s an appealing story because it fits in with the stories we’ve already had pushed on us for decades: that we’re each an autonomous consumer who can have the perfect life if we work hard enough on ourselves. But sexism is systemic; if it disappears at your workplace because you ‘leaned in’, it won’t simultaneously disappear at your gym or your doctor’s office. Feminism, the struggle for the liberation of women, is a collective effort. It benefits the patriarchy if each marginalised person believes that they are on their own. Initiatives to stop gender inequality that only focus on advice for individual women are no help to women in the long run.
‘Be better’, ‘be secure in yourself’, ‘trust your intuition’ — these sound more like desirable outcomes than advice on how to get there. Kelly Rowland (of Destiny’s Child), when asked on the Women In Entertainment red carpet for her advice to women, said, “Women have the best intuition.” This is more of a cliched statement than advice, and it’s hard to read exactly what Rowland meant from only a few words. Out of all the unhelpful advice given on the red carpet, hers was certainly the least flippant. But ‘women need to trust their intuition’ is a sentiment I hear often repeated, and it has some icky implications.
In a world where misogyny is epidemic, who wouldn’t like to believe that you are somehow endowed with an intuitive gift that will protect you from it? But the idea that you just need to ‘listen’ to your intuition can push the onus back on women, and imply that you’ll be all good and disadvantage won’t happen to you if you have the right mindset and can tap into this sacred female infallible intuition. The unintended consequence is that women experiencing extreme disadvantage can read it as a coded message to them: You weren’t disciplined enough. The truth is, dismantling the patriarchy is not a task any individual woman can tackle alone.
That being said, I do believe that women and other marginalised groups develop instincts for survival that more privileged groups might not have to. Kelly Rowland, as a Black woman, would have had to learn how to navigate racism that her White equivalents didn’t. Instincts are built. Learning which of your feelings is intuition and which is habit and which is social conditioning — that is hard, hard work. Vague advice like “feel secure in yourself” is unhelpful because it compounds the shitty messaging that we’re already getting all the time — that we’re not enough, that we need to be constantly better, that our own behaviour is somehow to blame for our structural disadvantages. I believe that trusting yourself and feeling secure are excellent outcomes for which to strive. But how do you get there?
Good advice for women should start by looking outward first, inward second. It’s about building community and then organising within it. It’s where to find existing support services, tips for affording healthcare that doesn’t belittle women. It’s debunking myths we’ve long been told about our place in the world. But if genuine empowerment of women is your goal, these red carpet interviews would be better spent giving advice to the people already in power.
And perhaps that’s what Rowland was doing. Maybe her advice was really to the cis men in power: “Women have the best instincts.” “Greenlight more projects made by women for women about women.” “Mentor more women at your architecture firm so that there’s someone in the room to say goddamn, put some lights around that train station or there’s no way I would feel safe walking home from there at night.” “Seek out more women to join your political party so that when you’re voting on policy there’s more likely to be someone who can say, um, actually, I’ve had an abortion and that is not even remotely what happens during the procedure.”
It is pointless to tell women to “be better” in order to succeed within existing structures. These structures weren’t built with our success in mind, and that’s why we need to destroy them a little to make room for us.
This article by Kaitlyn Plyley was originally published at The Vocal.