A Woman Can Never Be Likable Enough

A Woman Can Never Be Likable Enough

From an early age, we’re taught to please men. What if we got angry instead?


I really thought we had come farther. Even Barbie says it: Girls can do anything. After all, we now hold the majority of bachelors’ degrees, occupy half the seats in medical schools and law schools, run businesses and universities, and sit in Congress. There are even three of us on the Supreme Court. But if you ask why men still run the world, the answer you’ll get back isn’t sexual harassment, male violence, or discrimination—the mere mention of which is deeply unfair, to men. The explanation instead is still some variation of the one Lisa Belkin gave in The New York Times Magazine in 2003, when she profiled a bunch of Yale alumnae who had given up their big-time jobs to become stay-at-home wives: because we don’t want to. We’d rather be moms and have work-life balance and do yoga and make cookies. Remember how outraged people pretended to be when Hillary Clinton said she would rather practice her profession, which was law, than bake cookies? Those damn cookies. It’s not the baking that matters, it’s that you feel you have to do it: to be a good woman, to prove that even if you’re a brain surgeon you’re still just a mom at heart.

These are the rules of The Patriarchy that the #MeToo movement has exposed: the education, extracurriculars, service projects, credentials—they were never what being a girl was all about. Being a girl is about pleasing men: What they think of you and want from you and how you negotiate that in a world that does not want to hear about the darker side of what that can mean. You can be a world-class athlete, like those Olympic gymnasts, and still be molested by your doctor—and nothing will be done about it for years. You can be fantastically talented and lose your career if you don’t play along with Harvey Weinstein or Les Moonves. You can get a unionized factory job with decent pay and still be groped and insulted by both your boss and your fellow workers. You can get straight As and a great job and still feel you have to give your date a blow job because he expects it, and it just seems simpler that way—and maybe safer, too. You wouldn’t want him to think you were a tease or a bitch. Because from the moment you were born, you were told in a thousand ways that men liking you was the real measure of your value in the world. And without even realizing you were doing it, you learned to make yourself likable. To attract men, to disarm them, to manage them, to comfort them.

This for me is the meaning of the Senate Judiciary Committee testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Whatever else a woman is—a PhD, a mother, a victim of a sex crime—the most important thing is that she be likable: attractive, relatable, unthreatening, nice. And Dr. Ford was so nice! Pretty—but not too pretty—educated, upper middle class, white, with glasses and a husband and kids and a house. She was just emotional enough—not detached, not “hysterical”—to conform to expectations about what a woman should look like when she tells the truth about being assaulted. She tried so hard to put those old reptiles on the committee at ease: joking in a self-deprecating way about her craving for caffeine, explaining the brain science behind her memories, as if they were all in the classroom together trying to figure out why a woman might remember that the two men assaulting her had laughed, but not remember how she got home that day.

Imagine if Dr. Ford were poor or fat or a woman of color. Imagine if she had had a rough divorce followed by numerous boyfriends. Imagine if she had written an article in Elle about her sexual fantasies, or her addiction to prescription meds, or her abortion. Others have said this, but it’s worth repeating that if Dr. Ford had behaved like Judge Brett Kavanaugh, she would have been dismissed as a liar and a crazy lady. Imagine if she had talked about how much she liked beer some 30 times. Imagine if she had displayed anger, hostility, arrogance, boasted about having gone to Yale, cried self-pitying tears, and thrown questions back in the senators’ faces, asking them if they ever had blackouts. Imagine if her high-school yearbook page were full of sexual slang and drinking innuendoes obvious to anyone who had ever been a teenager, and she had explained them away with obvious falsehoods. We would have said, well, that is exactly the kind of girl who was asking for it then and is lying now.

But because it is a man who did and said those things, it’s all copacetic. “He was an immature high schooler. So were we all,” said Senator Orrin Hatch. He coaches basketball; his little daughters prayed for “the woman.” Boys will be boys. It was a long time ago.

Does #MeToo have the power to change this narrative? Women’s anger is the topic du jour. Rebecca Traister’s brilliant and bracing Good and Mad could not have been published at a better moment and joins Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage on a lengthening shelf of books calling for women to own their righteous rage and use it to win justice. After Senator Jeff Flake said he would vote for Kavanaugh, two activists, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, confronted him in the elevator and in furious voices told him about their sexual assaults. “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Gallagher demanded. It was shocking and thrilling and, for the moment, it worked. Flake then called for a delay on the floor vote, pending a one-week FBI investigation.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Imagine demanding it. Imagine him looking. Finally.

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