Everything I have learnt about being a successful woman I have learnt from the media. As a girl and now woman seeking an identity that will be approved, valued, even loved, I looked to narratives of women who espouse these things, and the media has always been instructive.
From Ship to Shore, to Dolly magazine, to the way the local newspaper wanted to style my photo when I was VCE dux of my school, the media have taught me there is a space to be successful as a woman in our society, (“Of course!” says society), but it is a specific space and I have to fit into it. Thin, but fit. Strong, but soft. Engaging, but not too serious. Intelligent but witty, ambitious but not overbearing, sexy not slutty nor arrogant, confident but not a bitch. Funny but not silly, gorgeous but can hang with the guys. Thin.
It is easy to learn how to become this girl: just look around! Stories of her and her success are everywhere, in the narrow narratives of women and the way their worth and successes are measured. Even more prominent are stories of who she is not. Those who try to espouse her and fail are our media and advertisers’ favourite tales to tell.
This week I learnt some crucial lessons from our media about how not to be a successful woman. Some might call them ‘revision’. Because they sure have been passed down the generations. I learnt a successful woman certainly doesn’t pass a judgement or express an opinion about a prominent man ("More sponsors dump Kyle Sandilands, as he denies being a woman hater", 24 Nov, The Age). If she did, national radio hosts might label her a ‘fat, bitter thing’ or a ‘little troll’.
These stories construct for us our collective notion of a successful woman. She is constantly malleable and amenable to external demands. Her function in our society is oppression: to ensure that the creation and negotiation of what it means to be a ‘success’ as a woman precedes our conscious choice, and hands us the perfect tool for self-criticism. And she is not going anywhere! Why? Because paralyzing women by persisting to serve up lessons about an impossibly successful woman? That sells! Not only papers, but face cream, washing machines, schools, banking products, holidays, insurance and yoga pants. Because If no other stories are available for me, the singular story is the most legitimate. It resonates, because it’s all there is for me to shape my ambition. Therefore I am supremely susceptible to buying and engaging it whatever it takes to help me embody that singular story, scrambling away from the domain of “fat slag”.
Who wants this? Not any man I know, nor any woman. However we accept it, such is our apathy towards the impossibly low standards of mainstream media. We have a responsibility to demand more - if not for ourselves then for the younger women watching and listening - and challenge the attitudes that underpin the content on our airwaves. Such as: that it is fair and legitimate for a man to pass judgment on national radio on the worth of a woman’s opinion based on her ‘titty’.
How do we begin to make the creation of each woman’s own version of success more conscious, and perceived as more legitimate, despite deafening opposition to stories that present anything outside the ‘successful woman’ paradigm? We must start conversations and attend events that promote the infinite ways of being a “success”. Authentic narratives of successful women are available via platforms that bypass mainstream media, such as videos shared online at TEDTalks. a nonprofit organisation devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading, started as a four-day conference in California 26 years ago. As creator and host of TEDxParkvilleWomen, an independently organised TEDx event, Friday 2 Dec Melbourne will host its own live program of local women, exploding the norm of the “successful woman”.
The energy I have spent trying in vein to become the media’s darling, this impossibly thin and perfect “successful woman” has curtailed my potential to dream and exhausted my soul. My body and mind have cried out ‘Is this who you really want to be?’ ‘You’re hungry!’, ‘You’re tired!’ But the media had the authoritative voice on how to be successful, and it does not allow space for my own version of success. Our daughters must not be told they can be anything they want, as long as they are pretty and skinny and submissive. They must have the mental and spiritual energy and capacity to live into their true potential. It is not some nice “fluffy feminine thing” to convene events where women share how they have managed to self-determine new and relevant narratives of success, to sustain and fulfil them and their communities. It is an imperative for the survival of future generations.