The Limits of Excellence

A feminism based on lionizing hyper-successful women obscures the unjust structures that need to be dismantled.

Hillary Clinton boards her campaign plane at Pittsburgh International Airport on November 7, 2016. Justin Sullivan / Getty

Today, as narratives of female strength gain prominence, the celebration and promotion of successful women is increasingly identified with feminist politics. Brave and resourceful, saving rather than saved, these women are touted as the apotheosis of feminism. But if the valorization of women’s achievements fills a harmful cultural gap, it also risks turning feminism into a project of moral sorting and reward — ultimately obscuring, naturalizing, and enforcing the power systems it purports to challenge.

The equation of feminism with female superlativeness is not new.

From Mary Wollstonecraft’s complaints of learned weakness and dependency to the suffragette ideal of the New Woman, a recurring thread in feminist thought has posited that patriarchy does not merely exclude women from political participation, material security, or any other yardstick of social power — it also enforces a stereotyped passivity incapable of wielding that power. It not only exploits women, but shapes who they are. In this environment, personal excellence and self-assertion take on a feminist hue. They become a type of political action.

A substantial body of cultural product — backed up by research showing self-doubt, accommodation, and silence are drilled into young women — has arisen to provide just such a counter-narrative. Much of it is aimed at girls in their formative years. A Mighty Girl, whose tagline reads, “The world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls,” offers a list of independent princesses. Goldieblox encourages its pint-sized architects to dream of engineering degrees while they build rose-colored castles. Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party caters to — well, the smart girls at the party.

Similarly, on the big (and small) screen, powerful female characters are being framed explicitly as feminist heroines. Parks and Recreations’ Leslie Knope is no roundhouse-kicking warrior, but she is a nigh-unstoppable career politician and constant agitator for women’s advancement. In elated moments, she exhorts one mentee to think of the strong female role models in her life; her own office is filled with pictures of obsessively venerated female politicians.

Leslie, like the women she looks up to, is kickass because she is a feminist, and a feminist because she is kickass. No other show so neatly articulates the feedback loop.

Often, the narrative of the mighty woman straddles fiction and reality. When Hillary Clinton won the requisite number of delegates for the Democratic Party nomination, a tweet comparing her to Game of Thrones Daenerys Targaryen went mildly viral.

Clinton, whatever your opinion of her, is certainly an accomplished politician; her policies will directly shape the lives of millions. But nothing so banal drove the tweet or its popularity. It was Hillary as the nexus of a story: Daenerys Targaryen, breaker of chains; Hillary Clinton, breaker of glass ceilings. Powerful women are not simply powerful women, real and specific — they must be fictionalized, filtered through archetypes.

If we describe and understand real women in terms of their larger-than-life Strong Female TV counterparts, it is only the culmination of a media trend that links feminism to highly visible, often celebrity, icons. See Tina Fey and Amy Poehler shut down sexism. See Jennifer Lawrence call out the wage gap. See Maisie Williams explain why real feminists don’t need the label at all.

These women are plucky, charismatic, undeniably talented, and extremely accomplished. It is these qualities that make them trailblazers, glass ceiling breakers, luminaries — and it is on these qualities that their feminist utility depends.

Like the cultural products designed to empower, it is hard to find fault with such figures. Only the most knuckle-dragging Neanderthal would argue that a star of Jennifer Lawrence or Jodie Foster’s caliber deserves less money than her male co-star; only the most bizarre misogynist could find fault with Fey’s advice to young women about workplace achievement: “Don’t waste your time trying to change opinions. Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.”

As Williams says, “You’re either a normal person or a sexist.”

At the same time, this politics of female excellence — however broadly relatable and seemingly unobjectionable — exhibits a disquieting comfort with the status quo.

It wins arguments about justice by pegging them to deeply embedded assumptions about meritocracy. It demands no fundamental restructuring of the social order, but instead requests the equal application of the order’s logic. It shoots for a society free of artificial ceilings that stunt the smart, the brave, the driven, the powerful.

It elevates hyper-achieving avatars to principal spokeswomen. For if the message is “see what women are capable of,” the messenger will always be more important than the average woman, whether that messenger is a Hollywood star or a fictional badass. Both are exquisitely rendered mirages, apolitical blank slates ready for insertion into any narrative — including those less than conducive to female emancipation.

Here, for instance, is Camille Paglia writing about rape in 1992:

My position on date rape is partly based on my study of The Faerie Queen, as detailed in a full chapter in Sexual Personae: in 1590, the poet Edmund Spencer already sees that passive, drippy, naive women constantly get themselves into rape scenarios, while talented, intelligent, alert women, his warrior heroines, spot trouble coming and boldly trounce their male assailants. My feminism stresses courage, independence, self-reliance, and pride.

In a politics of female excellence, what matters most is not justice and its fundamental incompatibility with a population living in fear of rape, but the character of the women in question. Policies that support women and address concrete disadvantages are unnecessary: true feminism empowers women to overcome the disadvantages themselves. Indeed, policy change can be detrimental if it prevents women from realizing their strength.

This is often the rationale behind right-wing efforts to block mandated family leave. For example, following the introduction of the FAMILY Act, Carrie Lukas of the Independent Women’s Forum issued this dire warning: “Proposals like the Family Act create the expectation that women will disappear for three months at a time, making them seem less suitable for leadership positions.”

For Lukas, pushing society to value the feminized work of caring is less important than ensuring that women with the skill sets to reach the top of the capitalist hierarchy remain there. If anything, claim the Independent Women, we should be instilling these skill sets in more women: inferior negotiation and squishy liberal arts degrees are some of the main culprits behind the wage gap.

Some liberals, it seems, are also concerned that a certain feminine squishiness is holding women back. Last year’s Washington Post satire “Famous Quotes The Way A Woman Would Have to Say Them In a Meeting” was hailed not only as canny social observation, but feminist exhortation. Women shared it with pledges to be more assertive, to cleanse themselves of their shameful deviance from wholly rational, maximally productive, uniformly appropriate male speech patterns. Never mind the exploitative hostility of the American workplace: the pressing issue is women’s failure to be Don Draper crossed with a Nike commercial.

The political utility of female excellence lies in its ability to draw the eye away from social structures and focus it instead on individuals. For this reason, it has attracted feminists looking to popularize their agenda; for the very same reason, it will always be more effective in the hands of those who seek to thwart that agenda.

The excellent woman’s occlusive power extends not only to social relations, but to those living under them. A strong female heroine has many faces, but none are the waitress or retail worker, burying their pride to keep their livelihood; none are the battered women, returning to their husbands in an attempt to salvage what remains of the life they knew; none are the women giving birth in shackles or in hunted desperation; none are the ordinary women whose ordinary lives are senselessly blown to bits by US bombs or US companies.

None of us will ever “shut down sexism” or “smash the patriarchy,” because to the varying extent that it shapes our lives, it bruises, silences, shatters, starves, or kills. Like the moral equivalent of a bikini ad, the strong feminist role model promises utopia through the fruitless pursuit of an imaginary ideal. The very conditions that necessitate solidarity and collective action — impotence, weakness, puny insignificance compared to what we face — are, she tells us, what feminists lack or can overcome.

Oddly enough, this disconnect is itself the reason often given for venerating icons of female strength. Because so few women can succeed under current conditions, it is imperative to hold up and valorize the exemplary ones who can. Since power is not the function of a system’s distribution, but part of a desirable bundle of personal characteristics, its raw exercise is always worth cheering.

Thus, Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness does not constitute a feminist betrayal, but at worst a tradeoff between two feminist goals (on one hand, the lives of women in the Global South, on the other, Clinton’s advancement) that all politicians must sometimes make.

At best, it is something to celebrate.

If enforced meekness helps keep women subservient in the home, a glamorized toughness, devoid of any progressive political content, can transform them into useful dispatchers of predator drones.

In many iterations, a politics of female excellence is well-intended and probably helpful.

But a feminism centered on admirable women also hides the gears that run the social machine. It cannot interrogate the dubious bargains sometimes struck by woman who accrue power in a framework designed by and for wealthy white men. It can only nod approvingly as whatever the ruling class currently requires becomes synonymous with feminism itself.

Much has been written about daughters over the course of this election cycle. If I ever have a daughter, I wish a superabundance of virtues upon her: courage, wit, kindness, determination, cleverness, an ear for music, a life full of adventure. I will be very grateful, I’m sure, for A Mighty Girl, and all other efforts to open up a wider range of human experiences and capabilities for women.

But I also wish something else for her: a world in which feminist struggle means more than her personal qualities, and feminist liberation does not depend upon them.