It was past 12 A.M and the tone of my conversation with my friend had shifted into something deeper. With hesitation and a lot of vulnerability, she admitted to me, “I don’t have any ambitious academic goals or career goals. I just want a big, happy family. But you are the only person who knows this, I am afraid of the way people will see me.” The cogs and the gears of the successful woman archetype have been turning in my head ever since. Here, I attempt a haphazard explanation as to why my friend and countless others feel afraid of not having career goals or a set plan for the future.
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The turbulent history of one Feminism began with women demanding the right to vote, property, and children. These women desperately felt the need to escape the suffocating silence of the house. In the 1900s, the wars opened up opportunities for women. Urban cities expanded beyond man’s imagination. Suddenly, women were kept out of these public spaces. They rebelled and fought their way through patriarchal norms and values to make a space for themselves. As time slowly shifted to the 21st century, women became city wanderers. They made noise, they made their presence known, they were independent earners and, above all, they were strong, powerful feminists.
However, the problem with global, legacy movements like Feminism is that it eventually becomes one-sided. People derive their own interpretation of it and this interpretation is never inclusive. Consider the white women who started the rebellion; They were not attuned to the needs of Asians, African, Hispanic, or LGBTQ+ women. Their feminism only resolved the problems of their ethnic class. Even today, feminism is a very selfish movement regardless of all the good it has done. The societal pressures of Feminism force women to conform to the standards of what I term the ‘successful woman archetype’.
There might be a lot of variety in the images this phrase summons to our minds. But the most generic one is possibly a woman who:
- earns her living
- maintains a strict work-life balance
- parties with her friends
- has a happy relationship with her significant others
- and, who travels the world
Sure, a few names also come up, but most of them conform to the image I’ve described. We tell women to follow their dreams, accomplish their goals, and inspire the younger generation. But ‘following their dreams’ mostly refers to following ambitious career goals and carving out a niche for themselves in the highly competitive academic/professional setting. How many parents will be okay with their little daughters saying that they would like to become a good mother instead of a doctor or an engineer or writer or a lawyer?
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This loophole is where Feminism has failed us but it cannot be blamed. The rights the women of the past had fought and died for are what we are enjoying right now. Appreciating anything less than the ‘successful woman archetype’ is probably looked at as the reverse evolution of Feminism. We need to fix that because when we say “go follow your dreams” to a little girl, we need to mean, “go be whatever you want, a mother, a housewife, a caretaker, a pole dancer, a lover, a doctor, a model, a writer, a teacher, anything really”.
Representation of Women in Cultural Products
Another phenomenon that maintains the ‘successful woman archetype’ is the representation of women in cultural products such as films, books, and media. The stories we tell also depict the story of our culture. There has been a recent trend in storytelling, the evolution of the ‘strong, independent girl’ trope. Usually, she is seen as a free-spirited, urban girl who is sex-positive, open to drinking and drugs. A feminist who works with male colleagues and is obviously the leader of her group. It is used in many films such as Pretham 2, June, Luca, Kochirajavu, and Bachelor (among many others). There is absolutely nothing wrong with these women, but the problem lies with the trope.
It immediately isolates one group of women as desirable and successful, thus eliminating the rest of them from the race. Think of how many films or television shows you have seen where a woman who has lost everything builds herself up through her career or academic goals, makes a six-figure salary, and earns back respect from the society who had shunned her. I am sure there are many, right? What about movies that show a girl encouraged to become a mother or a housewife fostered by her parents? Can you think of many? The very thought of a film like this is quite repulsive and this is because we are all taught to be ‘successful’.
Role of Generational Trauma in the Successful Woman Archetype
Generational trauma fosters the ‘successful woman archetype’. Our mothers and grandmothers probably wished for a more fulfilled life, one where they could escape the smoke of the kitchen and wander into the streets or work and earn themselves a living. Many of them could not. Traditional, mainstream feminism did them no justice, so they found their smaller, quieter ways of rebellion. We, their daughters and granddaughters carry the weight of their legacy along with ours. They’ll tell us to make a life for ourselves, one where we pay for ourselves and stand equal to men.
Sometimes, the advice takes the form of aggressive pushing towards picking well-paying careers, other times, it is about doing a masters or a possible PhD before entering the marriage market. Sometimes it is a conversation in the kitchen when she tells you about her unfulfilled life, how she wants you to do better. See the pattern here? Their advice comes from a place of hope and love. But it is also their generational trauma and bitterness disguised as concerns for the next generation’s future. However, as Khaled Hosseini claimed in his novel The Kite Runner, “Children aren’t colouring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favourite colours.”
What Can You Do?
The question stands, what we can do about this. The answer is pretty simple, but its implementation is not. Make feminism more inclusive, more open to perspectives, to the desires and the needs of women from various walks of life. For a more inclusive feminism, the representation of women in media must also change. Show all types of women, a woman can be both academically brilliant and still have no desire to be part of academia. She can be a mother of seven and a successful business owner too. She can be a chef and a PhD scholar. Representation lies in multitudes and we need to manipulate that. One needs to remember, success is not a collective term for the society to define and impose, it is an individual rating scale with different criteria for different people.