Enough With The Double Talk Already
I am a proud feminist, but I don’t wear my feminism on my sleeve. You will always find me enthusiastically encouraging, supporting, and celebrating other women’s successes, but TBH I have yet to participate in a pro-feminist rally or march. And I’ve never felt the need to write an Op-Ed style piece to decry sexism — that is until I read Michelle Cottle’s article on Chelsea Clinton in The Atlantic last week.
If I had to summarize Cottle’s article in one sentence, it would be: “Chelsea Clinton’s parents are mega-watt politicians and it’s hard for her to get out of their shadow.” Which is a fair, if slightly obvious, observation to make. And while Cottle discusses Chelsea’s academic and professional achievements, there is a subtext that undermines her at every turn by questioning her “neediness,” her authenticity, and hinting that she is an opportunist who, “maintains a wide buffer of privacy while enjoying the influence and access her fame confers.”
For several days after I read the article I felt irritated, but I couldn’t place my finger on why. Eventually I realized that the article is exemplary of a central issue in the feminist dialogue: That women are not held to the same standard as men (which, ironically, is something Cottle has discussed in the past). The tone of the piece suggests that Chelsea either somehow disappoints, is passive and/or weak, and suspiciously “poised” at every turn.
Soon, however, my self doubt seeped in. Being a “First Kid” probably sets up impossible standards for anyone, regardless of their gender, right? As an experiment, I looked up press coverage of the most famous first son of recent times, JFK Jr., to compare narratives. (Surprisingly, just 3 days after I wrote this he appeared on the cover of People Magazine!) Chelsea and “John-John” also share some interesting parallels: Both come from a lineage of powerful politicians, and both attempted to forge their own professional paths away from politics and their families. So, I was surprised to see just how different the press narratives are, especially when discussing similar endeavours. While there is enough material to fill a book, I am going to focus on just two examples here.
Firstly, let’s look at an area of professional opportunity where Chelsea and JFK Jr. overlap: journalism. On Chelsea’s 2011 NBC gig at Cottle writes, “Chelsea may be smart and diligent, but that’s not the only reason she got a post at NYU or a $600,000-a-year gig at NBC.” Many others also condemned her NBC post as an “unbelievably cushy fake job” and pointed out that she was a “rookie (with) no journalistic qualifications whatsoever.” I mean, the woman does have two masters and a doctorate, but, yes, no journalism degree, so I suppose the charges are fair enough. JFK Jr. had a gig in journalism too. He founded and was Editor In Chief of his own magazine, George, in 1995 with no journalistic training, education, or experience (he failed the bar twice, before passing on his third attempt). But, was his lack of experience an issue? It doesn’t seem so. He was praised for his humility in having “no pretenses about being an experienced journalist,” but because he “knew more about the realities of power and politics than (anyone) ever could” and the fact that “there probably wasn’t a single celebrity who wouldn’t return his call,” (Vanity Fair) he is an undisputed asset.
This is a clear double standard: Wasn’t Chelsea born and raised in politics, too? Doesn’t she also have amazing access and an unparalleled Rolodex? Aren’t people returning her calls? And this is comparing apples to oranges, but I have to admit that I scratched my head when I read that while Chelsea got a $600,000 salary, no one seems to have batted an eye that George publishing company, Hachette, was willing to spend $20 million to help make JFK Jr’s magazine turn a profit. Where were allegations of nepotistic privilege there?
My favorite example, though, is when Chelsea makes the choice to campaign for her mother or work for her parents’ foundation, the “extent this is the product of (the Clintons’) neediness or hers is unclear.” (Cottle). But when JFK Jr. supports his family and makes a speech at the DNC in 1988, he is described as “the ultimate postmodern politician – a blank canvas for fantasies of national identity.” How can it be that one first kid’s dependency issues are called into question, while the other becomes a beacon of (over-idealized) hope for an entire nation?
To be clear, I am not trying to say that JFK Jr. had it easier than Chelsea. Being a first kid, regardless of your sex, means endless public judgement and intrusions on privacy. What I am pointing to is the different ways we talk about achievement when it comes to men and women. Men unquestioningly deserve their success, but when it comes to women there are questions. These problematic double standards have a wider impact on how young girls and women understand their own successes. As Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in Lean In, the problem is not simply the external glass ceilings imposed on women, but women’s own internal glass ceiling – always questioning our own success, fretting about “deservedness”, and suffering from an almost chronic case of “Imposter Syndrome.” When this internal narrative is matched by an external, societal one, it’s virtually guaranteed to perpetuate discrimination and inequality.
Journalists, bloggers, and writers have a responsibility to investigate and question all public figures. But all journalists, and women in particular, should be keenly aware of when we’re needlessly perpetuating subversive and subjugating double standards for the sake of gossip.
Photo Credit: Winnie Au