From tomboy to tiptoeing

I’ve been thinking about gender issues for a long time. Maybe my whole life. I’ve never been one to stay within the boundaries of what society has told me a girl should be. I guess I was a little bit of a tomboy. I had short hair most of my life, preferred sweatpants to dresses, had a Ninja Turtles birthday party in 3rd grade, and when I was able to pick an instrument to play, I went for the drums. In 5th grade when we were required to audition for the school musical, I said I wanted to be Christopher Columbus. Not because I wanted to sing the most songs (in fact, I have major stage fright) but because inside I thought, “It’s the best part. Why should it have to be a guy?” (I didn’t get to play Columbus, but instead was cast as Queen Isabella – the one and only female soloist.) I was freshman class VP, captain of my sports teams, and I loved rallying people together. In group activities I wanted to lead – not follow. I had strong opinions and I voiced them.

But something has happened to me as I’ve grown into an adult. Something I have only been able to grasp recently: I’ve changed.

I am not strong. I am not smart. I do not deserve success.

These are not things I say to myself in these exact words — but I tell myself them in other ways:

Don’t disagree with that — you might upset someone. Don’t say that — you might be wrong. You shouldn’t ask for that — you don’t deserve it. Don’t take credit for that — you’ll look arrogant. 

You might, you shouldn’t, you don’t… Where did the bold “I want to play the hero” ten-year-old girl go? Where is the know-it-all National Honors Society student hiding? Why do I keep telling myself a narrative that doesn’t make sense?

In high school I had a really tough English class. The vocabulary quizzes were notoriously difficult. One semester we had a TA who was learning to grade them and there was a pretty big discrepancy between ours and a section my English teacher had graded. My teacher asked for volunteers to turn back in their quizzes so he could see how the TA had graded ours. He promised that it was strictly voluntary and our grades would not be altered. I turned mine in, why not? The next day I was shocked to hear that my grade had been lowered ten points. My TA explained that she had miscalculated my grade, and my teacher had caught the error. I said, “You can’t do that, you said you wouldn’t change the grades.” The TA apologized saying that she had just added the numbers up incorrectly, it had nothing to do with my work. Of course, if I had not voluntarily turned in my test, no one would have caught the error. I looked to my teacher, indignant, and said, “You guys made a promise. It’s not fair.” I will never forget what happened next. My English teacher laughed at me in front of the TA and said, “I knew she’d react like that. It was a miscalculation, I’m not changing it back.”

It was over 15 years ago and my heart still beats like it did when I choked back tears running out of the room, and it’s not because of ten points on a vocab quiz. I stood up for myself and he laughed at me like what I had to say was foolish and predictable. He made me feel small.

I barely spoke again for the rest of the semester.

Had I been a guy would he have had the same reaction? Maybe. Did I ever think it had to do with being a girl? No. But today as I sit here, I wonder… did it? How many things like this have happened to me over the course of my life? How often has someone made a comment that made me feel like they only saw me as a girl? How often have I heard disparaging remarks about a woman who speaks her mind? Was it sexism? Can I put my finger on it every time someone is being sexist? If only it were that easy. We are surrounded by so much subtle sexism that we can’t even see it. He’s a pussy. She has balls. She wears the pants. Codes for weakness, strength, success; all defined by gender.

I don’t think things like this are done consciously. I don’t think that every time it happens it feels like sexism. No, it feels like something else. I feel shame (don’t speak out), guilt (don’t take up space), pain (I’m stupid). For a long time now I’ve been internalizing my feelings. I have felt like it was MY issue. MY inability. MY insecurity.

Recently, my brother-in-law sent me an essay published in Fortune Magazine written by Warren Buffett. It was about Katharine Graham who was CEO of the Washington Post. Buffett wrote about how he saw her struggle with the “fun-house mirror” he described that was put in front of her.

I told Kay that she had to discard the fun-house mirror that others had set before her and instead view herself in a mirror that reflected reality. “Then,” I said, “you will see a woman who is a match for anyone, male or female.”

I wish I could claim I was successful in that campaign. Proof was certainly on my side: Washington Post stock went up more than 4,000% — that’s 40 for 1 — during Kay’s 18 years as boss. After retiring, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her superb autobiography. But her self-doubt remained, a testament to how deeply a message of unworthiness can be implanted in even a brilliant mind.

I am shocked to hear when someone I see as so strong confesses self-doubt. I wonder what happened along the way in Graham’s life to give her that sense. Was it one instance or the cumulative effect of years of little things?

I don’t know when the ten-year-old girl who saw no boundaries between gender grew into a woman playing a part she didn’t audition for. But somewhere along the way, things happened (and continue to happen) to me. Some I can look to with complete clarity and say: that was a moment. Like when I was referred to as “the wife” and not “the producer” of a project my husband and I both worked on. Moments that made me feel like the most valuable thing I had to offer was my femininity. And even that – femininity – is something so complex and deeply ingrained in our culture I can’t tell the difference between what is really me, or if I’ve become what is expected of me. How much of this has been slowly, secretly, chipping away at me for 33 years?

It’s far too often I see women take a backseat role out of respect, or not wanting to rock the boat, or not wanting to make it about gender when it clearly is, or maybe as Warren Buffett says, because there’s something deeper ingrained in us. I know many women who hold powerful positions and are wonderfully strong voices and leaders. I know women who are still working their way to get to that place. I admire them and look to them for strength. But now I wonder… do they see themselves the way I do?

I work in the entertainment industry which has an embarrassing struggle with a lack of female directors in Hollywood. Why are women directing more independent films than big budget blockbusters? That’s the million dollar question. And I bet a million dollars the answer isn’t, “they just don’t feel like it.”

This needs to change.

Recently, thanks in large part to others paving the road ahead of me, I have started to vocalize my feelings. I have begun to share how I feel and all of the little, unpunishable things that have happened to me that make me feel small, less than, unworthy. I have started to speak out despite my fears of being told I’m wrong, or worse, laughed at. I have tried to remember who I was – who I am – as a voice, as a leader, as a woman. And what I have found is not shame, not judgement, nor guilt, but instead an overwhelming sense of alliance. I am not alone. It’s incredible (and frightening) how many women share my feelings and fears. We are a community.

More and more people are speaking out and there’s a soft rumbling. But it needs to get louder. Acknowledgement is only half the battle. We need to stop looking into a fun-house mirror. We need to stop losing women to themselves. We need to stop feeling guilty for taking up space. We need to stop internalizing what is an external problem. Because it IS a problem.

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