Our culture often still doesn’t know what to do with ambitious women who strive to be successful both personally and professionally, and many women are frustrated or confused as a result. Perhaps we need to go back to women like Ruth, Esther, and Mary for some insight and guidance.
Hollywood isn’t real life, but when real life (mine and the lives of the actors) and Hollywood converge it is great fodder for thinking and conversation. My husband Peter and I can’t stop talking about one of our recent date night movies, Up in the Air, the Oscar-nominated film (now out on DVD) starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga.
IMBD’s description of the film: “With a job that has him traveling around the country firing people, Ryan Bingham leads an empty life out of a suitcase, until his company does the unexpected: ground him.”
My oversimplified movie description: Ryan Bingham has a mid-life crisis.
But I’m not so focused on Ryan Bingham (that’s for another post). What I am still thinking about is how I was drawn to Alex Goran, played by real-life mom and wife Vera Farmiga. Alex is a strong, confident, beautiful, sexy (but not slutty, for the most part), successful, intelligent business woman whose opening exchange with Ryan had me and Peter talking about power dynamics into the wee hours of the morning. (Peter and I really are a fun couple.)
Women have a different balancing act than men, especially in the corporate world, in terms of how they communicate through their words, body language, and even the way they dress and carry their sexuality. Times are changing, but Equal Pay Day, when women finally catch up to what men earned the year before, still isn’t until April 10, 2010. We’ve come a long way, but it’s still not a level playing field, which is in part why the length of the skirt, firmness of the handshake, and awareness of the hair flipping matters. You may not agree with the rules, but there are rules. Changing them means knowing them first.
As a Christian woman who works in the tension of a management position in a Christian missions organization, my concerns and thoughts on “dressing for success” can either be dismissed as being superficial and too concerned with “the world,” or hijacked by important and related conversations about women’s roles, marriage, and parenting (and then get into the messier conversations about whether or not a mom should get a paycheck for her work, whether or not a woman can lead other men over the age of 18, whether or not women can be women without tempting men) while ignoring the obvious truths. God gave all of us, men and women, more than one sense in which we interact with the world and, therefore, people. Sight gives us literal lenses through which we make judgments and assumptions. Hearing allows us to interpret tone and volume and pace. Even smells, touch, and taste play into the ways we interact with one another and how that affects success and effectiveness. Again, understanding and awareness are not the same as agreement with said rules.
Successful women are often portrayed in both Hollywood and real life as the “byatch.” The stereotypes are easy: successful women essentially act like men but happen to have breasts or they are women who have used their breasts to gain access. Even in Scripture we have to wrestle and understand the cultural norms and stereotypes of women as we interact with Ruth and Naomi, Queen Esther, that virtuous and hardworking woman in Proverbs 31, and even Mary the mother of Jesus along with the unnamed sinful woman and the woman at the well. When Bible teachers and trainers are asked to teach on leadership, where do they turn? I turn to those women.
The reality is a balancing act of trying to embrace our leadership, our femininity, and our voice alone and alongside men. Personally I struggle and am confused when colleagues describe me as being “motherly” and describe other male colleagues as “pastoral.” I don’t want to be overly vain and concerned about my appearance, but I’m not going to pretend that my appearance doesn’t matter to others or myself.
Which is why I found Alex as a character fascinating. Alex, from what little we know, is neither a man with breasts nor a “byatch.” When the younger female character Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick, is in crisis, Alex listens and speaks frankly without cattiness. Alex is a woman who has, in some sense, arrived in the corporate world and in mid-life, unlike the younger Natalie. Alex was a woman comfortable with her sexuality, success, and choices, and Natalie was still struggling to figure out what her choices would be, how she would view success, and how her gender would play into those choices.
Twenty years ago I was Natalie, and I suspect I would not have resonated with the movie or the characters in the same way, which is why I say rent Up in the Air. Hollywood gave me 109 minutes of entertainment and lots about reality — past, present, and future — to think about.