So I hear women have a confidence problem. Claire Shipman & Katty Kay, authors of the 2009 book Womenomics, claim that (at least part of) what’s holding women back is their lack of confidence. Tracy Moore and Jessica Valenti posted excellent responses, sharing the criticism that a lack of confidence may be more of a symptom than a cause of the disparities between male and female success in the workplace. Valenti writes, “The “confidence gap” is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured.”
Well, as I write this, I am plugged in to a playlist of every Lip Sync for Your Life song ever performed on Rupaul’s Drag Race. If ever a playlist was designed to inspire confidence, it is this one–drag queens, of course, know a thing or two about confidence. But when I think about the confidence game played by women in the workplace, I can’t help but think of my other favorite pageant show, Toddlers and Tiaras. Last night I dozed off to a particularly good episode. If you haven’t met season 3’s Brenna yet, winner of a Living Doll Supreme title, you are in for a treat. Anyway, I love watching these two distinct forms of pageantry–that of drag queens and of child beauty queens–equally much, despite their differences. I think there’s a yin and yang to the triumph of drag and the horror show of child beauty pageants. It is somehow nourishing to my being. One shows me what heights of fabulosity are achievable in this world. Ru’s queens are unspeakably amazing. The other shows me resistance in the face of attempts to deny this fabulosity. 90% of Toddlers & Tiaras is the little girl acting up while her parents attempt to regain control.
After watching professional drag queens going to great lengths to put together their amazing runway looks, you can’t help but feel for the toddlers who are primped and prodded for hours and then must smile stiffly down the runway. Some love the glitz, but many don’t, and you root for these ones, lest their spirits be crushed by the weight of rhinestones, spray tans, false teeth, and most of all, the reek of their parents’ vicarious dreaming. Where drag queens mock femininity and in so doing, celebrate our rights to be ourselves, these poor kids are being shoehorned into femininity whether they like it or not.
I’d been thinking of the kind of confidence and poise exuded by, say, Bianca del Rio or Adore Delano. And I’ve been comparing it to the confidence and poise of Brenna. Madison. Kaylee. Mackenzie. As Mama Ru said, “Ego loves identity. Drag mocks identity. Ego hates drag.” Pageants, on the other hand, seem designed to stroke parental egos. Children’s identities are suppressed in favor of the Living Doll ideal. What a drag queen does is defy expectations; a child beauty queen is desperately molded to conform to them. Drag queens have spent their lives sticking up for their right to look fabulous. Child beauty queens are too young to be aware of all the flavors of fabulous they have a right to express. These appear to be two very different flavors of confidence.
So when yet another Atlantic piece on gender disparities comes out, this time blaming them on women’s lack of confidence, I’m inclined to ask what sort of confidence they mean. Drag queen confidence says fuck your standards, I’m going to do me. Beauty queen confidence says man, I am totally nailing your patriarchal standards right now, aren’t I? Valenti likens the kind of confidence promoted by Shipman & Kay to a “Lean In meets The Secret” mindset. Shipman & Kay are peddling the same “All you have to do is ask for it–it worked for me!” schtick that’s been mansplained to us a thousand times. If only women would be pushier, like men, we’d be doing fine! Trouble is, we all know what happens when you dare flash that drag queen confidence that says you’re worth something no matter what anyone else says. You get Hillary Clintoned, that’s what happens. You’re aggressive. You’re bossy. You’re a bitch. You’re all of the things all of the men at the top had to be to get there, and you’re wrong for it.
When women find themselves confronting the catch-22 of being labeled bossy when they are confident, and falling behind when they aren’t, I’d say it seems unlikely that the confidence gap is really the causal wellspring of all the other gaps. What we have on our hands is more of a confidence trap than a gap. As with a Chinese finger trap, maybe instead of pulling incessantly, hoping our confidence will get us out, we should pause to examine the construction of the trap. There are forces at play in the average person’s life that even the most radiant confidence can’t overcome. And while I will be the first to say that I am lucky as hell and work in an environment that is mercifully kind, comfortable, and supportive, many people aren’t so lucky.
For instance, you might have a harder time finding a mentor if you’re not a white male. Turns out, people want to mentor people similar to themselves. And it’s not easy to find the confidence to make your voice heard when you don’t see voices like yours in positions of power, when they’re not encouraged, when no one is jumping at the chance to take you under their wing.
And did you know that the wage gap begins with children’s allowances? Turns out boy chores are just worth more than girl chores. Maya Dusenberry, executive editor at Feministing, argues, “This particular gap is not just about pay disparities. It’s about how we reproduce a capitalist culture that refuses to account for women’s unpaid household labor and systemically devalues any of the important work — like domestic work and care work — that women have traditionally done for free.”
Bryce Covert at ThinkProgress points out, “Asking girls to do more chores without paying them teaches both genders that women are meant to do unpaid work.” This leaves an insidious imprint on the psyche, kicking off a process that continues well into a woman’s prime Leaning In years. The pull of the unpaid work they’ve come to think of as theirs will at some point catch up with them in the form of lost productivity at work, and drip, drip, drip goes the leaky pipeline.
Women face loads of messages, both implicit and explicit, that denigrate them or attempt to constrain the measures of their value to a narrow mold (usually shaped like tits and ass). It is likely the case that women’s lack of confidence is an adaptive response to these messages. When you’re not taken seriously, you are made extra aware of the fact that the universe doesn’t owe you any favors, and you approach your aspirations in an appropriately crouched posture.
But in the arena of increasingly deregulated capitalism, it pays to be confident. To convince people you know what you’re talking about. To get people to invest in you whether you’ve got the goods or not. To get ahead, we’re told to fake it ‘til we make it. ‘Til we make what, exactly? It occurs to those of us accustomed to a modicum of caution in our lives that it is probably not a great idea to aspire to the levels of overconfidence that seem to come with maleness (or, really, with the top level of any power gradient).
Relying on a policy of baseline overconfidence, puffing out our chests and building castles in the air on foundations of bluster, is what gave us the Bush years, ladies and gentlemen. There is no substitute for Colbert roasting Bush here:
My name is Stephen Colbert, and tonight it is my privilege to celebrate this president, ‘cause we’re not so different, he and I. We both get it. Guys like us, we’re not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir?
That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.
Now, I’m not saying there’s no role for gut. Skepticism all the way down is an untenable stance. You can question all you want, but at the end of the day, you won’t get anywhere without the basic faith that the ground in front of you will still be there when you step on it. And so maybe confidence is useful for getting shit done. You’ll never get anything done if you never rely on your gut.
This is certainly the upshot of David Burns’s hugely important book Feeling Good, in which Burns brings cognitive behavioral therapy to the masses. He teaches tricks for taking negative, self-critical thoughts and “talking back” to them with positive rebuttals. But, interestingly, he describes the negative thoughts as “automatic thoughts.” For many people, especially women, these self-doubting thoughts are the default, and it takes work to counter them. This book is number 3 on Amazon’s list of Top Ten Self-Help books, whatever that means. It’s quintessential. It’s a big deal. Lots of people have benefited from this technique of “talking back” to their inner critic. Which begs the question: Why are our positivity muscles so underdeveloped? Why do so many people need a book to teach them this skill? And might women be particularly in need of a confidence booster?
Something like confidence–suspending your self-criticisms long enough to get shit done–is important for individuals, of course. But it only advances you as far as circumstances allow. As Valenti puts it, “You can’t self-help away deeply-ingrained structural discrimination.” Making it about confidence is a bit like telling women to smile, honey. Because the smiling isn’t supposed to help us, and neither is the confidence. It’s decorative, covering up the nasty truth that we’re only valued when we smile and nod and prop up the status quo.
Making it about confidence merely places the responsibility for overcoming systemic oppression squarely on our crouched, obsequious shoulders. It fails to account for the very real disparities in opportunities that result when women’s voices and work are systematically devalued. The catch-22 faced by Hillary-like women of the world shows us that it can’t be about confidence, because they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Do gaps like the wage gap exist because we don’t believe in ourselves enough to close them, or might this be a mislaying of blame that distracts from the more salient obstacles at hand–plain old sexism and unfettered capitalism? Maybe a system that rewards empty promises and hucksterism is a broken system that should be questioned.
So there are two things wrong here. We don’t value women, and do value overconfidence. It seems that until labor is divided and valued equally between the sexes, children won’t grow up receiving equally encouraging messages about their potential. Adult women won’t have developed the balls they need to take risks, speak loudly, and refuse to apologize, because their contributions aren’t valued. And so they’ll be right in erring on the side of caution.
In the meantime, we just may run ourselves aground if overconfidence prevails. It might be time to consider ways of valuing humility and caution rather than getting everyone to be their most Icarus-like self. We need to open our eyes and ears long enough to see the ferocity of the queens that walk among us, rather than trying to constrain their worth to suit outdated ideals–the beauty queen, housewife, the mother, the secretary. I don’t want beauty queen confidence, I want drag queen confidence. I want the kind of confidence that becomes possible when we value people for more than their ability to conform to patriarchal norms. It’s time to admit we’ve got a structural problem and not a self-esteem problem. Until then…
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald