Sunday, April 15, 2012

Are anxious career women the new Stepford wives?

Time was when the narrative of women revolved around finding a man, getting married and starting a family. Then it got updated so they could have a bit of a career before then finding a man, getting married and starting a family. Increasingly, however, I’m seeing the emergence of a new narrative and one no less limiting or frustrating for all concerned. One where a woman has a career, yet is made to feel so strung-out and anxious by her job that she has to give up even the notion of a personal life.

Hit series, ‘Homeland’ and ‘The Killing’, are both powerful examples of how the imagery and ideology of this new female narrative is entering popular culture.  In these stories, the woman is almost always ferociously intelligent, highly driven, and - surprise surprise - stick thin. But unlike her housewife counterpart wasting away on the Tracy Anderson “teeny tiny body” Method in the suburbs, this woman believes that it’s not just lunch that’s for wimps; surviving on caffeine, prescription drugs and late night junk food, professional ambition becomes her only sustenance. As celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe has said, “In the war between my work and my personal life, my work always wins”

Both shows’ protagonists are portrayed as being so absorbed in and by their jobs, that they can barely function in their real lives. In ‘Homeland’ Carrie is so focused on safeguarding the American nation that she has to sleep on her sofa and wash her armpits in the sink. While in ‘The Killing’ Sarah deserts her fiance, her son (and apparently her dress sense ) in the quest to bring justice.

While never addressed in male-lead entertainment, it seems that a woman’s ‘war’ between her work and home life has enough cultural fascination to become a key storyline. When we see Don Draper or Luther passed out on the sofa with a highball they appear manly and noble - a noir hero. Yet when it’s a woman on the sofa, she’s evidently unhinged, troubled and heading for a meltdown. Why are we invited to find a working women’s anxiety quite so appealing? 

In a recent article on anxiety in New York magazine, one female interviewee is quoted, “I use my anxiety to be better at what I do”. And it made me wonder why is the term ‘anxiety’ being used in place of ‘ambition’? Was that overwhelming, reverberating, buzzing determination to be the best you can possibly be being mis-interpreted as anxiety? Is the battle cry in a women’s work/life ‘war’ being experienced through a lens of guilt?

Ten years ago, before technology put the pace of modern life into fifth gear, women were presented with narratives that included an “and” - work and home, career and family, sex and the city. Today, in the face of economic upheaval and exponential change, it seems the scope of a female narrative is closing in once more. They say you can never be too rich or too thin. Now you can never be too anxious about your work/life balance as well.