I love Meryl Streep. I love every movie she is in (even "Ricki and the Flash" and "Mamma Mia"). Her poise, her confidence and her willingness to stand up and be heard on many issues -- including the need for pay equity and the need for more roles and opportunities for female actors (including those over a certain age). But she disappointed me last week at the Women Moving Millions conference when she suggested that one of the reasons she had never been a producer was because powerful women in Hollywood are not seen as attractive. What?? Did I hear that right?
I have been thinking about why women shy away from power. Is Meryl suggesting that it may be that some believe that power makes them less attractive or makes them less like a woman? And less attractive to whom: men, other women or themselves? Certainly, power encompasses some level of control over others that might not be an innately comfortable place for women. But, being uncomfortable with power may also come from another place. It may be that some, like Meryl, equate the desire for and use of power by women to those women who have espoused feminist ideals and who have routinely been mischaracterized by some critics as unattractive.
Over the years, feminism has been equated with "non-lady-like behavior" and male emasculation. Starting with the suffragette movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, these feminists who had the audacity to demand a right to vote and demand the right to speak in public were portrayed as brash, pushy and generally unattractive (especially to men). Some of that is true. The suffragettes were demanding. Some were violent and many viewed their desire to vote as something that was more important than their outward appearance. But they were not unattractive because they wanted societal change or because they wanted to use their collective power to push for the right to vote. As was suggested during the movement, being a suffragette did not "unsex" a woman.
Fast forward to the second wave of feminism in the '60s and '70s. Again, many women, spurred by Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" challenged the myth that all middle-class women were happy just being wives, mothers and homemakers. The National Organization for Women and other groups were organized to push for women's equality. Protests were staged and action was demanded. Women who supported the movement were singularly viewed by some as less marriageable, crass and unpleasant for men to be around. Some feminists adopted unconventional attire and some again "let it all hang out" and appeared to forego any desire to be stereotypically pretty. Feminism and the desire for equal power with men again became equated with women being embittered, angry, man-hating and generally prone to a life living alone with cats.
The third wave of feminism is upon us now and again many attack the new wave of feminism again as producing women who are less attractive than the stereotypical woman. They want a softer approach. Yet, power in and of itself does not make a woman less attractive. Instead, I believe it is the level of anger that results in a perception that these women are less attractive. Anger is a natural reaction to those who have felt discriminated against. But it is not, and should never be viewed, as an outgrowth of the power that women have obtained or are seeking. In other words, women need to recognize that they can seek and use power without fear of being branded as unattractive or less appealing to men.
Changing this vision of power for women is important for both women and men. Certainly, if we start recognizing that power itself can make us more attractive and liked when used correctly and can effectuate the changes that we need to see in the work place, all will benefit. What we are seeking in this third wave of feminism will result in a better work place for all (more family leave and flexibility, more diversity in ideas, etc.). It will make all of us more attractive to each other. We will have a more collaborative and enlightened work place. Power is not ugly. It is a change agent when used correctly.