For several weeks now, sixteen to be exact, Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, has been on The New York Times bestseller list. For that, I am grateful. It's an important book; a book that's obviously stirred a necessary conversation -- one about women, their place in contemporary society, and their lack of equality, still, in the 21st century. Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, is, there is no doubt in my mind, an admirable human being.
However, I would like to explore the reasons why I won't take her advice -- why I won't "lean in." It's important to state several things before I move on. First, that this is not a battle against Sandberg herself, but instead, a continuation of the conversation she began earlier this year with the release of her book. Second, I am a feminist, capital F; a multi-media writer and artist, who is constantly in search of alternate routes. I went to Barnard College, and, before that, to an all girl's elementary and high school called Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart. So, I know very well what women can do when they are not put down or forced into fifty shades of submission.
There are a million and one aspects of Sandberg's book that are irrefutable. Women get paid less (77cents for every dollar earned by men in 2010), and they are considered "bitches" when they are aggressive, whereas men are considered go-getters when they illustrate the same trait. The list goes on. Sandberg is absolutely spot-on in her summation of the challenges women face today. What I don't agree with is the solution.
Sandberg asks women to "sit at the table," to "lean in." Which sounds good on the surface, but what she's asking is for women to lean into a corporate culture created by men. The argument is that by submitting to the initial rules of this male-dominated corporate structure, women can then make changes from within that self-same structure. For me, this gives women a false sense of hope. It won't work, not in the big scale or in the long run. It hasn't worked. What it's proved to do is put women in a position of exhaustion, where they are constantly fighting themselves in order to get to a place where they can ask for pregnancy parking spot privileges so they don't have to "waddle" for miles into work (a victory for Sandberg in her book). Sorry, a women's bathroom and a parking spot just isn't enough and, for me, it's not even a good enough place to start. I want more, and I won't become a submissive to get it.
The problem with leaning in is how similar it is to submission. It's no surprise that Sandberg's book hits the bestseller list in the same era as Fifty Shades of Grey, the book that so many women called "hot" but was, in fact, a true setback for us all.
Let me see if I can put this more clearly. Imagine a 21st century book that presents a narrative in which there is a great white master and a scrawny, black man standing before him. First, the word master itself becomes charged when placed next to white, as does scrawny when placed next to black in this scenario, and I don't know about you, but I recoil. Imagine then that the scrawny, black man is asked to kneel before the white master. The black man doesn't want to, but the white master has a whip. The black man looks into the eyes of the white master and says: I'll kneel, ok, because I'm afraid of the whip, because this person has power over me, and because I can see, deep in the white master's eyes that he has a soul like all humans, and it's good soul. He'll give into me eventually, into allowing me to be free, I just have to kneel first. This, I would hope, would be an appalling read to anyone in the 21st century, considering the battles fought and won as well as those fought and lost against race in this country.
The same applies to Fifty Shades -- simply switch race with gender. Here we have a young woman, Anastasia Steele, straight out of college, who finds herself at the feet of one Christian Grey, a dominant who wants to make Anastasia his submissive, in both life and sex. Anastasia is asked to kneel before her "dom" and is forced to call Grey her master: "sir." She fears him, compares him to a predator, and asks, in earnest many times over: "please don't hit me." Why then does Anastasia submit to him? Because Anastasia holds out a small thread of shredded, worn down hope, that she can get "more" from Grey, if she just submits initially. "More" meaning a real relationship in which Grey can "learn" to respect her. And, herein, in this "leaning in," lies the danger. At what cost does Anastasia get her man to give her a modicum of respect at the end -- at too much cost. It's too late. It doesn't matter if the slave is freed after being abused, used, manipulated, and handled; traded, and objectified. Too much is lost when one "leans in" so deeply; when one submits so profoundly.
What's lost is selfhood; the rights women have fought for for centuries; the battle of the Suffragette; Margaret Sanger's fight for birth control; Betty Friedan's push to free the American housewife; Gloria Steinem's impulse to say: that's Ms. to you; The Equal Credit Opportunity Act; the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act...
Leaning in and submitting, whether in life or in fantasy are not "hot" -- they are belittling. These actions erase us as women, as people. Also let's be clear about sex, as you can't speak of Fifty Shades without it. I am not someone who shies away from sex. In fact, I like my sex adventurous and varied. Unlike many of the online reviewers of Fifty Shades, I find no shame in sex at all. Perhaps that is because I refuse to submit or lean into skewed ideas of what women should be. The paradoxes at play here can be further explored, of course. This is, indeed layered.
But, the solution. Let's stand up straight, we can bounce at the knees for a stronger stance and flexibility as we stand, but we must refuse to kneel. The farther we lean in, the faster we're going to end up down and down is the last place we want to be. I rather look a man in the eye than shine his shoes in the hopes that one day he'll be willing to hold my hand and walk with me. No, that simply cannot be our starting point. We must find new ways of illuminating the way.