I cried today at Legally Blonde with Reese Witherspoon. That end part where everyone is in love with her and cheers her on the podium. It’s not the first time, nor even the second. It’s probably the 30th time I see the film.
It contains hugely mixed messages – a barbie stereotype from Bel Air with an apparently razor sharp mind and yet stunningly simple naivety who achieves beyond anyone’s wildest dreams to get into and come top of her Harvard Law School Class. A delightfully amusing rom-com about preserving your sense of self in the face of adversity.
It’s a strong message to women everywhere that you can win a law suit simply by knowing the rules of hair care and believing in your client’s honesty. As films go, it’s on balance considered fairly feminist. Reese – as Elle Woods – is a positive role model.
And yet I find nowadays that even the most feminist of Hollywood visions is actually the opposite. To look as fabulous as Reese requires dedication to constant exercise (as she studies for her LSATs whilst on her step machine and takes care of her dog), plenty of money and regular false nail appointments. What she achieves – and surely what all girls should aspire to – is an offer to join a prestigious law firm (where no doubt she will take an 80 hour work week and still have time for exercise and manicures) and a proposal of marriage. Splendid.
Over the past 9 months of maternity leave my own sense of self has waxed and waned. I have been taught all my life that gender stereotypes were mine for the smashing, and yet here I am in the traditional role of motherhood – a lucky beneficiary of the Swedish social security system – cooking, cleaning, washing… and watching Legally Blonde in the morning before mashing up some chicken and carrots before pushing my son round in the pram for 20 minutes to get him to sleep. Then I get to choose between changing the beds, going to the grocery store, or perhaps some computer time and then playing catch up for the rest of the day on the chores that remain unfinished. This was not my parents’ definition of success.
They say motherhood is the hardest job. Once upon a time I scoffed at this…because it’s not hard in academic terms. Puree recipes, changing nappies, reading stories. Academically, pretty piss easy. But emotionally, absolutely draining. The loss of yourself in terms of identity, time and image. And what that means is that your self – myself – had for a long time been grounded in terms of what I did, not how I felt. In fact worse still, what I did and my successes… drove how I felt.
I needed admiration for my achievements, if I was to feel good about myself. I excelled in my work. From those early days with top exam marks at school, to that promotion to C-Level executive at the tender age of 33. Yet unused to failure, I rarely attempted anything that I suspected I would fail at. Then I became a mum. Taking care of a child was something I’d never done before and I was bad at it. As it turned out, my self-esteem was a sham. Because for the first time I faced the fact that I was not the perfect person I wanted to be. Like a balloon, my self image was punctured and I had little inner strength to get me through it.
Once I had been an achiever like Elle Woods, and I was sure my self-esteem was good. But women when having children, if not before, are forced to decouple their achievements measured by society’s impossible standards and accept themselves for who they are, not what they do.
Because seeking admiration and praise for something at the cost of the development of your true self, is to mistake admiration and praise for love (which we cannot live without). And becoming a person with codependent self-esteem is an inevitability if, the person who nurtured you was so insecure themselves as to be unable to give true love. Who withdrew their love when you did not succeed. Worse still, because depression is kept only at bay by the illusion of grandiosity, the ‘grandiose’ person may seek out someone with a tendency to depression who (s)he can nurture and take care of, thereby preserving the illusion within the relationship dynamic.
My job title used to be Head of Decision Support Excellence. My husband said
“Anything that has head and excellence in the title is bound to be admired.”
We giggled at the double entendre, and sure enough people were impressed (even if they didn’t understand it). But nowadays when people ask me what I do, I say
“Lots of things. I write. Model a little in excel. Help people build websites.”
It impresses very few people. I am not top of my class at Harvard. I don’t have a 1st in a law degree. I am not getting married any time soon. But I am me. And that must be enough.
The problem is that what Elle says in Legally Blonde is awe-inspiring
It is with passion, courage of conviction, and strong sense of self that we take our next steps into the world remembering that first impressions are not always correct. You must always have faith in people and most importantly you must always have faith in yourself.
But what Elle does, is to stretch the bounds of perfectionism, demonstrating that in order to be loved… you have to achieve (and have perfect nails). That’s the part that always makes me cry. Because this paradigm used to rule my life. To be loved you must be perfect. I don’t want it to rule my daughter’s, because it’s the most dangerous lie of all.