There’s a cartoon strip from The Cooper Review making the rounds on social media titled “9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women.” The strategies offer women suggestions for changing “your leadership style to account for the (sometimes) fragile male ego.”
In each example, women are encouraged to go out of their way to not appear aggressive, pushy, demanding or even competent. Directions become suggestions. Deadlines become tentative questions. Smiley emojis soften the blow of a woman telling a man what to do.
Strangely, I ran across the “nonthreatening leadership strategies” for women as I finished reading Heather Havrilesky’s How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life (Doubleday 2016). It’s a collection of her Ask Polly advice columns for New York magazine. But she goes beyond advice and makes readers consider what it means to be a woman in the world.
Advice columnist for thinkers
If you haven’t read Ask Polly before, what you should know is that Polly is no Ann Landers or Dear Abby. Havrilesky is not the typical advice columnist who attempts to guide you, step by step, on what to do in any given situation. Havrilesky attempts to tackle “our culture’s burdensome fixation on constant self-improvement.”
Yes, Havrilesky doles out advice for how to handle fizzled-out romances, bad friends, terrible jobs and smaller traumas of everyday life. But her advice isn’t simplistic, judgmental or what might be expected.
She veers toward existential: What does it mean to exist right here, right now? How can we be true to ourselves and thrive on this messed-up planet? Havrilesky takes every question she receives with seriousness, wit and kindness. Her advice meanders and grows paragraph by paragraph. She never dismisses a problem as small, insignificant or unworthy.
She explains, “You can’t be people without being flawed.” Our flaws emerge not as failings, but as what makes us who we are. Since our problems, small or large, matter deeply to us, they deeply matter to Havrilesky as well.
What I didn’t realize until reading How to Be a Person in the World is how often Havrilesky takes up the question of what it means to be not only a person, but also a woman in this world.
“Sexism,” she writes, “is everywhere, and we’re not even confused by it anymore.” What this means for women is that there are firm expectations about how we are supposed to act and behave, think and feel, and they’ve become the default.
Most of these expectations don’t make us feel good about ourselves. Havrilesky notes: “We women can’t do anything right. We can’t say what we mean, we can’t be ourselves, we can’t age, we can’t talk about our feelings, we can’t f*ck up. This is how it feels to be a woman.”
“This is how it feels to be a woman” stopped me cold. Havrilesky was right, but I wished she were wrong.
Fight the power
But Havrilesky refuses to let the patriarchy win. She tells us that we don’t have to kowtow to culture’s norms of how we are supposed to be, especially when it would require us to act like people we are not.
While women might be expected to “bend and adjust and please other people first,” Havrilesky commands, “Don’t.”
She cautions, “A lot of women out there are afraid of being something.… They go with the flow.… And eventually, they don’t seem to know what makes them who they really are.” Havrilesky encourages readers to be the “sensitive, aggressive weirdo[es]” that they are.
Women are good at making space for other people; our culture encourages us to make space for everyone else. Havrilesky is over that noise: “You are a million brilliant sparks, flashing against the midnight sky. Stop making room for someone else to sit down.”
Havrilesky wants us to learn to take up space for ourselves, to protect that space from anyone who tries to encroach. She wants each of us to know that we all deserve to take up space simply by existing. Havrilesky wants us to finally claim it.
Be open to trying and failing
More than that, Havrilesky encourages readers to keep trying, failing and learning. She urges us to “seize each day by the throat and make it feel productive.”
The best we can do is keep trying because we can’t know what life will bring us. Life can turn out unexpectedly and badly, and we have to be able to keep moving forward, flaws, failings and all.
She admits that life is a struggle for all of us. But, she also says that “this life is full of promise, always.”
What makes Havrilesky a remarkable advice columnist is her ability to see the struggle and the promise residing side by side. She refuses to discount one for the other.
Yes, there’s heartbreak, pain and suffering, but there’s also hope, joy, love and promise. All of these exist together in our lives and in our world.
Havrilesky wants to open our eyes and recognize that no one can avoid suffering, but our suffering should not keep us from seeing the beauty of this messed-up world either. She urges, “Open your heart and drink in this glorious day.” I think I will. I hope you will too.
Baker, Kelly. MOVEABLE TYPE: Havrilesky: Be Visible, Flawed and Present in the World. Women in Higher Education. 25(9), 25.