Self-esteem

The Happy End Male vs. Female II

I have frequently written here about what is considered to be an appropriate ending for a story. Five years ago I first wrote about my observation that what counted as a happy ending varied depending on whether the character was male or female.

The male character faces daunting obstacles and overcomes them and the story ends with his victory. The female character faces obstacles and has a victory by deciding “I don’t need this. I am fine jut as I am.” Like Dorothy waking up in Kansas, “there is no place like home.” Whatever journey the female character takes in the world, it is really an inner journey to find self-esteem and emotional support.

The writer Catherine Nichols summed up the state of things by saying “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”

We have learned from our stories to be like the betas Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

“I’m awfully glad I am a beta.”

Today I was thinking about a film that came out my freshman year of college. “Punchline” starring Sally Field and Tom Hanks. It did not receive good reviews, but I remember enjoying it at the time.

Punchline

As I am talking about endings, what follows will contain spoilers.

When I saw the movie back then I gave the ending very little thought.  What stuck with me more was how Taylor Negron said “area rug.” (This joke has not aged well.)

 

Looking back though I realized that “Punchline” does something fairly unusual. It tries to wrap things up with both the male and the female happy end in a single story. All it needs is a little self-sacrifice on the part of the female character.

Tom Hanks plays Steve, a gifted but struggling comic who works in a mid-level comedy club. He tells an agent that if she is going to bring in someone to discover him, she’d better do it soon because “funny Steve is going under.”

Sally Fields is Lilah a New Jersey housewife who has long harbored a secret dream of being a comedian. It is an ambition her husband does not understand. Her desire to be on stage, and her time away from the family, puts a strain on her marriage. Lilah asks funny Steve to teach her the ropes. He helps her to develop her comic voice and to gain confidence and self-esteem. (So she’s already won!) She helps him to be more stable emotionally.

The dream of being a comic causes strain between both protagonists and their families. In Steve’s case, his choice has disappointed his father, who has been paying for him to attend medical school. In Lilah’s case, it puts strain on her marriage because she is not home as often as she was before. So two people with variations on the same problem.

The rule for how a conflict between relationships and dream/duty is resolved differs according to the gender of the character. The male character, when faced with disapproval from his parents or spouse is supposed to rebel against those constraints, follow his true path, and by succeeding gain the respect of his family. The female character is supposed to chose happy relationships over the goal. And this is how we get to the “double happy ending” of Punch Line.

The story leads up to a big comedy competition between the regulars at the club. The prize is discovery and a chance for a slot on a big time talk show. Even though all the comedians think Steve had the best set, the judges split three to two in favor of Lilah. Lilah, on learning this, decides to walk away and not accept the prize allowing the person who needs comedy more (Steve) to live his dream. Lilah decides that her dream is really to focus on her family and to maintain a hobby working at a mid-level comedy club from time to time. Steve’s happy end is having his genius and hard work finally rewarded. Lilah’s is discovering that she is good, and that she doesn’t need worldly success to confirm it. Her choice is presented as wise and noble.

“Alpha children… work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta…”

There is nothing essentially wrong with either narrative. In life, there are times when it is wise to go against the world in order to fulfill a duty or follow a dream. There are other times when it is wise to surrender those goals and prioritize things like relationships or emotional well-being.  The problem is that each gender has limited choices and responses in our stories.

 

 

 

 

It’s OK Not to Excel and Other Pep Talks

There is a well known writer who has lately been getting a lot of attention on twitter posting threads about how you’re a “real writer” regardless of what you write, regardless of whether it is published or read or has any kind of public recognition or success. She has moved on now to posting about how you’re “a real reader” no matter what kind of book  you read.  “Whatever you read you are a real reader, no exceptions.”

This has been annoying me, and I have spent some time trying to figure out why.

I agree that there are too many artificial hierarchies in literature. I am someone who has excelled in writing books that are considered “unserious” from The Pocket Encyclopedia to the Elvis Impersonation Kit. I know that they take skill, and that humor is not a lesser talent. I also recognize that the concept of “seriousness” is too often used to degrade work by and for women. I agree that you should like what you like and shouldn’t apologize for your tastes. While vampire romances are not something I prefer to read, I am certain there are good examples an bad examples of the genre.

Not all reading leads to great epiphanies, and there is nothing wrong with pure pleasure reading. Not all art has to aspire to immortality or greatness. Entertainment is just fine. And there are a lot of scholars who find a lot to explore in “low culture.”

So why does the statement that you’re a “real reader” no matter what you read stick in my craw?

First of all, it is a tautology. Yes, if you define “reader” as one who can read, then if you can decipher text on a cereal box you’re a reader, but then, so what? What do you get from calling yourself a “real reader?” You must view it as an honorific if you’re hung up on being one. I don’t hear people reassuring anyone that she is a “real TV viewer” regardless of what she watches, or a “real music listener…”

Focusing on whether you can claim to be a “real reader” is strange to me as it focuses on the personal identity of the person holding the book rather than the value of the contents of the book. It is a symptom of a culture in which how one brands herself–how she is seen by others– matters more than who she is when no one is watching.

Of course the quality of literature matters, or what are we doing here?

The author in question said that she was getting a lot of replies from men who said they never use the expression “guilty pleasure.” This is a gendered concept.

Women talk about romance novels being a “guilty pleasure” whereas men discuss the merits of the various authors in their pulp genres like sci fi and westerns.

If guilty pleasures are gendered, then so too must be the reassuring response that you’re a “real reader.”

Here is what I hear in the expression “guilty pleasure.” If you feel “guilt,” it means you aspire to something better.

When I read that the idea of a “guilty pleasure” was somewhat foreign to men, a lightbulb went off. The problem that I have with the expressions about “real writers” and “real readers” is that they are person praise not process praise. In other words, instead of praising people for achievements, it praises them for their inherent qualities which are seen to be immutable.

Person praise says “you’re a real reader.” (Regardless of what you read.)
Process praise says “congratulations on reading Remembrance of Things Past.”

I’ve written about this concept quite often here. Here’s an excerpt from a previous article:

Back in May, I posted an article called Unstoppable! Self-Esteem, Boy and Girl Style.  In the article I took a self-esteem program aimed at young women and flipped the genders to see how the encouragement felt when aimed at boys.

At the beginning of this article, I asked you to think about what an empowerment or self-esteem program for boys might consist of. You probably imagined something like the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound.  Young men test their limits, practice a sport, enjoy the outdoors, discover skills they didn’t know they had.  In short, they do.

When we try to “empower” girls we tell them to think positive and feel pretty.  If it is “empowerment” it is a strange use of the word “power” because it is entirely passive. The program focuses entirely personal qualities that make one attractive, not achievements and actions.

Today I was reading the BPS Research Digest and I came across a study that bolsters my subjective point of view.

Laboratory research pioneered by psychologist Carol Dweck has shown the short-term benefits of praising children for their efforts rather than their inherent traits. Doing so leads children to adopt a so-called ‘incremental mindset’ – seeing ability as malleable and challenges as an opportunity to learn. Now a new study co-authored by Dweck and led by Elizabeth Gunderson has made the first ever attempt to monitor how parents praise their young children in real-life situations, and to see how their style of praise is related to the children’s mindset five years later…The key finding was the more parents tended to praise their pre-school age children for effort (known as process praise, as in “good job”), the more likely it was that those children had a “incremental attitude” towards intelligence and morality when they were aged seven to eight. This mindset was revealed by their seeing intelligence and moral attributes as malleable. For example, such children tended to agree that people can get smarter if they try harder, and disagree with the idea that a naughty child with always be naughty…Finally, the study revealed that parents tend to use more person praise with girls and more process praise with boys, echoing similar results in earlier research. In turn, later on, boys tended to express an incremental mindset more often than girls. This tallies with the picture painted in the developmental literature that girls more than boys attribute failure to lack of ability, especially in maths and science.

Person praise values self-esteem over achievement.

To go back to the example of reading, a girl who felt “guilty” about not reading good literature sets to work to feel better about herself. A boy who feels bad that he is not well-read sets himself a goal of reading better literature.

As I pointed out in another post:

There is nothing wrong with loving yourself just as you are, of course. But when this message is given to only one gender, you end up with a constantly re-enforced dual message. Men achieve, women need to learn to be content while not achieving.

The study that I cited earlier notes that when children are given process praise they perceive of the challenge as learnable, improvable, masterable. They keep trying. It is not that they have failed because of an inherent quality, it is because they have not yet mastered the task. Children who receive person praise on the other hand, internalize everything. “I couldn’t build the tower because I am not good at that.” Personal qualities are seen as inherent and less changeable. If you are not a good builder, there is little reason to try. Those who receive person praise rather than process praise are more likely to give up.

After a lifetime of process praise for boys and person praise for girls, men and women react to rejection differently. Men tend to think, “I have not yet mastered this process, I need to keep trying.” Women tend to think, “Maybe I am not good enough.”

 
When I get into a writer funk, as I do from time to time, there is one thing you should never do to try to cheer me up: and that is to say that I am a “real writer” whether I achieve anything or not. That does not make me feel better, it is like pouring salt in the wound. Why? Because I am ambitious, and I’m tired of feeling that I should apologize for being upset when I fail to reach goals I set for myself. Don’t tell me that it’s OK that my book didn’t get reviews, or that I couldn’t find a publisher for my novel, because I don’t want to feel OK about that. I want to be dissatisfied with that. It hurts when you fail to live up to your ambitions, but feelings pass. The solution is not to pretend that the ambitions don’t matter. The solution is to get back up and keep working, to regroup, find another route, and keep trying. You may not get there, but you are taking the steps. If you want to get me out of a writer funk, remind me of things I have achieved. Get me fired up about what I can do next. Don’t tell me that I’m beautiful just as I am.

I want to see women succeed, and I think a good first step is to stop giving each other these “It’s ok not to excel” pep talks.

Failure Friday: More on the Irony of Optimism

Do you remember the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic?” The Pythons always had a bit of a punch-line challenge and they liked to end a sketch by throwing in something random like, in this case, having Michael Palin walk into a room where Terry Jones is offering “getting hit on the head lessons.”

So yesterday I was browsing the archives of a blog called The Golden Echo, and I came across a post tagged “Failure Friday.” As I have an interest in failure, I thought I would like to steal, er, offer an homage to the Failure Friday tag. I wondered, however, if I could come up with enough failure material for a recurring feature.

Fate intervened, for today I was reading Stat (of course I read medical blogs) and I stumbled upon an article by Sara Whitlock with the title “One Reason Young People Don’t Go Into Science? We Don’t Fail Well.” Whitlock’s thesis is that repeated failure is “the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience.”

(It is, undoubtedly, the fundamental underpinning of resilience in the arts as well. By the time anyone is making a career as an artist, dancer, musician, actor or writer he has gone through more than his fair share of rejection and failure.)

Westerners in general, and Americans particularly, face a lot of social pressure to be above average. We’re consumers of books on “success,” and we are judgmental of those who do not achieve it. Success means standing out, showing a talent that you have above and beyond others. Talent is thought to be innate, part of an individual’s makeup.

A number of studies have found that Asian cultures take a different approach. For example a 2001 study had Canadian and Japanese students take a so-called creativity test. It did not test anything, but the experimenters gave the subjects feedback on how well they had performed then they watched their reactions. When they were told they were successful, Canadians worked longer. With the Japanese it was completely the opposite. They worked harder if they failed.

One big East/West divide, according to Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought, is that Westerners are focused on building and shoring up our individual identities. In the East it is different:

Some linguistic facts illustrate the social-psychological gap between East and West. In Chinese there is no word for “individualism.” The closest one can come is the word for “selfishness.” The Chinese character jên— benevolence— means two men. In Japanese, the word “I”— meaning the trans-situational, unconditional, generalized self with all its attributes, goals, abilities, and preferences— is not often used in conversation. Instead, Japanese has many words for “I,” depending on audience and context.

We believe each person has a consistent self that remains stable regardless of the context. This self can be either “creative” or “not so creative.” The Canadian therefore takes the feedback on the creativity test as information on how creative a person he is. If it turns out he is not “creative” he will want to move on to what he is good at, leave creativity to “creatives,” and try to develop his core competency. The Japanese subjects do not take the test as a measure of their inherent qualities, rather as a challenge at which they can improve.

Nisbett concluded, “Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with. Easterners seem more likely to become Jacks and Jills of all trades.”

We might try science, but if we don’t stand out fairly quickly we move on to try to find out where we do excel. This makes us less resilient in the face of failure. Whitlock cites a 2011 study that examined resiliency in disadvantaged students in a number of countries and concluded that non-US students were more resilient than we are. Is there a moral to this story?

Maybe we need to sign up for more getting hit on the head lessons.

 

 

 

Other-Esteem

Yesterday, I wrote about Failure Lab, an event coming to the Detroit Opera House on November 21.  I discovered the event through a tweet by Focus: Hope, which I retweeted. Focus:Hope asked if I would be attending and I replied that I would love to, but don’t think I can afford it right now.

This morning a success coach tweeted me.  “…please don’t be offended but I cringe at ds ‘can’t afford’. Try it is not in my budget right nowBetter message 4U!”

So I have been thinking about the subtle difference between these two statements.

Imagine a scenario in which you go into a store and ask how much it is for a candy bar. The clerk says “$1.” You rifle through your pockets and come up with only 50c.  Doesn’t it seem woefully euphemistic to say “It’s not in my budget right now” rather than, “Sorry, I haven’t got that much.”?

The coach did not say why “it’s not in my budget” is better 4 me.  It was a tweet, after all.  So let me try to parse it.

My first reaction was that it implied that it would be shameful to admit you did not have enough money.  Instead, you imply that you have enough, you are just not making that a priority in your budget.

I won’t go into all of the reasons again why I think concealing poverty is unhelpful and leads to a cycle of shame.  (I wrote a whole book on the subject, after all.)  There is another aspect to this that I find more interesting.

Indeed, the success coach is right, studies have shown that a key to happiness is a sense of having control of your life and your environment.  Perhaps you can achieve that, at least temporarily, through thinking of yourself as being able to do things but not prioritizing them. “I could if I wanted to, but I chose not to.”

You can carry this further by saying, “I could be making more money, but I have prioritized living in the area where I grew up” or “spending more time with my children” or whatever it is. So everything is still your choice that you do not have a lot of money. You feel you have agency. You feel more content. So if you make it a habit of framing things in a way that gives you agency (even if it is something of an illusion) you feel better about yourself.  This was, in fact, a point I made in my book. Don’t think of yourself as a loser, think of yourself as an artist of life who has prioritized the non-financial.

If you think of my message to the organizers as being only about myself then it makes sense that it would be better for my self-esteem to word the message as the success coach suggests.  My tweet, however, was not primarily about conveying information about me, it was about a relationship between myself and the people who came up with this creative project.  Communicating with other people is not only about self-esteem, it is also about other-esteem.

If I want to express how much I love the idea of what Failure Lab is doing, is it better to say that I would love to go if I had enough money or to imply that I do have enough but that their show is not enough of a priority for me to budget for it?