Women Do Not Need Lunatic Overconfidence

no I don't know why you'd give a shit about what I think women need either

Both my post on trauma memes and my post on advice for young writers received largely positive reviews, for which I’m grateful. But I did get an email from someone that pointed out a commonality I didn’t intend. She thought my reference to absurd self-help book titles (You Don’t Give a Fuck, Because You’re a Badass….) and my critiques of trauma memes were both gendered in a way that suggests contempt for contemporary women’s online culture. And that’s a fair criticism. I do think those books are ridiculous and my concerns about trauma memes continue but I recognize the connotations are gendered and potentially unfair.

If I’m harsh about these topics it’s because (for whatever reason) I’m always sensitive to the ways internet culture pressures people to adopt certain performances of how to be a person. And it feels like the most aggressive of these pressures are about how to be a modern woman.

For example, there’s a well-meaning but casually destructive trend that’s prevalent on Instagram. These memes idealize a state of impossible self-regard in women, an unachievable narcissism that’s justified through a garbled kind of feminist empowerment. You are not merely to be a healthy and functional adult who rises above the depredations of everyday sexism. You have to be some sort of Amazon warrior queen mystic who “manifests” what she wants through sheer force of will. It’s not hard to see where such impulses might come from. Women are systematically robbed of confidence in essentially every human culture, unless it’s in the specific arena of physical attractiveness or motherhood. I don’t know how you’d go about denying that. I think this is probably overstated as a cause of socioeconomic inequality, which is usually about material structures (like corporations whose opaque HR systems simply will not pay women what they’re worth) rather than the behaviors of individual players (like women not somehow demanding what they’re worth from the bosses). But it’s still a meaningful and artificial type of inequality. Everyone deserves to feel, in some sense, that they are able to experience peace with the self and an ability to create change in the world.

Unfortunately, the way that meme culture has responded has been to produce images like the one at the top. There’s an endorsement of absolutely deranged self-confidence, an impossible level of self-belief that I imagine is actually only achievable while high on PCP. The meme I’ve included is in fact a pretty tame example of the genre. The idea seems to be that because women often lack confidence for bullshit reasons, we should convince women to try and pump themselves up with confidence like a child overfilling a balloon. Ideas common to these memes include that you don’t care about what anyone thinks (you do and should care), and that normal emotions are beneath you (they’re not). The problems in your life, no matter how mundane, are all the product of sexism or haters or sexist haters, and there is no such thing as a legitimate conflict between two sincere people who both have defensible desires. Anything that obstructs your goals, including people with their own autonomy, is merely an obstacle to be stepped over without a second thought. The standards of self-love here are so lofty that they seem just as unreachable as all of the other social standards that woman can’t possibly meet.

I find the attempts to embody this trend pretty sad. You may get a pretty standard picture on a woman’s Instagram, completely innocuous, and the caption will be like “watch out bitches, I’m finally ascending to my final form.” It’s all a little… strange.

Sadder still, this stuff comingles with the batshit generalist mysticism that is so common on social media today. Horoscope stuff, obviously, but also Tarot and numerology and (let me calculate the necessary number of quotation marks) “““““““energy”””””””. The previously-mentioned notion of “manifestation” has endured as a zombie grift 15 years after the publication of the book that popularized it, The Secret. Manifestation or “the Law of Attraction” tells people that everything they get or don’t is the product of their desires and intentions, so stop complaining about your leukemia, thanks. How this fits alongside the Zodiac stuff, which asserts the exact opposite of you being solely in charge of the events of your life, is unclear. One way or another you end up with an incomprehensible set of beliefs about the world that are both exacting (if you don’t tend to your energy you deserve what you get) and opaque (who could actually follow all this shit?). As an atheist this concerns me. As a feminist it offends me: apparently now women need literal magic to escape oppression. For whatever reason, the popular conception of the paths to women’s liberation just gets more convoluted and inscrutable over time.

I don’t know, to me being a badass bitch doesn’t seem fun. It seems alienating and tiresome. Also I’m so sick of the constant modern insistence that we love ourselves. Stop telling me to love myself all the time. Mind your business.

Here’s what I suspect: mentally healthy people, if they still exist, aren’t healthy because of the constant presence of positive feelings of self. They are healthy because of the habitual absence of any feelings of self at all. (I guarantee you this is already a thing in psychology or some 19th century German philosophy but it’s proving stubbornly resistant to my Googling.) Where we’ve gone wrong as a civilization in terms of understanding confidence is in thinking of it as a presence, as an emotion. But I think what we perceive as confidence is simply not constantly thinking about yourself and your value. That’s more real and sustainable to me than thinking about yourself all the time and consistently feeling good about what you find. Unfortunately it seems like not thinking about yourself is what many modern people find hardest of all.

Bad folk wisdom about confidence is all over our culture. The conventional wisdom for how men can meet women is by appearing confident. I think this is terrible advice. Your average dude, not long on introspection, probably thinks that this means feeling some sort of active sense of being a winner with a swollen chest. They inevitably perform masculinity in a way that isn’t so much bad because of the masculinity but bad because of the performance, because it’s not natural and relaxed. It’s not uncommon to observe guys pulling the fake-confidence routine with women at a bar and it’s a sad scene, folks. I think the best thing for appearing attractive (in almost any context, not just trying to pick up women) is not to appear confident as such but to appear at ease, unbothered, to give off an essential vibe that the interaction you’re having right now isn’t a huge deal to you and that you have similar interactions often. So if you’re a dude hitting on a woman at the bar, you want to project not “I have great value and you should want to associate yourself with me” but rather “I’ve done this before and it’s not a big deal, so if you go for it great but if you don’t that’s cool too.” Not presence of positive self-worth, but absence of self-consciousness about worth.

Whatever the case…. I am not a woman and I have no idea what it’s like to experience the endless swings in society’s perception of not just What Women Need to Be Now but also Why Women Need to Reject What Society Thinks Women Need to Be Now. I don’t want to condescend, nor do I want to do the Good Male Ally routine. I just want to say as a typical dude (translation: about 20% more sexist than he lets on and amazed at how much lower of a price he pays for that than if he were 20% more racist) that it’s not that men don’t feel much pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. We do. It’s that we don’t have to deal with the meta layers women seem to have to navigate, the sense that you can’t just resist societal pressures to act according to gender expectations but rather have to swing wildly between one conception of femininity to another, endlessly made to worry that you’re doing it wrong as you try to shake off one bogus caricature of your gender while leaping to another. Being a boy is so much easier. This shit rocks. I just walk around and I’m a boy. Girls walk around and with every step it’s like “is this the way a girl walks?” Seems rough.

There was a version of this post that included a bunch of the weird empowerment/yoga/girlboss/mysticism/juice cleanse memes I’m talking about and made fun of them. But I realized pretty quickly that it would be a shitty thing to publish. The women who are making and sharing those memes are just trying to navigate a bewildering array of choices about how to exist in a sexist world, and if they’ve arrived at a cartoonish version it’s only because all the more mundane approaches seem to have failed. It’s certainly possible that I overemphasize meme culture and that it’s all ephemera that nobody takes that seriously. But I suspect not. Memes are a language of the youth, and it appears that the youth are facing the same old challenge of forces that pressure women to be everything and nothing all at once.