By: Simone Drake, PhD
As a professional woman who is often viewed as a hybrid of Chaka Khan’s “every woman” and Karyn White’s “superwoman,” I appreciated the nuance of Lisa B. Thompson’s recent Washington Post commentary on gender realism in Shonda Rhimes’s award-winning televisual productions. Rhimes’s pattern of resisting both the superwoman and “happily ever after” narrative is good for popular culture. The conclusion Professor Thompson drew from that pattern, however, made me bristle: women can’t have it all. I would propose that having it all and being a superwoman—what Rhimes seems to actually be disrupting—are quite different.
I am a university professor who has five degrees in several fields, a husband, a suburban home, three children, a dog, and the obligatory minivan. Already, I am on overkill with the number of degrees and number of children, as the vast majority of university professors cannot match those figures. Then, I published like crazy, largely because early on I was told “as a mother of young children” a job search committee was concerned I “could not do the work of tenure or complete my dissertation,” not to mention doctoral English professor comments along the way that I was challenged with “basic English skills.” With one book out last year, a second projected for next year, and a third grant-funded book project well under way, in addition to a solid list of journal articles and book chapters, in the area of publishing, I am also on overkill. This, I suppose, is what happens when you tell a stubborn person she cannot have the things she wants. But, does this mean I have it all? It does and it does not.
While the realm of popular culture and particularly television has functioned as a post-civil rights space to measure social progress and incorporation for marginalized groups, there should be cautionary limits to just how much it is allowed to shape our understanding of real life. From Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to watching Michelle Obama transform from corporate business woman to mom-in-chief, the fact that women make career sacrifices for others and, thus, often are disproportionately burdened by an inequitable work-pleasure burden is well noted, even if very little has been done politically, socially, or economically to make critical inroads in improving the predicament. Thompson encourages spectators to “see” the work Rhimes does to pushback against a patriarchal system by making life, and especially the life of professional women, messy and complicated. This is real. Veronica Chambers famously offered a glimpse of how real it is for the women she interviewed in Having It All?: Black Women and Success. What emerged from Chambers’s narratives is what Rhimes shows the world—it is not easy for women to have it all in a heteropatriarchal, capitalist society. But, I question what the rhetorical limitations are in such an absolute conclusion.
A primary concern is one of definition: how “all” is being defined. This is critical because the phrase itself proceeds from the assumption that there is a standardized set of “things” all women want. Career, opposite sex spouse, children, home, and material goods that mark social and economic status are typically the things understood to constitute the “all” professional women want to have. According to Thompson, ShondaLand separates itself from other primetime television programming because of Rhimes’s brutal honesty when every other producer opts for fairytales. I get this, and I register the importance of the narrative intervention, but all women do not want all of these things and, even among those who do, there are often variations. There are women who want a career but do not desire mobility within it. There are women who want the career and to be powerful. There are women who want the career, a life partner, and children. There are women who have professional credentials and choose to restrict their work to one shift—the home space. Any of these women could understand herself as having it all, regardless of what anyone else might think.
In addition to definition, language is also a problem. The phrase is a second wave feminist term that pushes back against the sexist parameters that limited women’s educational and vocational opportunities. Although there have been efforts to change the language—Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s “doing it all,” etc.—the bottom line of calling for gender equality in the home and work space remains constant. Yet, all iterations of the phrase seem to still evoke doubt, which resonates with Thompson’s quoting of Rhimes:
Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life.… That is the trade-off. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel 100 percent okay; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous.
What Rhimes reveals is a humanism that speaks to the dubiousness of the phraseology that suggests there is a magical state when women, or even men, as Richard Dorment’s controversial Esquire essay proposes, can have or do it all.
This utopian ideology, then, is not only complicated by presumed definitions of what “all” might be, but also by the reality of humanness that demands sacrifices. Rhimes demonstrates a clear investment in replicating real-life narratives of professional women (and men) in her television series, as far as the work-home balance goes, but there is a limitation. Thompson points out that Leslie Knope on “‘Parks and Recreation’ is running a branch of the National Park Service while raising triplet toddlers, and she never breaks a sweat.” This is a point where I must admit my understanding of the fascination with ShondaLand, especially black, professional women’s fascination, yet acknowledge my own disinterest in the hoopla. Yes, hard decisions between career and relationships are made in ShondaLand, showing viewers the “sweat.” But, whether viewers see the sweat or not, ShondaLand is just as circumscribed by the very ideology that disallows Knope to break the sweat we are not supposed to see. Thus, unlike Thompson suggests, I am not convinced Christina Yang’s character on Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy is offering significantly more progressivism via an elective abortion than Knope’s character, who lives a charmed life, because the analysis of both women relies on employing a troubled trope for assessing gender progressivism. Yang is only not having it all if we accept a particular definition of having it all. If we instead think of having it all as a concept uniquely tailored to individual women who determine for themselves what “all” constitutes in their lives, then Rhimes might be showing viewers something quite different than “women can’t have it all.”
I am reluctant to view Rhimes’s depiction of the “trade-off” as exemplary of women not being able to have it all. Instead, I see a pushback against the superwoman or “every woman” who is “whatever you want / whatever you need / anything you want done baby / I do it naturally.” Can one not have “all” of the things that defines one’s definition of “all” and escape the superwoman trap? I would say most certainly professional women can have all the things they decide are important to them and worth working toward. What those things are will look different for each woman. What choices are made to determine which things are given lower or no priority in order to have the things desired will also differ. For this reason, I, personally, say I can have all the things I deem to be important to me, but I’m not your superwoman.