I’m Not Your Superwoman, but I Can Have It All

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.

Ohio State Lacks Commitment to Students of Color

By: Navid Farnia, M.A.

A of couple weeks ago, I decided to seek out Ohio State’s Middle East Studies Center. Having been at Ohio State for over a semester, I hadn’t heard about any activity relating to the Middle East on campus, be it lectures, discussions, or other events. I felt disconnected from my own background and wanted to engage important political issues regarding US involvement in the region.

The Middle East Studies Center is located on the third floor of Oxley Hall, but I couldn’t have imagined what I’d discover upon arriving there. Oxley Hall’s third floor not only houses the Middle East Studies Center, but also the Center for African Studies, the Center for Latin American Studies, the East Asian Studies Center, and the Center for Slavic and East European Studies. In other words, one floor in one building on Ohio State’s enormous (and expanding) campus covers the vast majority of the populated world. Needless to say, that finding upset me.

Now to be fair, the university has a Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (“Near Eastern” being a completely dated term referring to the Middle East), a Department of African American and African Studies (my home department), the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, and an International Studies program, which includes majors for Latin American Studies, African Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, etc., each located in different buildings, but I’ve found little programming and overall political engagement with current world events on campus. That’s why I thought the Middle East Studies Center would alleviate my anxieties. Unfortunately, I was wrong. (Just to be clear, my frustration isn’t with those running the center; I’m sure they are doing their best with what’s given to them.)

Admittedly, I’m very new to Ohio State. It’s still difficult for me to truly understand the racial dynamics on campus and the school’s attention to international political issues, but my experience thus far has been disappointing to say the least. At this point, I’m convinced that Ohio State does little for people of color, which includes people originally from the US, first- and second-generation immigrants, and international students.

Some surface research confirms my suspicions. According to the website collegefactual.com, The Ohio State University’s main campus ranks 1060th in ethnic diversity nationwide, with White students encompassing anywhere from 75 to 83 percent of the student population (information regarding the racial breakdown of international students isn’t available, hence the variance). Conversely, the student body is roughly 6% Black, 5% Asian, 3.5% Latin, and a paltry .14% Native American. In total, US students of color account for just 17% and international students only 8% of the population. Racial discrepancies in the faculty population aren’t any better. Faculty are 75 percent White and women comprise only 36 percent of the population, which means there are even fewer women of color on the faculty.

Moreover, the disparity between racial demographics on campus and Columbus at-large provides an even more startling context. As of 2010, Columbus’s general population was 28% Black and 61% White, meaning that White students are overrepresented and Black students are underrepresented at Ohio State, according to both local and national racial statistics, and the university isn’t doing anything to help racialized communities in the city either. Ohio State is directly responsible for gentrification in certain neighborhoods (including the largely Black Poindexter Village), as school officials press to expand the campus. Low Black student enrollment combined with forcibly relocating Black residents shows how the university lacks commitment to people of color.

Student demographics provide only part of the racial story on campus, however. The relationship between the student body’s racial composition, local politics, and the university’s apathy regarding international issues is more nuanced. In my short time here, Ohio State has facilitated very little political engagement, especially regarding current national and global events. For example, with so much happening in the Middle East, I expected to find more campus activities (lectures, community dialogues, panels, etc.) concerning the region. This is particularly true given the US’s repeated and seemingly unending interventions in the Middle East and surrounding regions, but little such campus activity exists. All told, Ohio State allocates minimal resources to serve people of color. More importantly, the university’s local ambitions along with a lack of political engagement with the world speak to its racial politics. By marginalizing students of color and non-Eurocentric worldviews, the university shows its ideological investment in whiteness.

As I become more acclimated to this school, I hope I’ll find less apathy and more engagement with issues affecting people of color. Nevertheless, I’ve been at three universities now and have so far found that Ohio State is the least committed of the schools I’ve attended (and that says a lot). Ohio State has 65,000 students and an endowment of over $3.5 billion and, yet, little commitment to enhancing the experiences of students who aren’t White.


Navid Farnia is a Ph.D. student in the Department of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University.