Burch aims to be apolitical: she told the Times_ _that she wants her campaign to be something that “unites, rather than divides” the country and pointedly noted that she has “lots of Republican friends.” Which is partly why the campaign feels so beside the point. Women’s ambition is still structurally hampered, as it always has been in this country, by failures of policy—the absence of paid family leave and decent worker protections, for instance. (To this effect, the Tory Burch Foundation did publish an interview with Lilly Ledbetter on Equal Pay Day.) But in much of American popular culture women’s ambition is now encouraged at a fever pitch. Ads frequently show images of frighteningly ambitious women: a recent Equinox campaign showed a model sitting in a restaurant, wearing expensive formalwear and breastfeeding twins. It is standard practice for mainstream women’s publications to celebrate any woman who has achieved any degree of wealth or prominence, regardless of what that success might be or mean. On the Tory Burch Foundation’s Instagram account, you’ll find dozens of celebrities promoting #EmbraceAmbition as if it were a clean-water initiative. Ambition, for women, has been marketed as a mandate, and the model of ambition that’s most commonly marketed tends to resemble Ivanka Trump—the superficially appealing woman who can pay to have it all.
A new anthology of essays about women and ambition, “Double Bind,” edited by the fiction and memoir writer Robin Romm, tries to embrace the concept in a more substantive way. In her introduction, Romm, who is in her early forties, writes about her sense, as a young woman, that “striving and achieving had to be approached delicately or you risked the negative judgment of others.” She felt a pull between the hardness of her ambition and the softness of her socialization, and calls this “the double bind of the gender, success paired eternally with scrutiny and retreat.”
Romm notes that many contributors to “Double Bind”—a group that includes Molly Ringwald, Ayana Mathis, Roxane Gay, Francine Prose, and Lan Samantha Chang—found this project difficult. Ambition “felt connected to deeply private impulses and actions that made them too vulnerable,” Romm writes. It seems, too, that, as an abstract idea, ambition is just fiendishly complicated to write about. It is at once deeply idiosyncratic and indicative of larger cultural forces; in many of the essays, the writers seem to be inwardly thrashing against the idea that they could generate meaningful insights on the subject. Work at what matters to you, the essays say. Prepare for thrills and compromises, particularly involving children. Consider my doubts about my own achievements. Strive for an ending of rueful hope.
Reading one crackling, cheerless narrative after another, I started to feel that there was another—and possibly trickier—conflict at work. Ambition will always be complicated for women, and not just because of external impediments: it is an imperfect drive, enacted in imperfect circumstances, that inevitably leads to imperfect things. The more compelling essays in “Double Bind” address this head on. Elizabeth Corey, a political-science professor at Baylor, cautions against the extreme focus on success and productivity that one sees applied to both work and motherhood. “We simply cannot approach marriage and family in the spirit of achievement at all,” she writes. The novelist Claire Vaye Watkins writes about a trip back to her home town, Pahrump, Nevada, where being on “free lunch means you’re a scrounge, but reduced lunch means you’re regular.” Only two kinds of people make it out of there, she explains: “kids gunning for something and kids running away.” When Watkins meets a promising young student, she wants to both help her and caution her. Watkins was a runner, and she’s melancholically aware of the dislocations that her ambition has caused.
In a spirited, cutting essay called “Snarling Girl,” the novelist Elisa Albert reorients the entire premise of “Double Bind.” “Maybe my great ambition, such as it is, is to refrain from engagement with systems that purport to tell me what I’m worth compared to anyone else,” she writes. She adds, “What I would like to say is Lean In_ _my hairy Jewish ass.” Albert spells out the foolishness of trying to generalize about ambition: the desire to be a first-generation college student isn’t easily comparable to the desire to shatter a glass ceiling or own a luxury car or write a work of genius. “Our contexts are not the same, our struggles are not the same, and so our rebellions and complacencies and conformities and compromises cannot be compared.” To Albert, ambition is a quality that arises organically from both vanity and a genuine wish to do good work; it’s also something she regards as alien and horrific. “So you got what you wanted and now you want something else,” she writes. “You probably worked really hard; I salute you. . . . But if you have ever spent any time around seriously ambitious people, you know that they are very often some of the unhappiest crazies alive, forever rooting around for more, having a hard time breathing and eating and sleeping, forever trying to cover some hysterical imagined nakedness.” Albert’s essay is easily the most ambitious in the collection.
There’s an infantilizing undertone that is often present in the discussions of women’s ambition happening right now. On the Web site for the Tory Burch Foundation, you’ll find an ambition pledge (“I will: Embrace ambition. Proudly articulate my ambition. Not hide it”) and an “Ambition Guidebook,” which encourages you to “gather your favorite pen, pencil, colored pencils or markers.” Within that guidebook, there’s a box for writing down ten things you love about yourself, and another box in which you can “draw or write your dreams.”
Another prominent symbol of female ambition put forward this year is a statue of an elementary-school student: the bronze “Fearless Girl” staring down the famous bull on Wall Street. The statue was conceived by an advertising agency for an investment firm whose twenty-eight-person leadership team contains five women; according to the sculptor, Kristen Visbal, the statue “reminds us today’s working woman is here to stay.” It’s dismaying, and revealing, that this message is most easily conveyed through a figure of a girl—her skirt and ponytail blown back in the breeze, cheerfully unaware of the strained, exhausted, overdetermined future that awaits her.
Author: Jia Tolentino