06 Apr Be a Lady: The Manual of the Impossible
A month ago, social media platforms were shaken by a video created by the Girls Girls Girls Magazine which reproduced Camille Rainville’s piece “Be a Lady They Said”, on the contradictory messages women receive daily. It did not take long for it to become viral as the video reveals an awful truth: despite the differences among women, we have all received at least two contradictory instructions from the manual of the impossible. Hence, this video gives us an opportunity to reflect on how gender expectations and gender stereotypes harm us.
According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE): “A gender stereotype is a preconceived idea where women and men are assigned characteristics and roles determined and limited by their gender. Stereotypes about gender often take one of two forms. One assumes all members of a category (such as a profession) share a gender, for example the assumption that all company directors are men and all secretaries are women. The other is assuming that all members of a gender share a characteristic, for example believing that all women love to shop or that ‘boys don’t cry.” Gender stereotypes are incredibly pervasive not only because of the descriptive function they may perform –the fallacy that they describe a reality– but of their normative aspect: unconsciously they dictate what society believes in, they form a –wrong– idea of how women (and also men) must behave.
The video plays with different symbolisms as well: it was released a day after the verdict that declared Harvey Weinstein guilty of a criminal sex act in the first degree and rape in the third degree. The narrator is the well-known actress and LGBT activist Cynthia Nixon. As an actress she is well known for her portrayal of Miranda Hobbes in “Sex & the City,” a series set in the iconic 90s that called for the sexual liberation of women. Miranda is a super successful and detached Manhattan business lawyer with a stay at home husband. Following on from this role, Cynthia Nixon became a women’s and LGBTQ+ activist and ran for New York’s governor as part of the Democratic party. Nixon’s voice is powerful as is her stance, and it contributes to the strong message that the video seeks to deliver. In fact, her eyes, the way she shows her teeth as she speaks throughout the video, sets the tone of anger and gravity which is desperately needed to convey the injustice faced by women. This power is seen particularly, when she recites the following part : “Highlight your cheekbones. Line your lids. Fill in your brows. Lengthen your lashes. Color your lips. Powder, blush, bronze, highlight. Your hair is too short. Dye your hair”, she then makes a pause to emphasize: “Not blue, that looks unnatural” opening her eyes, with a cynical smile.
The video also portrays the stereotypes that high-performing and high-achieving women face on a daily basis in research, higher education and academia: “Don’t be too loud. Don’t talk too much. Don’t stand like that. Don’t be intimidating. Why are you so miserable? Don’t be a bitch. Don’t be so bossy. Don’t be so emotional. Don’t cry. Don’t yell.” These ‘guidelines’ remind women how they should act and the social sanctions they may face if they diverge from what is expected of them. Gender stereotypes are incredibly harmful for a woman’s career. Indeed, there is a significant gender gap in career advancement, aptly captured by the well-known metaphors of the leaky pipeline and glass ceiling.
The video is well-informed and reflects the events and trends with a gender component of the past year as well. However, to notice all these events, it is necessary to be an attentive viewer and re-watch the video, several times if needed. Some of the events featured included Pope Francis mistreating a Chinese parishioner, Marie Kondo’s hands perfectly folding a man’s t-shirt, Claire Underwood running a country in House of Cards, President Trump’s hubris, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez being radically vocal in the House of Representatives.
But since not all is rosy (thankfully!) I have various criticisms for the Girls Girls Girls’ production as well. While the aesthetic of the video is what makes it tremendously mighty, it is important to unmask that a specific “aesthetic of beauty” seems required to deliver such a message. Diversity is (predominantly) out of the picture: we can see only four black women, three from Asia and one Latina; none with disabilities and no challenge to the gender binary. And let’s be honest: most of the women portrayed seem to comply with the current canonical codes of beauty –they are in fact models the magazine portrays in their photoshoots or famous actress, such as Rachel McAdams: mainly skinny, amazing skin, hairless bodies– and to belong to the middle or high class. As if, to be heard and to have an impact, denunciation must follow those strict fashion codes.
To conclude, at times when COVID-19 has hit our planet (and those privileged like me have no other choice than to seek refuge in our homes and virtual spaces), I propose the following exercise: plead mea culpa, watch the video and think about all the times that you gave a sister, a friend, a colleague, an employee –perhaps in good faith– an instruction of the manual of the impossible.
Agostina Allori is an Argentinian-Italian Gender Equality Consultant at Yellow Window. She is a specialist in gender equality and women’s rights with a JD from Universidad de San Andrés, a Master of Laws (LL.M) from Michigan Law School and an LL.M in International Human Rights Law from Central European University.
 See: Mergaert, L., & Forest, M. (2015). Incorporating Gender and Diversity. The SAGE Handbook of Research Management, 124-143 and Filandri, M., & Pasqua, S. (2019): ‘Being good isn’t good enough’: gender discrimination in Italian academia, Studies in Higher Education. Available here: https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1693990.