One Big Question: Who Has It All?
This is the first in a series I’m calling One Big Question. Because I’m really nosy, once a month, I’ll pose a question to a bunch of our contributors and collect their responses, because I figured a few of you might be really nosy too. Got a question you’d like me to ask? Email me.
Yesterday marked the one month anniversary of Haley and I starting at the Hairpin; for my first month, I had two editorial goals: not to publish anything by a straight white male (in which we succeeded!), and not to write anything about Beyonce. The constant invoking of her name has become the most recent in a series of trite ways to frame any topic about women, symptomatic of lazy journalism. In my “elevator pitch” to Haley when we first met, I told her that the Hairpin should be a place of refuge from the rest of the Internet, so I would never want to run anything that could just as easily be published elsewhere. “The Hairpin is for the weirdest, coolest girl in the room,” I told her, which is true, so if that girl has already read everything on why Beyonce’s better than anyone else, why repeat that?
Luckily that month-long embargo is over, and I can say: I fucking love Beyonce. Yes, there are problematic aspects of her image, and no, I don’t think she — — or anyone — — should be deigned The Ultimate Woman, but I am here for her. I love her because she forces us to ask questions: is her feminism authentic or contrived? Does she act according to her own agency or is she deferring to the male gaze? We make decisions and assess feelings and have conversations that would not be as widespread or as prevalent without her. I love Beyonce, but sometimes I feel bad for doing so, and that pushes me to examine my decisions, more than my love of Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Zora Neale Hurston does. That’s what having it all means to me: having layers, complexities, having people who like you and people who don’t, being sure of yourself regardless. That she’s a woman of color is the icing on the cake.
If you’re ever feeling low, if you’re exhausted and just want to crawl into yourself, here’s what I suggest you do: watch the Single Ladies video. I cannot fully explain it (maybe Kanye can?), but there is a magic in that video that always pulls me in. The fire in her eyes, her utmost command — that power is contagious, and I inevitably start dancing along. I don’t know what having it all is, but I know it involves that strength, that fire, and probably, those thighs.
I asked a few of our contributors — my friends and yours, women we all admire — who they considered to have It All, who they turned to in times of strength, who is their Beyonce-in-that-unitard. Enjoy.
I have way too many women that I turn to in times of fear and frustration, but the person who has affected me the most, in recent years, is Eartha Kitt. She is a badass: the OG of cool, sexual and smart woman. I’ve been consumed by her biography, Thursday’s Child (her first of three, published in 1956). Here was a highly articulate, self-evaluating woman, who was unafraid of being terse. Sincerity and integrity seemed to be the two main things that drove her. A biracial kid growing up in America — someone who was not afforded many privileges — her tenacity to live and just be, is inspiring to me everyday. Her resilience of character, her questioning of hierarchies — challenging patriarchy and racist society — makes her a powerhouse for me. She also seemed to love women, and fought for a larger feminist dialogue, even if she felt largely unaccepted by them. From a woman that claimed, “I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma,” I am learning that vulnerability can co-exist within strength, that it’s totally okay to fuck up and not know it all — and when you look at your champion for advice, that’s sometimes the only thing you want to hear.
I guess I don’t think of role models in terms of who seems like they have “it all,” because I don’t know what “it all” is. It all changes, it all is maybe doable sometimes and then sometimes it all is impossible. But if I’m thinking, like, what woman out there is Doing Her in a way that I find commanding, and inspiring, and challenging, I think of Rihanna. She’s just such a star. She’s the best. Her Twitter is so fucking funny. She’s so good with the cunning, biting @ reply. I would love to be as clever with a comeback as she is. Rihanna is in complete control of her narrative, her vulnerability. (See: the CBS incident.) Rihanna is nobody’s. She does not feel the need to explain herself to you or me. She doesn’t give a fuck. I feel like if some lazy interviewer were to ask Rihanna, “Rihanna, would you consider yourself a feminist?” she’d be like, “Side-eye gif.” So I think she’s who I’d think of first if I’m feeling bad about myself for whatever reason, internal or external, and just want to feel tougher, and harder. WWRRD? I should have a bracelet. Except I did actually try to do what Rihanna would do once, and dressed like one of her characters in the “Disturbia” video for Halloween, and everyone was just like, “What?” Nobody got it at all. So it’s hard to approximate Rihanna. But inwardly, I try. Also, she is the most beautiful and coolest dressed person on the planet.
The obvious answer, for me, is Tina Fey. She’s gotten to the point in her career where she pretty much has her pick of projects just because people love and trust her. (A new TV show? Sure! A Broadway musical? By all means!) And she has a family she’s completely devoted to, and from everything I’ve heard (including people who know and work with her personally), she’s extraordinarily nice, and down-to-earth. That to me, seems to be really having it all: a fulfilling career, a family you’re devoted to, and mostly, the ability to “have it all” and still be nice.
I have two people I look to: one is Jill Soloway, who is the creator and showrunner on Transparent, about a family where the father comes out as trans. She’s so accomplished and pushes forward important stories in a field where that seems impossible for women. I think if Jill can get Transparent made, then I have no excuses for compromising on my vision for my work. The other is Sara Benincasa, who is a comedian, public speaker, and author. Sara works harder than anyone I have ever known. She’s constantly thinking and planning and executing these amazing ideas like her tour to benefit gay youth centers and she’s writing like, 3 books at once right now. She’s a person who comes up with an idea and makes it happen in a world where there are so many people who come up with excuses not to do the work. It’s one thing to be a genius and it’s another to actually make shit happen and Sara is a perfect reminder of that.
I don’t think there’s a particular individual that I look to in moments of crisis. As much as Twitter can be kind of weird and fraught, when I’m feeling kind of stuck I like to look at the feeds of the smart, cool women I follow who are getting shit DONE. Seeing them boosting articles they wrote or celebrating career accomplishments in between more mundane updates like how the barista spelled their name wrong is a nice reminder that things happen over time, and one day you’re doing nothing in bed with your laptop and the next day might be more productive and exciting, and that’s fine. (To be honest I consider a day in bed with my laptop a pretty great day, but you get what I’m saying.)
I mean okay, it’s obvs that Beyonce or Nicki Minaj have pretty enviable lives. #FeministsAgainstPants. I’m not sure there’s one woman that I look to in a rough spot, but rather a pantheon of beautiful goddesses that help depending on which downward spiral I’m on at the moment. I do think one thing they have in common is that they all said “fuck it” and went for what their passion was. I look to dancers like Marlo Fisken when I need motivation to dance and work out. I look to writers like Roxane Gay for writing inspiration, but also to know that you can be true to yourself and still succeed, something I see performers like Amy Poelher and Janelle Monae doing as well. If I did have to choose one it’d probably be my grandma (I know, schmaltz). She moved to America in 1962 when there were barely any Indian people here, with a PhD in Zoology when I can’t imagine many women were in the sciences. She was a professor, wife and mother, and always has that “quiet strength” thing going on. She’s 85 now, 4’10”, and continues to awe me with her wisdom, humor, and resilience.
I sat on this for a while because I don’t think I know anyone who has it all, and that’s ok. Nothing is worse than a person who has everything together. It’s like walking into a spotless apartment. It’s unsettling and almost rude. How dare you live so cleanly?? Honestly, If making it through a rough day means you have to cry on the subway, or listen to Drake in the dark or eat an entire box of mac and cheese, do it. The best part of this is you get to wake up the next morning and say “Wow, yesterday sucked.”
Veronica de Souza
This has changed as I’ve grown (Madeleine L’Engle was my first big idol, followed closely by Claire Huxtable) but ever since I got a dog Laurie Anderson has been the be-all-end-all of WILBs (Women I’d Like to Be). Never mind that she created a nearly-nine-minute experimental art video that somehow managed to hit #2 on the UK charts, or that she and Lou Reed had what seemed to be the most solid celebrity marriage around; what I admire most is her ability to take a common experience that people tend to ridicule — namely, obsession with her dog — and turn it into awesome art, including a concert for dogs in the Sydney Opera House. Laurie Anderson makes great things largely because she gives no fucks about what other people think. I’d love to share that attitude.
You know, I find the phrase “Beyonce wasn’t built in a day” one of the most comforting phrases to repeat when I feel overwhelmed. But I find Park Chan-Wook’s cinematic heroines very moving, they are my heroes. Lady Vengeance got me through the darkest periods of my depression, I owe so much to that film. It let me formulate a way where I felt I could weaponize my beauty in a way that could make me feel a lot safer walking home at night. Then when I needed to begin to parse out my body dysphoria and trauma, I could super identify with the protagonist in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok. None of these film heroines have it all, actually. They’re super fucked up but I appreciate that and relate to that. They are not good examples of to the kind of people you should be but they are good examples of what happens nonetheless. You can get lost in their stories if you open up the anxiety pockets in your own heart, and then they are not irredeemable. I mean, I’m not going to go murder people for revenge for my ills like Lady Vengeance, but I can definitely fantasize that my fingernails are actual machine guns like my favorite Cyborg girl. That is very calming to me. Poetic, even. Anger is an energy, we have to use it well.
For me, since I work during the daytime as a creative person in a commercial industry, I’m always impressed by people who are balancing those two tensions in a positive and successful way. One person that really comes to mind is Jenna Lyons, the president and executive creative director of J.Crew. But I think most women in New York must be inspired by her person, I know I’m not alone — as she’s produced a massive professional success, with an incredible eye for clothes, and carrying a unique beauty in her appearance. I think she strikes an inspiring silhouette of the modern working woman. From what I’ve read about her personal life, it seems that she has overcome a lot of adversity, getting through it with intelligence, courage and confidence. Personally, I can’t imagine anything more inspiring as I try my best, often facing a lot of self-doubt, and working in a male-dominated career space. I’ve often wondered how she has been able to achieve and maintain such a strong vision, all while uncovering milestones in being a single mother, and finding love with her girlfriend, Courtney Crangi. She is a great example to credit for possibly reinventing what “it all” might mean to a lot of women today.
I actively style my life after Joan Didion. Like, you know those TLC specials where people get plastic surgery to look like Justin Bieber or Angelina Jolie or a Ken doll? It’s practically on that level. Aesthetically, I’m constantly striving for her sort of anonymously chic ’70s intellectual vibe. There’s this one part in “The White Album” where she talks about what she packs for a trip, and this document is my touchstone. Other people read fashion blogs, I’ve read this essay probably 100 times. On an intellectual/life level, I’m obsessed with her seemingly-effortless ability to find meaning in inexplicable happenings. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll think about Joan and be like, “Oh this is just the part of my life/unwritten memoir where I get broken up with/fired from my job/sent to the hospital for mental health problems.” It’s the most calming mentality that I can fake inhabit. This isn’t really my natural outlook on things, but I guess what we have in common genuinely is that we’re both really good at fetishizing that early 20s search for meaning. She writes books about it, I make Facebook statuses. Whatever. When I picture myself as an old woman I actually just picture a photo of Joan Didion.
When I need to feel strong and powerful, I look no further than the woman who is literally one of the most powerful women on Earth: Queen Elizabeth II. She’s solid, dependable, and just always there. The world has changed definitively since she started her reign in 1952, yet she’s completely unflappable. She’s been parodied by the Sex Pistols and the butt of numerous weird British jokes, yet she just ignores the static and continues to do her job, waving at everyone. She’s got a reputation for being a bit icy but it’s important to cultivate some emotional distance in her line of work. If the Queen can deal with annoying political leaders for 62 years and not lose her cool, than I can definitely get through this shitty week.
Amy Poehler has this one quote: “I just love bossy women. I could be around them all day,” and it’s exactly why I adore her. She is a feminist, obviously, and talks about it often, but more than that, she simply exists as woman in the world in the way she feels like it. She does what she wants, and she doesn’t give a fuck if she has it all. Well, maybe she does. I’m not sure. I’ve never discussed it with her. But to me, Poehler has achieved her dreams without ever sacrificing her sense of self. I’ve seen her improvise at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, a comedy theater she founded in the 90s, and she performs with the same carefree joy: She knows she’s funny, and is somehow both an incredibly supportive player while never trying to please anybody else. On and offstage, she is in control. She can play everything from tomboys to ditzy girls, and can destroy a room with a single joke. In her free time, she works to support younger female creators through her Smart Girls At The Party series and by producing Broad City. Yes, she’s a divorced mom, but does that mean she doesn’t have it all? She’s dating a hot younger dude. She lives her life unapologetically being herself, and doesn’t care if you like it. But you probably do, because she’s hilarious, and compassionate, and smart, and delightful. I love her more than anybody else I’ve never met. She’s contributed so much joy to my life and many others’. Amy, if you ever want to get drunk together, I will pay.