Courtney Martin

On How Using Power Means Being Responsible.

In one of my departments I have an administrative role. Nobody understands how I accomplish so much with such little trouble. It is because I inform myself well, assert power in a useful way, look ahead, and keep up with things. I do this because I am working on behalf of others. I would not want to be irresponsible to them. Now I am learning once again to be responsible to myself, as I was much more before Reeducation – at work, but also in life.

Some Instances of Magical Thinking. On Misguided Control.

I was eating disordered in high school. I believed that if I could stay stably at size 5, never bubbling up into my natural 7, the family would be happy. I would feel free, my parents would stop drinking, and everything would be all right. And one my main disagreements with Reeducation was that it believed the same thing: if we could just be more perfect, everything would be all right.

If we succeeded, our associates would follow this path of health. This exertion of influence upon others was the permitted goal. To strike out on our own, to leave leaden shoes behind, would be an attempt to “control reality.” We should become the purest of roses and live in a hill of thorns. That is, of course, exactly wrong, and it is how, in Reeducation, I learned to abandon myself. I would have been wiser to keep control and ownership of my own life.

On Perfection. A Further Instance of Misguided Control.

On woman in patriarchal society as defective by definition, Lakshmi Chaudhry writes on Courtney Martin’s book:

“I feel girls are even more pressured than boys because we have to ‘make’ something of ourselves, whereas for boys it’s natural to become [something].” So no wonder middle school girls are just as worried about achievement (73 percent) as appearance (74 percent). These fears only get worse in high school, but the average elementary school kid is already well on the way to supergirl neuroses: 59 percent are worried about getting good grades; 54 percent are concerned about their appearance. In her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney Martin writes, “Our mothers had the luxury of aspiring to be ‘good,’ but we have the ultimate goal of ‘effortless perfection.’ This was the term that young women at Duke University used to describe ‘the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort.'”

Martin argues that young women from the ages of 9 to 29 have internalized the go-girl rhetoric of feminine achievement as a duty to excel. “[My mother] told me, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ My translation: ‘I have to be everything.'” Or more accurately, be the very best at everything. Anything less is interpreted as failure: a failure to perform, and therefore a failure to please; ergo, a failure to be worthy. “We have called this insatiable hunger by many different names–ambition, drive, pride–but in truth it is a fundamental distrust that we deserve to be on this earth,” writes Martin.

Martin’s book is about eating disorders, but it appears that structure of eating disorders is also that of many other difficulties. And the message limit yourself and be perfect is, of course, a contradiction. Perfection is a large and tranquil thing, and anguish and repression cannot lead to it.

On Contradictions.

It is impossible to be perfectly obedient/conformist and at the same time perfectly independent/original, but Martin’s analysis suggests that this double attitude, or double way of being is precisely what is demanded of women today. We are to be perfect, in an impressive and yet non-challenging, conformist way, if we are to be here at all.

I note that a similarly double attitude is required of members of alcoholic families – achieve in such a way as to demonstrate that this situation is not in fact chaotic. A contradictory attitude seems also to be required of academics: be passive, quietist and conformist, but produce very original work. 

On Freedom.

And it appears one may exert power and control in the pursuit of perfection, and even of happiness, but not in pursuit of freedom. But it was always freedom which interested me. And freedom without power is alienation, I discern, and I am calling my powers back to me.

Axé.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Courtney Martin

  1. I see a lot of what is being described as a form of blackmail towards social conformity. Especially the requirement of effortlessness. What is hanging over us if we fail to perform with the effortless grace that is required of us? The inevitable charge of hysteria.

    And this is how females are made to absorb the responsibility of male irresponsiblity or for their outright social dysfunction. The males can bully us privately or publically. They can undermine our ability to perform through being drunks, or having Borderline Personality Disorder — and yet any deviation from the script of effortless performance, and it just looks as if the female is “hysterical”.

  2. That’d be very wrong.

  3. Yes, wrong, but it really is what happens: lack of effortless perfection = hysteria, or being too demanding, or etc.

  4. And think about what all this means as you age and can’t even impersonate perfection any more.

  5. Also, in the internalising sense, I wasn’t brought up with any original pressure to ‘make’ something of myself. I never knew how to play this game, when I first migrated. It took me several years to realise that there was such a game. Truly I had no idea why everyone seemed so inwards looking, and nobody was really doing anything with their lives. I think they were all mustering together the force of image over reality. I, meanwhile, wondered at the quality of my socially depleted reality. It had been all siphened into image, by those around me. This was impossible for me to even understand for years and years.

  6. Yes. I was not raised to “make” something of myself either – the expectation was to go to college in the East to become cultured, work as a secretary in a nice New York business in for a year, marry an executive from there, and then begin raising children for him in a suburban farmhouse he would buy in Connecticut. One was to wear Talbots and Ann Taylor and dress the children too in preppie clothes.

    !!! The idea of doing something with one’s life was considered terribly arrogant. I still have done very little with my life compared to what I would have liked … I don’t think being a professor is not so different from being that housewife unless you have a job that lets you do major work of some kind, I haven’t had or made that opportunity yet.

  7. ahh things have truly not changed from the 70’s where i was sent to college to marry a white collar man who would be able to take care of me in the life style i deserved…hog-wash i said…and here i am in a male dominated field – telling them what to do..in a nice way…

    i can leave one few chances of happiness – in the america way…such are the choices we as woman have to make

  8. Yes. I was not raised to “make” something of myself either …

    But that IS making something of yourself — only not very much!

    I was raised to be pretty impulsive, pretty spontaneous, to embrace a very high level of freedom. Nobody had any particular idea what the outcome of this would be or oughta be. At least nobody talked it over with me.

  9. Azg – I started college in the 70’s, too!

    J – “But that IS making something of yourself — only not very much!” –Well, that’s true.

    “I was raised to be pretty impulsive, pretty spontaneous, to embrace a very high level of freedom.” –I am envious. We were raised to be rigid and to follow rules. But I was born dignified and dreaming of freedom.

  10. I am envious. We were raised to be rigid and to follow rules. But I was born dignified and dreaming of freedom.

    The African schooling system was something apart from the norm. It was very different from the total psychological capitulation taught in schools today. You were horizontally loyal — loyal to your own generation, with whom you shared similar ideas, similar proclivities for spontaneity and rebelliousness, and above all, similar circumstances. The generation above you — the teachers — were seen as possibly very decent human beings, but nonetheless people to whom you owed no particular allegiance, because they were of the generation above. So, it was okay to be a little bit cheeky to them — thus maintaining the fine line between social necessity (obedience) and psychological independence. By contast, what I see in the school systems today is SYMBOLIC defiance, but actually total psychological capitulation t0 the ideology of the dominant social order. These children would stab anyone in the back in order to get ahead.

  11. “By contrast, what I see in the school systems today is SYMBOLIC defiance, but actually total psychological capitulation t0 the ideology of the dominant social order. These children would stab anyone in the back in order to get ahead.”

    Yes – this is what I see. The schools I went to (plain old American public schools, but in the sixties and seventies) were far more liberal and taught very different values. It was why I liked school, and especially elementary school, as much as I did – very relaxed and non-authoritarian compared to home.

  12. very relaxed and non-authoritarian compared to home.

    My school system, like I said, was very authoritarian on the surface of things, but actually very permissive underneath the surface. It was as if there were two layers or crosscurrents. You can see the kind of ideology I’m talking about expressed in this book.. The idea was to kind of use authoritarianism to CHANNEL the natural rebellious energies of youth, but not to stamp it out.

  13. “I am calling my powers back to me.”

    Magic really seems to work – today already I acquired a great grad student, two great undergrad honors students, and a great tenure track assistant professor . . . ! Of course I didn’t “acquire” them, you know … I got to start working with them.

  14. Ah, like magnetised filings.

  15. Magnetised (or in U.S.-speak, -tized) filings???

  16. LIke when you are a kid and you get these iron filings (shavings) and magnetise them by exposing them to a magnet. and well, then they become magnetic and stick to metal.

  17. Oh! I have never done that! Now I get it! :-)

  18. Ewan

    This isen’t just something that women and girls are experiencing though and I don’t think it’s mainly due to a patriarchal society. Of course, it’s probably more women feeling this way, but this:

    “[My mother] told me, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ My translation: ‘I have to be everything.’” Or more accurately, be the very best at everything. Anything less is interpreted as failure: a failure to perform, and therefore a failure to please; ergo, a failure to be worthy. “We have called this insatiable hunger by many different names–ambition, drive, pride–but in truth it is a fundamental distrust that we deserve to be on this earth,” writes Martin.”

    Applies to everyone in today’s society. The “you can be everything”-dogma, that we have the world before us is a trait of the western world today. Thus, I don’t see how this is only a feminist issue, or that’s it’s better disputed AS a feminist issue.

    Good article.

  19. That is interesting. Martin of course is talking about it in relation to girls and women who suffer from eating disorders, and it is demonstrable that women are traditionally defined as “defective” in some way which then makes us vulnerable to such disorders.

    But in more general terms, yes it applies to everyone although I would bet that men experience it differently than women (not necessarily less severely, but differently so).

    “You can be everything” as a *dogma,* good point.
    And the idea that one has the world before one is actually a terrible pressure, especially when it isn’t exactly so.

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