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"Having It All": Why it's High Time the Media Changed its Tune

Posted: 23/07/11 18:28

It's now almost 30 years since the publication of Helen Gurley Brown's "Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money Even If You're Starting With Nothing". In the book, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine argued that it was completely possible for the modern woman to have everything she'd always wanted, from a stellar career to a happy relationship.

The concept of "having it all" - and whether it is, in fact, achievable (or not) has since become one of those almost permanent fixtures in newspapers and women's magazines. It's a handy concept that can tie in with stories about women in the workplace, relationships, childrearing and sex. It's a phrase beloved by journalists writing about Sex and the City, or Jennifer Aniston, or discussing the female candidates on The Apprentice.

But what's noticeable about the preoccupation with "having it all", is that in recent years it's become more of a sneer, a snort of derision, something to rub in women's faces. It's become the thing that we women thought we could have, but - oh no - it's actually the thing we need to realize will only bring misery, low self-esteem, broken relationships and traumatized children.

Consider the raft of stories on this theme beloved by the press - the damage done by feminism, the tyranny of "evil" female bosses and impenetrable glass ceilings; tales of the "Bridget Jones generation" - 30 or 40-something, single and sad. Women "leaving it too late" to have children after spending years working for recognition in the boardroom; the insinuation that the world would be a far better place if we just went back to the kitchen, and the glorification of privileged, pristine domesticity and yummy mummydom. How many articles purporting to tell readers that "all today's women really want is a rich man" have we seen?

It's time we moved on from these well-worn clich├ęs. The problem with this eagerness to prove that "having it all" is impossible, is that it all too often ends up as thinly-veiled misogyny, mockery aimed at those women who dare to try to "make it in a man's world". It won't make you happy, ladies, just you wait! Conveniently, it usually fails to mention exactly why woman might put pressure on themselves to be everything to everyone - a quest for perfection fully endorsed by books, magazines, television shows and advertising. Society drums it in that what's desirable is the amazing body, the dream wedding, the fabulous job, the perfect children, the beautiful house. And women who don't measure up are subject to ridicule and disdain.

Where are the articles asking if men can "have it all"? Imagine the headlines - "I thought combining a career with marriage and fatherhood would be easy. Now I'm living with the dire consequences." It seems ridiculous because it never happens. This same concept, supposedly unattainable for women, is the expected norm for most men. No-one ever asks a man how he expects to "juggle work and family". It's rare that the same newspapers telling women they can't have it all suggest that more men adapt to societal changes and help share housekeeping and childrearing.

Conveniently, insightful research such as this long term study on the effects of working mothers on children, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health last week, or the Fathers, Family and Work report from 2009, which found that fathers are happier when they do household chores, spend more time with their children, and are able to work flexible hours, is usually ignored in what often seems like a backlash against equality. With the former's findings that there are "no significant detrimental effects on a child's social or emotional development if their mothers work during their early years", it contradicts the reports beloved by some sections of the media which link working mothers to poor behaviour, overweight children and depression.

The concept of not being able to "have it all" is frequently framed as the natural consequence of the fight for gender equality, a signifier that women will never run with the big boys because the world won't change. Workplace sexism? Shows they just can't take it. Failed marriage? That's what they get for trying to take a man's place. It's time for the media to start framing it as what it really is: the natural consequence of women being told they must be perfect in every way, the conflation of happiness and fulfillment with social status, looks worthy of an A-list celebrity and material goods. "Having it all" can be achievable, if only it was accepted that it means different things to everyone and that it shouldn't be an excuse to put women down, stamp on the enormous progress made in the past 50 years, or ignore the changing aspirations of today's men.

 

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