A general assumption about confidence is that women, particularly young women, will have very little of it, and girls will have zero of it. Just the attitude alone makes me sad: “We have to help our girls and teach them to be confident.” Well, guess what, young girls. You aren’t damsels in distress. You aren’t hostages to the words of your peers. You aren’t the victims that even your well-meaning teachers and advocates think you are.
We just assume boys will be confident, like how your parents assume you will brush your teeth every morning without checking in on you in the bathroom. With girls, that assumption flies out the window. Suddenly, your parents are standing in the bathroom with you, watching you brush your teeth with encouraging, worried expressions on their faces. Sweetheart, you can do it! We know it’s hard to brush your teeth! We love you! Which must make girls think, Yikes. Is brushing your teeth a really hard and scary thing to do? I thought it was just putting toothpaste on a toothbrush.
I get worried that telling girls how difficult it is to be confident implies a tacit expectation that girls won’t be able to do it. The good news is that, as a country, we are all about telling girls to be confident. It’s our new national pastime. Every day I see Twitter posts, Instagram campaigns, and hashtags that say things like “We Will!” or “Girls Can!” or “Me Must, I Too!” on them. I think widespread, online displays of female self-confidence are good for people, especially men, to see. I just sometimes get the sneaking suspicion that corporations are co-opting “girl confidence” language to rally girls into buying body wash. Be careful. (p. 223)
I’m sure not everyone loves Mindy Kaling as much as I do. Her comedy is aimed very much at my generation (the earliest years of the Millennials – those who occasionally try to sneak by on Gen X cred), and it’s especially appealing to women (or so I have gathered from talking to my husband and several of his friends). I’ve come to accept this as the way of comedy. It tends to be polarizing, alienating, or ignored by those outside the target audience. Of course, there are exceptions. (A notable “current” exception is Parks and Rec, a show enjoyed by myself, my parents, and the teenagers I work with – it doesn’t get much more all-encompassing.)
By and large though, comedy is a personal genre. A comedian or a bit is either hilarious to you, or it’s not based on age, gender, background, and life experiences. For me, Mindy Kaling, both as a writer and an actress, is on point. Her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, was happily consumed on audiobook on long runs, and I often found myself laughing out loud as I panted up and down hills during race prep.
Her second book, on the other hand, is much more serious. She has clearly grown in her understanding of both herself and the industry, and although people often pigeonhole her into the characters she’s played, this book is an in-depth look at how hard she works to be successful. (Spoiler alert: having a television show in which you star AND do a huge amount of writing means every day is eighteen to twenty hours long, and it leaves very little time for a social life. It sounded like Hollywood’s version of bootcamp, and I had no desire to switch places with her whatsoever!) She keeps her sense of humor though, and this time around, when I laughed, it was often out of sympathy and understanding.
Sure, her job is a far cry from what I do, but there are moments that resonated deeply for me. Her relationship with her family, her joy in doing what she loves professionally, and a wonderful work community buoys her through day to day experiences that might otherwise be untenable. Kaling may be famous, but her celebrity comes with a heavy price, one that many of us non-famous folks understand. Pursuing a passionate life’s work doesn’t come with short cuts or lucky breaks – it’s exhausting in a way that’s rewarding not only for the end result, but for the love of doing it. If out of that struggle comes success, it’s a privilege, not a right.
This is a difficult lesson to stomach. We all want to feel that our commitment and particular talents are enough to give us a step up on the path, but the truth is, our best work can go unrecognized. Even if we do catch a break, many projects will still fail. All we can hope for is that the experiences motivate us to keep chipping away and to have fun while we’re doing it. Kaling’s experiences were a breath of fresh air for me in this department. Perseverance is crucial – it’s not enough to be talented or to have great ideas – for true magic to happen, the work has to get done.