|By Carol Amoruso, HAV Editor
Reading Dan Kindlon’sAlpha Girls: Understanding the New American Girl and How She is Changing the World, left me deeply dismayed, and at times downright indignant. It is a superficial and unnuanced account that augurs a new generation of women I believe sentient, evolved women would, with all their heart, renounce.
Kindlon’s premise, based mostly on his own survey of 900 participants (designed with graduate student, Amy Sapp), anecdotal observations of his two daughters, and a large body of data, is that gender roles in our society are being redefined by the cohort of 20% of all 13 to 22 year-old maturing women he calls” alpha girls.” Armed with bravado, a fierce will to succeed and, thanks to our post-modern culture and their mothers’ sacrifices, a clear path with no obstacles thrown before them, they’re on their way to wrest the reins of corporate, professional and governmental power from men.
His girls have “grown up with the fruits of feminism,” privileged to reap the plums of their mothers’ years in the trenches, but these fruits have already been plucked, peeled and canned and turned into a convenience food ready for the microwave. There’s no zest and no yummy crust stuck to the pot to scrape off. No thanks are given at the table because the Teflonned alphas feel their every advantage is an entitlement.
First objection: The title. Robert Parry, in Bush: Alpha Male on the Cruise Ship, observes that much of George Bush’s abrasiveness and aggression can be classed as alpha male. ”The alpha male,” says Parry, “often refers to a man who is powerful or high on the social ladder, similar to hegemonic masculinity. In Western cultures, the term is sometimes pejorative and describes a man who is overly masculine and should be feared.” Kindlon’s sample is, for the most part, a crop of young women who exhibit many of the attributes of the alpha male: They are focused single-mindedly on material success and high status, are brash, aggressive and self-involved, oftentimes callous. The author refers to a number of these alphas as “male identified.”
Are alpha girls worthy of praise and reinforcement just because they seem, without looking back or around, to be hustling their way above the glass ceiling and into the CEO penthouse suite? Rather, their solo flights might need to be probed for signs of what’s wrong with us as a culture to put such high premiums on these attainments and not on more social goals.
Offense number two: The subtitle. I find it disingenuous: How can this subset–20% of half (assuming 50% of this age group is male/ 50% female) of 13 to 22 year-olds, none of whom have yet entered the workplace, the halls of government, and precious few, even, the academy, be already “changing the world?” If anything, this is a wild-eyed prediction; I suspect that a good part of the cheerleading on of Kindlon’s rarified population is the wishful thinking of a conscientious yet misguided, mega-mainstream father that he is doing his job—arguably so much more difficult nowadays—well.
In fact, the author spends a great deal of time on alphas’ relationships with their fathers. And it’s all positive: Mom and Dad are both happy with father’s presumed greater role in turning out super-achieving girls–there’s no competition between the two over loyalties, no differences over values–girls can share emotional problems with their dads, and they see their fathers’ professional success and interest in sports as great boons to their future gender-bending adulthood.
Surely, the picture is more nuanced than this. Nowhere is mentioned the fact—nor its impact–that 50% of first marriages end in divorce, 48% of all heads of households are unmarried, nor that 43% of today’s weddings (2002 figures, culled from U.S statistics by Divorce Magazine). These and other indications of great upheaval in the family dynamic cannot but redefine in dramatic ways a girl’s relationship to her father.
If emotional intimacy and trust are compromised by divorce, especially between a daughter and a father who becomes estranged from the household, then intimacy and trust between a maturing girl and an incoming non-biological father figure must be that much more elusive and become a dicey ingredient in a girl’s ultimate ability to relate to men. Kindlon, without ever addressing the issue, blithely avers, making no distinction between in-household and out-of-household fathers, nor between biological vs. surrogate fathers, that alphas are being groomed by their new-found bonding and positive relationship with their “fathers” to do that much better in a man’s world than the generations before them.
Girls are identifying so positively with their fathers, says Kindlon, that he favors us with one alpha who criticizes her mother for languishing in a law career less challenging than her husband.
Kindlon is a psychologist, a PhD. with creds as a professor at Harvard. That makes it so much more baffling that he takes every response to his sometimes leading questions at face value, assuming, among other things, that 13 year-old girls–or even 22 year-old women–know truly what it is that they are feeling. (How many times have we all protested, “I’m not angry!” when we’re ripping mad inside?). He ignores the possibility that his super-smart girls may know how to answer his subjective questions with either what is expected of them to say or what would present them in the best light. He takes at face value responses to statements like: “I feel good about myself all the time.” It’s a red flag question to which a yes answer often indicates the opposite. A recent Christian Science Monitor article on rising narcissism in college-age young people supports this, quoting Janis Keyser, coauthor of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, on similar test methodology: “Some of the….answers meant to indicate narcissism (‘I like to be the center of attention,’ for example) actually strike [me] as signals of somebody who is feeling insecure.”
Although the self-promotion is bristling, I can’t help but suspect there is fear and insecurity beneath much of the boasting come from the mouths of these latest products of the self-esteem movement. We have Natalie, for example, her identification with her father most unfortunate: “No one can compete with me. Everyone else just stands back….I never lose an argument at school….I’m like my dad: I’m argumentative, competitive in debating, and I have his social skills. He is aggressive, and you can tell he’s mean (p.175).” Does thrusting forward, “I will get what I want because I am aggressive” speak of someone who is “already whole?” Most of us shrink from braggarts; I think that, more than to get away from the tedious bluster, we’re feeling uncomfortable from the pain of their own insecurity.
Some of the questions are worded to make nuance or uncertainty unoptionable and seem to invalidate themselves. “I’m happy the way I am, “ as “always true” couldn’t realistically or intelligently be answered with an unequivocal yes by anyone with any self-awareness. Isn’t part of being a successful, vital person the desire to do even better?
It was surprising to find a number of the girls going in for extreme sports, choices most “red-blooded” males would not even consider: riflery and hunting, for example. And a number, surprising for an affluent, upper middle-class heavy sample, said they were considering serving in the military. These girls are alphas on steroids. I wouldn’t want to face them in a tennis match, let alone on a rifle range.
Kindlon’s choice of high achievers in the political arena is shortsighted: Granted that Condoleeza Rice and Margaret Thatcher have made the grade with grit, but their human rights records are dim. There have been other valiant and eminently competent women leaders overlooked perhaps because they aren’t “male-identified.” Former President Mary Robinson of Ireland, sitting President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and, at home, Nancy Pelosi and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg come to mind as more complete as women of power, no matter their political orientation.
Kindlon peers out from behind rose-colored glasses, while around him are stories of the frightening malaise gripping Generation Next’s young women. Overwhelmed by unreasonable expectations and emotional disconnect, they are characterized by Courtney E. Martin as “outwardly high-achieving and inwardly self-hating.” Writing for Alternet before the publication of her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Martin reports that “7 million American girls and women have eating disorders, women account for twice as many panic disorders and depression and are plagued by 75% of autoimmune diseases.” Other sources cite that 75% of all anxiety attacks befall young women. Sadly, studies on growing narcissism among young women in particular predict impaired ability to achieve deep, intimate relationships.
Alpha Girls hawks the hubris that masks self-doubt and self-hate because Kindlon hasn’t found that middle ground between swagger and crawl. But it exists, and it’s a lovely space from which much energy, positive movement, creativity and community is spring boarded. That space is called humility and it can move mountains, both personal and societal and make us feel all warm and toasty, too, like sitting around a campfire.
Instead of lionizing the besting of boys and an ethos that limits success to material and status-related achievements while rewarding the extrinsic as opposed to intrinsic cultivation of one’s intelligence and physical abilities, I think we need to create a new paradigm for emerging women.
No, we don’t want our girls to be self-deprecating. We want them to actualize their great potential, and, yeah, maybe superior intelligence, and we want women to earn and succeed as much as men, to multitask and be good mothers and good partners, but not at the expense of the ability to feel deep pleasure, and sometimes pain, that makes us all whole and binds us together as a society.