Let’s take apart this fallacy of the modern superwoman, shall we.
First, may I familiarize you with a book called The Triple Bind by Stephen Hinshaw. This book single-handedly deconstructs what is expected of the modern female, little girls and grown women alike, in order to be seen as worthy and successful human beings.
There are in essence three demands that we have to fulfill:
The first demand asks females to be good at all of the traditional girl stuff. In other words, females are expected to “look pretty, be nice, get a (preferable male) partner (heteronormativity anyone) while excelling at skills like empathy, cooperation, and relationship building. The former skills imply the ability to perceive other’s needs and fulfill them, i.e. what in social justice circles is called emotional labor.
The second demand asks that females be good at most traditional guy stuff. At least in the developed world, women’s lives have improved to a degree where we can choose to be and do almost anything we want. We are no longer confined to only one role, one place, and one purpose, like motherhood and homemaking. But where once it was only necessary for women to fulfill the demands of the first triple bind problem – being good at traditional girl stuff – being good at traditional guys stuff is no longer just a liberating option but has gradually become an expectation.
This masculine expectation includes foremost a fierce sense of competition in three areas: the professional, the academic and the athletic arena.
This alone wouldn’t be problematic. Having high ambitions and the drive to achieve them are fulfilling and worthy qualities. Men have been practicing them for years, and it is obvious that women are just as good at them when given the chance.
It gets quite a bit more difficult when women are expected to fulfill both demand one and demand two at the same time.
The third demand, however, is where stuff gets truly insidious. This demand requires that on top of fulfilling both traditionally female and traditionally male roles, women are to do so under a narrow, unrealistic set of standards, which says you have to be sexy, thin/fit, pretty, clean shaven, have a great boyfriend/partner and kids, and be wildly successful at one’s career.
Hinshaw argues that in the beginning of the feminist movement in the sixties, there was an actual counterculture – the presence of genuine alternatives to traditional femininity – that a girl could opt for. There are, of course, women today who opt out of any traditionally female roles and choose the traditionally masculine pursuit of career, academics and/or athletics only.
What Hinshaw argues, however, is that there are fewer and fewer women who feel truly free to compartmentalize to this extent without somehow being expected to make up for it otherwise.
The main reason for this, Hinshaw contends, is that now virtually all possibilities have been co-opted, consumerized, and forced into this increasingly narrow, unrealistic set of roles, which has also been dubbed Superwoman Syndrome.
In other words, women have to be everything to everyone, including fathers to sons, uncles to nieces, Nobel prize winners, corporate CEOs, porn star quality lovers, and blue ribbon moms, all while looking like drop-dead gorgeous, infinitely healthy and slow-to-age works of art.
It’s not hard to understand why demand one and demand two create role conflict. Being competitive necessitates a certain level of ruthlessness and disregard for the needs of others. But according to demand number one, women are supposed to cultivate empathy and relationship building. It is impossible to simultaneously prioritize anticipation and disregard of the needs of others.
However, besides being contradictory, the messages of the Triple Bind are also immoderate. With the addition of the third component, girls are being given the message that anything less than the absolute best counts as failure. Thus, the Triple Bind does not allow for genuine alternatives, which according to libertarian theory is the hallmark of free will.
Instead it dis-empowers women by restricting their capacity (the conflicting demands of traditional female and male roles) and their opportunity (the binding expectation to do it all while presenting a certain physical and behavioral ideal of sexiness and beauty) to exercise true choice.
The hallmark of true happiness according to Aristotle is a life that promotes human flourishing. According to this theory, a flourishing life is successful for our natural kind. Although somewhat ambiguous, virtue theorists suggest that this must involve joys and pleasures especially in the context of loving relationships and the exercising of our distinctive rational capacities.
In short - virtuous acts and virtuous characters [which] contribute to a good, healthy (…) life for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our species” (Waller, 2008, p. 106).
One thing is clear: The Triple Bind’s combination of contradiction and immoderation does not promote human flourishing. The irony is that its messages are disseminated under the guise of liberation, self-actualization, and infinite possibility. This adds deception in to the mix, another death blow to human flourishing, since without honesty, we would be unable to cooperate or to acquire knowledge and pass it on to the next generation to build on.
The question we need to ask is who and under what circumstances would profit from promoting the messages of The Triple Bind? And is it ever truly possible for anyone to follow the demands of this bind and thrive?