Behold the Lean In Collection
MAR 17, 2014, VOL. 19, NO. 26 • BY ANDREW FERGUSON
Partly because I’m a guy, partly because my professor insisted on holding our Feminism and Culture class at 8 a.m., making it impossible for me to attend, I find myself now, decades later, far behind the curve of gender empowerment. The curve is shifting heavily to the distaff side. Can I still say “distaff”?
The statistics proving the point come in bite-size, journalist-friendly squibs: ... Over the last 30 years, their wages have risen 25 percent while those of men have fallen 4 percent.
I like to think that my Feminism and Culture professor, whatever became of her, would be pleased at the turn of events—view it indeed as a kind of triumph and vindication. But I can’t be sure. She might be pleased, or she might be one of those people who nod vigorously while reading the boffo bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. The book was released a year ago this month, and has been in the top 10 of the bestseller list ever since.
... Rich as Croesus, successful beyond the dreams of all but a handful of industrial titans, Sandburg is animated by the same itchy agitation and discontent that have always animated the feminist cause. She insists, as feminists always have, that there is always more to do to empower the sisterhood and herself. And she continues to try to spread the word. Having more money than she knows what to do with, she started a foundation, the Lean In Foundation.
What does the foundation do? According to the mission statement, Lean In “is focused on encouraging women to pursue their ambitions” and “changing the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can do.” It is “offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.” It will “talk openly about the challenges women face and work together,” and thereby “change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.”
Focusing, encouraging, supporting, offering, conversing, talking, changing, and working together: not much, in other words. The website also plays brief video lectures, such as “Be Your Own Hero,” “Own the Room,” and “Managing Difficult Conversations.” You can watch as many as you want, no charge. It’s on Sandberg’s dime.
The foundation’s latest and most tangible initiative, announced toward the end of February, is a partnership with Getty Images, one of the world’s largest suppliers of stock photography—those generic, instantly forgettable pictures that editors use to illustrate their magazines and websites and that marketers use to make their advertisements irresistible to the plain folks. Getty is now curator of the Lean In Collection. Editors and marketers who can afford to will be able to buy stock photographs “devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls, and the people who support them.” Profits from the Lean In Collection will go to the Lean In Foundation, which supports the Lean In Collection. We can expect much focusing, offering, conversing, and talking in the years ahead.
... An hour with the Lean In Collection allows us to glimpse what our world will look like as it races toward perfection. The titles of the photos are self-explanatory. “Portrait of woman working in a machine shop.” “Female surgeon using digital tablet after work.” “Two women doing pushups with dumbbells in crossfit gym.” There’s a soldier, several surfers, some mountain climbers, and one nervy woman tiptoeing along a slackline. It’s important to note that “Female woodworker nailing custom cabinet in workshop” is working on a custom cabinet; artisanal craftsmanship replaces mass production in the Lean In world.
They can afford it! When you see “Two smiling mature women sitting outside on patio having appetizers,” you will swoon over the rustic getaway and know that one of them bought it with cash. ...
Even the old women (“Glamorous mature woman smiling”), while unavoidably wrinkly, toss cascades of glowing white hair and beam from tanned faces, suggesting the undying sensuality that is the Lean In woman’s birthright.
About a dozen years ago, I was hiking in Topanga Canyon when a beautiful woman in her mid-fifties with waist-length grey hair walked past. "Who looks like that?" Oh, yeah, Emmy Lou Harris of Topanga Canyon looks like that. And, indeed, it was the 1970s songbird.
... Pondering the images I thought again of my feminism teacher. I do think she’d be pleased with today’s state of affairs. The Lean In Collection makes our current condition plain. The collection isn’t about “empowering women”; it’s about flattering women who are already empowered, riding high in the saddle rather than marching in the streets, placards in hand. The collection itself is today’s placard. It says: “Congratulations . . . to me! I won!”
A huge fraction of culture has always consisted of flattering the powerful -- "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" But contemporary good taste consists of flattering the powerful not for being powerful per se, but for being empowered.
Notice the difference?