In Defense of Obstinate Lack

Essays

Life for both sexes — and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement — is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle.

It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion that we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself.
— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

…In Melville’s last novel all of these affects are explicitly characterized by the fiduciary man himself as the ideological-affective underpinnings of antebellum capitalism and its traffic in human property in particular: ‘Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce between man and man, as between country and country, would, like a watch, run down and stop’ (CM, 171). In other words, confidence might be described as the tone of capitalism itself.’
— Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings

Confidence is faith. It is a future leaning state, relying on some unseen past experience overlaid on future events with varying levels of arrogance. In short, confidence is a delusion. Yet, it continues to be an ideal in our economic systems, personal lives, and professional aspirations.

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Image from Flickr user Kent Wang of René Magritte’s Delusions of Grandeur, 1967.

In A Room of One’s Own Woolf made some still-relevant points about the effect of material differences on the ability to perform and be successful in a realm of expertise. She outlined the gendered nature of artistic success and made progress in naming the causes for these discrepancies both materially and psychically. I read the above quote from A Room with a tinge of incredulity. Certainly it is true that much of what gets us through life, with or without applying a measurement of success, as Woolf suggests, is willful delusion.

I have recently been watching and re-watching Maggie Estep’s performance of “Happy” on Def Jam Poetry. In the video Estep walks up to the standing mic and says, “This is called, Happy.” She pauses and looks down at her script as if mentally preparing for her read, but instead she begins with a preemptory guffaw. No one can read something called Happy in earnest, unless of course absurdly, they are. Happy is an ironically jubilant expression of gratitude and triumph. It finds its humor in its overabundance. Certainly someone expressing this much happiness has moved into some next-level delusion, some serious denial. And yet happiness, like confidence, is something that we all are told to, and often want, to achieve. This is not to say that we should inherently value a more negative or less optimistic (optimism is inherently tied to confidence) view of ourselves and the world. Unhappiness is not a valid political stance. In fact, no individual state is a valid political stance. But, these expressions, states of being, and emotions have political histories and manifest in lived experience in very political ways.

Always’ #LikeAGirl is campaign launched by Always Feminine Products. It is a commercial, filmed as the filming of a commercial, a tactical move that adds an illusion of authenticity and social reality. We are meant to believe that rather than being a commercial this video is about the behind the scenes real dialogue that informs the making of a traditional illusion-based representation. It starts with a female director asking adults to perform certain tasks “like a girl.” The ensuing performances are full of sissy hands, limp wrists, giggling, and generally incompetent body movements. Next the director asks a group of preadolescent girls to do the same actions. They, in turn, perform these actions as if they didn’t hear the “like a girl” qualifier. They throw hard balls. They run with vigor etc. The message is clear — these girls haven’t yet learned what it means to “be a girl.” The commercial is meant to be a message of empowerment, a call to arms of sorts asking U.S. society to start changing the explicit misogyny that destroys girls’ confidence in adolescence.

This is not a new call, this is not a new message, this is something that women have been attempting for decades, if not longer. Are we supposed to be touched that it has finally made it into mainstream dialogue? I think it might be time, rather, to look at this idea of confidence as an ideal. It has become a virtue in a nearly biblical sense, one of the commandments of a fulfilled life. Girls in America lose their confidence in puberty, we are told. Often with their confidence goes their chance at happiness, because happiness can only be achieved by attaining certain normalized measures of success. Sometimes it is mentioned that this is all due to the misogyny in our culture. However, what we are really telling girls is that once they have gone through puberty and lost their “confidence” they are, and should be (!), in a constant state of lack that requires a diligent quest of self-improvement and empowerment.

In “10 Ways Society Can Close the Confidence Gap” Soraya Chemaly notes, “The benchmark for this female loss of confidence is eternal male overconfidence, and that overconfidence has real costs….We know that overconfidence is an issue and that male disappointment in the face of unrealistic expectations is a big problem.” This isn’t just a female problem. And it also isn’t just a gendered problem — it is a racial and economic problem as well. It touches on the root of what is valued in our current political and economic system. Confidence is a golden calf.

Personal confidence and the idealization of confidence in a system are two different manifestations of a quality, but they are deeply codependent in U.S. culture. Still, equating them leads to a toxic critical stance regarding individual wholeness in the face of social ideals. This codependence manifests in articles like “The Confidence Gap” written by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman that reads as a topical solution to the problem of the lack of confidence in women rather than looking at what confidence is and how it perpetuates itself. This stance was beautifully refuted again by Chemaly in “10 Ways Society Can Close the Confidence Gap,” who points out that women’s confidence levels have much more to do with unexaggerated social inequalities than they do with an individual’s adequacy.

I started developing an indignant attitude toward the idea of confidence as a valuable individual quality. Shouldn’t academics be constantly questioning their assumptions? Isn’t research and analysis based on an uncertainty about the world? Hasn’t the value of uncertainty been strengthened by studies of minor literature that had been sidelined for most of the history of the Western world? Not to mention the fact that uncertainty, about the economy, about the fate of the planet, about personal relationships, about the functioning of our governments, about anyone’s ability to do anything about any of it has been steadily on the increase for decades now? And even more than an individual quality, confidence has proven to be a detriment to contemporary American society and fuel for the capital system, evidenced most notably by the economic collapse of 2008.

Yet, I do not want to suggest that we should deprive women of an increasing ability for success ,no matter how much I disagree personally with certain measures of success, they are all still things that we feel on an individual level and deeply effect lived experience. This is why I am equally wary of criticism that takes individual female empowerment as being in stark political opposition to feminism. We need to examine the facets of confidence to determine if they are really an ideal that we want to foster. Or, at the very least, are there ways to divorce the idea of confidence from their capitalistic and misogynistic histories and trajectories?

In “The Female Sociopath” Merve Emre associates female “sociopathy” with capitalist and male structures of success. Her main argument is against the valorization of sociopathy and the idea that individual women moving up the economic ladder is a sign of the success of feminism. While she spends a good amount of time in the article acknowledging the appeal of these kinds of depictions in opposition to the usual representation of women as victims her judgment is obvious, these are not feminist depictions, in fact, according to Emre, these ideals, as represented in these characters she lumps together, are anti-feminist.

She criticizes the rise of representations of female “sociopathy” in popular culture, particularly films and television shows such as Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and the upcoming release of the film adaptation of Gone Girl. This article, while not dealing with confidence specifically, is a good example of how these kinds of conversations around female behavior and social mores are being framed. We set up an opposition between varying kinds of behavior, be it passivity, nurturing tendencies, etc, against “go-getter” mentalities, then we deride the opposition while continuing to make judgments about what is good or bad feminist behavior.

There are a few things wrong with Emre’s account. First, she seems to flatten the relevance of the term sociopathy going so far as to apply it to Gillian Anderson’s character in The Fall. To her logic, any woman that is successful and resourceful in her career could fall into this category. Second, shouldn’t we know by now that representations are not a one-to-one correlation with lived experience? While Emre toys with the appeal of these representations she stops short of examining the ways that representation operates in society beyond a mirroring function. Just because we enjoy these characters and find some kind of affinity, or affective justice, in their actions does not mean that we want to be them or valorize their behavior in lived existence. Thirdly, Emre does not distinguish between confidence as an individual trait versus a social ideal and the different political implications each of these manifestations contain. Instead she derides these representations as being antithetical to some kind of progression of feminism:

The female sociopath wants to dominate these systems from within, as the most streamlined product of a world in which well-intentioned people blithely invoke words like arbitrage, leverage, capital, and currency to appraise how successfully we inhabit our bodies, our selves. One could easily imagine the female sociopath devouring books with titles like Bo$$ Bitch, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, The Confidence Gap, and Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman to hone her craft — to learn how to have it all. From atop the corporate ladder, she can applaud her liberation from the whole messy business of feeling as a step forward for women, when it’s really a step back.

We are caught in a no win situation measuring the appropriateness and desirability of personal characteristics. Woman should be confident and empathetic. They should be successful but kind. Or they should be ruthless and unforgiving — eventually, if we’re lucky, we may find the right combination of femaleness to blow the whole system out of the water. I’ll admit that often I forget which stance is in critical fashion at the moment, but, for the time being I hold my lack of confidence as a token of virtue, a signal of my shadowy identity in the face of so much illusory presence.

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