The Superwoman myth
Superwoman strikes again, this time in a new film starring Sarah Jessica Parker. but as Rachel Hills discovers, the lot of the working wife and mum is not an easy one, on screen or off.
In the 1980s, she was an inspiration. In the 1990s and 2000s, she became a burden and a reminder of our inadequacies. Now, with the release of the new working woman"s comedy I Don"t Know How She Does It, the "superwoman" is back.
Based on the best-selling novel by Allison Pearson and starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Christina Hendricks and Pierce Brosnan, the film gives an upbeat glimpse into the glossy but hectic life of Kate Reddy (Parker), a woman who appears to have everything going for her.
Kate is a well-paid investment banker at a firm that - mostly - respects her efforts. She lives in a big Boston brownstone with her loving and supportive husband (Greg Kinnear), whom she still thinks is "the cutest guy she knows", and has a full-time nanny to help take care of her two young children. (This is Hollywood, after all.)
But like many of her non-Hollywood counterparts, Kate is perpetually frazzled.
In the opening scenes, we find her standing exhausted in the kitchen, attacking a store-bought pie with a rolling pin to make it look "home-made" for her daughter"s school cake stall. She discovers her family has head lice just before walking into a meeting with a major client. Through it all, she is haunted by her ever-growing "to-do list" - "the puzzle of family life", as she calls it, "that women carry in their heads".
The conundrum the film presents is one that many parents can relate to, says Sarah Jessica Parker. "There were themes in the film that were very familiar [from my own life]," she told Good Morning America. "But I think more important than my response was that I knew it to be very accurate about millions and millions and millions of working women. This is a portrait of modern parenthood."
The figure of the "superwoman", who combined marriage, motherhood and career with aplomb, first emerged in the late 1970s, when British journalist Shirley Conran published a book by the same name. By the 1980s, as more women began to enter the workforce - and stayed there after they had children - she had become a pop-culture and advertising fixture, with her own set of associated industries, such as convenience food and professional childcare centres.
"The 1980s superwoman was a really glamorous figure," says Dr Natasha Campo, author of From Superwomen to Domestic Goddesses: The Rise and Fall of Feminism. "The memory was of our mothers being 1950s housewives, so the idea of "having it all" was something quite positive. You"d read articles about Ita Buttrose getting up at 5am to do her exercise and taking her kids off to childcare. Women took pride in how well they could structure their lives."
By the late 1990s, the mood had changed, partly due to shifts in the political climate (Campo points to the Howard administration"s cuts to government-funded childcare) but also due to the realisation that while "having it all" might be possible, it was also kind of exhausting. "We came to see the superwoman as a negative thing - that obviously we couldn"t have it all, because feminism had failed," says Campo. "But feminists weren"t saying you had to have it all. They were saying the structures of society had to change or else women would have to do it all."
The conclusion? Women had to choose. You could be a mother or you could have a career, but trying to do both would lead only to misery.
The 2002 novel upon which I Don"t Know How She Does It is based reflects this new scepticism. "There are certain moments that you can feel a subject in the air," says author Allison Pearson. "I was trying to live the life that girls of my generation had been brought up to think that we could [have], and I remember thinking, "Oh. How"s this supposed to work?" "
Pearson"s novel, like the film, is a comedy ("I knew the key to Kate Reddy was laughter," she says), but there is a bleakness to it, too. Pearson"s Reddy isn"t just tired, she is waging a war - against her male-dominated industry, against her maternal instincts, against herself - and she is constantly on the verge of becoming a casualty of it.
Parker"s on-screen Kate Reddy is more optimistic, with all the lightness and quirk we"ve come to expect from her characters. She may be frazzled, but she loves her job, her kids, her husband and her life. Where the Kate Reddy of the novel finds her commitment to "feminism", as she knows it, waning in the face of punishing hours, mother guilt and "breasts screaming to be emptied", Parker"s Kate manages to solve what ails her without compromising a thing.
Call this a Hollywood deus ex machina, but it might also be an indication of our own times. I Don"t Know How She Does It has been criticised in some quarters for being out of touch.
"The parenting lapses Kate wrings her hands over - such as when the nanny takes her son in for his first haircut without her - may evoke mutters of, "Cry me a river, lady" from recession-era audiences," wrote Slate.com critic Dana Stevens. But recession aside, the superwoman still looms large.
However, she is no longer a source of other-worldly inspiration; she is your neighbour, your sister, your friend. It seems that "having it all" - or, if you prefer, "doing it all" - is no longer a question of "can she?" or "can"t she?". It is a fact of life.
I think women can "have it all", if that"s what they really want," says Elizabeth,34. "Juggling children, work, husband and friends can not only be extremely satisfying, but necessary as well. At the same time, if it becomes too much, then maybe we need to reconsider if we really do want all those things in our lives."
"A lot of my friends probably think that I"m a superwoman," admits Michelle, 35. "But they describe me that way because of all the things I achieve, not because of how well-dressed my kids are or how neat my house is. They don"t see the fact that, as a small-business owner, I don"t have a regular pay cheque or that I work seven days a week.
"I think the black-and-white argument that you choose [between being a mother and having a career] is not realistic in this day and age," she continues. "Where it"s come to now is you can have it all, but you can"t do everything yourself and you can"t do it all perfectly."
When it comes to the word "superwoman", though, Michelle is more cynical. "It"s ultimately just destructive to everyone," she says. "In my mother"s day, if you had a job, you were a superwoman. Now you have to have a job, your kids need to be dressed nicely, you need to have a perfect body. It"s the competition you perceive from others, whether it"s there or not."
It is this quest for perfection - and the fear that everyone else is doing it better than you - that is most damaging, argues Kerri Sackville, author of When My Husband Does the Dishes: A Memoir of Marriage and Motherhood and a self-described "anti-superwoman".
"I actually wrote my book as a response to the superwoman figure," says Sackville. "I was totally open about my struggles and my failures as a mother, wife and friend - feeding my kids frankfurts for nights on end, trying to avoid sex, never answering my phone ... My aim was to make every woman out there feel better about her own struggles by laughing at mine, and to show them that what they are going through is totally normal."
Sackville describes the superwoman figure as a double-edged sword. "On the one hand, it has made women like me believe that we can have both a career and children, and has given us the confidence to realise our ambitions," she says. On the other hand, the ease with which this appears to happen "has created totally unrealistic expectations - much like how super-slim models help to create unrealistic physical expectations for young girls".
Those images of super-slim models and of super-high-achieving women may have more in common than first meets the eye. It is not just women with children who are feeling the pressure - or the desire, for that matter - to excel in everything all at once.
A 2003 study by the Duke University Women"s Initiative found that the expectation for female undergraduate students was one of "effortless perfection". As Duke"s Women"s Centre director Donna Lisker put it, "They had to be not only academically successful, but also successful by all the traditional female markers - thin, pretty, well-dressed, nice hair, nice nails. And the real rub is you had to do it with no visible effort."
Nor is it just a woman thing. "I run myself ragged from time to time, trying to maintain a career and spend the "right" amount of time with my two-year-old son and a husband who"s also running his own business," says leadership expert Jen Dalitz. "But it"s more a sign of our times than a sign of my gender.
I see men all around me doing the same thing and no one accuses them of "trying to have it all"."
Indeed, exhaustion has become the national norm. Ask anyone how they"re doing - male or female, young or old - and the most likely response is "busy". Partly, it"s a matter of economics. "People are working twice as hard so they"re not the person who gets retrenched," Dalitz says.
Then there"s the fact that the living standards the middle-class have become accustomed to - big mortgages, the latest technology, private-school education - require all adult hands on the financial deck. As Julie, 23, puts it, "It"s not about the basics. The basics are boring. You want to go to the most beautiful places in the world, you want to meet the perfect man, and to be the perfect partner for them."
But there is more to our aspirations than material lust: the desire to have and do "it all" goes to the core of the kinds of lives we want to lead. Kerri Sackville believes that for a woman to feel ambition is "still an incredible conflict". Schools still assume that mothers will be available to help with homework or to take time off work to attend functions. "What they don"t mention is that your kids notice [when you work], and they don"t like it," she says. "There"s still enough in the dominant culture of the stay-at-home mum that the kids do expect that."
Still, Sackville says that, despite the exhaustion, she"s "really happy" with her life. "As much as I long for downtime, I could have made the choice to forgo the ambition and not have two books published in 18 months. I didn"t have to have a third child, but she is the joy of my life and she brings our family together. There are downsides, but I wouldn"t change it."
In an interview with celebrity gossip website Popsugar, Sarah Jessica Parker made a similar observation. "This idea of wanting to be all things to all people, I"m very familiar with that desire," she said.
"I like an interesting, complicated life. I would prefer it to almost anything else. So I have no one to blame but myself."
Will that full and interesting life come without work or sacrifice? No - but then it never has. Building an exceptional life, whether that includes a loving family, becoming prime minister, writing a best seller or making millions, has always required exceptional effort - and that is no less true for men than for women. Nor is it the path that every person would choose.