Disappointment, power, and (r)evolution


Our neighbours mentioned Miss Representation, so we watched it the other night. Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s 2011 documentary thoroughly depressed me.

It wasn’t just the sinking, sick feeling in my gut as I viewed a parade of images of women and girls being trivialized, mocked, and degraded in mainstream media. It wasn’t just the stats the film presented about girls and body image: 78% of 17-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies; 65% of women and girls have an eating disorder; 17% of teenage girls cut themselves. It was not just being reminded that even though women are 51% of the population, we are still only 17% of the US Congress. (The numbers in Canada aren’t much better: 26% of MPs are women. Not only that, women in politics in both countries are scrutinized, demonized, and judged by an entirely different standard than men.)

What depresses me is that none of this is news. Watching Miss Representation, I felt like I was reliving a 1982 women’s studies class—but without the fire and determination I felt at 24.

Natalie Hill’s intelligent critical review on The F Word sums up Newsom’s documentary as “80 minutes of depressing facts (including dozens of statistics with no identified source whatsoever) followed by 10 minutes of ‘we-can-do-it!’ Rosie the Riveter fist pumping designed to inspire the audience to go out and change things.”


As someone who has spent 40 years now trying to change these very things and who sees not just no progress but the situation getting ever worse, I was already feeling heartbroken and disappointed when Lauren Besser’s “If Bernie Had Been Bernadette” came across my Facebook newsfeed yesterday. As a Canadian, I’m aware that even though I don’t get a vote in the US election, the civic discourse it generates and its outcome affect me profoundly.

I’ve been discussing Besser’s article with my friend in Pennsylvania who, like me, is a lifelong feminist. I’ve done a poor job of explaining my thoughts. It’s not that I prefer Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate. I don’t. If I were an American, I’d be campaigning for Sanders right now, but I’d be doing it with a broken heart. And Lauren Besser has put my feelings into words:

My heart [is] broken because even if we play by all the rules the boys set up, the boys demonize us for playing by the rules. Even if we fight for decades to have a spot, ultimately everybody decides, “Nah, thanks anyway, we’re going with the old white guy again.” Nice (lifelong) try.

I feel conflicted. I don’t want to give up the fight for women’s equality, but I’m tired of fighting. I can’t begin to tell you how disappointing it is to swim against the current all my life just to realize I’m further back than I was when I jumped in the water.

And I think about David Whyte’s writing about disappointment, noting as I read it that, as much as I love Whyte’s poetry and find wisdom in his words, he too is “the old white guy again.” He writes:

The measure of our courage is the measure of our willingness to embrace disappointment, to turn towards it rather than away, the understanding that every real conversation of life involves having our hearts broken somewhere along the way and that there is no sincere path we can follow where we will not be fully and immeasurably let down and brought to earth, and where what initially looks like a betrayal eventually puts real ground under our feet.

The great question in disappointment is whether we allow it to bring us to ground, to a firmer sense of our self, a surer sense of our world, and what is good and possible for us in that world, or whether we experience it only as a wound that makes us retreat from further participation.

Something else I couldn’t help noticing this week: On Monday night, LW and I watched Miss Representation and then the first episode of River—a fascinating British crime series featuring “manifestations” (never mind that man pops out of that word; its etymology is Latin and it comes from manus, meaning hand). Both shows, which are wildly different, used the same Alice Walker quote:

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

I’ve learned that when I hear or see the same thing in wildly different contexts in close succession, I should pay attention, and I’m definitely paying attention to Walker’s words. I know she’s right. But how do I reconcile decades, centuries of struggle for women’s equality with the obvious reality that we are losing, not gaining, ground?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Natalie Hill, and Lauren Besser all use the R word—revolution—and it certainly feels at this moment like we are ready for one. But Michael Brown, another old white guy who has taught me a lot, says it’s not revolution we need, but evolution:

There is a vast difference between revolutionary and evolutionary behavior; revolutionary behavior manufactures a future by reacting to the past, while evolutionary behavior enters the unknown by responding to the present moment.

Another thing I have (finally) learned in my life is that we can’t change anyone else; we can only change ourselves. Returning to Alice Walker’s thoughts on giving up power, I can’t help but ponder how much power we give up by holding on so tightly to mainstream media and their misrepresentations when we know how inaccurate and destructive they are.

Sure, we rail against them, we complain, we rage, we analyze, struggle, fight. Yet we don’t do the obvious thing: simply chuck our TVs and laptops and refuse to buy the message. Why?

Why are we giving up our power?

7 Responses to “Disappointment, power, and (r)evolution”

  1. daniele

    Thank you for this nice reflection on our existential state of existence. I feel the same way you do but I have also decided to use my powerful imagination to create my own voice and emotional expression about my life. I am actually disappointed by the women I have met and observe in action in the last 20 years. I have witness the worst of us in the drivers seat of high power using and abusing other women to hide their own fears. Power is not for the weak it is for the strong and willing. Fine leadership is the ultimate power not deceit and manipulation. When I was 20 I was skipping class to be the bearer of the torch and protested for all these straight women who in their latter years spit on me and trashed me in the work place because I looked like a guy or something like that. I am tired too and have decided to let the new generations of guys and girls figure it out… They will and when they do, I will be there to support and encourage the movement… Love you both , daniele

    • commatologist

      I’ve heard it said that the artists are the ones who will save us, so it’s good that you’re putting your energy and time into your music and other creative expressions. xo

  2. carin

    Of course we give it up for precisely the reason Walker suggests… we don’t think our tiny bit matters, that the power of one is essentially nothing. And that’s exactly how the THEY want us thinking as THEY churn out the marketing (in various forms; everything is marketing) that we, on some level, believe tells us ‘how to be’.

    Nowadays, and for a long time, whenever friends rattle on about how awful this or that is, I will only listen so long before I ask: and so what can be done about it? And it’s not rhetorical. And if the ‘what’ is only a tiny bit of a thing, a letter, a post, a dance in the street, a statement in defence of some sexist/racist/homophobic/otherwise disgusting action, or simply a way of being that might serve as a one of a hundred monkeys (because there is momentum in monkeys)… well, it’s a butterfly wing. A small shift, but it counts. And so much easier to make a small shift than something gigantic. Times a few million? THAT’S the message we need to put forward (or slip into the koolaid). That and the importance of community instead of the increasingly popular navel-gazing what’s-in-for-me attitude.

    Not that I have an opinion. *ahem* (;

  3. Margaret

    Carin has pretty much articulated my thoughts so I won’t write them all out here.

    My life is so hectic and stressful right now and I often don’t make time to sit and just THINK about what’s going on, let alone dissect an issue, grapple with it, and take a position that I can back up intelligently. That said, I don’t know that I agree with you when you say we’ve lost ground. In some areas, sure. In others progress is painfully slow– maybe in most areas.

    I haven’t given up; I take action in small ways when I can even as I’m looking out for opportunities to make something big happen. There will be more forward movement in our lifetime. Maybe not true equality (yet) but I think we will see that the struggle has been worth it.

    • commatologist

      When I talked about losing ground, I was thinking mostly about media representations of girls and women. (And although girls and women are what we’ve been talking about here, that’s only one piece of the media message.) And the influence of media is so huge now – the message is the air we breathe and we don’t even notice it – and ownership/control of the media is concentrated in the hands of so few. This is what worries and discourages me. I see the effects of media representations rippling out and contaminating everything – including our political systems and governments.

      Yes, we have to keep taking actions. We can’t just give up. But what I’m wondering about is whether an oppositional approach is effective. To my mind, as I look back over the last 40 years, oppositional thinking has only ever made things worse. That’s what I meant about being responsive instead of reactive. Yes, I agree with Carin that the answer lies in ways of being. The profile badge I use on social networks says “peace in oneself, peace in the world” – that’s not rhetorical, either. Most of the time I feel hopeful, but on my down days I feel overwhelmed by the size and reach of “the problem” and I wonder if we can possibly create the critical mass of butterfly wings that are needed to effect change before it all blows up. But then, maybe it has to blow up before things can change. And I really have no idea what I mean by “blowing up.” All I know for sure is that the questions and answers are bigger than my understanding of them, but I want to be part of the conversation. Thank you for joining me in it.


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