“Well, guess what, young girls?” Mindy Kaling writes in a newly-released excerpt of her forthcoming book, Why Not Me?, out in September. “You aren’t damsels in distress. You aren’t hostages to the words of your peers. You aren’t the victims that even your well-meaning teachers and advocates think you are.”
Kaling’s sharp words, published this week in Glamour, may yet prove to be the antidote for feminism’s current flowery incarnation of slogans and hashtags. “Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled,” Kaling advises. Indeed, the future of feminism may depend on the accuracy of these words.
In outlining her “No Fail, Always Works, Secret Guide to Confidence,” Kaling upends cultural norms of zeitgeisty terms like “entitlement” and “victim” and perhaps that most zeitgeisty of all terms, privilege. To build confidence, she attests, one needs first to “earn it:”
Confidence is just entitlement. Entitlement has gotten a bad rap because it’s used almost exclusively for the useless children of the rich, reality TV stars, and Conrad Hilton Jr., who gets kicked off an airplane for smoking pot in the lavatory and calling people peasants or whatever. But entitlement in and of itself isn’t so bad. Entitlement is simply the belief that you deserve something. Which is great. The hard part is, you’d better make sure you deserve it. So, how did I make sure that I deserved it?
“Hard work,” Kaling contends, citing Kevin Hart’s Twitter bio, is the key to both earning it and deserving it.
Americans—and others, this is not a solely an American problem—have become increasingly derailed by a growing cultural victim complex. This complex too often relies on patronizing when it should be encouraging women to just put in the work. Worse is that mainstream feminism has easily transposed this victim-complex onto itself. Kaling describes this cultural Catch-22 as “the reason why the show Intervention is a hit and everyone loves ‘worrying about’ Amanda Bynes.” In society today, winners are too often looked at as competitors, or worse, as oppressors. “When you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late,” she writes. “And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.”
Kaling’s thoughts resonate with those of feminists before her, from Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, to, more recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose words—popularized by Beyoncé—are echoed in Kaling’s sentiments. “We teach girls to shrink themselves,” Adichie observes in We Should All Be Feminists, “to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.’”
Fighting to “free the nipple” and grow out our armpit hair too often function as our movement’s red herrings—distractions and reminders of the circularity of our movement. The fact that we are still fighting to produce and maintain substantive change regarding issues like reproductive rights and equal pay for equal work in the year 2015 should be a wake-up call.
The truth, as Kaling’s excerpt so wonderfully intimates, is that some women continue to have a problem with power. This is no surprise. Our entire, now on-fleek, feminist culture circulates around presumptive mantras touting “leaning in” and “girl power.” Yet there exists a noticeable chasm between these mantras and their realization. This difference arguably can be attributed to women’s historically antagonistic relation to power, a relationship born from centuries of being forced to occupy an inferior role to men.
As theorists throughout the modern era—like Beauvoir on the conditions of women and Franz Fanon on the conditions of people of color and the colonized—have observed, social and political oppression produces psychological oppression. Feminism’s political and cultural objectives, therefore, need to begin from within. They need to begin with women ceasing to occupy the space of victim because it is the only one socially relegated to us. We need to stop finding comfort in our oppression.
Never one to mince words, Kaling’s unyielding Confidence Guide is precisely what feminism needs right now. Power over our bodies includes power over our minds. Feminism’s transformation begins with reimagining how we personally and communally relate to power. It is a brand of feminism that refuses to be the victim or to be pigeonholed as one, despite the continual societal forces that strain to oppress us and keep us down.
This psychological shift will create seismic changes socially, starting with how we treat other women. For instead of feeling limited to a politically and cultural space of oppression, and fighting other women over that space—over breadcrumbs—we should be out shattering the boundaries of that space altogether.