Updated: Jan 13
During a WhatsApp call recently with a dear long time friend of mine, I got called out as being ambitious. And, I must admit that I felt somewhat impugned by that description. “Me, ambitious!?” I questioned, exclaimed and defended all in my one sentence reply. I thought I was a nice person. I’ve tried my best to nurture qualities like patience, kindness, and forgiveness, so I was somewhat disappointed that all my hard work wasn’t shining through, and was being overshadowed by this ambitious quality that I didn’t know I possessed. I mean, I used to be a fucking missionary for Christs sake. It was a long time ago, but shouldn’t that sacrifice of three years count against, such wild accusations. Trust me, I’m well aware that since my missionary days, I’ve done too much skulduggery to allow me to skate on in past the pearly gates without at least an ID check. But I thought that at minimum, I would have racked up enough goody points to avoid words like ambitious getting stuck to my goodish name.
For my millennials out there reading this, you may question, “What’s the problem?”, as the modern take on females having an ambitious quality to their personality is no bad thing. You lucky bastards have got the likes of Sophia Amoruso’s Nasty Gal as your hero. But for my generation, those who’s parents can be chucked into the Narcissistic Baby Boomer bucket, when the word “Ambitious” was used to describe a woman’s character, the sentiment was never to her credit.
The archetype that comes to my mind when I hear the word “Ambitious" used to describe a female, is the “alpha woman” (the alpha male’s long lost soulmate), whose goals are centred around wealth, and sexual power over the men whom she must tolerate in her professional and social orbit. To achieve these goals she will stop at nothing, giving no regard for whom she has to hurt, step on, or double cross. Yes, I’ve been meditating and with the small degree of awareness that I have acquired, I realise the ludicrousness of this description. Especially as my dear friend meant no shade, but was only seeking to compliment my “Never Die Spirit.” Therefore, I felt it necessary to take a minute and question this utterly ridiculous description of a woman that I had never encounter in all my 40 odd years as a human, but had created in my imagination as example to steadfastly work against becoming. Where did this fictional character come from?!
Firstly, I had to own up to the fact that regardless of my baulking at my friends description, it’s true. I am ambitious. I came to this conclusion that same evening, as I sat reflecting, taking an honest look at my past desires and goals and what I did to achieve them. And although I have not purposefully stepped on any necks to make it as far as I have in life, in all brutal honesty I have made more than a few questionable decision to do so. Example being, accepting a date with a guy because he was a well know photographer in the performing arts world, (this is when I thought I wanted to be an actress). In my defence, my questionable decisions were made mainly because I didn’t know any better, and therefore I wasn’t able to see the options to do any better. My moral compass was somewhat skewed and hindsight is 20/20 when it comes to life learned lessons. Upon finally seeing and accepting that my friend was correct, I cried! I balled for a good ten minutes. The main feelings were disappointment and sadness, because I’m not the good Christian girl my momma raised me to be. But, after all the tears were dried, sanity and logic set in and I began to question why does my desire to succeed fill me with ill ease.
As fate would have it, a regular degular weekly WhatsApp chat with a friend inadvertently sent me on another personal deep dive into the psyche of Nikki Claire Durrant. So I headed to my favourite jump off point for these kinds of journeys, and pulled up the relied on Oxford online dictionary. And here’s what the old Ox had to say.
having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed
Harmless right? Actually inspiring! Who doesn’t have a strong desire to succeed when attempting to do anything. However, this clean definition gave no insight to the dark images that the actual use of the word in every day life evokes. Knowing that we get our ideas of good and evil from our social environment in addition to our caregivers, I decided to look at the social media from my youth, 80’s and 90’s television and cinema.
Candice Bergen in Murphy Brown and and Cybil Shepherd in Moonlighting were the only examples that I could remember as TV shows I watched that had ambitious career driven female leading characters. As far as I remember, Murphy had no social life and Maddie was in love with David. So I Googled “80’s TV shows with female leads” . As my list was shockingly short, Google’s list was shockingly sad. Not only were 90% of those listed, supporting characters, but they weren’t ambitious female characters. Yes, there were TV shows like Cagnie and Lacey, Designing Women, Kate and Allie. But those show’s storylines were centred around the home life. Characters like Demi Moore’s Meredith Johnson in Disclosure, and Sharon Stone’s Cathrine Tramell in Basic Instinct didn’t turn up until the early 90’s. These were precluded by Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction. These are my memories of the ambitious woman on screen, and no girl her right mind wanted to grow up to be a sexual predator or Bunny Boiler.
Not trusting my memory to guide me, I then turned to modern social media, in particular YouTube. In my descent into the YouTube worm hole I stumbled upon a channel that was actually informative named, “The Take.” They have a twenty one minute video called “The Girl Boss Trope” that was quite helpful in showing the growth arc of the ambitious woman in television and movies, and where my precious impressionable child's mind fit into the Hollywood timeline. In a nut shell:
In precode Hollywood before the Haze Code in 1934. Female characters on screen where women who were unapologetically in charge, took lovers, and held jobs. Examples being Mae West’s Tira in “I’m no Angel”. After the Haze Code, women’s place was in the home. Career was a temporary situation or a vehicle to become a wife and mother. Work left them unhappy and unfulfilled. This prevailed until the 1980’s were women in the work place were reinvented. And became divided between the sweet feminine woman who buries her intelligence and relies on men to make the key moves in her career and on the opposite side, the boss bitch, who is determined, ruthless, and adversarious to the men she has to work with, while squashing her femininity to become successful. These two female types were constantly pitted against each other. Women’s stories on screen became morality tales, as independent working women were punished and losing in life while mother’s were victorious and winning in life. Thus the message that women have to choose between a career or personal fulfilment as a mother and wife was solidified. Women can’t have both. The choice is between career and happiness, respect and likability, feminine boss or boss bitch, with only true fulfilment being found in marriage.
Even taken with a grain of salt, this twenty-one minute video is quite unsettling. For me, I suddenly began to realise the monumental conditioning that I have undergone since I first sat down in front of my families black and white TV set. Mind you the first television show I was allowed to watch was Jim Henson's MUPPETS. So Miss Piggy was my first media fed example of the female boss bitch. It makes me wonder far too often, “Are my thoughts my own?” In light, I can’t help but cut myself a sympathetic break at my adverse reactions to being called ambitious.
And still there seems to be an overwhelming demand for counter male lesbian feminist in film and television with the most recent examples being Amazon’s Original movie “I Care A Lot” starring Rosmund Pike, and Netflix’s series “What If” staring Renee Zellweger. For me, both of these characters ring false. They drip with psuedofeminism; perpetuating the patriarchy for their own success.
In my understanding, women’s liberation, the freedom to pursue our dreams and goals with ambition, involves the dismantling of the male driven hierarchy that’s kept women and other marginalised groups in their place. The problem with women’s libration is that it is in direct conflict with the way capitalism is practiced in the western world. Reduced down to its knickers, western capitalism demands exploitation. Perhaps, we need to rethink how we in the west practice capitalism, and maybe this would then help turn the tide to cause waves instead of ripples of change. Apple TV’s “The Morning Show” is a better portrayal of female ambition. Why, because it's based on the real life struggles of women; getting out from under the male thumb. Coincidentally, it was written and directed by women. It doesn’t serve up the same power hungry, money driven, male bullshit, enacted by a female character. These characters are in the fight for equality tempered with compassion.
Had I not believed what I was fed by society, and media in my early years, I speculate who would have been my real life examples of the ambitious woman? I’m guessing, the likes of Mother Teresa, Angela Davis, and Maya Angelou. These were powerful women who impacted the world for change towards the better, and were driven to succeed to do so. And although I learned of them through education, and admired them for their individual causes, I never clocked them as inspirational because they weren’t running money making empires in the male dominated business world. Otherwise stated as kicking asses and taking names. If I had recognised them for the powerhouses that they were, and still are, perhaps I would be proud to be labelled as an ambitious woman. And perhaps, I would not allow the fear of want to overshadow an aching desire to simply love. Maybe, just maybe, I would still be a missionary handing out necessities and love to those who are in need, and see that as the highest expression of ambition.