Really, really

A few days ago I linked to the story of Hadley Marie Nagel, a young woman who is about to come out at the International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria. I posted the link because Ms. Nagel is a part of the world I grew up in, and I spend a decent amount of my time both on-line and off trying to convince people that my childhood really happened.

Not that I was a debutante. I wasn’t. That best that can be said about my breeding is that during an argument during the eighth grade a girl in my class said to me, “You can’t talk to me that way, I’m a Daughter of the American Revolution.” In the world of my childhood, she was absolutely, positively typical, and also completely correct. I did it anyway, of course, but it only served to prove the point. Should you want a shorthand version of my childhood, run out and rent Metropolitan immediately.

At any rate, I posted the article about Ms. Nagel not just to showcase the matter of the apparently secret to most people world of socialite culture, but also to make a drive-by statement about my own over-achieving ways, the hothouse of my childhood, and why I really do tend to feel like whatever I’m doing is not enough.

What absolutely shocked me was the responses — all no doubt well intentioned and sincere — my post received. Many people posited that Ms. Nagel must surely be miserable. Or that she has pursued the intellectual and creative activities she has solely due to parental pressure. People spoke snidely of the way the photographs were staged and told me I was surely happier than her.

And to me, it just seemed to weird, since there isn’t a single line in that article that implies Ms. Nagel is unhappy or is controlled by her mother. I’ve been dwelling on the matter for a few days, and have come to a few conclusions:

First, we never do see articles about the exceptional and varied achievements of young men. Ms. Nagel is, as the article presents it (I don’t know her or her family; I can take only the word of the The New York Times) exceptional, and arguably quite worthy of the relatively fluffy piece in question. However, surely young men like Ms. Nagel exist too. But as a culture we never seem to display them like show ponies, do we?

Second, while I have neither Ms. Nagel’s breeding or wealth, and therefore had somewhat less opportunity that her growing up (although I would argue I was more hampered by social awkwardness and not being P&G pretty because we are a “pretty girls are good girls” society), I’m not that different than Ms. Nagel. That’s sort of a weird thing for me to say, considering I first linked to her story as a way to tell people about how and why I feel inferior.

But the fact remains that I am a relatively successful overachiever. I’ve been in feature films, have a book out, have published essays, fiction and poetry in places of note. Have been and continue to be successful as a scholar despite a lack of training in that regard. Raised $6K to create a musical. Ran away to Australia to study acting. I have sampled and been reasonably competent at a wide range of somewhat obscure or rarefied activities. Let’s also not forget the travel all over the place all the time, often for professional reasons (and if not mine, then my partner’s whose adventures are even wider ranging than my own). Finally, let it be said, that even with its somewhat narrow appeal, I have a remarkable face.

The only reason the people in my journal think I’m different than Ms. Nagel is because in my journal I freak out about stuff and say fuck and worry about the crap anyone worries about. When I write about me, I write about my fear, a lot. When The New York Times wrote about Ms. Nagel, the thesis of the article was different, that’s all. I’m quite sure Ms. Nagel gets scared too; and that’s okay.

And to respond to articles about people who are Ms. Nagels with “Don’t forget she surely has all sorts of worries and insecurities and stresses that aren’t highlighted here” is entirely different from saying she’s miserable, not actually gifted, or controlled by her mother.

My point here is two-fold: Despite how I initially felt in response to the story about Ms. Nagel, I’m pretty awesome (that awesome, in fact, just in my own way), and it is time to stop cutting other people down. Specifically, stop punishing people for achieving more or differently than you and stop punishing women for being exceptional.

Because seriously? I’m sick of it. It doesn’t make people who have done exceptional things undo them. If it does make people who have done exceptional things stop doing them, then shame on you. And it doesn’t make you feel better. It doesn’t make you bigger. It doesn’t make you get the work done. On the list of things I want to be really good at, making other people feel poorly isn’t one of them, no matter how much I dig JK Rowling’s Severus Snape.

Yes, remembering that significant achievement can be the result of internal or external pressure and bring unhappiness is valuable. But some people do extraordinary things out of joy, boredom, or even reflex; there is a different between inquiring and judging, between cautioning and condemning.

When I was a kid, people bullied me a lot. I was funny-looking, awkward and had a terrible smile. I was too skinny and often assumed to be other than my biological gender. But my mother would always say that the other kids were just mean to me because they were jealous; I thought my mom was a liar.

But to a certain extent, she was right. It galled the other kids that I was good at stuff without effort. It galled the other kids that I’d work hard at some things just to be better than them out of spite. And it galled the other kids that despite all my not off the right menu traits, that I never quite felt sorry enough for myself to stop.

Sadly, I wasn’t just bullied as a kid. I’ve been bullied as an adult, and no where so much as online. I’ve heard I’m not really an actor because I’m an actor. I’ve heard I’m not really a writer, because I’m a writer. I’ve had my photos stolen and emblazoned with ugly model because I used to model for artists and even once appeared on a billboard in New York City. I’m told I’m not really a scholar, because I produce scholarship. I’ve been told I don’t really have a right to speak at conferences, because I speak at conferences. And that no one really likes my work, whatever it is, precisely because sometimes people do really, really like my work.

I am 38-years-old. I’m freakishly accomplished in non-traditional and varied ways. I have supportive friends and an utterly bizarre relationship with the Internet. I am ambitious both because I am still nursing childhood wounds and because I am skilled. Also, it is a reflex — I am bored if I am not.

Bullies are liars.

And parading accomplished girls around like show ponies is obnoxious.

But cutting people down to make yourself or your friends feel better is a societally-induced weakness that often has a remarkable amount to do with misogyny.

I’m going to try to knock that off. So should you.

Ms. Nagel, keep being excellent. You’re too busy for this nonsense. And so am I.

12 thoughts on “Really, really”

  1. When ever I feel tempted to talk myself (or anyone else who is talented in many areas) down, I try to remember the discussion I had with R—- many years ago about how highly gifted girls can look like Mary Sues, and also possibly we shouldn’t be giving those violet-eyed ninja warrior rocket scientist princesses that much shit. It’s hard, though, to view my own accomplishments through that lens. I can only know what it looks like from the inside.

  2. Thank you for this; the article bugged me so much when I read it I didn’t even bother reading the comments when I saw you linked it, I just didn’t want to deal with my own thoughts on the matter. I’ve been in a weird headspace for the last week as I attempt to avoid my peers/high school friends, because I feel like I used to be apart of a different world, if not a debutante world but one filled with children of tech millionaires and people who were already seemingly much higher up in the work fields I wanted to eventually inhabit, and something happened, I’m not sure what, or if it was a slower thing, that has made me feel like I’m just not cut out for them, that I’m not good enough for them, or something. The right kind of guts and the manipulations of who and what you know.

    But then, instead of taking the advice of my friend, who said I had to remember what I have done & where I’ve been, it took something a bit more cruel to feel better about myself, and I’m not sure I’m okay with that. (None of them have finished college, none of them have met the real world yet)

  3. Hello, I’m someone who recently stumbled upon your livejournal and from there over to here. I’m mainly commenting to ask you why you use the classist term “breeding” so much.

    I was also struck by something else regarding this Ms. Nagel business, which is that I think you are very complicit in the same society which wrongfully made you feel inadequate for not fitting a certain mold. Because here you are, carefully listing each of your qualities and accomplishments that make you a successful or acceptable person by this society’s standards. Instead of pointing out the inane value our society puts on physical appearance, you tell us that you have a remarkable face. What about people who do not have remarkable faces? Are they any less interesting or complex?

    I think you need to look more critically at the standards you hold yourself to. I think your definition of success is condescending and hollow.

    1. I used the word “breeding” to explicate the world and expectations I grew up in. To use a less offensive word (and my sneering tone at it clearly failed to come through, so that’s my bad as a writer), wouldn’t have gotten at what I was trying to get there on that front.

      As to your other criticisms:

      I am proud of my accomplishments and think it is absurd that I should not be. I also did not explicate them here in any detail (with the possible exception of the modeling thing, which I agree was awkward and an editor might have found a way to solve that I could not — but my intent was to make clear that the type of modeling work I’ve done is not what people often think of in terms of modeling work).

      I am, among other things, a working actor. Whether I like it or not, how I look, is part of that job. Do I wish I worked in a market with less stringent visual constraints? You bet. It would be better for me and it’s one of the reasons I often enjoy non-US films — the people look more like people I know.

      1. Where did I say that you shouldn’t be proud of your accomplishments? Please don’t put words into my mouth. I merely pointed out that the sorts of things you consider praise-worthy place you in the same bucket as the society whose standards caused you to feel inadequate. I’m not implying that you should eschew all pride, but that you should be critical of your own thought processes. It’s obvious that you grew up in an awfully classist environment, and I think it’s shaped your perceptions in ways that you ought to examine.

        And actually, I do not think that eschewing pride is such an absurd thing, but that’s just me and I would not impose my personal values onto anyone else.

  4. This is thought-provoking in the best way. I don’t know — I have conflicted feelings about stories like the one in the NYT. I think Ms Nagel is very accomplished and probably a lovely person; I’d be very proud if she were my sister or daughter. But it calls to mind the “made it to home but started out at third base” sort of thing; there are many talented young people who’d like to do similar things, but she’s had all of the advantages — I bet no one told her her ambitions were too lofty. She’ll never have to worry about choosing a career for the growth potential and because it has good benefits. So it’s not as if I don’t admire her, but I admire a single mom from a blue collar background who worked nights to get a Master’s degree more.

    Reading the article reminded me of the way I felt when one of the design columnists I read in a magazine was revealed to be the daughter of a hugely accomplished decorator. There’s a bit of envy involved too, because I’d love that job, but she has an automatic advantage because of things she didn’t do on her own. Could I try to do it? Sure, but if I fail, I don’t have the financial padding to keep trying.

    You, on the other hand, appear struggle with thinking you deserve to be successful at times, and I wish you wouldn’t, because you seem like a hard worker.

  5. I’m not entirely sure what you’re trying to say here. People felt sorry for Hadley Nagel because they felt she was being pushed to do more than perhaps she wanted to. They probably imposed the “poor little rich girl” trope on her. She may be perfectly happy, in which case she doesn’t need their pity, but it also means she doesn’t need you to defend her accomplishments. She comes from a very privileged background. She’s able to accomplish things many other girls her age can’t because she has the money and education to do those things. The same to you. You were able to accomplish the things you were able to because of your upbringing. Why exactly, am I meant to be proud or impressed with either of you? The poor girl who had nothing, no money, no support, no education, but made something of their life, even if only a fraction of what you did, deserves our regard far more.

    Don’t miss understand me, the things you’ve done in your life, the successes you’ve had, are wonderful, but perhaps you should examine your own classism on these things before you post.

  6. Thank for this post! You give a very balanced perspective to the article, which I really appreciated. Being a lower middle class person living in Seattle, my first thoughts were along the lines of parental pressure to achieve and possible depression from that pressure. But you’re right, we don’t really know and the article’s intent wasn’t to shed light on all of Hadley’s personality so we can’t judge. I ended up being less hard on her in my blog post because of your post, so thanks!!!

    1. Thanks, I appreciate you letting me know. This piece seemed to hit some people anywhere but where I intended it too, so I’m glad the words were forming the sort of ideas I wanted them to for someone.

  7. It’s striking how people, and often mainly women, take the opportunity to cut each other down. At every single opportunity someone appears out of the woodwork to tell us not to strive. I’ve struggled, as many do, to not be afraid of that. So often, I make my triumphs in private because I can not stand to deal with the the people telling me how I am bad or how I am wrong. I’m glad that you speak out about this behavior so often.

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