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.