In the recently released film Late Night, the protagonist Molly (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay), a young woman of Indian heritage, realises her dream of working with the legendary Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) whose once popular show is losing ratings and is now threatened with being taken off the air. When she enters her new office, the first thing eager Molly does is to paste a poster of a sunset with the inspirational caption ‘Never Give Up’. Indeed, despite her male colleagues’ dismissiveness that she was a ‘diversity hire’ and despite the consistent discrimination she faces, Molly never does give up. She bounces back time and again.
Molly is, however, but one example of the proliferating iterations of a contemporary ideal: the resilient woman. This woman defies adversity and precarity by springing back from any crisis or challenge that she is forced to confront.
Initially formulated to understand ecological systems, the notion of resilience has come to remarkable prominence in recent years, particularly in discussions about how individuals can best cope with stress, bullying, and overwork. In the context of austerity, for example, UK policy has been preoccupied with how to cultivate resilience among poor communities. Not surprisingly, resilience has also emerged as a central term in popular culture, for example, in advertising, lifestyle magazines and reality television, as well as in the burgeoning market of smartphone apps.
The message in all these contexts is similar: the resilient woman may not be able to avoid tough life situations, be it getting divorced, being made redundant, or having her benefits cut, but she can still ‘spring through’ hard times via a combination of intensive self-management strategies and a positive mental attitude.
In our study, we found that in media and popular culture notions of resilience are increasingly addressed to women, and that middle-class women in particular are presented as possessing the stuff it takes to become successfully resilient. We identified three central features that characterise the contemporary ideal of the resilient woman.
First, she must be able to bounce back unscathed from catastrophe by following the guidance of self-help aphorisms, such as ‘have self-belief,’ ‘give up on being perfect,’ ‘be adaptable to change,’ ‘and ‘focus on the good stuff’. Women’s magazines are a particularly prolific source for this kind of exhortation by constantly appealing to women to boost their confidence and build resilience in their careers, their intimate and sexual relationships and in relation to their bodies.
Second, media and popular media teach us that the resilient woman acknowledges her pain and struggles but swiftly recasts them as opportunities. A clear example of this idea can be seen in the bestseller by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and motivational psychologist Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. If in her previous bestseller, Lean In, Sandberg confessed to suffering some insecurities, in Option B she repeatedly divulges her intense vulnerability which was precipitated by her husband’s tragic death. Yet, each revelation of Sandberg’s painful experience of grieving is immediately followed by anecdotes and studies from positive psychology whose function is to rehabilitate her pain. So while you can acknowledge your struggle, you are not allowed to dwell on it and you must always turn it into an opportunity to spring forward. Indeed, Option Bis part of a burgeoning self-help literature (addressed especially, although not only, to women) that teaches us that insecurity, inequality and struggle are the ‘new normal’ and that the best way to cope is by reframing adversity as an opportunity for growth.
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Third, contemporary culture promotes the idea that resilience depends on favouring ‘positive’ feelings, specifically, self-love, self-belief, confidence, optimism and gratitude, while disavowing ‘negative’ feelings, especially hurt, sadness, despair and anger. Inspirational and motivational affirmations like Molly’s ‘Never Give Up’ are increasingly abundant on social media platforms and apps targeted at women. In app form, however, these inspirational quotes are transformed into intimate companions becoming akin to the user’s own voice or psyche. For example, the app ResilientMe claims to be ‘like having a therapist in your pocket’ and promises ‘long term relief from stress and anxiety in the palm of your hand’. Other similar apps offer regular reminders that are like ‘feeds’ designed to inculcate a resilient self. They include ‘Believe you can and you are halfway there’, ‘Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine’, and ‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams’.
It is crucial to underscore that this ideal of the resilient woman has coalesced precisely at a time when precarity and inequality are on the rise and as women in the UK are being disproportionately affected by austerity policies. Thus, on the one hand, women’s magazines, self-help books, apps, and other media such as reality television and social media platforms offer resources to develop resilience as a way to navigate and survive pain, risk, and difficulties. On the other hand, by promoting elasticity, affirmation and inspiration, the emphasis remains on harnessing individual resources to overcome precarity. Rather than serving to expose and challenge the social and structural sources causing the crisis women experience, these cultural sites are inciting women to work on themselves and assume full responsibility for their well-being. In this way, discussions about the conditions that created precarity and inequality in the first place, and the responsibility of the state and society for addressing them, are effectively silenced.