Why We Need Amy Poehler's Feminism
In a cultural moment when more and more women are declaring themselves feminists, there are still an enormous number of myths and mischaracterizations of feminism. There are still many women who utter the dreaded phrase, “I’m not a feminist, but... " Which is why it is so damn refreshing to hear from women who responds to the question “Are you a feminist?” simply with “Yes please.”Amy Poehler makes no secret of her feminism. In a recent interview, the actress said, “Yes, I consider myself a feminist, and it informs my work only in that it’s just who I am, in the same way that I’m a woman, or I’m 5'2" or whatever.” I suspect this sentiment is shared by many feminists, but it is still incredibly important to hear.One of the ways the patriarchy and its proponents try to scare women off from feminism is by painting feminism is a sole identifier and a slur: if you are a feminist, then that’s all you are, and you are to be derided and dismissed. The world needs smart, talented, courageous women writing explicitly and publicly about feminism. We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to these women, who make their voices heard even in the face of threats, abuse, and condemnation. The world — especially women teetering on the edge of feminism, the "I’m not a feminist, but” women — also need representations of feminism like Poehler’s. A feminism that doesn’t take centre stage 100 percent of the time, but is always present. Feminism that is inherent and integrated into one’s sense of self. Feminism like breathing; feminism like a beautiful singing voice or a hell of a throwing arm or a thick head of hair or a perfect way with a phrase. Feminism that just is. In Yes Please, Poehler writes about a number of different topics – improv, the entertainment industry, motherhood, sex, divorce, sleeping — but never about feminism. Feminism isn’t a topic of conversation, but it informs every conversation. It is evident in her discussions of everything from physical space (“Am I allowed to take up space? Yes please”) to apologizing (“It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for”) to sex advice for men (“If you don’t eat pussy, keep walking”) to female friendships (“When we are together I feel strong and powerful … We don’t compete against each other, we compete against ourselves”). That said, there are three chapters in Yes Please that every feminist and every woman should read (well, you should read the whole book, of course, but give these some extra attention):
1. Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend
Much has already been made of his chapter already, with some outlets calling Poehler the anti-Sheryl Sandberg (Poehler jokingly suggests her next book will be co-authored with Sandberg and titled Lean Back). Poehler’s advice — to nurture your talents and creativity and relationships, and to do good work but not expect your career to sustain you — is solid advice for lots of women and men. What's most striking is what Poehler says at the end: “You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good they think you look.”Again, this advice is good for any gender, but it feels especially poignant for women. So many women spend so much of their time, effort, and mental energy focusing outwards: “Does this person like me? Do they think I’m too [loud, opinionated, much]? Do they think I’m pretty?” It’s not our fault. Women are constantly subject to scrutiny, criticism and judgement, and more often than not, we’re told that we’ve come up wanting. Which is why this advice, although not revolutionary by any means, still feels so important. From time to time, we all need a reminder to focus on the things we can control on our own actions and how they make us feel. We need to focus on ourselves, to spend our mental energy nurturing our own gifts and talents, rather than focusing on the perceptions of others. After all, we’re pretty important. We deserve our own attention.
2. Every Mother Needs a Wife
In this chapter, blessedly without using the gross term “mommy wars,” Poehler calls for an end to “woman-on-woman crime” in the form of passive-aggressive parenting-judgement. She also puts to bed the “doing it all” question: every mother needs a wife, she says. What she means is every mother needs support. No one can do it alone. Then she acknowledges two things: one, that not all women are lucky enough to have that support; and two, that she herself has been very lucky. She names the women who have supported her and helped care for her children. Again, this shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. So many rich and famous women (and men) do not acknowledge the invisible but incredibly important labor of the women who make their work possible.Finally, Poehler applies her one of her favorite phrases to parenting choices: “Good for you, not for me.” A corporate-ladder-climbing mother to a stay-at-home mom (and vice versa)? Good for you, not for me! A mother of five kids to a child free woman (and vice versa)? Good for you, not for me!“Good for you, not for me” is a fantastic, feminist phrase. It is both a celebration of difference and an assertion of self. It is a response to someone else’s life choices that combines warmth, appreciation, and confidence. “Good for you, not for me” is a philosophy that works, not just for mothers, but for all women.
3. I’m So Proud of You
This chapter is the one I wish I could quote in full. In it, Poehler relates an incident with details that may be unique to her, but themes that are familiar to many women. She tells a story of a man who tried to cross her boundaries, both physical and otherwise, who dismissed her with a flippant “relax” (grrrrrrrr), and who took her “no” as the beginning for a conversation, not its end.
What's remarkable here is Poheler's refusal to wrap this up as a feel-good story with a funny, heart-warming solution. It isn’t. It is clear-eyed, unflinching acknowledgement of the complicated way women’s boundaries are constantly being broached, and the limited success women often have in standing up for themselves. There is no easy victory here, but there is also no shame: “it never ends,” Poehler concludes simply. If this chapter makes you uncomfortable, if it feels like a little bit of a downer, that’s because it should. The book carries on, as life does, with laughs, lessons, friends, family, and career success. The events of this chapter don’t negate the rest of the story, but the rest of the story doesn’t negate them, either. These things just are. We do our best to deal with them, but they happen just the same. This chapter ends with a nearly blank page with only the words “A little space? Yes please” in tiny front near the centre. It might be the most important page in the book. It's a little space to breathe. A little space to reflect. A little space to acknowledge. A little space to just to be.
So if you have a copy of Yes Please, once you are done reading it (twice), put it in the hands of another woman you know. Maybe a young woman, maybe a woman who is new to feminism, maybe an “I’m-not-a-feminist-but” woman. Maybe that woman will simply appreciate Poehler’s warmth, wisdom, and it. Maybe that women will be inspired by her words. Maybe, hopefully, when next asked the question, “Are you a feminist?” that woman will answer, loud and proud, “Yes please!”