Leslie: Yellow haired female… likes waffles and news.
Ann: Sexy, well-read blonde… loves the sweeter things in life.[…]Hobbies?
Leslie: Organizing my agenda. Wait, that doesn’t sound fun…jammin’ on my planner.
–Parks and Recreation, “Soulmates”
I published an earlier version of this post on another blog a couple years ago, but tonight as I’m working on a book chapter about Rachel Berry and watching Election (1999), it came back to mind. For my research (and let’s face it, my life) I’ve been thinking a lot about the pitfalls of over-achievement*. There’s the threat of burnout. There’s the sleepless nights. There’s the fact that if you’re female pop culture portrays you as, at best, obnoxious and in need of love and, at worst, a conniving bitch. It’s telling that when you put Tracy Flick into a google image search top results show you Hillary Clinton and Rachel Berry. Just sayin’. (Ohmigosh and this)
I am so fascinated with Tracy Flick, and I continue to return to her, because beneath the obvious satire of the movie, she so easily represents so many of the girls and women I have known. Pajiba’s Steven Lloyd Wilson says it best in “In Defense of Tracy Flick”: “Tracy’s motives are not pure, but she is not evil, let alone some symbol of a particular type of terrible person. If anything, she is the paragon of what a warped system can do to its most gifted children. Straight A’s, endless extracurriculars, the kid in the front of class who always knows the answers, hand launching up like a missile before the teacher finishes asking the question…Ceaselessly cheery, masking a simmering anger, unable to understand why she has no friends, why her successes ring hollow even to herself.” According to Wilson, the film’s real villain is Mr. McAllister who resents the smart kids, choosing to “Smack down the intelligent, the outspoken, the ambitious. Use petty authority to shut them up, cultivate an environment that poisons their peers against them, encourage the ostracization of those who actually try. And if they succeed anyway, just rig the vote…The reason that we don’t get to have Leslie Knopes is because the real world beats those people into Tracy Flicks.” Can I get an amen?
And I think both ambitious adolescent females and female politicians should be offended when the media compares the latter to Tracy Flick. (Also, Tracy Flick is sort of Elle Woods’s evil twin, right? What does that say!? I would write more, but it’s been done by Terry Ann and Just Not That Into You.)
As I observe popular film and TV, I see that over and over again the visual symbol of the high-achieving female’s need for reform is the day planner.
Example 1: Parks and Recreation focuses on (now Councilwoman) Leslie Knope, a civil servant so over-scheduled and devoted that she lists organizing her agenda as a hobby on an online dating profile (see above). Now, this show does not actually portray Leslie being tamed by love because her man, Ben, is just has type-A and way more uptight. She has to loosen him up sometimes. Progressive nerd love! BUT, Leslie’s attention to detail and people pleasing is often the source of plots that show her going too far and needing to learn to relax a little. For example, when one voter says he wouldn’t want to go bowling with her, she devotes an entire binder to that one comment and creates an entire event to change his mind. In another episode, she is forced to take a leave from work and can’t stand it for longer than a day before she finds sneaky ways back into public service. The show somehow balances the ridiculousness with outright affection for the character, which makes me love it all the more. But still. The day planner. The binders.
Example 2: Lucky Seven (2003), an ABC Family movie starring Kimberly Williams, Patrick Dempsey, and some guy named Brad who looks eerily like Brad Pitt. The main character is so attached to her day planner that she actually writes down things like “check voicemail” and crosses them off. It’s actually really pathetic, but it’s just a synecdoche for how totally rigid she is about all of her life goals and plans. Which she throws out the window when she meets Mr. Right. (Note: If you have not seen this movie you need to. It is one of the best worst movies BFF Emily and I have ever watched together.)
Example 3: 27 Dresses (2008), starring Katherine Heigel as a woman whose day planner is bursting with all the info, data, and even fabric samples, she needs to be a bridesmaid multiple times a year, sometimes on the same day. When she loses her day planner, it is found by the man who will teach her to let go of living vicariously through running other people’s lives. She is also miraculously cured of her high-strung ways and sings “Benny and the Jets” on a rural bar.
Example 4: In Kate & Leopold (2001), Kate, played by Meg Ryan, isn’t really ever very likable, and I think it might have something to do with how she spends the first 20 minutes of the movie obsessing over getting the stylus for her Palm Pilot back.
If it’s not the day planner, then the woman is either too obsessed with her career (Baby Mama/30 Rock, Down with Love, The Holiday) or with some outward sign of wealth/status (Leap Year, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Sweet Home Alabama, Just My Luck), or she’s just kind of a shrew. Thanks, Shakespeare. And pretty much she is always “cured” by some laid back, slackery guy.
I can already think of exceptions like Legally Blonde, Penelope, and Bridget Jones. But you must agree, there is sort of a disturbing trend.
Now, working too hard isn’t great. It can hurt your health, and make you difficult to be around (lessons learned from the movies above), but still, hard work can also get you where you want to go. We owe a lot to hard workers. And being successful at hard work often takes planning. What is so scary about a successful woman that she needs to fall in love and get over her drive to work? Aren’t these movies supposed to be for women? I don’t think I’m comfortable with the image they are presenting of women who are determined, independent, and resourceful. If they were men, they’d be the eligible bachelors. What gives?
So I am here to say that I have a day planner and I use it a lot. And I’m a bit attached to it. And I am not ashamed of that because I have goals and I want to succeed at them. And I clean when I am stressed. And I am a bit of a shopaholic. Maybe I am a little neurotic and a little bit of a workaholic, but that doesn’t make me less of a candidate for leading lady in my own darn life. And I don’t need “Mr. Right” to cure me, because I can also have a lot of fun. And I do. Even if it isn’t penciled into my day planner.
Really, what I’m trying to say is that this must be a conspiracy to keep women from taking over the world. Obviously.
*Although the term “over-achievement” is commonly used innocuously enough, I’ve read compelling arguments that the term is inherently biased. Studies show that it is more commonly used to describe female students than males and in so doing, the implication is that type-A girls are achieving more than is expected of them. Thus, when they achieve at high levels or demonstrate “giftedness” or ambition it’s somehow more special than when males do it. Because girls aren’t supposed to be so ambitious, or driven, etc. Words mean things, y’all. That’s why I much prefer the term high-achievement, as it does not imply that the girl is somehow exceeding her boundaries. She has no boundaries. Booyah.