Friday, April 27, 2012

Gender Equality in Dependence Shaming

For a while I have wanted to write about dependence and American culture.
I was re-watching and episode Mad Men (prepping for the new season's release) recently when the impetus struck me full in the gut. In the scene (season 1, episode 10) Joan is consoling her roommate Carol who has just been fired so her boss could save face. Carol says to Joan: "I'm going to have to ask for money from my parents". Joan, not missing a single beat says "You shouldn't be ashamed of that, you're a single woman trying to make it in the city." (or something to that effect). To be absolutely clear I do not miss 1960s culture but I do miss the notion Joan expresses in this scene: The notion that a single working woman is entitled to shame-free financial assistance.

This is not about nostalgia. It's about how I'm, on some, level angry at the cultural shifts that have occurred in stingy financial reaction to the gains of gender equality in the work force. I can't expect to be financially supported and have that be acceptable. I do certainly recognize that the privilege Joan is referring to was only available to some (white, attractive, women born to middle-class parents who are expected to marry well). This anger I have is not about resources or privileges being fairly distributed. This anger I feel is about the shame in this culture that is newly (in the past 40 years) associated with being a woman who needs financial assistance.

This status quo affirms the Calvinist tradition in America when it comes to judging those who ask for and need financial assistance. In the past the unquestioned “husband/man as the breadwinner” paradigm, while certainly causing many problems, allowed some women to feel totally okay with a situation of financial dependence. In the last forty years more and more women have challenged this by entering and cementing themselves in the US workforce. Unfortunately along with those jobs came the societal expectations of being an employable individual. There is a pressure to succeed and become independent financially (despite the clear wage and privilege disparities). This is a problem women inherited as we slowly and surely became more vital presences in the workforce.

A shitty economy deepens the blame and shame that we are encouraged to feel. The job market is so dilapidated as to only offer me few opportunities to do work that is physically and emotionally draining and pays me 2/3 of what I think I should be getting paid for the work I want to do. I am angry at the paradigm of jobs. I am angry at America's disdain for my financial dependence. I should not feel such sharp pains of shame when it comes to receiving financial support from those that love me. But I do. I experience so much shame when I think about asking my parents or anybody else for financial help. 

In the past I have felt wracked with guilt and felt myself to be begging when and if I applied for scholarships. I avoided financial aid office at school. I planned out defenses for every possible question they might have about my needs. I knew I would not just be battling the paperwork. I would be battling something else. I didn't know it then but I was battling the ingrained shame that Americans are supposed to feel when they ask for financial help. This is why I am angry, and why I find myself longing for Joan to tell me that it is okay that I need to ask for financial help sometimes.

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