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Brave New Stereotypes

Behold the Lean In Collection

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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The Lean In Collection is a crystalline reflection of the book it’s named after. The book’s theme is that the progress of women as a sex is being retarded through the stereotypes that society imposes on its luckless victims, who then internalize them. “Marketing is both reflective of our stereotypes and reinforces stereotypes,” Sandberg told the New York Times at the collection’s unveiling. There are two kinds of stereotypes running through Lean In, though the author and her ghostwriter are aware of only one of them. Stereotypes are what she disapproves of—women as mommies, deferential wives, unambitious workers, overwhelmed strivers. On the other hand, women as masters of their environment, whether home, workplace, marriage, family, or public life—these are clichés she approves of, and therefore cannot be stereotypes. 

The idea that human beings, and women especially, take their identities haplessly from the impress of forces beyond their control is a very old one, and it has become a staple of social science research—endlessly studied, endlessly discovered, endlessly proved. “I rely on hard data [and] academic research,” Sandberg writes proudly, and innocently, and her book is heavy with citations from social science. The data and research are of a particular kind that will be familiar to anyone who has dipped into our vast literature of marketing, business, and self-help as it touches on questions of sex and power. 

Nearly all the research she cites has been produced by social scientists who were drawn to their trade to fight what they saw as the insidious and often violent exploitation of women in this country. They have joined like-minded social scientists to design experiments that, for reasons of convenience and expense, are forced to rely on college students, who have learned in their social science classes that the oppression of women is insidious and often violent. The experiments always yield positive results. The findings are fashioned into papers. These are published in journals that, as a guard against bias and a guarantor of methodological soundness, are reviewed by a panel of peers who went into social science to fight the insidious and often violent exploitation of women. The data are clear: The exploitation of women is insidious and often violent. It’s pretty much settled science by now.

Along with its scientific trappings, the hopeful note in Sandberg’s book has proved crucial to its success. Those internalized stereotypes can be overcome! “We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today,” she writes. And this is the point of the new Lean In Collection, too. “One of the quickest ways to make people think differently about something is to change the visuals around it,” one marketer told the New York Times. “The thing about these images is they work on an unconscious level to reinforce what people think people should be like.” We’re still hapless chumps, in other words, but by being exposed to the images of the Lean In Collection, we will be better, more empowered hapless chumps. All we have to do is look. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Sandberg likes to say.

Helen Keller would probably disagree, but Helen Keller was too fusty to be the ideal woman of the Lean In future. (Terrible dresser, for one thing.) The point of the new empowered world is made plain in Lean In the book. “Getting rid of these internal barriers,” Sandberg writes, “is critical to gaining power.” The power Sandberg advocates is power as it has been traditionally defined in the old world of masculine dominance: rising to the top of hierarchical organizations, telling subordinates what to do, making lots of money, gaining the personal license to release yourself from the nettlesome demands of other people and of everyday life to do whatever you want—or, in the perfumed jargon of contemporary feminism, to “pursue your dreams” and “follow your passion wherever it leads.” Sandberg wants (and has herself won) power in the brute material sense, and the Getty images are intended to encourage this desire in her comrades.

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