Enter the Ambition Fatigue

A new essay collection explores the ways American women are taught to dream very big, and expect very little.

Reuters / China Daily

“Fuck ambition.” That’s Elisa Albert, the novelist and short story writer and editor; the line might have been muttered, though, by many of the women who are making their way through the present American moment. Ambition, by now, was supposed to be easier. Ambition was supposed to be the great gift handed down to the women of today through the work of Stanton and Steinem and Pankhurst and Parks—the freedom to want, the permission to strive. The faith in the communion between the self and the world that has also been referred to, in other contexts, as the American dream.

Here’s what happened when the fiction writer and memoirist Robin Romm first reached out to Albert and other writers, asking them to contribute essays to her new collection, Double Bind: Women on Ambition: Many of the women—writers and professors and athletes and doctors and lawyers, successes all—responded that they’d be happy to participate. Several of them, however, followed up by informing Romm that they weren’t, themselves, really ambitious. Hard-working, definitely. Lucky, for sure. But ambitious? Not really. And so the constraint of Romm’s title revealed itself even before there was a book for it to enclose. Here was yet more evidence that ambition exists, for women in particular, in a kind of purgatorial state—commonly possessed, but less commonly admitted to. Are you, yourself, ambitious? Oh, yeah, definitely! But.

Double Bind is framed around the paradoxes inherent in its subject—ambition encouraging individuality, ambition breeding conformity, ambition making life easier, ambition making life harder, ambition as a blessing, ambition as a curse—and this is the right way to tackle such a topic. But what emerges, in essay after essay about women struggling with the dreams they have been granted by the forward march of progress, is a pervasive sense of ambition fatigue. The book’s contributors, including the writers Cristina Henríquez, and Francine Prose, and Evany Thomas, and Lan Samantha Chang, are jaded by their own dreams. Ambition, in a culture that rewards achievement but frowns on arrogance, has always been fraught, for people of all genders. But ambition, during a time that goes out of its way to tell little girls they can do anything and women that they really cannot, has recently adopted even sharper contours. It is the gift that keeps refusing to give.

Ayana Mathis explores the mixed blessing of ambition realized—fame, and all its attendant demands—that arrived in her life when her novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was included in Oprah’s Book Club: “I managed my new surreal existence by thinking of all the publicity and attention as work.” Molly Ringwald recalls the time, when she was a young girl, her grandmother chided her for proclaiming that she would one day become a star. (“You can’t say that about yourself,” the well-meaning woman informed the child.) Camas Davis analyzes the media coverage that accompanied her decision to leave magazine journalism to become a butcher—yes, a Lady Butcher, a Woman With a Cleaver—in Portland. Yael Chatav Schonbrun, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown, grapples with how much she, against her own expectations, ended up loving staying home with her newborn son. Blair Braverman, a musher, begins her essay, “The day after I won my first dogsled race, my kennel partner dumped me.”

Think the kennel partner was a man? Think he was, in Braverman’s telling, threatened by her success? You are correct. There are so many stories like this, in Double Bind, of ambition built up and then put in its place: the high school classmate who sneered to Roxane Gay, when he learned that she’d been accepted to Yale when he had not, “affirmative action.” The guys in the Hollywood writers’ room who wrote “girl scene here” in their scripts, when a show’s plot called for it, and expected Theresa Rebeck, the former showrunner of Smash and the only woman among them, to fill in the blank on her own. The lawyer who responded to a colleague’s email praising Robin Romm’s legal work—Romm was a federal investigator before she became a writer and editor—with a note accidentally cc’ed to the object of the observation: “Obviously Robin’s numbers are very impressive. But she’s so aggressive when she’s on a case. Her assertiveness is off-putting.”

This is the stuff of double-standardized cliché—an ambitious man is a go-getter, an ambitious woman is off-putting—and in that sense the stories Romm has collected from her ambition-ambivalent writers are compelling but unsurprising. More remarkable, though, is the extent to which the women, here, have adopted the same rough posture as their critics and doubters. Here are immigrant women, and women of color, and privileged women, and struggling women, and women who are mothers, and women who are not, and women whose families encouraged their dreams, and women whose families did not, questioning their own ambition—and, quite often, resenting it.

“Ambition. The word itself makes me want to run and hide,” Elisa Albert, the writer who is also a doula, confesses. “Even though I’ve settled into a life with as much professional fulfillment as personal happiness, I’m still not sure if my ambition is friend or foe,” Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown, notes. “Too much ambition of the most ruthless, thoughtless kind is ugly on everybody, men and women alike,” the writer Pam Houston observes. Ambition, the women acknowledge, is a blunt instrument; in the name of individual dreams, it can enforce conformity, standardizing and sanitizing desires until they fit into neat packages: “law school,” “a best-selling book,” “influence,” “work-life balance.” It can make for generations of grown-up organization kids. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist, had a patient who once called asking that Holland increase the dosage of her anti-depressant. The patient’s boss, Holland soon learned, had just humiliated her in front of her staff—and she knew she couldn’t, on top of everything else, be seen crying in front of them. “Was it ambition that made her feel she should erase every emotion to conform to the hostile environment in her workplace?” Holland wonders. The question answers itself: Fuck ambition.

In a review of Double Bind for the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino argued that the book highlights “the infantilizing ways we talk about women’s ambition.” The problem illuminated in Romm’s collection seems equally one, however, of rampant commercialization—of our cultural tendency to discuss complicated things through bland slogans and blithe catchphrases. “Ambition” has at this point been dutifully hashtagged, and transformed into a t-shirted slogan, and otherwise converted from a fraught ideal into a marketable meme. It has been cheerily capitalized, with the result that its complicated politics, the stuff of glass ceilings and parental leave and makeup taxes and tampon taxes and Lilly Ledbetter and Hillary Clinton, have been largely subsumed under the haze of modern marketing.

Which is also to say that ambition has followed a similar trajectory that feminism has, in this age of the easy commodity. Silk-screened, capitalism-inflected, celebrity endorsed—the American culture of the present moment tends to treat ambition, or rather #ambition, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, when of course its true fulfillment first requires a situation in which women are paid equally for equal work, in which their bodies are respected as their own. Until then, “ambition” will manifest in women’s lives merely as what its commercialized version understands it to be: a dream about the possibility of dreaming. A means that never resolves into an end. “Get it,” women encourage each other on Facebook, in response to their friends’ promotions and vacations. But … what is it, actually? And how do you go about the getting?

The animating ethos of Double Bind is that there is soft political power in the discussions it offers—in stories that are both intimate and scalable. The book is dedicated to giving voice to a problem, thus humanizing it—and thus, also, productively re-complicating it. When Theresa Rebeck confides of her experiences in Hollywood that “the misogyny is beyond anything that people believe,” she is making not just a personal statement, but also a deeply political one. In the spirit of the consciousness-raising circles of the late 20th century—the ones that revolved around the notion that the personal is indeed political—and, to a decidedly lesser extent, the Lean In circles of the early 21st, Double Bind trusts in the Arendtian alchemy through which putting words to things can make those things feel, and indeed can make them become, true.

And the truth on display here is not just that ambition can be hard, but that ambition can be, at this point, a betrayal. When Ayana Mathis notes that “I and mine are not lean-in women,” her weariness leaps from the page. The novelist is locating ambition where, of course, it really lives: not in slogans and hashtags and board rooms and Pinterest boards, but in discussions of privilege and social justice and inequality. Mathis is reminding her readers that ambition, like so much else in the United States of the current moment, is a privilege enjoyed only by the luckiest among us. Brilliant, successful, and tired, she is hoping that words will be enough, but not sure that, things being what they are, they will not be. Mathis lives, after all, in the same world the rest of us do: one that teaches women to want so much and, at the same time, to expect so little.