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We Are Beyond Peak 'Lean In'

As the remembrances poured in for Margaret Thatcher, a trailblazing female politician who once called feminism "poison," in came the #LeanIn references from Silicon Valley to Fox News about the former British Prime Minister and "the fact that Thatcher embodied the 'Lean In' culture," even though she didn't. 

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As the remembrances poured in for Margaret Thatcher, a trailblazing female politician who once called feminism "poison," in came the #LeanIn references from Silicon Valley to Fox News about the former British Prime Minister and "the fact that Thatcher embodied the 'Lean In' culture," even though she didn't. Since the publication of Sheryl Sandberg's "feminist manifesto" last month, the book's title has taken on a life of its own, no longer encapsulating what her movement is about so much as loosely translating to "women doing things." Yes, Lean In is now a full-blown meme, which is both good and bad for the Sandberg camp.

Along with Thatcher, the following women and/or things have "leaned in" of late: Barbie, traildogs, Anna Wintour, catsChelsea Clinton, and Peggy Olson, the fictional character on Mad Men. And that's just if you scan the headlines. The buzzwords have also transformed into a punch line for bad jokes. Here's AllThingsD writer Lauren Goode "leaning in" to aging on her birthday:

In the context of Sandberg's specific prescriptions, none of these uses of her term really make sense. Her book outlines very specific ways women should "lean in" to work life in order to enjoy home life as well — by negotiating for raises in a specific way, for example. Or just having the types of conversations that might benefit mothers in the workplace. It's a certain brand of feminism that puts the onus on women to change things not just for themselves but for other women. Thatcher wanted nothing to do with feminism, or a greater cause for women. (Though, neither does Marissa Mayer — and she has her own Lean In story page.) While Peggy is awesome at her high powered job, she doesn't understand other women nor does she care to, as Jen Doll explained in her Atlantic Wire "Mad Women" recap this week. Succeeding in a male dominated field does not a Sandberg feminist make.

Even so, the meme-ification of "lean in" should delight Sandberg. The term has stuck, as this Google Trends chart shows:

That big spike, of course, is timed to the book's release, and the endless trend-story cycle thereabouts. But the phrase has endured, with many a "Lean In" headline having nothing to do with Sandberg's book, despite its staying atop the bestseller list. And that's good news for Sandberg: A book title has become a movement, which has become a catch-all — she's coined a real term in our lexicon now. And even if Thatcher isn't exactly the type of female leader Sandberg wants us to be, the retroactive application of a business book's lesson to a history that doesn't quite fit. Thatcher may have only appointed one female cabinet minister, but she was a prominent female world leader in a time when there weren't any prominent female world leaders.

Of course, it's the other way everyone's "leaning in" that isn't so great for Sandberg. The phrase has become an easy laugh, a rough connection, or a sarcastic throwaway without much actual irony. The Hairpin post 15 Cats That Are Leaning In, for example, is a certain type of commentary. This dude is "leaning in" by raising his hand before class even starts. When people use a new and important buzzword that way, it's a jab at the whole premise of an idea — that if only women would act more assertive, in a kind of feminine way, then the world would be a better place for women everywhere. That aligns with a lot of critiques of Sandberg's book, which call the title and the contents an empty advice vehicle for most regular people. But all publicity is good publicity, right?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.