On judging, and being judged

When I was in law school, all of us were required to participate in the moot court competition. Moot court is an activity where law students present oral arguments based on an assigned set of facts. You get the hypothetical set of facts ahead of time, you then do research on relevant case law and statutes, and at the appointed time, you and your team members stand up and argue your side of the case in front of a panel of judges.

I remember being terrified leading up to the event; I remember that once I got past the first five minutes of speaking, I started enjoying myself, and when asked several times to recite the minutiae facts of a specific case I had cited in support of my argument, I was able to do so cogently, no problem. I felt prepared. After each team presented, the judges then gave feedback to the individual presenters. One tiny bit of feedback from that experience persistently crops up in my memories, and it is this:

The team who presented before us, one of the members was a very pretty and charming young woman and I lead with her looks and affect only because these characteristics had been noted admiringly, many times before, by my male friends at law school, and also because of one piece of feedback SHE received.  She did a damn good job with her oral arguments, she was poised and sharp and incisive, and one of the judges said to her, “You might think about flashing that pretty smile of yours a little less often, you don’t want to create the impression that you’re trying to win a judge over with your smile and your looks.”

And then after my presentation, the feedback I got (from the same judge) was, “You might try smiling once or twice during your presentation, you came off as a little intense and overly serious.”

(That might be the first and only time I’ve ever gotten the feedback that I am “too serious.”)

This is one of those memories that shift with time, and context, and experience. What I mean is, I am certain I remember the actual comments accurately, the ones given to me and to the young woman who went before me, but my reactions to and understanding of that feedback have changed. At the time, I remember feeling mildly frustrated by that feedback, but I basically put it in the column of, I hate almost everything about law school and here’s one more thing for the list. But when I remember that incident NOW, I admit that my reactions are more along the lines of, WTF? Did that dude really just give me feedback on how often I smiled?

This is all part and parcel of a broader set of topics I’ve been thinking about, which I would all put under the general title of, The Scrutiny and Judgment of Women. I have been thinking about these topics a LOT. Recently, this interest of mine has taken the shape of a burning interest in all of the media coverage of Facebook’s missteps, and of Sheryl Sandberg in particular, and a recent profile of Lena Dunham in New York magazine that has taken over the pop culture universe because of her history of mistakes, of apologies, and her persistent blind spots with respect to women of color and her own privilege, in particular.

My mind has been generating and then chewing over a ton of questions in relation to these two subjects. Questions like:

Do I feel like the criticisms of Sandberg’s leadership and Lena Dunham’s blind spots are warranted? (Yes, I do, although much more so with Lena Dunham. This is in part because much of what Dunham has been criticized for is directly attributable to her own words and actions; with Sheryl Sandberg, it is harder to tell what is directly attributable to her leadership versus what is being put out there by a bunch of disgruntled Facebook employees.)

Do I feel like the backlash against Sheryl Sandberg’s leadership is much worse than the criticism being directed at Mark Zuckerberg? (Yes).

Do I think that women of color experience far fewer opportunities to even ascend to the same heights as Sheryl Sandberg and Lena Dunham and would be condemned far more quickly in similar circumstances? (Absolutely, yes.)

Are women allowed to make mistakes? Are they allowed to be flawed and to apologize for their mistakes and then leave them behind? (I don’t know. I think the answer might be, yes, sometimes, IF they are willing to endure much greater scrutiny and attacks then most men are subjected to.)

When women are open about their pain and suffering—as Sheryl Sandberg was with the tragic loss of her spouse, as Lena Dunham was with her harrowing reproductive health issues—what are the upsides and downsides to being that open? (I think the upsides—which we don’t often talk about—are that people feel more connected to the person and will offer support and caring as people, especially women, often do to one another. I think that the openness does not, and should not, allow one to paper over one’s mistakes, and I don’t believe it has any effect whatsoever in disarming your haters and detractors.)

Do I feel like the journalist who wrote the profile of Lena Dunham, Allison P. Davis, did a fair, balanced, and thoughtful job with the profile? (I do. I think Allison Davis is amazing.) Do I think the journalists who have written articles questioning Sheryl Sandberg and gotten all of those FB employees to slam her, off the record, have done a good job? (Not really.)

Would my current self have a different response to that moot court judge’s feedback? (Hell, YEAH. Lest you get the wrong idea, however, I’ve always imagined that my different response would start with, “With all due respect, your honor…”)

And finally: do I think that many of you are thinking about the same types of questions, but you’d come up with very different answers than I have on this particular day, during this moment in time? Yes, I do. I’d like to hear them. Because I don’t necessarily think there are any exact right answers to these sorts of questions (although there are some really stupid and ignorant ones). I think the thing I’m trying to grapple with is, how quickly do we rush to some sort of judgment or conclusion about people, about women in particular, operating in challenging circumstances? On this particular set of topics, it feels more important to hold the space for the questions, than it does to rush to the answers.