How Real is Too Real? Erykah Badu, Bethenny Frankel and the Problem with "Realism"
Sometimes admirable people say things that make you cringe and wish you could stuff the words back into their mouths. Perfect example: this week on Twitter, Erykah Badu, whose thinking I normally admire, supported the argument that school girls should wear knee length skirts specifically to prevent older men, particularly their teachers, from preying on them. (To be clear, I don't think school girls should be wearing super short skirts, it's the reason for lengthening the skirts that disturbs me.) Badu argued that adult men are biologically attracted to women of child bearing age, even if those women are just teenagers and even if those teenagers are their students. Sure, she makes it clear that men should be held responsible for what they do with that attraction, but she was adamant that lengthening skirts would help protect these girls from harm.
Just a few days before that, Bethenny Frankel, business woman and reality TV star, spoke to a group of women at an entrepreneurial summit and reportedly told the black women in the room they should hire a white man to be the face of their companies. We know women have long been pushing against the glass ceiling, and black women have an even harder battle to fight. In a world where you might struggle to get a call back for a job interview with a name that sounds black, a company with a black woman publicly at the helm might be on the same struggle train. A white male face could be easier to sell.
You could say these women are just being realists, right? It’s a popular attitude nowadays. Everybody’s a realist and proud of it. Optimism is viewed as blind happiness, pessimism is seen as a black hole of despair, so realism is pushed as the best alternative to the two extremes. And in a lot of places it is. Realism is why we carry umbrellas when there’s rain in the forecast, no matter how much we want a sunshiny day. It’s why we lock doors because we understand that there will be people who will happily steal your car or clean out your house. But sometimes accepting reality for what it is perpetuates problems as much as it prevents them.
A lot of our realism is stewed in a negativity that says, “That’s just the way things are.” Realism will say men will look, so girls should cover up. Realism will say the business world won’t support black women, so they should get white men to represent them. Realism will say we should be prepared to respond accordingly to ugly realities, but a lot of the time, that response doesn’t seem to work hard enough toward changing them. Yes, the reality is that some male teachers’ ability to teach young girls hinges on a few extra inches of fabric, and some people won’t support a business if a white man isn’t running it. But the responses to realities like these can’t be to put on longer skirts and hire white men while doing nothing to challenge the casual racism and sexism that makes those reactions necessary. We can’t just accept bad things as something we have to deal with instead of approaching them as issues that need to be fixed at the root.
Is it idealistic to think that teenaged girls should be able to wear a skirt that falls above the knee and not be leered at (or worse) by her teachers? Or to hope that black women would get as much respect in a board room as a white man? Yes. I can admit that. But ideals breed change when they’re backed up by action. All positive social change is a result of people fighting for ideals. Protecting ourselves and our interests from society’s ugly realities is a necessary evil, but at some point in the midst of accepting those realities, we need to be addressing the fact that we shouldn’t have to.
We need to stop buying into realism that just deals with problems instead of fixing them. I'm not asking that we deny the truth, but that we're not so accepting of ugly ones that we just give into them. And there’s a massive difference between the two. Realism has its place. But it’s not always enough on its own. Sometimes realism needs to be mixed with the optimistic belief that we can change things and critical analysis of how those changes can be made. If your realism surrenders to the way things are, you are a part of the problem. I’m just keeping it real.