The Shaming of Desire

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I was flipping through the latest issue of Vogue while waiting for a prescription refill at CVS when I read this from new-mom Serena Williams:

“To be honest, there’s something really attractive about the idea of moving to San Francisco [where her husband’s company, Reddit, is headquartered] and just being a mom. But not yet. Maybe this goes without saying, but it needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams. I’m well aware of the record books, unfortunately. It’s not a secret that I have my sights on 25.”

Whoa! That’s not what you usually hear from a brand-new celebrity mom who’s featured on the cover of a glammy women’s magazine. Where’s the snuggling? Where’s the cooing? Where’s the nesting? Where’s the Madonna-and-child soft-focus photo? (To be fair, there is a picture of Serena holding her baby, but she’s holding the child in the crook of one arm and looks like she could bench press the kid a hundred reps without breaking a sweat.)

Here are the things I love about Serena Williams:

  • I love her massive arms and pile-driving legs.
  •  I love her wide, open smile.
  • I love her power.
  •  I love her complicated, loving, loyal relationship with her sister, Venus.
  •  I love it that she won the women’s title at the Australian open when she was eight weeks pregnant.
  •  I love it that she wins, period. She wins and wins and wins. I really love that about her.

It isn’t easy for a woman to express desire. To say, “I want this.” To say it in a powerful way. To say it without equivocation, without apology, without mumbling and backtracking and trying to hide it in a bouquet of qualifiers. But to say it in print in a national magazine—"I absolutely want more Grand Slams"—that takes ovaries of steel.

I just got back from two weeks of school visits in Chicago, and one of the things I talk about in my presentation with the upper elementary kids is character motivation. I explain that a story’s main character needs to want something in order to move the plot forward. I explain that everybody wants something. And then I ask slyly, “What do you want?”

The boys’ hands go up first. A lot of them want Nintendos and money and to play in the NBA. A surprising number want Lamborghinis. Sometimes their answers are wisecracks, and sometimes they’re heartfelt. On this trip, a fourth-grade boy bravely admitted that he wanted friends because he was new to the school.

The girls are usually a beat behind the boys in telling me what they want. They sometimes want money, too. But more often I hear about wanting a particular pet or a phone or some form of self-improvement. (I want to get good grades; I want to be nicer to my sister.) Occasionally, a girl expresses a desire for world peace, and I often find myself wondering what that concept means to her. Where did she hear that phrase? And has she already accepted the cultural norm that boys belong to the world of war, while it is the job of women to bring peace? I’m sure boys desire world peace, too, but it doesn’t occur to them in the moment. At least, not before Lamborghinis.

Are boys and girls taught to want different things? Or is it that boys absorb the message that it’s okay to want, while girls (who grow into women) approach the subject of desire with a little more trepidation? The waters are muddy for women who want. Muddy and filled with crocodiles. Data shows that neither men nor women like women who want. For this reason, women are sometimes coached to ask for a raise by invoking their family’s need—never their own value or their own needs.

This year, the movie Battle of the Sexes reanimated the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and (what’s his name? it’s hard to even remember), oh, yes, Bobby Riggs. I was a feisty eleven-year-old feminist when the match took place, and I remember thinking there’s no way an old has-been like Riggs is going to beat the World’s No. 1 tennis player. A woman who would win 12 Grand Slam singles titles in her career and who fought just as hard for women’s rights, including equal pay. But Bobby sure did shoot his mouth off, and he could almost make you believe just by saying it was so.

The match was an absurd spectacle, built for entertainment appeal, but it also mattered. Intensely. And not just to 11-year-old feminists who wanted to believe that women could be equal to men—and even victorious over them. Fifty million people watched the televised match in the United States alone. Another 90 million watched worldwide. Later, King would say, “I thought it would set us back fifty years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” King beat Riggs in three straight sets.

In the movie, one of the characters asks, “Billie Jean, what do you want?” The eternal question. It can be so hard for women to locate desire—desire that has nothing to do with nurturing others.

I spent years writing in closets. (Literally. When I was seven, I commandeered a linen closet as my writing office. My mother moved the sheets to a higher shelf and maneuvered around my chair.) As I grew older, I learned to hide my writing in other ways. All the years I was a young mother, I was writing, but I never told anyone. I was too ashamed. Not ashamed to be a writer; ashamed of wanting to be a writer. Ashamed of the desire. The arrogance of desire. Who was I to want to write?

(Later, when I was teaching at a university in a low-residency writing program, one of my students, who was a successful, working actress in L.A., admitted that not even her closest friends knew where she went when she traveled East twice a year for the residencies. She let them believe that she was having “work done.” In her world, it was less humiliating to have plastic surgery than to have desire.)

Serena Williams wasn’t alive in 1973, but she remembers the lessons of that time. Speaking of other women tennis players, she said,

“I really believe that we have to build each other up and build our tour up. The women in Billie Jean King’s day supported each other even though they competed fiercely. We’ve got to do that. That’s kind of the mark I want to leave. Play each other hard, but keep growing the sport.”

In Battle of the Sexes, the character of Billie Jean King says to one of the smirking, condescending male promoters, “When we dare to want a little bit more, just a little bit of what you’ve got, that’s what you can’t stand.” Forty-five years later, we’re having the same conversation.

Last year I found myself seated around a large conference table at my publisher’s downtown corporate headquarters. We were negotiating contract terms, and had been for almost two years. There were four women in the room: the Senior Vice President and Publisher, the Vice President of Sales and Children’s Marketing, the Vice President and Editor in Chief—and me. They sat on one side of the table, I sat on the other. The question was raised by the Publisher: What did I want, specifically?

I knew exactly what I wanted, but saying it out loud felt impossible. For fives minutes, I talked around the question. I spoke in broad outline. I made reference to related topics. I advanced and then retreated. I left sentences unfinished. I apologized for a poorly chosen word. Essentially, I was rearranging furniture: moving the couch, straightening the rug, adjusting the coffee table. But I wasn’t answering the question.

Eventually, I just ran out of words. I was out of moderate responses. Out of soft generalizations. Out of euphemisms. Out of time. There was nothing left to say except the thing itself. “I want more money,” I said, shocking myself. And then, because the world didn’t explode and no one in the room threw knives at me, I said it again. “That’s it. I want more money.”

Later, when the negotiating part of the meeting had ended and we had moved on to safer topics, the Vice President of Sales—a woman who seems unflappable, never at a loss for words, and ever capable of stating her position with clarity—looked at me across the table. Our eyes locked. It felt to me as though her eyes pierced mine. She said in a low voice, directly to me, “Don’t ever apologize for asking for money.”

Daring to want. For women, it’s an act of subversion. It’s an act of resistance. And it often feels like it holds the potential to be an act of destruction. (What do we fear we might destroy? Our careers? Our chance to be loved? The system that discriminates against us?) Daring to want: a writing contract. An award. A seat on a panel. Fair payment. Attention. Respect. Power.

“Women are sometimes taught to not dream as big as men,” said Serena Williams, who is the greatest tennis player—male or female—of all time. “I’m so glad I had a daughter. I want to teach her that there are no limits.”

I visited eleven schools over the past two weeks in Chicago, and I told the students the same thing over and over: every story is about motivation, the thing your character wants more than anything else in the world. I wish I could tell the girls you have every right to want as much as the boys. Don’t be ashamed of wanting. Name your desire. Say it out loud. And go after it.