"Lean the f*** away from me": Jessica Williams, "impostor syndrome" and the many ways we serially doubt women

Williams had to defend herself against an offensive accusation that she was holding herself back. She's not alone

Published February 18, 2015 10:15PM (EST)

 Jessica Williams            (Comedy Central)
Jessica Williams (Comedy Central)

After a week of intense speculation about who would be taking over “The Daily Show,” Jessica Williams addressed the rumors that she was (or at least should be) the heir apparent for host. In a series of tweets, Williams thanked people for the support, but said she wouldn’t be sitting behind the anchor desk any time soon. “Fact 1: I'm not hosting. Thank you but I am extremely under-qualified for the job!” she tweeted. “I am super not right for it, but there are quite a few people who are! Can't wait to stick around & see what happens.”

Many a crying emoji was shared in response, but Williams made it clear that she was good with where she’s at and with everything that’s still ahead of her, tweeting, “I'm not like, dead. This is the beginning of my career.” A little while later, a writer for the Billfold responded to Williams’ announcement with a piece that claimed she was a “victim” of impostor syndrome, and that she needed to “lean in."

Williams swiftly defended herself against the accusation:

Are you unaware, how insulting that can be for a fully functioning person to hear that her choices are invalid? Because you have personally decided, that I DON'T know myself- as a WOMAN you are saying that I need to lean in. Because of my choice, you have diagnosed me with something without knowing me at all. For the world to see.

And this is the problem with “lean in” applied as a universal feminist ethos. Like most supposedly universal narratives, it's incredibly limiting. Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged in the book that she didn’t believe that women “should all have the same objectives” or face the same obstacles, but much of the advice is still presented as inclusive when it’s actually narrowly tailored to a certain kind of woman (namely, white, upwardly mobile and married to, or interested in marrying, a man who is likely the same), working to achieve a certain kind of power while maintaining a certain kind of family life. The book is undoubtedly useful and resonates for some, but, as Roxane Gay pointed out in her thoughtful review, a lot of Sandberg’s wisdom reads something like, “If you want to succeed, be an asshole.”

I’d also say that “lean in,” particularly as it’s often rendered in media shorthand, has come to mean that women should ignore their instincts in favor of aggressively pursuing a specific career goal or opportunity at all costs. In a culture that already serially doubts women, this is, in its own way, just another way we doubt women. As though we can’t be trusted to narrate our own experiences, or as if making a choice that doesn’t match narrowly defined or hyper-specific expectations means we are somehow weak or self-defeating. (This is precisely what Williams called out in her response to the Billfold. There is quite a difference between encouraging and supporting women as they pursue their goals and calling out and shaming women when their goals don't match your expectations.)

Impostor syndrome, which Sandberg also addresses in the book, presents a similar bind for women. It’s real, it sucks and it can and does hold women back. That said, not every woman experiences it, or experiences it in all facets of her life. And it is certainly not the explanation for every single incident in which a woman says “no” to something in her professional life. Get too deep into that hole and you end up pathologizing women’s lived experiences, as if we all either have impostor syndrome or are simply in denial about having impostor syndrome. There is no room for agency in that, which is why it's so disempowering when deployed as a one-size-fits all explanation for women's choices.

It’s undoubtedly a good thing that we are talking about women’s ambition and that more people are developing a vocabulary for the institutional and cultural barriers women face when navigating their personal and professional lives. But all too often the “solutions” we are offered to address a complex structural problem amount to women bucking up and ignoring the voice inside them if it says anything resembling “this doesn’t feel right for me." You can have a healthy sense of self-knowledge and a willingness to ask yourself why, exactly, you are making a given choice and still decide that, ultimately, something isn't right for you or isn't what you want.

As long as “lean in” is the central narrative for how we value women’s work and women’s choices, there is very little room to recognize when women are being ambitious when it doesn't line up with narrow expectations about what we think success and ambition are supposed to look like. (This kind of approach also does little to address the structural barriers that won't be resolved with bootstrap ingenuity alone.) Such a one-size-fits-all narrative, whether it's lean in or impostor syndrome, erases women's agency and is its own form of erasure. Both can be a useful way to support women, but they have the opposite impact when used to police women's choices and doubt their agency, which is exactly what Williams called out this week.

"I am a black woman and I am a feminist and I am so many things. I am truly honored that people love my work. But I am not yours," she tweeted. "No offense, but Lean the Fuck away from me for the next couple of days. I need a minute."

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Feminism Jessica Williams Lean In Sheryl Sandberg The Daily Show