If She Can See It, She Can Be It
Why Sara Blakely’s Cameo on Billions was Everything
Three things you need to know to proceed:
First, my husband watches a lot of basketball. I might have mentioned this before. Obsessed for more than 40 years, he’s never seen anything like this blocked shot by Zion Williamson, who will likely be the #1 pick in the NBA Draft.
Second, we have three kids six and under. Yes, we still watch TV, but rarely live. Sometimes that means we watch season finales six months after they aired and as a result, our watercooler moments are rare.
For example, the previous season of Billions wrapped up in June 2018, and we didn’t see it until February 2019, but luckily, ok, tragically, the themes it provoked are always timely.
Moreover, since I waited long enough to finish this, it turns out that I’m right on time as Billions fourth season returns on March 17.
Third, you can take the girl out of the television industry but not the television industry outta the girl. I love this show so much, and while I’m 100% sure I’m overthinking it, I think that’s the point. It’s a complex over-thinking show. I haven’t analyzed a show this much since The Wire, and that was lifetimes ago. Billions has such great writing and is utterly quotable. Here are two of my favorites:
"What is it you do that you're the best in the world at? You offer a service you didn't invent, a formula you didn't invent, a delivery method you didn't invent. Nothing about what you do is patentable or a unique user experience. You haven't identified an isolated market segment, haven't truly branded your concept. You need me to go on?"
As an entrepreneur, it’s a legendary lesson. Also, as a mother, I love this quote just as much:
“Are we teaching them daddy’s job is always more important than mommy’s?”
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to it. When Axe bumped into Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, on that last episode, I was surprised. I sat up a little straighter and asked hubby, “Is that Sara?” like I knew her, or my BFF had just made a cameo on the show. For those of you who don’t know, Blakely is the billionaire female entrepreneur who has built an empire with her shapewear company.
It was a big freaking deal you guys, on so many levels.
Bad News First
First, women are severely underrepresented in high-stakes big-money situations, both on screen and off. There are so many men on this show: Axe, Wags, Chuck, Mafee, Bryan, Dollar Bill, Hall, Ari, and Charles Sr. They are complicated characters and frankly, all a little hard to take. Brilliant? Yes. Brilliantly acted? Yes. Damaged? Yes. Flawed? Yes. Mostly white? Yes. Emboldened by money and privilege? Double yes.
I love/hate them.
If the show was only about them, it would be unbearable. Unwatchable really.
However, it’s not; it’s about so much more than it presents. For example, it’s also about women, notably Wendy, Lara, and Taylor (actually non-binary, but we are counting her as female for purposes of this argument).
The men outnumber the women in this show by a wide margin and true to life; it’s a case of art imitating life. Women are scarce in high paying jobs and leadership roles. Very few women are billionaires, CEOs, or inside traders (not that they aspire to be, but even so, there is a lack of opportunity for it).
Even fewer women are attorney generals. And, although recent months marked a breakout for females in politics, they are underrepresented there too. All those roles are central to Billions — the show revolves around hedge funds, billionaires, and others in the rarefied air of unfathomable money and power, and as such, women are mostly absent, invisible, or plus ones.
Representation is Important
Representation is essential for at least a billion reasons. Stereotypes and roles of women in the media inform and reinforce the perceptions of girls and women throughout their lives. Television and art are often a mirror for society, and when females look in the mirror and can’t see anyone that they resemble, who represents who they aspire to be, that’s concerning and demoralizing. However, when young girls find women in the media that remind them of themselves, who model who they want to be, it’s empowering and inspiring.
Now whether it was a deliberate decision by SHO or the showrunners to include Sara, or whether Sara called in the cameo, it was an epic moment for female fans of the show. Taylor and Wendy are easily two of the most potent and nuanced female characters on a series today, so women already have female characters to love and root for, but Sara represents a hopefulness beyond a fictional character.
Guys, you probably won’t get this because every version of male that exists is and always has been highly represented on your screens. You see successful men, unsuccessful men, tough guys, weak guys, smart guys, dumb guys, sexy guys, awkward guys, big guys, small guys, white-collar men, blue-collar men, every type of male doing every imaginable thing…and always getting the girl.
Do you know what girls see? Stunningly beautiful women playing uncomplicated roles, advancing plot lines. We rarely see different sizes, shapes, colors, or types. Yes, there’s been progress; yes, I’m exaggerating (a bit). You get my point.
Sometimes you have to see the thing to know that it exists. We know what a world dominated by men — male CEOs, presidents, and leaders — looks like. It’s a little too real for most of us. Men have normalized overbalance.
When women see women representing them on TV, in politics, in the boardroom, it changes everything. It changes the conversation and the standard; it changes the future.
As women’s roles in film and TV offer more variation and complexity, women offscreen are granted permission to be themselves. When we see something outside of our expectations, it challenges our beliefs. Take that basketball video I shared earlier. Male or female, athlete or wannabe, when viewers see it, they are changed.
Did you watch it? Yeah, it’s just a moment in a game, but like Blakely’s cameo, now that you’ve seen something previously thought unachievable, you know it’s not impossible. It makes it seem more likely that others can do it too. It changes your belief about what’s possible.
It’s irrelevant if you like Blakely or Spanx, or for that matter, even noticed. If you didn’t, it wasn’t for you. How many times does Mark Cuban pop up on shows or in pop culture references? A lot more than Blakely. Why is that? Blakely represents a category of entrepreneur that just isn’t portrayed on television — women. She’s maybe not any worthier than any other female entrepreneur, but she has crossed the billion-dollar mark, and that’s all it takes to attract Axe’s attention and ours.
Like Wendy, Lara, and Taylor, she’s a female icon. Flawed? Maybe. Damaged? Possibly. Privileged? No idea. Complex? Of course; all powerful women are. One of the attractions of this show is that it allows the audience to decide whether they like any given character, female or male. That’s a big deal too. It’s a demonstration of equality, as typically, women are portrayed so one-dimensionally that whether or not we will like them has already been decided for us.
It matters how the media contributes to creating ideal femininity, because like it or not; we buy into it. Movies like Wonder Woman, Moana and Hidden Figures feel empowering and resonate because they are redefining womanhood in positive ways, showing the many sides of women, and letting the audience decide.
We don’t have to agree with all their choices; we don’t have to identify with everything about them to appreciate that we are being given the option to choose, and crucially, in these examples, it proves women don’t have to be perfect to be role models.
There’s something to be said about the element of surprise too. Axe bumping into Sara surprised me because I was used to only male cameos on the show. I had unconsciously accepted that females other than Wendy and Taylor weren’t a part of the business storyline of Billions. But now, seeing it, only one time in a brief exchange, has challenged that belief.
It makes the case that other women are relevant or potentially relevant, and more importantly it raises the status of being a female entrepreneur. Blakely is worthy of a cameo, and now a door was just opened to other female entrepreneurs. It’s only a matter of time until someone else achieves the same milestone — not just the cameo, but crossing the billion-dollar threshold as a female entrepreneur is more likely too.
Melinda Gates notes that “a benefit of surprises is that they’re often a prod to action. It can gnaw at people to realize the realities of the world don’t match their expectations for it. Some surprises help people see that the status quo needs to change. Some surprises underscore that transformation is happening already.”
Maybe you didn’t know how much you needed a Blakely cameo until you saw it. Sometimes we aren’t even conscious of what we are hungry for. It’s hard to know what’s missing when we’re conditioned.
That’s what this surprise did for me; it underscored that transformation is already happening, that like-minded people all over the planet are connecting over this. It confirmed that #metoo and #timesup and the #4percentchallenge and all the other social movements are making a difference. They are tackling the problems from different angles and subtlety and deliberately changing our perception and influencing collective consciousness. We can feel the shift.
A change in consciousness is a precursor to the world changing and this is evidence. It’s already been set in motion. It’s inevitable. It’s evolutionary. For those of you fighting it or scared, women aren’t interested in revenge, payback, or settling the score. We’ll never move forward if men and women treat each other as adversaries instead of allies.
We want equality. When feminists refer to gender equality, we are not arguing that males and females are identical or indistinguishable. Nor does it mean all gender differences must be removed, or that we must have equal gender representation in every field. It’s about giving all people equal rights and equal opportunities, to allow everyone to start at the same starting line and endure and thrive under the same systemic conditions, be presented with the same options, and not be held back, dismissed, neglected, threatened or impeded because of gender. Thank you very much.
Are Social Movements Enough?
Just as empowering women cannot solely lead to transformational change, promoting women’s empowerment through advocacy initiatives and social media campaigns is only a small fraction of the effort required to establish these modifications. We must challenge the norms and values of patriarchal societies.
Have you heard of the aforementioned #4percentchallenge? It calls for the film and television industry to commit to hiring one female director in the next 18 months. Why four percent? That’s the contemptibly small number of studio films in the last decade that have been directed by a woman.
Four percent doesn’t seem like enough. It is such a small number and yet, no matter what category, a 4% increase would be a gamechanger.
Take the number of women who lead Fortune 500 companies for example. That number fell by 25 percent in 2018, dipping to 24 from 32 in 2017, confirming that women are the chief executives of only 4.8 percent of the 500 most profitable companies in the US.
It’s a few years old now, but this study exaggerated that stat by pointing out that fewer women run big companies than do men named John. Now, that’s just pitiful. Can we please start a #4percentchallenge for the Fortune 500 too?
Similarly, did you know that of the 50 largest US hedge funds by assets under management, only two have women as their top investment executive? This according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from researcher Absolute Return.
Closely related is a 2015 analysis by Morningstar that states only two percent of mutual fund assets in the US are managed exclusively by women. Can we get a #4percentchallenge over here too please?
Then there’s this: Several studies back up that claim that women investing in stocks are better at it than men, which means that even when it would be advantageous to bring more women into the picture, we aren’t doing that. Huh.
There are more discouraging studies, such as one conducted by Harvard Business School that paints a grim picture across the finance industry that Billions is set in: Among senior roles in venture capital and private equity, women held just 9% and 6% of the positions, respectively. Hedge funds bring that number to lower depths: women occupied only 3% of senior management roles.
It has been suggested that perhaps one of the most appalling reasons that women are being shut out of fund manager roles is because of the blatant sexism embedded in the culture. Thankfully, the #MeToo movement is hitting nearly all industries, and finance is no exception. One of the many hopes for the #metoo and #timesup movements is that these global campaigns will spur investors to move their money to companies that support women and even potentially encourage investors to seek out female fund managers.
When it comes to balancing gender equality, finance has simply with not kept pace with many other professional fields, such as law, academia, and medicine, even though women now receive the most college degrees in the United States across every category, from bachelor’s degrees to doctorates.
In fact, women are dramatically underrepresented in several of the most prestigious and profitable professions in the country, from venture-funded tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to high-earning professional athletes. According to LinkedIn in 2017, women hold only 5–13% of the highest paying jobs. This is further compounded because women still are paid less than men for the same role.
On average, white women working fulltime earn 80.5 cents for every dollar earned by a white man in the same position. Black women make 61 cents, and Hispanic women make 53 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. The wage gap, for example, is so widely acknowledged that there’s an annual event dedicated to its existence: Equal Pay Day. Am I the only one who gets outraged on that day? It begs the question, Is this the year Congress finally passes equal pay law for women?
And lastly, as mentioned, there were a record 256 women listed on the world’s billionaires ranking as of March 2018. Seems pretty impressive until you realize, in 2018, there was also a record 2,208 people on the list with a Total list net worth value of $9.1 trillion. While the number of women that made the list has hit an all-time high, they still comprise less than 12% of the global total. Only two women are in the top 20, and none have reached a top ten spot.
A Happy Ending
Is there is a happy ending to this story? Maybe. We can achieve gender equality in our lifetimes. It’s not likely, but hell, neither was Trump.
We have evidence beyond Blakely that gender equality is reaching a tipping point.
A few years ago, I had the good fortune of hearing Malcolm Gladwell address a small room. He’s the author of The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Based on his research, Gladwell identifies three key factors that play a role in determining whether a particular trend will “tip” into wide-scale popularity: 1) Law of the Few, 2) Stickiness Factor, and 3) Power of Context. Let’s test it with gender equality.
1) The Law of the Few contends that before widespread popularity can be attained, a few key types of people must champion an idea before it can reach the tipping point — Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. If individuals representing all three types endorse and advocate an idea, it is much more likely that it will tip into exponential success.
All types of people are championing gender equality. It’s not just women rallying, and not all men are part of the problem. Last week, actress Alyssa Milano went to Washington to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, part of a renewed effort to finally update the Constitution to explicitly include women. Then there’s Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut who has introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act to every sitting Congress since 1997. Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.
2) Gladwell defines the Stickiness Factor as the quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention to an idea. Often, the way that the Stickiness Factor is generated is unconventional, unexpected, and contrary to received wisdom.
Logic certainly doesn’t apply when it comes to our resistance to the value of gender equality to economic benefit. A recent study concluded that gender inequality is costing the global economy $12 trillion annually, with North America accounting for 25% of that total followed by China with 20%. It’s vital to US and foreign economic interests, and it matters to billions of women and girls around the world. Sticky enough? Or how about this?
Despite gains, women remain underrepresented among US political and business leaders and again, we pay for it. Consistent with our (possibly collective?) hunch, the most striking finding was that when women led very diverse countries rather than men, female leaders were significantly more likely than male leaders to have fast-growing economies. It’s getting stickier all the time.
Aside: If diversity and gender equality have so much potential for improvement, why don’t we see change faster? What will be necessary to make it happen?
There are several kinds of responses to this question.
1) The first is the be the change response, characterized by Sheryl Sandberg’s now-famous argument in her book Lean In.
2) The second type plays down the Lean In method, suggesting that the necessary response goes far beyond an individual woman’s behavior to require broad-based efforts to change the mindset and support systems for both men and women.
3) A third response suggests that the reason there is gender inequality can be linked to the question of who traditionally has held power.
I don’t know the answer either; all three seem plausible, but I what I know for sure, is both advanced and developing countries stand to gain, both men and women stand to gain. Let’s get out of our way people. It’s time to move forward.
3) Finally, the third concept that Gladwell terms the Power of Context is enormously important in determining whether a phenomenon will tip into widespread popularity. Even minuscule changes in the environment can play a major factor in the propensity of a given concept attaining the tipping point.
Context is rapidly changing. Sara Blakely is showing up on Billions representing the combined net worth of the top 60 self-made women, which is now at a record $71 billion, 15% more than in 2017.
We are talking about, portraying, and lobbying for change. We see change and we are change. We are rewriting context and it’s heady.
I don’t know how to end this when I’m feeling so unresolved, so I think I’ll postpone the ending until it turns out the way I want it to. In the meantime, I’m encouraged and discouraged, hopeful and resigned. I have daughters, and whatever I’ve tolerated for the last 40-something years, I no longer have the capacity to ignore.