The Writing Life: Girls with Pens — Can we ‘Lean In’ and ‘Let it Go’? by Lisa Ahn

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What could a pair of Disney princesses and the COO of Facebook have in common?

In a Venn diagram of girls and words, of rebellion and equality, there’s more overlap than you’d imagine.

The princesses are Elsa and Anna, stars of the hit Disney animated film, Frozen. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve surely heard the music. “Let It Go” has topped the charts in at least fifty different languages.  As a mom of girls, I can’t escape this song — belted out each day at full and soulful volume — but its influence is hardly caught inside a single demographic. Firefighters sang it to a four-year old stuck inside an elevator. Fifth-grade teachers in Minnesota changed the words to help their students battle test anxiety. Even the Marines have joined the act, crooning “Let it Go” with spirit hands, bouncing, raucous, on a couch. There are countless parodies, from a remixed Game of Thrones to an explicit version for exam-toasted college students, and a over-the-top traffic man’s report. Check out this desperate dad, this crazy Chicago weatherman, and this hilarious rockin’ mom.  “Let it Go” has gone viral, a cultural tempest larger than the polar vortex.

At the center of a very different maelstrom, stands the COO of Facebook, author Sheryl Sandburg. The 2013 publication of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead topped bestseller lists at Amazon and the New York Times, but led to a flurry of debate, with criticism of Sandburg’s message and her ability (or right) to speak for other women.  As a writer and a mom of girls, I found Sandburg’s central message lucid and compelling: if we want equality, we need more women leaders. Sandburg addresses the structural limitations women face — like a pay gap of 77 cents on the dollar — along with self-limiting beliefs like the imposter syndrome. She encourages women to “lean in,” to push for a place at the table, a voice in the conversation.

So where does Sandburg meet with Elsa, and what does any of this have to do with writing?

I’m not a Disney princess or a corporate maven. I’m a writer and a mom, roles I find inseparable.

Just this. I’m not a Disney princess or a corporate maven. I’m a writer and a mom, roles I find inseparable. As such, I’m a staunch advocate of girls with pens, girls with protractors, calculators, compasses and hammers. Girls with clout. I want my daughters to have choices. I want them to lean in to their own talents and abilities, to never shy away from math or science or back down from a righteous fight.  I want them to be leaders, to ignore the imprecation of “bossy” that slides the slippery slope to “bitch.” And, in “Let It Go,” Idina Menzel taps hard into this spirit of rebellion. Her lyrics clamor freedom, a child’s desire to “slam the door” on the “good girl” who keeps her real self hidden. It’s a small fist raised against perfection and the undertow of fear. What child doesn’t want to “test the limits and break through,” declare “no rules for me. I’m free”? But it’s a backhand strength, at best, cut-off from the world (like Elsa in her ice castle), isolated and unsustainable.  Less than four minutes long, “Let It Go” is a cathartic release, but not a solution. Once the last chord falls silent, I wonder what comes next?

And because I’m a writer and a mom, the answer, for me, is always better stories. I don’t have Sandburg’s cache in the boardroom, and Disney fashion doesn’t suit me, but I can break the backs of words and carve them into wings. Stories shape belief — about who we are and what we can become, about our history and culture. They are the stitchery of self, the seams that either liberate or bind us. Change the story, change the world.  If our girls grow up on tales of hapless maidens waiting for a knight in armor, then they will never lift the sword themselves.  Our great-grandmothers were told that a book, an education, would lead to “wandering wombs” and the diagnosis of hysteria. Imagine centuries of women harnessed to the image of a uterus unmoored by language, causing mayhem. This is not just ancient history, quaint and easy to dismiss. Girls around the world are burned with acid, abducted, beaten, raped, and killed because they dare to seek an education.

As a writer, I believe we owe them. We owe them stories that lean in, and stories that let go of fear and its entanglements. We owe them Rosa Parks and Wangari Maathai, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Blackwell, Amelia Earhart and Frida Kahlo and Malala Yousafzai. We owe them a world where women’s stories are the mainstream, rather than a sidebar.  We deliver what we owe through words shouted, never whispered. Tell the story of the girls abducted in Nigeria. Tell the story of the young women raped with impunity on US college campuses. Tell the story of the girl who gives up calculus to get a date. And then tell something else, scoop out the story’s guts, crack the brittle, vicious spine of Can’t and Won’t and Don’t. Tell the story that remakes the world not as an escape, but as rebellion.

It’s why Einstein advocated fairy tales, why Isabel Allende, Alice Hoffman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and so many other writers work language like an enchantment. Magical realism infuses art with the power to see around the edges of accepted truths like floating wombs and child brides. And when we can see past the cultural inventions of the feminine, the perfect girl, the pure, then we can break them down, discard them.

Let them go.

We can lean in to the heroine inside the child, the story she invents, the story of herself.

As a mother and a writer, I will shelter magic, imagination, and the alchemy of narrative. I will not discount the power of a fairytale, a witchery of words, the way our stories shape and then define us, for better or for worse. When we have a wealth of tales, we have a wealth of possibilities. As a writer and a mother, I will never stop the telling. I will give my daughters pen and ink, the cutting blades of language. I will give them stories. And they will change the world.

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  14 comments for “The Writing Life: Girls with Pens — Can we ‘Lean In’ and ‘Let it Go’? by Lisa Ahn

  1. Like Brenda, I love this line: “If our girls grow up on tales of hapless maidens waiting for a knight in armor, then they will never lift the sword themselves.” Great piece, Lisa!

  2. I don’t know anyone else who could meaningfully connect these disparate elements into an anthem in support of our daughters. This line is so very powerful: “If our girls grow up on tales of hapless maidens waiting for a knight in armor, then they will never lift the sword themselves.” May they lift their swords – may we give them a world where they can do so.

  3. I LOVED this essay. Really loved it. There are pitch perfect sentences and sentiments here. Lisa Ahn is a talent we cannot let go. Lean in, Lisa. We need your words, your observations, and your spirit!

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