I had the fortunate accident of reading these two very different articles in close succession: Mary Beard’s “The Public Voice of Women” and Peter Lauria’s “Mark Zuckerberg Comes of Age As A Mogul.” I think you can guess which quotes from come from which:
I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey. We tend now to think of the Odyssey as the story of Odysseus and the adventures and scrapes he had returning home after the Trojan War – while for decades Penelope loyally waited for him, fending off the suitors who were pressing for her hand. But the Odyssey is just as much the story of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope; the story of his growing up; how over the course of the poem he matures from boy to man. The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.
Noticeably absent from the mounds of coverage of how Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp came together is any mention of the social network’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg… Her absence, at least publicly, seems to suggest that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg no longer needs adult supervision. Quite the opposite, in fact. Though Zuckerberg is still three months away from his 30th birthday, over the last few years he has blossomed into a very impressive mogul. Gone is the caricature of him as a hoodie-wearing, socially awkward CEO profusely sweating under questioning. He’s grown into a cocksure leader, solid operator, and gutsy dealmaker, even if the casual dress still remains. Looking at him today, he can rightly be called the first mogul of social media.
There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species. The actual words Telemachus uses are significant too. When he says ‘speech’ is ‘men’s business’, the word is muthos – not in the sense that it has come down to us of ‘myth’. In Homeric Greek it signals authoritative public speech (not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do).
It’s important to understand that not all CEOs are de-facto moguls. There’s a swagger moguls have that transcends simply being the boss or being rich. Moguls are visionary, decisive, and a bit ruthless, at least with their business objectives. They are concerned not with industry or domestic but rather world domination, and usually have grandiose mission statements to describe their business (“Connecting the world” in the case of Facebook; as another example, “Organizing the world’s information” for Google). And they also usually have absolute control of their companies through majority control of its voting shares. Not unlike the traditional family-run media companies — think News Corp’s Murdoch family, Comcast’s Roberts family, Cablevision’s Dolan family, or Viacom’s Redstone family — Zuckerberg has an ironclad grip on Facebook’s board and strategic direction through his 57% control of its voting shares.
It’s both fucked-up and perfect to think about Telemachus competing with both Penelope and her suitors over her “control of voting shares” in Odysseus’s media empire.
I did a quick Google search to see if any female tech CEOs have been praised for their “swagger,” and got stalled at Andrew Wallenstein’s exhortation for Marissa Mayer to, well, shut up:
It’s as if Mayer is trying to play two seemingly incompatible roles at once: the visionary turnaround specialist who lets the innovations she implements do the talking, and the rockstar CEO who rationalizes that her company basks in the refracted glow of a halo that gets its shimmer from her swagger.
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” you think. Well, “The Marissa Mayer Show Needs a Rewrite” spells out its subtext, pitting Mayer against Sandberg through way of a joint photo op. While Sandberg epitomized “tasteful restraint,” Mayer “seemed to be auditioning to be an Entertainment Tonight correspondent.” “Sandberg leans in. Mayer preens in.”
Dismiss this opinion of Mayer as pure sexism if you must. She’s an attractive woman who shouldn’t have to tamp down her femininity to correspond to some conventional presumptions of how an executive should conduct him or herself. But the same could be said about a male executive who posed for GQ and interviewed the cast of Fast and Furious 14.
Beard’s article/speech isn’t really about the way professional media writers talk about CEOs. It’s more directly about the way the hoi polloi talk to and about women who speak, especially women who speak out. But I think Beard also persuasively shows that the two things aren’t so separate. The way we frame women’s personae at the top of the social pyramid, from Penelope to Margaret Thatcher to Mayer and Sandberg, both guides and is supported by the way we talk about women’s and men’s public and private voices all the way down.
The whole mess is caught up in an inherited fabric so tangled, so knotty, so devious, that “misogyny,” Beard suggests, is a word that falls far too short. It’s not only hate; it’s history.