‘The Perfect Nanny’ Shows How Trying to ‘Have It All’ is a Capitalist Nightmare
Leila Slimani’s book illuminates the horror underpinning ‘lean in’ feminism
Five years after Lean In, we don’t hear about women “having it all” the way we used to. Thanks largely to the backlash provoked by Sheryl Sandberg’s women-at-work manifesto, we seem to have understood that for women the pressures of perfection can be as damning as those of oppression. Today, women like Ivanka Trump and Gwyneth Paltrow, who strive to perform their ability to multitask, manage empires and make social calls while also appearing everlastingly young, bouncy-haired, and politically engaged, are easy targets for satire. But these women have something to tell us about the way feminism has been co-opted by capitalism since Sandberg’s book.
Both Ivanka and Gwyneth have invoked the term “feminist” to describe themselves, and though neither of them will be winning any awards for incisive gender politics anytime soon, it’s also not ridiculous for them to describe themselves this way. In today’s United States, “feminism” doesn’t need to imply much more than “girl power” (whatever that means). Though on different ends of the political spectrum, both Ivanka and Gwyneth have branded themselves as domestic goddesses with smarts, and both are absolutely committed to selling things. (“Free Shipping Over $49!” screams the banner on Ivanka’s clothing website) Yes we make fun of them, a lot, and perhaps we don’t intellectually buy the version of womanhood they’re selling. But the thing is, we do literally buy it. A watered-down, Taylor Swiftified feminism has become the product we expect to be sold.
So what does all this have to do with Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny? A surprising amount. The novel debuted in the U.S. in early 2018 and was heralded as “the French Gone Girl.” Having “conquered France,” as The New Yorker put it, the novel was expected to be a smash stateside. Its U.S. publishers worked hard to make that happen, rebranding it with a new title (the original is Lullaby) and stocking it in places like Walmart and Target that don’t usually see a lot of literary fiction on their shelves. Though the novel has been a critical success here, its publisher’s dreams of dominating the U.S. market have not panned out. Which doesn’t surprise me, because saying a book is the “French Gone Girl” seems almost an oxymoron; Gone Girl is quintessentially American in its approach to nuance (there is none), while The Perfect Nanny is a Sartrean pit of complications. Put another way, Lean In didn’t sell well in France.
One reason Slimani’s publishers missed the mark is that they misunderstood the beating heart of contemporary American feminism: money. We live in an era where we mistake the American dream (that with enough grit, anyone can make it here) with the dream of women’s empowerment (that all women will have equal opportunities to each other and men). The American dream has always been about money; now American feminism is too. In Lean In, Sandberg made much of women’s hesitation to negotiate their salary offers. If women could lean in and ask for what they deserved, she argued, the world would be a juster place. Sure, but that’s not all women have to do to achieve workplace empowerment (or even equity). It’s certainly not the strategy that is likely to help the most vulnerable among us, who don’t have the leverage to lean in and ask for more.
The American dream has always been about money; now American feminism is too.
For an individual woman, the act of asking for more may be empowering, but wholescale women’s empowerment doesn’t come from individual women getting what they want and deserve. It comes from a society accepting the justice of women’s civil rights. That means all women, from the Paltrows, Trumps, and Sandbergs to the indigenous women living on reservations (consistently among the most marginalized people in the country), the women who are subject to harassment in the entertainment industry, the young trans women who are disproportionately subject to sexual violence, and the mothers of young people of color who’ve died at the hands of the police. A feminism that only benefits some women is not feminism, and a feminism in which some succeed on the backs of others is even more pernicious. Each woman’s suffering is real, but our culture tends to home in on only the suffering, like the struggle to “have it all,” that affects women who are racially and economically privileged. Feminism has to recognize that, and mainstream American feminism has struggled to do so.
Enter Leila Slimani’s slender novel, a stew of mistakes and complicities revolving around a bourgeois family and its impoverished nanny. The racial politics are different than you might expect: the upper-class mom trying to have it all is a Moroccan-born Parisian lawyer, while the nanny Louise is a white ethnic French woman. Myriam, the mom, is easily recognizable if you’ve ever lived in the swankier sections of Brooklyn: she is urbane, educated, and striving to give her children everything, but nevertheless clings to her own desire to have a career. Louise, a woman who has been abandoned by everyone in her life and who is barely avoiding homelessness, seems to solve this impossible problem for her. Until she doesn’t. You may already know what happens; suffice it to say that these two women are hurtling towards a collision, and that the children are going to be the collateral damage.
What’s most perplexing to me about this book is the perspective it offers, through contrast, on American feminism and its relation to capitalism. Myriam is a Parisian Sandberg in miniature: a smart, hard worker who likes approval and misses her career success when she’s home with her kids. At home, there is no opportunity to display herself. (One thing the novel makes very clear is how boring it is to be dominated by children.) All of this makes her, at least to me, extremely relatable. I recognized myself in her ambivalence, her subtle class-bound pretensions, and her desire for praise. After all, the upper-middle-class fantasy of “having it all” is really a fantasy of being impervious to the compromises our choices force upon us, and with enough access to privilege and capital many women can pull it off. By putting her into the same home with a woman who is indelibly marked in every respect by her lack of privilege or capital, however, we see how dangerous inequality can really be.
The upper-middle-class fantasy of “having it all” is really a fantasy of being impervious to the compromises our choices force upon us.
What we get is a fable, a cautionary tale, though not the kind that reviewers have said. Maureen Corrigan in particular, but others as well, have argued that the novel seeks to discipline working mothers through fear, essentially wagging its finger at the reader and reminding her, “don’t try to have it all because if you do your children will die.” I didn’t read it that way. For me this was a cautionary tale about class, about the danger of accepting — even as a joke — the branded version of feminism by which I often feel so surrounded. Hell, I like to wear my feminist bona fides on my sleeve as much as the next lady, and if you went through my drawers you would find a number of t-shirts representing various feminist causes. And sure, the money I paid for most of those shirts went to support women, but some of it didn’t. I bought a sweatshirt that said “the future is female” because I liked it. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wearing a shirt like that, but rather that we should remember that it doesn’t do anything for many of the most marginalized women for me to turn myself into a billboard. Symbolic action is just that. Retweets don’t do political work. It doesn’t do anything for Louise that Myriam’s out in the workforce achieving her dreams, because that can only happen through Louise’s labor.
Just as Myriam’s children don’t survive their encounter with their disturbed, exploited nanny, women can’t build a future for themselves in a world like this, that pits the dreams of some of us against the labor of the rest. This kind of change — in which more women achieve more but so many remain underrepresented and oppressed — is not progress. Even if the kids didn’t die at the end, The Perfect Nanny would still be a scary book.