The story of the American writer and producer Michelle Miller reads like a page-turner in itself. Her career started in the corporate banking world of JP Morgan in Silicon Valley, a setting that has been an inspiration for her young adult books as well as her first tech novel. THE UNDERWRITING has been translated into 14 languages and is currently being crafted into a TV show.
In this two-part interview, we dive into the confirmedly feminine world of Miller. We will address how being a woman should never be an obstacle, why women might just as well write their own rules and become as feminine as they like. Miller will take us by the hand and show us how she became a writer and why being a woman start-up in the US is different than being one in Europe.
It’s like nothing is impossible in your world, and nothing will stop you from achieving your ambitions, certainly not the fact that you are a woman. How much of that is true?
I don’t really think of myself as ambitious so much as insatiably curious. Whether banking or writing or building an app or living abroad, most of what I do comes from a place of ‘I wonder what THAT would be like….’ It’s not until I get well into things, usually just beyond the point of return, that I realize what I’ve done and how much I have to do now! My life feels like a combination of curiosity and willful naiveté, underwritten by a pretty high tolerance for grunt work. As for the woman thing, I think that what separates vision from reality is the time it takes to put together a puzzle, and so if you want that vision, you just have to figure out how to put together the pieces you have but I don’t think it should ever be an obstacle.
What kind of person were you as a child?
Oh, I was really out there, uninhibited, a total performer. My favourite thing to do was put on slightly scandalous costumes, turn up my tape player and have dance performances for my stuffed animals where I lip-synced to Paula Abdul. I was also a terrible reader, but I liked the idea of being a great reader, so I would go to the library and check out the biggest books I could find and pretend to read them. I distinctly remember a moment when I was 8 years old and became really self-conscious about not having any friends, about being different from other kids. I watched the other kids in my class to understand how they behaved in order to have the friends and social status that I didn’t have. I started imitating them, which involved shutting down a lot of my quirkiness and becoming more inhibited. I don’t regret that at all but I think I went too far sometimes in my life trying to conform, and once I hit my late twenties and accepted that quirky, imaginative 8-year-old, it opened a lot of joy I’d stolen from myself.
Were you treated differently by anyone because you were a girl?
I was unaware of disadvantages related to my gender until I was in business school. There, though, the way women had to work harder to be heard, to be respected and navigate personal and professional lines, became impossible to ignore. It was devastating and I felt really paralyzed about it for a few solid years. A lot of biases against women and minorities are unconscious, but I no longer believe in changing myself in order to dodge them by doing things I was advised to do in my MBA program, such as smile less. I think we should all be responsible for developing the self-awareness to see the inconsistencies in the lenses through which we see the world.
Didn’t you ever do something because you are a woman? Why?
If anything I think I’ve done the opposite – I’ve probably done a lot of things I didn’t actually want to do just to prove that, as a woman, I could.
What does it mean to you to be a woman in the current world?
It depends on where you are in the world. As a westerner in an urban environment, I think it’s the best time in history to be a woman. We are allowed to be anything we want. Of course, this comes with this whole flood of decisions about what we want to be or what we should be, and I think a lot of women think it means feeling like you have to be everything all at once. A certain set up for unhappiness. It doesn’t help that we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t – a woman in America is criticized for being too career-oriented and criticized for being too domestic, which made me angry. But I’ve found that if I push against anger long enough, there’s always a moment when you become liberated from it. Now I see it as a license for us to write our own rules.
I’ve thought a lot about femininity and masculinity in the last few years, and I think femininity is really about being EXPERIENCE-oriented. All these words we associate with femininity – care, compassion, beauty – are words that only matter if you are someone who cares about the experience. Masculinity, on the other hand is about RESULTS-orientation. The words we give it – ambition, focus, competition – are only necessary if you are very concerned with the result of an activity. So if I drink coffee for the flavour and taste, it’s a feminine way of drinking coffee; if I drink coffee for the caffeine jolt, that’s a masculine way of drinking the same coffee. Capitalism is necessarily masculine, and it infiltrates every level of American society. In liberating women to be part of it, I think the Women’s Lib movement really liberated women to be more masculine – that is, to act in a more results-oriented way. I think though that we got a bit carried away – I was raised to see my masculinity as better than my femininity, and I think society as a whole has gotten overly-zealous about results, at the expense of experience.
As a woman who is naturally very feminine and became more masculine in order to achieve in American society, I now see it as my duty to fight for femininity in both genders.
To be continued…