The radicalism of Simone Biles and her challenge to the capitalist hetero-patriarchy

At job interviews, when I am asked that standard question about my greatest weakness, I reply with the standard responses that many of us have been coached to give: ‘I am too much of a perfectionist!’, ‘I have trouble saying no!’, ‘I get too absorbed in my job to have work-life balance’.

These admissions of weakness are designed to communicate something very particular to a potential employer–that my ‘weakness’ is to your advantage. But our veiled brag actually points to something deeply troubling about the way we have been taught to approach work and life. What we’re really saying is: ‘I will obsess unhealthily over an unrealistic standard’, ‘I lack boundaries. I will keep doing things even when I feel I am at capacity’, ‘I don’t rest enough’. Psychological studies have shown that perfectionism, lack of boundaries, and inadequate rest are antithetical to productivity. So why is it so ingrained in working culture?

Hetero-patriarchal binaries in capitalist culture

The root, I argue, is in capitalist hetero-patriachal structure that underpins contemporary work culture.

The hetero-patriachial structure is based on binaries and absolutes: man/woman, masculine/feminine, self/other, active/passive, culture/nature, subject/object, rationality/emotion, strong/weak, productive/unproductive, all/nothing. The capitalist structure, like the colonial structure, favours one side (often referred to as the ‘positive’ side) of this dichotomy, valorising what is perceived as the masculine, active, rational, all. These structures value commodity and profit over the modes of production, and demand that the modes of production conform to a simplified understanding of productivity through sacrifice of the emotional. This all combines in a culture that promotes a conformance to the worst of toxic masculinity in the name of making a profit. It tells us to work harder, to be less emotional, to do more, to be more, to prove our worth within these structures. A ‘good’ citizen in contemporary capitalist hetero-patriachal society is one who constructs an identity to conform with the dominance of the ‘positive’ side of the binary, trading a long-sighted view of the future in order for the profit of today. As an extension of throw-away culture, the worker is made not to last but to be misused then replaced.

But–as post-structuralist, post-modern, decolonial, and feminist scholars have long argued–these binaries do not hold beyond the ideological system. Throughout history there are those who challenge, contort, and erase dualistic boundaries, to slip and slide between and jumble categories of existence in order to make the world a better place.

Simone Biles’ radicalism

Enter Simone Biles. As a black woman and olympic gymnast, she is faced with outside scrutiny based on a confusing combination of these binaries. As a representative of a nation, she bares the weight of being ‘us’, and is expected to be rational, active, ‘masculine’ of action (but not too masculine! She must perform idealised femininity to the crowds!). When she does not meet certain expectations, her status as a black woman makes her easily positioned as ‘other’, passive, weak, emotional. The exaltation and rejection of her by the media and public is often based on a pendulum swing of these binaries.

This was evident in 2018 when she shared her experience of sexual assault, when she has defended herself against online trolls, and again this week when she announced her withdrawal from the Olympics on mental health grounds.

But this is the beauty of Simone Biles choice to value her health, emotional wellbeing, and future over the status, profit, and money of competing in the present. It is the bravery of first valuing things usually considered to be on the ‘negative’ or ‘deficient’ side of the binary (emotion, rest) and then in rejecting these binaries by asserting rest and emotional wellbeing as a kind of strength.

I am reminded of the queer black feminist Audre Lorde, who wrote, ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’. Daring to embrace that which has been positioned as the negative side of the binary, especially when you are deemed ‘Other’ to those in power is a radical act.

A way forward

Through her radical bravery, Biles shows us a way out of the mess we are in. What if, instead of viewing the world in terms of binaries and our work in terms a simplistic all and nothing trained at outcomes in the present, we value the process and sustainability over the long term?

The irony, as I mentioned earlier, is that making choices based on emotion and well being–letting go of perfectionism, setting boundaries, and finding balance–leads to greater and more sustained productivity. It also leads to the kind of outputs that scare those who hold power in capitalist hetero-patriachy. The outputs embrace fluidity, complexity, emotion, question what is rational, and resist the status quo. It values sustainability and a future over the profits of today and realigns power with those who have often been positioned as Other.

I am the first to admit that I have internalised this structure. I have trouble saying no. I am a recovering perfectionist. I struggle with balance. But I am learning. And when, passing on the advice of people far wiser than me, I tell my students to balance discipline with rest, to take time to check in and do the emotional work, I am glad that there is someone like Simone Biles modelling that on the international stage.

Image by Pat Bagley — though I would edit this to simply say: ‘Simone Biles owes you nothing’