Risk and Rebellious Women- Some Thoughts After Seeing Ocean’s Eight

all-female Ocean's 8

“Don’t do it for me. Don’t do it for you. Somewhere there is an eight-year-old girl who is dreaming of becoming a criminal. Do this for her.”

I am watching Ocean’s Eight with my daughter and we have just heard the leading lady, Debbie Ocean, legitimize the dream of a career in crime. The movie belongs to the classic heist genre, but with a twist. All the criminals are women, not just any women, but gorgeous women with charm, verve and oodles of audacity. Crime has never looked so stylish, the ‘con’ has never seemed so cool.

Nirupama Subramaniam

“’I hope you are not contemplating a career in crime, ” I tell my daughter after the movie, only half jokingly. “You have to go through the college application process..”

She smiles and lifts her eyebrows in the way seventeen-year-olds do when a parent has said something lame.

“But they had guts,” she adds.

We couldn’t help admiring the way a penniless Debbie Ocean smooth talks her way into a plush hotel suite, Constance’s sleight of hand as she makes watches disappear from your wrist or Nine Ball’s technical wizardry as she happily hacks into secure servers. They seemed skilled, confident and of course gutsy. They had BHAGS- the Big Hairy Audacious Goals that Collins and Porras spoke about in their book – Built to Last. If you had to steal something, why not the most expensive necklace in the world, and then why stop with just one, right?

We then discussed the famous women criminals we had heard of – fictitious and factual, but could only come up with a handful of names. Many women were in partnerships with men – like Bonnie and Clyde or Bunty and Babli. Others  like Phoolan Devi or the Godmother, were thrust into a life of crime and violence after the death of their male partners.

I am not advocating a career in crime for an eight-year-old girl. We all know that crime does not pay in the long run, etc, etc. However, there is one aspect of the criminal mind that is appealing – the appetite for large risks and the audacity to break some rules.

Is there something that makes women less likely to turn to crime? Does the same thing, also make us less confident, less bold and more risk averse?

We could blame it on evolution. Man has been the traditional hunter, who needs to head out into the forest to chase dangerous animals. Women foraged for berries and looked after children, activities that required a keen eye and endless patience rather than raw courage.

Or biology. Men have more testosterone, supposedly the hormone that promotes aggression and the Fight reaction.  The estrogen that women possess enables them to show more empathy and ‘tend and befriend’. I am sure you and I have seen enough mild-mannered empathetic men and fiery kaali like women to know that biology does not always prevail.

I am sure you and I have seen enough mild-mannered empathetic men and fiery kaali like women to know that biology does not always prevail.

Research by Carol Dweck, the psychologist and author of Mindset, shows that young girls are more likely to give up quickly and often make the choice not to even try. Girls get praise for being good, they are easily socialized and learn to be nice and quiet since this gets them the approval of adults. They internalize criticism and attribute it to their inherent failings rather than the external world. Boys on the other hand bounce back from negative feedback more easily and believe that they need to put in more effort to get results. So the girls grow up to be obedient perfectionists rather than rule-breaking rambunctious rebels.

Look around. I have seen many young boys run, jump, break things and careen down the house like runaway trains unmindful of the mild rebukes and half-hearted exhortations to ‘Behave’. Young girls sit daintily on the sofas basking in the praise showered by kindly aunties – ‘so sweet’, ‘such a nice girl.’

The good young girls who colored inside the lines grow up to be good young women who stay inside the lines.

The good young girls who colored inside the lines grow up to be good young women who stay inside the lines. In my leadership development work, I have come across very successful women who usually state risk taking and assertiveness as the main areas of development. They don’t put up their hand during meetings and rarely take on  stretch assignments. Often, it is the fear that they will have to compromise on the home front or the fear that they will lose the love and respect of the family that keeps them from stepping out of the comfort zone. Many women entrepreneurs play small. They are happy just to make laddoos rather than think of themselves as entrepreneurs who are running a food business. A business can fail. A business means risks.

Then they get stuck in a vicious cycle. Since they have neither exposure nor experience, they lack the confidence to take on more challenging tasks. It is much easier and safer to play by the rules.

I have also been one of those who played by the rules and found it easy to stay small and easy. It took me a long time to write my first book, since the risk of public failure was high. I didn’t take on assignments that would entail travel since I would need to be away from my family.

What helped me to get out of this rut was the ability to connect to a bigger goal and aspiration for my life. I was able to step out of my comfort zone in the service of something larger than myself.

Taking time out to reflect on what was really important helps to separate the phantom worries from genuine anxieties. We cannot do away with fear. Fear makes us human and keeps us alive. But we can engage with that fear instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist or getting terrified by it. On deeper engagement, I found that many of my fears (especially the one that the household would collapse without me) were only boggarts that needed to be laughed away.

We need to surround ourselves and seek out positive role models. I came across women who had three kids and still managed to pack in a lot into their lives. The one advantage of social media is that inspirational stories find their way into your hands quite easily.

Somewhere, there is an eight-year-old girl dreaming of big wonderful things. We need to let her know that there may be failures along the way, there may be ridicule and risk but if she really wants to, she can make it happen.

“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?”

–Erin Hanson

Nirupama Subramanian is an author, leadership development facilitator, certified coach and co-founder of GLOW-Growing Leadership of Women. The views expressed are author’s own.