The Highbrow

The Accidental Feminist

Arianna Huffington’s fears.

Arianna Huffington was explaining fearlessness over lunch in her New York office. “Fearlessness is not the absence of fear; it is the mastery of fear,” she said as she calmly explored a formidable plate of smoked salmon. She was in New York to promote her new book, On Becoming Fearless … In Love, Work, and Life. Part leadership manifesto, part self-help manual, On Becoming Fearless examines the challenges facing women today, including the fear of being alone, the fear of negotiation, the fear of speaking out, and the fear of failing to follow a proper detox program. Asked whether she had any remaining professional fears, Huffington responded, “I am afraid of curling my eyelashes. You know, of that thing you put on your eyelashes to curl them. I am afraid it will blind me.”

It comes as no surprise that Huffington refuses to draw conventional distinctions between the serious and the frivolous. If anyone was going to build a bridge for women between the rhetoric of career success and the discourse of the beauty industry, it would surely be she. Huffington is famously hard to pin down. For years, she was a Republican, a Newt Gingrich-backer, and a hostess on the conservative Washington circuit; now, she is a Democrat who hobnobs with Hollywood glitterati. While running for governor of California in 2003, she made cracking down on “fat-cat” tax evaders an important part of her platform, yet the Los Angeles Times reported that she had paid a mere $771 in federal taxes over the prior two years. She is anti-SUV, yet she uses a private jet. Some of these contradictions, of course, are not contradictions: It is possible to be a social moderate and come to believe that the Gingrich Republicans cared little for the causes of poverty—and, consequently, to embrace the Democratic Party. Or to be a filthy-rich person and then turn on SUVs. But some of the contradictions make Huffington seem like an intellectual chameleon—someone who acutely wants to be in the game and will do what it takes to get there. For those of us sympathetic, or wanting to be sympathetic, to Huffington, the question is: What does she believe? She’s on the side of liberals now, sure. But for how long? Is it possible to come up with a unified theory of Arianna?

One place to begin is by asking why she would have written a book like On Becoming Fearless. Huffington regularly appears on television to offer critiques of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war. She has turned theHuffington Post from a laughable vanity project to blogosphere powerhouse. (She has plenty of money, too.) To read On Becoming Fearless is to encounter a peculiar form of authorial persona—perhaps best described as the love child of Hillary Clinton and Tony Robbins. Here is an author who aspires to intellectual heft (quoting Montaigne, alluding to George Bernard Shaw), yet whose method is as touchy-feely as a New Age guru (“The most important thing is to approach our lives not out of lack and need but with fearlessness and trust”). In her mind, it’s all connected: Her motivation, she explained, was to start a “fearlessness epidemic” that would transform the lives of women. Tellingly, what moved Huffington to action wasn’t merely perceived inequality but also the immediate lack of female readership at her own site. She had been surprised to find that the readership of the Huffington Post—more than 2 million visitors a month—was predominantly male. Huffington conceived of a section of the site that would deal with what seemed to her to be the primary thing holding women back: their own fears. The resulting book may be frequently banal, then, but it is banal by choice, indicative of her habit of combining the personal and the professional, the selfless and the self-interested.

Arianna’s current Weltanschauung is decidedly liberal and even feminist. In On Becoming Fearless, Huffington scolds women for being careless and clueless about money (“Even in the liberated workplace of today, a surprising number of us still think that it’s the man’s job to make and understand money”). She recounts the cautionary tale of a writer, Carol Hoenig, who dallied in leaving an unhappy marriage because, as a stay-at-home mom, she had no source of independent income. She makes it clear that she thinks what keeps women out of top positions isn’t evolutionary aversion to risk-taking, but rather internalized fears and a culture that is conflicted about female leadership. By delivering these points in the idiom of pop psychology, Huffington cannily (or, you might say, crudely) depoliticizes them, making the them far more palatable—even, perhaps, appealing to a conservative audience. The book puts forth a breezily Whitmanic vision in which women across America throw aside timidity so that they might run for governor (just like Arianna), refuse to have plastic surgery (just like Arianna), or remain happily unmarried (just like Arianna). Hers is a vision in which women become—as Huffington genuinely is—fearless first, and better paid and better positioned second.

At times, the result is perspicacious—a humorous jab at the wackiness of gender relations in America. She captures something about the way real women think, flitting against their better judgment from the intellectual to the mundane. As Huffington puts it, she spends hours a day fending off inquisition from a nasty “inner-dialogue roommate,” who points out every flaw: “Oh my god, I look awful … another wrinkle here—I hope that’s just from the pillow. … Did I put these pants in the dryer? Can’t … seem to … zip them.” Hokey, but realistic (and it’s fun to imagine this inner roommate speaking in Huffington’s sultry Greek accent). The memoiristic sections—about overcoming her own fears of speaking in public to become president of Cambridge’s famous debate union, her youthful relationship with older British journalist Bernard Levin, and running for governor—are insightful. They remind the reader that Huffington is hardly shallow (as she can sometimes seem): This is a woman who violated military curfew as a teenager in Greece to attend economics class. And when she gets impish, she is wickedly fun, as when she wonders if a Viagra-pumped Hugh Hefner has any blood circulating above the waist these days. In person, she is frankly delightful. When we met, she eagerly trained her attention on me, moving smoothly from local flattery (commenting on my ” ‘40s look”) to national critique (declaring much of the left/right debate “obsolete”).

At other times, though, Huffington seems actively to misunderstand her own privileged position. A typical example involves her friend Caroline Graham, who lost a job at Talk when the magazine was shut down and who went through a jobless period of “shame and fear.” Then Graham “rallied” and started a new consulting firm, having got on the phone and found out she had “more friends and knowledge than I had imagined.” Great—and all quite understandable. The only trouble is that most people’s problems are a little less grandiose. Interspersed within the book are personal testimonies from other Huffington friends and acquaintances, including Nora Ephron, Diane Keaton, and former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing. Huffington explained to me that “these were not superwomen—they are successful, sure, but they are women to whom the ordinary woman can relate.” But it is one thing to offer inspiring examples of bootstrapping; it is another to point to Diane von Furstenberg, a Belgian émigré who was once married to a prince, and tell middle-class American women that their fears are much like hers. Some differences merit being treated as real.

But it has always been the case with Huffington that she doesn’t want to get her hands dirty. And her intellectual outlook is shaped by passion that can later cool. Her blog is great when she dishes information from friends—as with the Judy Miller story, in which she retold Times gossip with great aplomb. But she’s at her worst when she tries to do “real person” shtick. Likewise, her energy is admirably volcanic—yet each new burst of magma may not resemble the layer that came before. In The Female Woman (1973), Huffington argued that the “frenetic extremism” of the women’s liberation movement was seeking “not to emancipate women, but to destroy society.”* A heatedly conservative position in the era of liberal feminism, it put Huffington on the map (she was then 23). Today, though, she calls herself a feminist. At times, Huffington seems to hover somewhere in the ozone layer she seeks to protect—wanting to have it all ways, using her debate-union sophistry, her quick wit, and her warmth to smooth over friction with her earlier positions. It’s an endearing stance, but a limiting one. With her new interest in female leadership and her refusal to be cowed by anyone, she has a chance to set a useful example to the women she hopes to lure to theHuffington Post. Eyelash-curlers aside, her remaining professional fear ought to be this: Can an intellectual butterfly settle down long enough to make a substantive difference?

* Correction, Sept. 27, 2006: This sentence originally and incorrectly stated that Arianna Huffington’s The Female Woman labeled feminism a movement that would “destroy Western civilization.” Return  to the corrected sentence.