“You think you deserve all this?”
I’ve watched the “60 Minutes” clip of Mike Wallace’s 1996 interview with Tina Turner about six times since it resurfaced last week after her death at age 83. Every time I get to the part where Wallace, surveying the majesty of Turner’s palatial French estate, asks that question, I feel the immediate need to hit or throw something.
Turner, as we know, didn’t buy that estate with alimony payments or inherit it from her daddy. She’d fled her brutal husband and band leader Ike Turner in the middle of the night two decades before, with just 36 cents and a gas credit card in her pocket. The only thing she got when they split were two cars and the right to her stage name. There was a whole Oscar-nominated movie about it just three years prior to Wallace’s interview.
She rebuilt her life and career and earned every inch of fancy tile in that villa with her own talent, but still found herself defending her right to be there. So her confident answer, “I deserve more,” offered without a moment’s hesitation, was incredibly satisfying. But what the hell was with that question? It’s galling and, for myself and a lot of professionally successful women, sadly familiar to have to justify your success or career choices that got you there.
“He said it with such disdain. It felt wrong and it felt degrading,” said Tamia Barnes Tomasek, a licensed clinical professional counselor and psychotherapist with offices in Silver Spring and Washington, D.C. “I thought her response was beautiful and thought-provoking.”
I am not an international musical icon, but I’ve done pretty well for myself in my 30-year career, which some people — almost always men — thinks gives them permission to question how I did it. Readers have demanded to see my résumé to prove my qualifications and even straight-up told me that I’d stolen various jobs from more deserving white dudes. (I started to write back “Yes, his name was Todd and I indeed stole his job” but my editor wouldn’t let me.)
While I never met Wallace, I met journalist men of his generation in newsrooms when the start of my career intersected with the end of theirs. They were accustomed to constructing the narrative of what beats, subjects and people were important. Maybe Wallace felt comfortable questioning Turner to her face about whether she deserved her extravagant life because of “unconscious bias,” Tomasek said, “and because of his lack of ability to identify what she represented to Black culture, to rock culture, and how powerful of an icon she already was.”
Jennifer Ridgeway, a Hyattsville theater teaching artist and the creator of outdoor community storytelling company YardDramas, has more than one story about “these little incidents women have constantly in these situations where they [men] question you and your ideas and just your being there.”
There was the dentist Ridgeway saw who, “hand in my mouth, judged my whole acting career based on nothing, because I hadn’t moved to New York and made it big and said, ‘So when are you gonna give that art thing up?’”
Then there’s the colleague in a management meeting for a theater she worked for — a meeting in which she was the only woman — who joked that to market for their next production, “We’ll just send Jennifer out with fishnet stockings.”
You know how men say women are too emotional to run things? Some of you are very lucky that’s not true, because there would be more fistfights in business situations like that.
The Tina Turner interview wasn’t the only presumptuous interview of Wallace’s to come back into appalling light recently. In 1991, he made THE Barbra Streisand cry by pushing her to talk about her upbringing, called her “self-involved,” and expressed personal disappointment that she didn’t sing in the movie she directed, “The Prince of Tides,” when “one of the reasons you were put on this earth, in my estimation, is to sing.” When he was criticized for the interview, Wallace announced that Streisand had loved it. (She had not.)
“Even when women do achieve a level of success men have achieved, it’s actually seen as a negative, or there’s the perception that they have to drop some of their feminine qualities to achieve it,” Tomasek said. “That’s the unfortunate framework in corporate America.”
Years ago, my mentor and former Palm Beach Post Associate Editor and Revenue Content Director Jan Tuckwood told me how, early in her career, she ignored the conventional wisdom that to be taken seriously women must have what she called “a strategic bob,” wear a suit and not “look like I might be a sexual threat. If you were pretty and made a man uncomfortable, you might be denied the things you’d earned. I looked different. I had long blonde hair.”
She wasn’t being paranoid about the possible diminishing career returns for women embracing those differences. “A top editor from a newspaper chain I will not name — not the one I worked for — said his chain would not have promoted me because I was too attractive,” said Tuckwood, now a writer for AARP’s lifestyle newsletter, The Ethel. “It just happened on ‘Succession,’ where [corporate scion] Shiv lost a job because a man wanted to sleep with her and therefore couldn’t take her seriously.”
Turner’s iconography was unmistakably female and sexual, so it might be hard for some to parse her importance. Serious women don’t wear sequined minidresses and skyscraper heels, right? And they also aren’t supposed to ask for too much, even when they’ve earned it. Recall that Disney exec who fumbled a $2 billion bag when Shonda Rhimes, then ABC’s showrunning genius, asked for help with a $154 Disneyland pass for her sister. He apparently asked, exasperatedly, “Don’t you have enough?”
It wasn’t about the cost of the pass, but the value this man did, or didn’t, see in Rhimes, who soon left for a reported $150 million deal with Netflix. I guess that was enough.
“Beware of people who are cheap with things that don’t cost them anything. That reveals something deeply disturbing about them,” Tuckwood said. “It would have cost Disney nothing to give Shonda that pass. It would have cost Mike Wallace nothing to be appreciative of what this woman [Turner] had accomplished. But he felt confident being stingy about it.”
Dealing with this garbage is sadly the price we sometimes have to pay for our successes, which is clearly unfair. It’s enough to make us “wanna run away, but there’s nowhere to go,” Ridgeway said. “You want to scream, so you have to scream and still step into place. We have to continue to make sure our message of equity, fair pay and value is heard.”
And when someone asks us if we deserve what we got, we have to be prepared to speak up with our whole chests.
“The answer,” Tomasek said, “is ‘Hell yeah.’”