Of Worth & Money: A Response to Jessica Knoll’s, “I Want to be Rich and I’m Not Sorry.” / by Jennifer Chan

I write this as a response, not a critique.

Regardless of whether Jessica Knoll self-labels as feminist, there is an undercurrent of Sisterhood that must be respected across all women, irrespective of divergent views. What ensues is a respectful thought piece that I hope fosters a larger discussion centred around liberation of sexism. Here lies my reflection on Knoll’s recent New York Times op-ed, “I Want to be Rich and I’m Not Sorry.”

First, it must be said that survivors of sexual assault make sense of their experience differently. What Knoll went through is horrific, disgusting, and something I would not wish upon my worst enemies. Although I have not read her book, I believe that her book does a great service to survivors of violence. This post is not about that.

When I was sexually assaulted at the age of 18 by a stranger, I encountered the ‘usual’ range of emotions: from anger to isolation. I was removed from the legal process – aside from the painstaking 2-hour testimony I had to record on video at a local police station – and remained indifferent when the detective on the case told me that my assaulter would be imprisoned 2 years less a day.

Two years later, I received a copy of a restraining order that was automatically dispensed upon his release. My name wasn't even correctly spelled.

I told myself that I wouldn’t hate all men as a result – although I admit I was not attracted to them in the ensuing years – but it did lead me to question a loaded concept: power.

When Knoll writes at the end of her article, “If she can see it, she can be it. I want to be it for little girls whose parents aren’t saving for their educations, whose friends make fun of them for wanting too much from their lives,” I interpret her language as stressing the importance of agency as a mechanism for autonomy.

Knoll wants to be a role-model for those starving for hope to believe that they can make a difference. In that sense, I am in consensus with Knoll’s philosophy: agency and autonomy are pivotal to meaningful change. 

For Knoll, however, agency is instigated by financial success. Her rational is that money equates to power - which, of course, is how the capitalist economic system operates. But is that the appropriate means to the end? I am skeptical.

Although we agree on the finish line (liberation of sexism), I very much disagree with the path to get there for reasons I will now explain.

Money & Worth

My central critique with capitalist labour – which Knoll inadvertently perpetuates - is the incest of money and worth. Capitalism commodifies value: the more valuable your product, the greater of a reward you will receive from the private marketplace. The problem, of course, is that this has been largely constrained to certain products and services. I do not need to detail the history and evolution of capitalism to conclude that emotional labour or works of art are unevenly rewarded by the invisible hand. We pay our nannies and housekeepers peanuts, while those who own capital are handsomely rewarded through the magic of compound interest without lifting a finger. It’s a topsy-turvy system.

Although I claim to write about personal finance, I really write about our relationship with different forms of capital. My main message, whether it’s explicitly stated or not, is that you are not the figure in your bank account. You are not your debt. You are not your credit score. You are not the capital that you own. You do not need to buy expensive clothes or drive luxury cars to feel whole or more than ‘less-than.’ You are enough.

Marketers who are much smarter than you and I work to manipulate us into thinking that we don’t have enough. Yes, that comes in the form of a nice, suburban house with a two-car garage, but it also comes in the onslaught of e-courses that promise to help you with whatever troubles you’re experiencing in your life. Noble intentions aside, this stuff feeds into the private marketplace. I won’t even begin to mention how dangerous the glamour of entrepreneurialism adds to this.

But, in short, it is a dangerous game to play when we evaluate our worth to capital. A quick glance at the impact of the National Housing Act on Black homeowners is sufficient proof.

This is why I am such an ardent advocate of robust UBI policies. Once we are able to divorce money from survival, we are able to work wherever, however, and in whatever we want. We can create, for example, a novel that we are proud of and that brings immense value to a select audience, while freeing ourselves from the worries that it needs to sell a certain amount so we can pay next month’s rent. We can choose to say no to opportunities that are financially lucrative but are not aligned with our principles. We can explore the interests that fell victim to the threat of making ends meet.

We are complex, multi-faceted persons that deserve more than to spend most of our lives doing things that are unfulfilling. We deserve to move beyond “just getting by.”

The Commodification of Art

The dance between art and commerce has always been complicated.

For most creators - writers, painters, sculptors - the work of art is for the common good of people. It moves us to tears, it stirs the heart, it forces us to self-reflect our own biases. The works of art are a means to an end for those who freely consume it.

For Knoll, her work seems very much a means to her end:

"Success, for me, is synonymous with making money. I want to write books, but I really want to sell books. I want advances that make my husband gasp and fat royalty checks twice a year. I want movie studios to pay me for option rights and I want the screenwriting comp to boot...TV is where the money is, and to be perfectly blunt about it, I want to be rich. " 

In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem discusses the “industries of cultural capital, who profit not from creating but from distributing, see the sale of culture as a zero-sum game,” and argues a Jeffersonian view: The commodification of culture, in some cases, can be problematic if we're not careful.

He elaborates that works of art coexists amongst two economies: a market economy and a gift economy.

Giving someone a work of art establishes a “feeling-bond” between two people, whereas a transactional purchase does not necessarily develop such a bond. He explains the gig economy as such: "Even if we’ve paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price," Lethem explains, "The daily commerce of our lives proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration." 

He continues:

“A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art. But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity.
I don’t maintain that art can’t be bought and sold, but that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising. That is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there is a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e., it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.”

I raise the question: who is Knoll exactly writing for?

One for Me but Not for Thee

Knoll’s means (the sale of culture in a zero-sum system) to an end (increasing her power while inspiring agency and autonomy for other women) is suspect at best and damaging at worst. Part of my skepticism about these sorts of arguments is the lack of acknowledgement of the system in which she wishes to use to her advantage.

In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, bell hooks writes about this very problem in the chapters, “Changing Perspectives on Power,” and “Rethinking the Nature of Work”:

“Failure to exercise the power of disbelief made it difficult for women to reject prevailing notions of power and envision new perspectives. While feminists activists urged women to work to acquire economic and political power, they did not offer guidance and wise counsel about the exercise of that power. Women were not cautioned to maintain that political awareness that their newly gained power would advance feminist movement only if it was consciously used with that purpose in mind. They were reluctant and sometimes unwilling to admit that gaining power in the form of wealth was synonymous with supporting the exploitation and oppression of underclass women and men, that such power is rarely used by individuals to empower these groups."
[...]
“Most women active in feminist movement do not have radical political perspectives and are unwilling to face these realities, especially when they, as individuals, gain economic self-sufficiency within the existing structure. They are reluctant, even unwilling, to acknowledge that supporting capitalist patriarchy or even a non-sexist capitalist system would not end the economic exploitation of underclass groups. These women fear the loss of their material privilege. As more middle-class white women lose status and enter the ranks of the poor, they ay find it necessary to criticize capitalism.”

Dominance of the system will do little, if anything, for women who feel the weight of oppression of the marketplace on a daily basis. Unbeknownst to Knoll (or perhaps not), this is little more than a modified regurgitation of second-wave ideals that remain naïve to racial and classist sensibilities.

Concluding Thoughts

I do not write this to criticize Knoll, in fact her honesty is something survivors of violence crave. The difficulty I struggle with remains in her logic, which is inevitably guided by a bourgeois upper-white middle-class orientation. I am happy that her novel has received commercial success, but there are countless racialized women who have not had the fortune of transforming their experiences into products valued by the market.

For as long as the current incarnation of capitalist economy exists, I want women to succeed in a political and economic sense. But certain questions remain: Is it possible to obtain power within a capitalist patriarchy without domination of other women? And, once that power is obtained what will women do with it? Can feminists sever themselves from second-wave feminist conceptions that work, within a capitalist society, elicits liberation?

Money only shows more of who you are.

For Knoll, it encapsulates her commercial success - that she's made it, that her artwork is valuable, that she is an accomplished writer in spite of those who doubted her.

But then what?

Money may be able to afford her a "shark of a lawyer if any man ever lays a finger on [her] again," but will this actually help poor and working-class women who have gone through similar trauma? Is this the solution to sexism we should promote? Is this why we should all aspire to be rich? 

“To develop political solidarity among women, feminist activists cannot bond on the terms set by the dominant ideology of the culture. We must define our own terms. Rather than bond on the basis of shared victimization or in response to a false sense of a common economy, we can bond on the basis of our political commitment to a feminist movement that aims to end sexist oppression. Given such a commitment, our energies would not be concentrated on the issue of equality with men or solely on the struggle to resist male domination. We would no longer accept a simplistic good girls/bad boys account of the structure of sexist oppression. Before we can resist male domination, we must break our attachment to sexism; we must work to transform female consciousness.”
– bell hooks