Fighting the tyranny of ‘niceness’: why we need difficult women

From The Guardian:

Difficult. It’s a word that rests on a knife-edge: when applied to a woman, it can be admiring, fearful, insulting and dismissive, all at once. In 2016, it was used of Theresa May (she was “a bloody difficult woman,” Ken Clarke said, when she ran for Tory leader). A year later, it gave the US author Roxane Gay the title for her short story collection. The late Elizabeth Wurtzel took “in praise of difficult women” as the strapline for her feminist manifesto in 1998. The book’s main title was, simply, Bitch.

The word is particularly pointed since it recurs so often when women talk about the consequences of challenging sexism. The TV presenter Helen Skelton once described being groped on air by an interviewee while pregnant. She did not complain, she said, because “that’s just the culture that television breeds. No one wants to be difficult.” The actor Jennifer Lawrence told the Hollywood Reporter that she had once stood up to a rude director. The reaction to the incident left her worried that she would be punished by the industry. “Yeah,” chipped in fellow actor Emma Stone: “You were ‘difficult’.”

All this is edging towards the same idea, an idea that is imprinted on us from birth: that women are called unreasonable, selfish and unfeminine when they stand up for themselves. 

. . . .

So what does it mean to be a difficult woman? I’m not talking about being rude, thoughtless, obnoxious or a diva. First of all, difficult means complicated. A thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach to historical figures is boring and reductive. Most of us are more than one thing; no one is pure; everyone is “problematic”. Look back at early feminists and you will find women with views that are unpalatable to their modern sisters. You will find women with views that were unpalatable to their contemporaries. They were awkward and wrong-headed and obstinate and sometimes downright odd – and that helped them to defy the expectations placed on them. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself,” wrote George Bernard Shaw in 1903. “Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” (Or, as I always catch myself adding, the unreasonable woman.) A history of feminism should not try to sand off the sharp corners of the movement’s pioneers – or write them out of the story entirely, if their sins are deemed too great. It must allow them to be just as flawed – just as human – as men. Women are people, and people are more interesting than cliches. We don’t have to be perfect to deserve equal rights.

. . . .

The idea of role models is not necessarily a bad one, but the way they are used in feminism can dilute a radical political movement into feelgood inspiration porn. Holding up a few exceptions is no substitute for questioning the rules themselves, and in our rush to champion historical women, we are distorting the past. Take the wildly successful children’s book Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, which has sold more than a million copies. It tells 100 “empowering, moving and inspirational” stories, promising that “these are true fairytales for heroines who definitely don’t need rescuing”. Its entry for the fashion designer Coco Chanel mentions that she wanted to start a business, and a “wealthy friend of hers lent her enough money to make her dream come true”. It does not mention that Chanel was the lover of a Nazi officer and very probably a spy for Hitler’s Germany. In the 1930s, she tried to remove that “wealthy friend” from the company under racist laws that forbade Jews to own businesses. In the name of inspiring little girls living in a male-dominated world, the book doesn’t so much airbrush Chanel’s story as sandblast it. Do you find her wartime collaboration with the Nazis “empowering”? I don’t, although admittedly she does sound like a woman who “didn’t need rescuing”. The real Coco Chanel was clever, prejudiced, talented, cynical – and interesting. The pale version of her boiled down to a feminist saint is not.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG notes that usually the history or biography of a noted individual of whatever gender, racial, etc., characteristics has more to do with the author of the history than the subject of the book.

To take Jane Austen as one example, PG suggests she and her books mean something entirely different in 2020 than they did in 1920 or in 1820, shortly after most of her books were written and published. (See Publication Dates of Jane Austen’s Novels and Minor Works)

Ms. Austen has not changed nor has the content of her books but, as with great creations of any era, they resonate with people living in much different settings and circumstances than the author did because they deal with timeless human characteristics and traits. Per the topic of the OP, Austen’s handful of books include difficult women of a different era.

Miss Bates and Parson Collins have no shortage of social and intellectual analogs in 2020 nor will they in 2120 (in PG’s pompously humble opinion).

2 thoughts on “Fighting the tyranny of ‘niceness’: why we need difficult women”

  1. Remove the ‘jack’ – which explicitly means ‘male’ – and I’ll buy it.

    Even if they deserve it, it is language that irritates me. Asses is fine all by itself.

    A Difficult Woman.

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