When you’re a woman my age (30-something), you have to live with at least two stereotypes: the ideal woman ― or what the culture you were born into expects from you ― and, of course, the woman you should be but aren’t.
It might seem like a tricky play on words, but it’s actually a basic idea: no one seems to really know what to do with the woman who doesn’t fit anywhere.
I thought about it a few days ago, when a friend of mine called me “a difficult woman.” He did so mockingly, and I guess he was surprised I didn’t laugh. Instead, I stared at him, not exactly upset but a little uncomfortable. I didn’t exactly find the term offensive, but it does describe a type of prejudice that is complex and confusing enough to merit scrutiny here and there.
When I said this to him, he shrugged. “It’s not an insult,” he clarified.
“I didn’t say it was.”
“Then why does it bother you?”
“I don’t really understand what the label ‘difficult’ means to you.”
He sighed and, by the look on his face, I figured my questions were making him worried. Maybe he was thinking he had gotten himself—without looking for it—in one of those endless tirades about patriarchy, feminism or even in one of those arguments about what is politically correct, which no one can really pinpoint very well.
But it wasn’t really about that. My question was simple and straightforward: I wanted to know why he thought I was a difficult woman.
“I don’t know. You’re not easy to please,” he finally said. “Everything is a little slippery with you, as if one has to watch what they say or assume, because any angle could hurt you or piss you off. You’re... hard to understand.”
I didn’t reply. Mentally, I wondered if my friend was referring to my taste for arguments, discussion and debate, or to something deeper, more convoluted and, as he had said himself, difficult.
“I didn’t exactly find the term offensive, but it does describe a type of prejudice that is complex and confusing enough to merit scrutiny here and there.”
I was somewhat astonished, as I’ve never considered myself to be particularly aggressive or controversial. But does that make me difficult? What my friend describes is closer to a harder and vague concept that I can’t define. What are we really talking about?
“Meaning, I’m apparently... argumentative?” I ask.
My friend shrugs. “Yes, but it’s not about that.”
“Then what is it about?”
“It’s nothing that’s simple to explain. But you’re someone who’s always going to have something to say, object to and comment on about anything. Any idea will always have to be debated with you. Any...”
I suddenly notice he is as uncomfortable as I am, as if voicing a whole set of ideas made him more aware of their meaning or, what’s even more baffling, that particular logic that seems to direct mere prejudice toward something murkier.
“Maybe it’s just due to habit,” he explains to me. “Women are almost always more flexible, kinder and less aggressive.”
“So not being those things makes me difficult?”
“At least unusual.”
Now we’re getting somewhere, I tell myself. There’s an uncharted, desert-like territory in the whole set of outdated definitions about women, about what’s presumed “real” and, what’s even more troubling, what’s supposed to be feminine.
It’s not a new idea: “the woman question” started being discussed in the 19th century. In other words, women—as identity and personality—started being understood as a “social problem.” Until then, femininity boiled down to a foggy interpretation of a sort of messy creature with no determination and who is subjected to the male’s will. That was despite the progress made during the French Revolution with the “women’s clubs,” gathering places exclusive for ladies, where politics and culture were argued over with the same fierceness that men employed.
However, with the death of one of its sponsors ― the admirable philosopher Condorcet ― those small steps forward in regard to feminine identity faded once again into history. Women—or rather, their existence—were once again subjected to man’s interpretation and, what was more painful, the basic concept of her supporting role in the annals of centuries and decades.
But with the resurgence of certain topics about equality during the 19th century, the “women question” proved the feminine identity needed to be redefined. Maybe it was because the Industrial Revolution destroyed traditional family life, pulling women out of kitchens and sewing rooms and allowing them to prosper as individuals. Or because of the simple fact that poverty pushed culture toward a pragmatic reconstruction. Perhaps, out of that renewed concept about women, the “difficult woman” was born.
It’s a perception of women that’s everywhere and that we inherited from those big discussions. A perception that becomes real when you look around and realize that “feminine” has transformed into lots of things: the powerful woman, the entrepreneurial woman, the impressive woman, the intellectual woman. A concept of who we are, as part of all the social ideas that intertwine and combine to give meaning to something much more vital, heartfelt and real.
Maybe the word is just “woman.” Pretty simple, right?