I’m a bibliophile who is currently studying for the GRE so, the dictionary app on my phone is averagely used more times a day than the call app… I’m not exaggerating. Anyways, I’m currently reading a sex-positive anthology called Sugar in my Bowl, by Erica Jong, and I came across “virago,” a word I wasn’t familiar with, so, I of course went to define it. In the esteemed Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word has two definitions; one is “a woman of great stature, strength, and courage” and I thought “okay, cool word”. But then I read the other definition which said “a loud overbearing woman” and in that moment, I just felt a deep visceral mixture of heartsickness and fury. I have no idea why the men (because yes, only a man would do this) who curated these definitions would deem it fit to give one word these meanings but to me, it just plays into the belief that a strong woman has to be an overbearing or insufferable woman. I’m frankly tired and over this narrative because it is, and don’t excuse my French, pure and absolute bullshit.
I am a woman who gives instructions to men on a daily basis and on a fateful day, the mill I work at had a visitor who happened to observe my interactions with my subordinates. So, he and I were having a conversation a day or two later and he said to me “You’re a real bossy woman, aren’t you?” and then laughed. I stifled my dismay and asked him why he said so and his reply was “I mean, you tell those men what to do in such a hard way and it’s just real bossy of you”. I asked this dear man if he would say the same thing to a man who was doing my job and he stuttered some non-answer, but the answer is “no, he wouldn’t”. It would not cross his mind to point out to another man that he was “hard” or “bossy” because a man in my shoes would simply be “a boss”. Mind you, I’m also a boss but that noun isn’t enough so additional adjectives need to be used that can highlight my glaring lack of “niceness” “softness” or “stereotypical femininity.” Because how can a woman possibly be strong and powerful and not be an absolute, cold-hearted bitch, right? Now, before someone comments that he could have meant it in a complimentary way, to me, he didn’t. Because of society’s record.
I can sit here and give you so many scenarios of when strong women have been labeled as mean, little people just for being strong but I’ll just give you one. On my first day at a previous job, I was being walked in to meet the boss and a few of the staff were doing what they felt was their civic duty to “warn” me about the godzilla I was about to meet and subsequently work for. Now, it has been a while so I can’t quote them verbatim, but they roughly described her to me as an “impossible to please, cold-hearted woman whose womb was probably dried out due to the absolute lack of any motherly feeling in her frozen heart.” Whew, that was a mouthful, and after that harsh awakening, I was dreading starting work more than my next cervical exam. My people, I was expecting that woman to breathe either fire or ice (GoT fans say ayyyy!) or at least have horns on her head. So, all through my first month, I kept holding my breath and waiting for her to go apeshit on my ass. A month passed, two months, then three and nothing. She didn’t go off on me. I was confused! Then, I started reading the faces of others when she gave tasks and instructions, and a light bulb went off in my head. This woman gave instructions in a matter-of-fact, no nonsense manner that left no room for disobedience or negligence and therein lied her “faults”. In their minds, she’s supposed to give instructions in a sweet cotton candy voice, with a smile wide enough to rival The Joker’s painted on her face, all the while shitting rainbows. That was the only way she wouldn’t be a bitch and that, my dear people, is what we expect of women in this world.
I’m writing this because I’m tired of this mindset and I want us all to challenge it. The insane part is that this isn’t an active decision that people make, this type of thinking in ingrained in us and we need to change it. It falls in line with the very common mandate that is frequently given to women and girls by, more often than not, random and strange men and boys, and that is “Why are you looking so serious? Smile.” Why would you think you had the right to ask a stranger to alter the structure of their face simply because you want them to? (And I just know someone will want to mansplain this to me so I’m patiently waiting…) From tender ages, girls are told that they have to present a front of warmth and smiles to the world, as if they owe it joy just for the simple act of existing. I’ve even heard of a woman, who was giving birth, being described as “grumpy”. She was pushing a human out of her vagina, which is synonymous to pushing a rock through the eye of a needle, and they wanted her to hum like Snow White!
So, I’m taking it upon myself today to speak on behalf of most women and girls and say: we’re tired. Please stop expecting us to be impossibly and perpetually nice. It’s insanely annoying and mind blowingly exhausting. Frankly, some days are just not deserving of a smiling face and some tasks require a “don’t mess with me” face. Men and boys are given the freedom of deciding their daily disposition without automatically being branded as horrible if they aren’t “nice” that day and women and girls deserve that right also. It is as simple as that. Thank you all for attending my TedTalk. Have a good rest of your lives.
Authored by Shari Raji
Featured Image by Fast Horse