Strong women are often labeled as “difficult,” while strong men are just considered, well, men. Emily Rapp explains why she’s content with such a label.
I am a difficult woman. I have thought this, been told this, and cultivated this in myself for many years, both knowingly and unknowingly. I talk too loud and too fast for some, am too busy, too intense, too passionate, too bookish, too successful, or as an ex-boyfriend once said to me (thus the ex), “too much.”
Oh yes, reader, all of these.
Let’s make a list of all the difficult women we know or have known in the past, or continue to know through their artistic efforts: our mothers (maybe), Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Virginia Woolf, Francesca Woodman, any woman who homesteaded in the American west, the list goes on.
Now let’s make a list of difficult men. A list doesn’t immediately spring to mind, does it? That’s because powerful women are often labeled “difficult,” whereas powerful men are deemed simply powerful, or sometimes just men. Certainly, powerful men (specifically men in the media) are often categorized as philandering, hot-tempered, bellicose, and straight-talking, but these are specific descriptions, whereas difficult is a relatively floppy word in this context.
Is this tendency to categorize powerful women as difficult and powerful men as just men analogous to the frequent naming of women nonfiction writers as “memoirists” and men who write memoirs as “writers”? Is there a deeper root to this gendered description that needs to be rewritten? Or is it a primal thing that harkens back to the time when men ventured out to shoot animals, bringing food home to the women to prepare over the campfire? Men were outside; women were inside. Obviously this has changed.
My therapist once said that he approved of my choice in a partner, because Kent was a “big, strong man.” It surprised me how deeply this description appealed to me, connoting as it did the notions of power, of overpowering, of protection. I’ll admit I was mortified by this second step in my analysis of his comment. Wasn’t I, as a modern woman, supposed to want my men emotionally available, mutually supportive, and equally committed to conversations about relationships and money and kids? Wasn’t I supposed to be able to provide for myself and meet my own protective needs, whatever those might be? I asked him to clarify what he meant by what he said. Turns out that in his mind, big and strong included all of these things. I had, it seemed, misunderstood what he meant by strength.
Why would I leap to strength=brute force in such an easy step? I think because people have often confused my own attempts to make a mark in the world, or just live the way I want to live, or just, honestly, haul up out of bed in the morning, as part of my overall state of being difficult.
I’ve heard this phrase, “you’re so difficult,” enough to bristle each time it is leveled in my direction. (And being over-sensitive? Just another aspect of being difficult.) I’ll admit that I used to cower a bit, try to talk more softly, be more, I don’t know, “female”? But being female has nothing to do with sacrificing power. And you know what? Men and women have difficult lives in equal measure. We’re all learning to be difficult, if only because part of this includes stubbornness and perseverance, qualities we all need to survive whatever situations we stumble across in life, whatever calamities are tossed in our direction.
When my son was diagnosed with a terminal illness, my difficult nature came in handy: talking to doctors, dealing with annoying strangers, trying (and failing) to manage grief. If I hadn’t been so difficult I would have fallen into a hole of sadness and never found my way out again. The Zen approach to mothering a dying baby was never going to work for me. I went at it with fire, with power, and many people thought I was being more difficult and cantankerous than ever before. If not for my difficult nature, I would have stayed in bed, pulled the covers over my head, and perished.
I am difficult because I am strong, and strength is a quality that we often misinterpret, as I did in one split-second of a conversation, and that we more often apply to men than to women. I think many women feel strong, and we don’t mean strong like body-builder strong (although that’s possible as well), but strong in that we have weathered real situations and come out on the other side. We are flexible and resourceful and stubborn, and these qualities may get us labeled “difficult.”
I spent a good deal of my early life in and out of body casts, hospitals, and a series of low-functioning prosthetic limbs that resembled objects associated more with Frankenstein’s monster than the body of a young girl. I was incredibly difficult, I can tell you. Stubborn, headstrong, and known by a common phrase that I repeated often: “No, I won’t do it!” My mother was frustrated, as any mother would be in this situation. She couldn’t figure out why I had to be so stubborn, and her friend replied, “That’s how she survives.”
And that’s how I survived the death of my child: pure stubbornness. I didn’t hide in the cave of my grief for long—I went out and tried to make new caves that had some light in them. This involved some difficult decision-making, and during that time I was difficult as hell.
Because being difficult is more often about surviving. It’s being dealt a crap hand in life and summoning the stubbornness to deal with it anyway, to the best of our ability, sometimes changing the rules in the process. Some of us have more to survive than others. The women I met while I worked in Africa survived daily situations that wearied me to even think about; women in war zones; women in the army; women everywhere; people everywhere. Make a list of those people, and it’s long: parents of special needs children, parents of dying babies, anyone suffering from a terminal or life-limiting illness, men and women who have lost their jobs, people living on the streets, kids in abusive homes, couples experiencing divorce. This is a heartbreakingly easy list to make, a list full of difficult people. Men, women, children, everyone.
Redefined in this way—as including qualities of flexibility, resourcefulness, compassion, fluidity, and the ability to look reality straight in the face without backing down—the label difficult means only this: the ability to survive. Understood this way, we should all take pains to be more difficult. If it doesn’t serve us now, if we live long enough, it most certainly will.
Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in the UC-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program.