Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Piece of Advice #74: Do not confuse being difficult with being strong

It's been a ubiquitous fiction lo these last few decades that loud, obnoxious, know-it-all women are the strong ones, the brave ones, the ones who blaze the path, the ones who "tell it like it is."  Their brittle, oft off-putting personalities are evidence of their inner strength.  We don't expect men to play nice, the saying goes, why should we expect women to?

Except we do expect our men to play nice.  Oh, maybe not the Donald Trumps of the world, the capitalists-cum-entertainers or the big power players in sports, journalism, or politics.  We give a few artistic types some lenience.  But the rest of them?  Yeah, we pretty much expect them to play nice.  We expect them to be polite or at least not overly aggressive in social interaction.  We want them to hold doors and pick their underwear off the floor and say, "Please," and "Thank you."  We certainly don't want them to make rude gestures, or exhibit road rage, or get in our faces and scream their frustrations or call us names.

But when women do those same things, they're being tough.  They're confronting an unjust system in "the only way that works."  The popular saying is, "Well behaved women seldom make history."

A more accurate, less excuse loaded saying would be, "Women seldom make history."  Hardly anyone makes history, in fact.  Most of us live and die our lives in obscurity, important only to the other obscures we know and love.  People who make history are generally: kings and rulers, criminals, genocidal marauders, and that teeny, tiny bunch of outliers who are gifted in some way, either mentally, physically, spiritually, or artistically.  Everyone else - dust to dust.  Yes, it is true that many of the above, the kings and criminals, are difficult people.  Powerful people are because power corrupts, and there seems to be some sort of correlation between extreme intelligence and artistry and mental illness.  The people who cure cancer or invent computers we give a little leeway.  But all the other people who are naturally aggressive and demanding, the ones who shout everyone else down, the ones who insist their ways are the only ways, that they deserve better service, more respect, that booth in the corner - they are just spoiled and unschooled, unoriginally antisocial.  They failed to learn a lesson we expect most children to master in kindergarten: play well with others.

It is not particularly brave to push yourself, your wants and needs and opinions in the faces of other people.  It is selfish.  It may be true that "the squeaky wheel gets the oil," but why should one wheel get all the oil?  And why should the wheel feel empowered when demanding it?

Don't fool yourself that obnoxious behavior is strength.  Consistent kindness, responsibility, consideration, and hard work are traits of strength.  Treat others as you yourself would like to be treated.


  1. I am reminded of so many of those older 1930's and 40's black and white movies where the women were portrayed as anything but modest, soft-spoken and nice (prob b.c nice people don't usually make for dramatic problems!) These women (Betty Davis, Greta Garbo come to mind) were usually horrible to men (or at least they portrayed characters who were) and yet the source of their power was tied in to their sexuality and their "brassy" character. It's no wonder that women today would confuse strength with obnoxiousness considering the seeds were planted so long ago.

  2. Nicely put. I'm getting more and more annoyed with this absurdly inconsistent brassy, pushy, unconvincing tough girl act that people call feminist power, especially when I see a little of that in myself (yikes!). What can be delivered as empowering in movies, by devastatingly charming and good looking actresses is just unforgivable, uncouth scene-chewing in real life.

    Also, let's put the force and power of being a Lady back on the pedestal, yes? I've seen a petite, ultra-feminine Ukrainian-American choir director in her 60s hush a gang of rowdy freshmen, quell a dozen guys with shame, and basically ensure the besotted devotion of hundreds with only the most motherly behavior.

  3. Great post. One nitpick - it should read "they're confronting an unjust system..."

  4. We do expect our men to play nice... except a few alpha males, for whom the rules for ordinary mortals obviously do not apply. So the women who try to "make history" (by behaving obnoxiously) are simply trying to become alpha males. Now, why would they want this?

    Maybe they do not recognize the difference between men and women, so they think like: "What makes a man attractive, will make me attractive too." Sorry, does not work this way. (Unless they are lesbians... then maybe the alpha male behaviour could be attractive for their desired partners.)

    Or maybe they just see that alpha males have many advantages in life, and they want those advantages too. Power, money, and fame can be desired per se, even without their sexual implications.

    By the way, I think often when a feminist says that she wants to have the same rights as men, she means that she wants to be in the same position as an alpha male. This would explain why a feminist can have the same or more rights as the average man, and still feel opressed. Having equal rights to a beta male, that is not very amazing. (Though, to be fair, the position of beta male includes a *chance* to change yourself and become an alpha male; however small such chance would be. On the other hand, woman role provides some chances too. But both are only chances, and will not be utilized by most people.)

  5. Well done, Grerp!

    For the woman who takes her cues from the "devastatingly charming and good looking actresses" when deciding how to respond to others, I would offer this nugget from the Book of ultimate truth:

    As a ring of gold in a pig’s snout,
    So is a lovely woman who lacks discretion.

    Prov. 11:22

  6. Anon 12:37 - Thanks for the heads up. There were a couple of other errors I should have caught on the second read through too. :(

  7. trent13 and Meghan - welcome! It is true that in storytelling, as in the films trent13 mentions, conflict is king, and one way of generating conflict is to create characters who do not see eye to eye. I also think the times, filled as they were with economic depression and world war, made people feel out of control, so watching characters who grasped control was probably cathartic in a way for the viewer.

    But pushing and yelling is only a base form of power. The ones with the real power are people who, as Meghan mentions, can control a room merely with their presence or a word. We live in such a mobile, fragmented society, one with such contempt for real authority, that this coarse, tantrum-y sort of power is the only one we can envision or create.

    Seriously, though, women often work in customer service and jobs that require interacting directly with the public. It is against our own interests to raise girls who will cause us years of grief and annoyance.

  8. Viliam - I agree. Yesterday, I read some poster over at Jezebel kvetching over what a powerless victim Betty Draper is on Mad Men. I watched the first two seasons of that show before I got nauseated enough to quit, and I have to say that Betty Draper is not powerless. She is a passive, whiny, underutilized woman who could have made choices that would have made her happier, helped the people around her be happier, or made her community a nicer place. Like volunteering, or finding a part-time job when the kids were in school, or going back to school, or reading a book once in a while. Having a rich, handsome husband who gives you a beautiful house, three healthy children, and a full-time housekeeper is not a "problem that has no name." It's a cushy life. She wasted it. End of story. And, yeah, maybe Joan and Peggy have it a lot tougher making the Big Time then their male peers do, but considering that most of the population of men and women at that time were not living the glam life in affluent NYC but were instead breaking their backs farming or mining or in the factories, the situation of women via men was much more nuanced. To the Mad Men-watching feminists foaming at the mouth, I'd say watch October Sky instead and ask yourself if you'd rather be the guy who spends every day in the ground waiting for it to crash down on him or the woman who is painting a mural in her kitchen in her spare time. My grandparents *both* worked hard, but I don't think my grandmother would have traded her job for his.


  9. This is very well said.

    Not for nothing, but these so-called "strong" women are headed for a lifetime of solitude and/or bitter marriages. I recently found a study showing that Agreeableness (in men and women alike) was the best predicter of a successful long-term marriage. Disagreeableness was the best predicter of divorce and misery. (Okay, I made up the misery part -- but I'm sure it's true.)

    I'd love for someone to run with that thought. My interest in the article was in the "passion" aspect of love rather than the "commitment" part, so that meat is as-yet unchewed.

  10. The "well-behaved women seldom make history" bumper sticker appears on a lot of cars around here. It has just enough truth in it to be dangerous. Actually, most people who achieve great things are well-behaved in some ways and "ill-behaved" in others. An interesting example is provided by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the pioneers of the computer age. She was known as an iconoclastic individual who very definitely had her own ways of thinking and of doing things...but she was also "well-behaved" enough to thrive in that pretty well-structured organization, the U.S. Navy. Had she taken the advice on the bumper sticker, she could have made a big deal about saluting, or uniforms, or whatever...but she saved her nonconformity for issues that really mattered.

  11. A very good and important reminder, grerp. One thing I struggle with is how assertive I NEED to get in some circumstances. I find this particularly true with health care, and it's only getting worse. There were times I really had to be quite forceful with the pediatrician's office, for example, in a way that I'm sure didn't endear me to them. I tend to be most assertive where I'm advocating for my kids.

    I'm not a shy person, but I don't enjoy being forceful in that way. Yet I know that sometimes "you get what you ask for in this life." It can be hard to strike a balance.

  12. Good post. I'm so sick of hearing women repeat the banal line, "Men can't handle strong, independent women" when what they really mean is "men get sick of dealing with bitchy, ill-mannered, entitled, uncompromising women."

    I just watched the miniseries "John Adams" that came out on HBO a couple of years ago. Abigail Adams was definitely a strong, independent woman but she also treated her husband with great love and respect.

  13. Great post!

    Thing is, guys see right through these tough-girl acts. Not once have I run into one whose facade hasn't crumbled eventually. Most of the time we see it for what it is - a major compensatory mechanism and a fear of vulnerability. It's like seeing an unexperienced beta male attempt to adopt asshole game.

    The tougher and more outspoken a woman is, the more she's looking for someone that'll just cut through her bullshit and pull her back to earth, in a loving way of course.

  14. ""We do expect our men to play nice... except a few alpha males, for whom the rules for ordinary mortals obviously do not apply. So the women who try to "make history" (by behaving obnoxiously) are simply trying to become alpha males. Now, why would they want this?""

    My simple answer? Induced Narcissism. If it's not induced by the entertainment industry, then it's likely because we fail to teach children (usually the roots go back this far) that not everyone who IS popular deserves toi be popular.

    Another aspect is that..well, to catchphrase it, if you're a narcissistic person, then you'll be attracted to narcissistic lifestyles (i.e., lifestyles that give one a socially acceptable outlet to display narcissistic behavioral traits).

  15. @Susan

    You make a good point on knowing when to be assertive. It is a delicate balance. But even this is quite different than the kind of out of control behavior grerp is talking about. Knowing you I'm sure you are always in control of yourself and professional. There are ways to do this and still get your point across.

    Early in my career I did tech support, and later dealt with customer escalations. I didn't fear the kind of out of control, yell at you, threaten you, and insult you kind of customers. When someone acted like that, I would get very careful and follow the process to the letter but not try to go beyond it. You can't offer someone like that something special because they will only demand more. When you finally say no, they complain higher up and you have to explain why you gave away the store and still don't have a happy customer.

    The folks who got my attention were the serious but polite folks who knew how to communicate well and made it a point to get the spelling of my name (in a very nice way) upfront. If a jerk manages to get ahold of your boss, he/she will just think that person was a jerk. If someone nice, professional, and serious complains to your boss, you are the one who looks like a jerk.

  16. One of your best postings ever, thanks.

  17. Susan W, there is a difference between being assertive and being aggressive. The behavior celebrated by the bumper sticker generally can be described as aggressive. It is quite possible to be well-mannered and assertive; generations of my ancestors and ancestresses managed it well enough. Agree that bad-tempered, rudeness often covers up insecurity in both men and women. It frankly looks contrived on women, as does foul language.

    I have had women supervisors who were quite assertive in both supervision and with their superiors, but none of them were jerkettes, and all of them were actually rather polite and thus "well mannered". One of them admires Admiral Hopper quite a bit, as anyone who ever uses FORTRAN ought to.

  18. Now I feel bad for trolling the internet 50% of the time.

  19. Doesn't your criticism of Betty Draper contradict your next post. Don Draper gives her all the nice stuff she needs, which, according to you should make her happy. But he comes home smelling of other women, and that makes her unhappy.

  20. Excellent post! Thank you for confirming that I'm not the only one who feels this way about "difficult" women. I see too many women who spend all their time and energy complaining and whining and poking every bear they come in contact with. That's not brave. Bravery is having the courage to confront problems head-on while still being respectful of others' opinions and needs.

    Thanks, grerp.

  21. Anonymous - I think Betty Draper's problem is that she's inherently unhappy and is empty inside. Her only virtues are external: her good looks. Her husband is not much better, but at least he has an interior thought process, if no integrity. To me Betty is lucky not because she has so many nice things, but because she really had many choices or outlets in which to develop herself. Unfortunately, she took advantage of none of them.

  22. ChristineB and piegrande - you are welcome and thanks for your encouragement.

    Susan - I think there are times when we do have to advocate somewhat relentlessly, but I think we need to pick and choose our battles and remain civil if at all possible. It is a challenge, though, to strike that balance; you are right.

  23. the "unjust system" they are confronting never existed except in their fantasy. it is pc bs. the unjust system is today. they are its sheepdogs.

    ps. great blog by the way. just discovered it today.

  24. While some may expect men to be nice they rarely are or wish to be. Most people are rarely nice just to be nice and most don't really do nice things for anyone without expecting something in return.

    People usually have some kind of motive when they're doing something for someone else that they're not obligated to such as family. In a sense men tend to be nice specifically to women they are attracted to because they're after something. The nice guy/friend zone whine of a woman treating a friend like a friend as using him as an emotional tampon suggests
    for men niceness is a ploy to trade sex having her owe him sex for beng nice.

    There's also that the standards of what is nice for men is drastically low. If you don't rape or abuse women you're nice to them. It generally doesn't matter how you treat women or how you treat women you don't want sex from or are attracted to.