You are here:   Features > Don’t be ‘difficult’ — try ‘formidable’, Mrs May
Now, I accept that we are all weary — as we should be — of this group or that group seizing on some perceived misuse of language that demonstrates a terrible, unforgivable prejudice and that thus triggers great huffing and finger-pointing and placard-waving and flouncing about. Indeed, one of the characteristics that might make a woman seem scary is a proclivity for biting your head off because you somehow never got the memo that you can no longer use an expression that was considered perfectly anodyne five minutes ago. I loosely describe myself as a feminist, if only because I wouldn’t want to be whatever’s the opposite of a feminist. But I have not chosen to champion gender equality above all causes. Other matters engage me more, and I regard defence of the female sex as a job rather foisted upon me by accident of birth. Especially in contemporary terms, I’m not touchy; I find predatory sensitivity tiresome.

Nevertheless, the peculiar adjectival apartheid that applies to men and women in public life is a larger issue than the choice of authorial descriptor in book review sections that nobody reads anyway. As women assume positions of leadership, we still characterise female politicians differently from their male counterparts. Like “that bloody woman” Margaret Thatcher before her, Theresa May has tried to turn the slag to her advantage, but this business of being branded as “difficult” is classically gender specific.

Connotatively, difficult has many shades, some of them, in the context of Brexit negotiations, prospectively positive: hard to manipulate, uncompromising in a good way. But more disagreeably, the word also conveys: unreasonable, prickly, temperamental, hard to please, inflexible in a bad way. Like scary, the adjective pertains to the emotions; it alludes to demeanour, but not to creed. Corbyn is neo-Marxist; May is difficult. Synonyms for difficult suggest it’s no more complimentary than scary: troublesome, trying, exasperating, demanding, unmanageable, intractable, unaccommodating, and obstinate for a start. Theresa May embraced the designation as a badge of nobility, but I wonder if given a choice she wouldn’t have leapt at formidable instead.

Especially since her performance in the UK’s 2017 general election suggests that she may indeed be difficult! Closed, controlling, and mistrustful throughout the campaign, she only truly earned the adjective nearly a year after Ken Clarke famously christened her a “bloody difficult woman” when he didn’t realise Sky News was recording.

Angela Merkel seems to have similarly accepted the German media’s jarring nickname Mutti, for her own party now uses the chummy sobriquet on its campaign banners. Yet the profoundly unmaternal Merkel has no children, and the nurturing, cuddly qualities one associates with Mummy could hardly be less fitting. Far be it from me to encourage her to take gratuitous offence, but the epithet still sounds too familiar, not disrespectful but not respectful either — in sum, a little creepy. It’s hard to imagine Germans bidding farewell to the late Helmut Kohl as Daddy.

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