You are here:   Features > Don’t be ‘difficult’ — try ‘formidable’, Mrs May
Notoriously, Donald Trump pilloried Hillary Clinton during his presidential campaign as “nasty”, a label that’s been slapped on the Tory Party, but doesn’t commonly attach to male candidates. Yet on the campaign trail Clinton wasn’t nearly as nasty to Donald Trump as he was to her; his very employment of that word, meaning unpleasant and spiteful, was nasty. Nastiness is a first cousin of bitchiness, and again focuses on disposition rather than political stance. Clinton tended to attack the content of Trump’s platform, for being anti-immigration and Islamophobic. Calling her crooked and nasty, Trump attacked Clinton over what kind of person she was.

So what does it mean to describe Lionel Shriver as scary? As far as I can decode, today’s scary lady is “a woman who is not a complete idiot”. Yet the backhanded, opaque nature of the adjective means that this imputation of some measure of intelligence does not redound to the subject’s advantage. The element of tribute is buried under a heap of complicating evocations of meanness and bitchiness and possibly a touch of imperiousness. To be tagged as scary is to have that host of more gracious adjectives like considerable and distinguished uncharitably withheld.

The only widespread ascription that gets up my nose more than scary often arrives in tandem. The same journalists who purport to arrive so terrified will also share that I enjoy a reputation for being “stern”. Oh, great. By implication, I am humourless. Sternness implies seriousness, but of the worst sort: killjoy chiding and dreary moralising. Presumably that scary schoolteacher who confiscates your mobile for talking in class is also stern (synonyms: forbidding, grim, unfriendly, sombre, dour, unsympathetic, and disapproving). Any credit your stern author might get for intellectual heft is overshadowed by the inference that this scowling disciplinarian is a big drag — whose (actually, often funny) novels you might find edifying, but with whom you’d never in a million years wish to kick back and have a drink.

Stern and scary are of a piece. A male prime minister who sticks by his guns is likely to be called staunch, redoubtable, or resolute, but a female PM who’s no pushover is difficult. In kind, my male colleagues who try to capture their era’s zeitgeist in “great American novels” are often described as powerful or provocative, whereas a female author who writes with a modicum of literary and political gravity is stern and scary.

Are we tired of conversations like this? Yeah, probably. Am I going to lose any sleep about whatever ill-informed characterisations of me and many fellow female authors swirl about the digital ether? Nah. Moreover, forces to be reckoned with like Ruth Davidson, Arlene Foster, and even Nicola Sturgeon — temporarily chastened by losing ground to the Tories, but still formidable, if only by being a formidable pain in the ass — are surely capable of batting away or laughing off whatever language we care to throw at them. Nevertheless, we do not measure male and female public figures by the same yardstick or describe them with the same vocabulary. We women ourselves still use reductive language in regard to noteworthy women, even those whom we claim to admire — usually preferring terms that connote not substance, not conviction, but only temperament. And not an appealing temperament at that.
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