Don’t be ‘difficult’ — try ‘formidable’, Mrs May

Women in public life are routinely defined by emotions, men by creed. I’m not thin-skinned but we can do without this adjectival apartheid

Lionel Shriver

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve shown up for an interview, only to be informed that the journalist is apprehensive about this encounter, because I have a reputation for being “scary”. It’s always the same word.

What’s peculiar about this adjective having attached itself to me is that I don’t cut an especially fearsome figure. I am slight and five-feet-two, with an unusually small head; my Orioles baseball cap is labelled “for ages 4-7”, and it fits. What’s more, I’ve no history whatsoever of jumping down journalists’ throats. I try to be personable, if only to redeem what can otherwise be a tediously repetitive exercise during the protracted promotion of the same book. I make jokes. I don’t get angry when asked, again, why I changed my name to Lionel at the age of 15, although any interviewer’s preparatory research might easily have netted dozens if not hundreds of similarly patient explanations in previous profiles. Despite my best-known novel dating back to 2003, I continue to be polite and responsive with reporters convinced that We Still Need to Talk About Kevin. Indeed, my husband claims that what strangers fail to understand about his wife is that she’s “actually very nice”. (Which is nice of him to say. My husband is even nicer.)

Now, plenty of minor public figures are misunderstood. Attaining any appreciable profile in the media entails being reduced to a cartoon. But this scary stamp is so signally inapt in my case that it’s ripe for parsing.

Let’s start with what scary does not mean. It does not mean impressive, intimidating, or imposing. It does not mean august or accomplished. Neither does it even hint at respected, revered, or well-regarded.

By custom, what women are scary? Witches are scary. Schoolteachers who deliver indecently harsh punishments for talking in class. Crazed, elderly harridans in tumbledown houses who don’t return little boys’ footballs and who screech at neighbourhood cats. Scary conveys an anxiety-producing unknown quantity who may have a potential for cruelty, abuse of power, unkindness, rudeness, and unreasoning severity. You can be scary without having achieved anything; the word alludes only to affect and disposition. There’s certainly a suggestion in scary of not suffering fools gladly, but when a woman has a reputation for not suffering fools you’re always a little worried that she treats people badly who aren’t even fools. In other words, bingo: bitches are scary.

I’ll tell you what else scary is not: a compliment. (Which is one reason it’s intriguing that so many journalists have thrown this label in my face before we’ve even ordered our cups of tea. Maybe it’s a challenge or enticement: I want you to be approachable and confiding with me, so take this interview as an opportunity to prove you’re not a shrew after all.) By contrast, a few years ago the man who organised one of my events approached me afterwards to announce emphatically, “You are formidable.” Hear the difference? That is a compliment. Possibly because the accolade might readily apply to a male author, I’ve cherished it ever since.

Does anyone call Philip Roth scary? Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen — are they scary? I don’t think so.

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.

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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