In Praise of Difficult Women: The Reinvention of “Acting Like a Lady”

Cross your legs. Quiet down. Hold your tongue. You need more makeup. Put on a nice dress. Don’t get dirty. Smile. Be more ladylike.

We’ve all heard at least one of the above phrases, even if they aren’t directed at us. I know I have heard all of them, on numerous occasions. And most of the time, they were indeed directed at me.

Growing up with an older brother, I considered myself a Pokémon card connoisseur; Lego champion; and basketball pro. Not to mention, I could easily navigate our suburban neighborhood on a skateboard or roller-blades. Would this have been any different if I grew up with an older sister? Probably. That said, my brother did mount my Barbie Jeep from time to time. I remember this only because friend at the time was rushed to the emergency room after my brother inadvertently ran over her wrist, in my Barbie Jeep. Classic. Nevertheless, gender norms = deconstructed (alongside her carpal bones).

I remember receiving the largest scoldings for not clearing my plates, making my bed, or most recently, offering to help out in the kitchen over the Christmas holiday. I rolled my eyes, scowled, and then audaciously glanced to my right, where all the men in our family sat comfortably watching football and drinking beers. Admittedly, I loathe football. But I do enjoy a nice, cold IPA, and would much rather sit on a comfortable couch while pretending to enjoy the dull sport to hogging space in a kitchen, especially when my dishes are limited to: Pop Tarts (toasted), Easy Mac, PB&J, Cereal (with milk), Eggo waffles, and on my really good days, a fried egg with cheese atop. But that’s it. Not even Ramen.

The last time I was entrusted with any responsibility in the kitchen, it was setting the cookies (dough already made) in the oven, as my mother went to shower upstairs. Seemed feasible. Oven gloves, check. Light clicks off once the temperature reaches 350 F, check. Game time. Next thing I know, smoke alarms are sounding, loudly. Ugh. I relentlessly rise from the couch, dog-earing the page in my book (I am Malala). Smoke encircled the kitchen, as it seeped from the oven. I quickly raced to turn the oven off, and opened the hot, metal door. As you may have imagined, what had earlier been delicious cookie dough was now a multitude of small, black hockey pucks. And my father was livid. But in my mind, I thought, why would anyone have entrusted me with this grandiose responsibility? I am “out” as a non-chef / horrible baker / terrible cook.

Nonetheless, I am a lady and with this comes a stereotype that I ought to know how to do those “kitchen-things”. This isn’t the only condition I am expected to uphold. Per societal norms, I am supposed to be nurturing, cleanly, artistic, and agreeable, among many other qualities. I love being around children, but I absolutely hate the piercing sound of babies crying (not to mention their sticky, germ-infested hands). I am also a slob, had to fight hard for an A- in Middle School art class, and was president of the debate team in high school. Not upholding these ladylike qualities probably has something to do with why I often found myself in timeout and had my bedroom door taken off its hinges numerous times throughout my childhood. I was a difficult girl, and today I am a difficult woman. As opposed to being the “problem child” or “misunderstood,” thanks to Karen Karbo, I have learned to appreciate my difficult traits more than ever before. As opposed to wondering anxiously what could possibly be wrong with me, I have begun to treasure my fearless, indifferent, difficult personality.

In Tokyo, I sat next to another bold young girl at breakfast (twenty years my junior, mind you). She ate her breakfast, simultaneously stuffing a waffle, donut, and Choco Krispies into her two tiny cheeks. She blew air into her adjacent older sister’s face (surprisingly, no waffle-donut-cereal mush flew out). Her older sister remained calm and poised, as her four-year-old arch-enemy continued to antagonize. I respected them both for different reasons. First off, if someone were blowing into my face like that at nine-o’clock in the morning, I likely would have bit them. Ask anyone; I was a biter growing up. But as their father scolded the younger girl, I felt a deep connection. This four-year-old was boisterous, dramatic, and carefree. She was a difficult young girl, and hopefully, she will turn into a difficult woman. Here’s why.

Especially in Japanese society, women are taught to be quiet, submissive, and present for “show”. They are incredibly ladylike, by every definition of the word, always dressed in heels (see Shoeicide article), makeup, and they maneuver around like porcelain dolls. While in the United States, expectations of women may not be that blatantly suppressive, they are in fact secretly ubiquitous, and incredibly dangerous. This conglomeration of expectations and disguised stereotypes build a society in which women are not empowered to be loud, opinionated, take up their fair amount of space at the boardroom table, and beyond. The difficult women break these norms and as a result (oftentimes unbeknownst to them), effect momentous change in our world.

In 1996, at the Wellesley Commencement Speech, Nora Ephron said, “Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.” This young Japanese girl who reminded me oh so much of myself was certainly not acting like a lady in any sense of the word. She was boisterous, bold, and carefree. She did not cross her legs and certainly did not give a care in the world as to who could see the inner-workings of the mushed-together buffet in her mouth.

Years later, in 2014, Always aired its infamous “Act Like a Girl” commercial, calling out the stereotypes of what it means to run like a girl, throw like a girl, fight like a girl, and beyond. Let’s make “Like a Girl” Mean Amazing Things, was the message. Yes, let’s. I thought to myself, okay, the girl thing is covered. But does that allow woman, lady, daughter, mother, sister, and beyond, to adopt the same type of reputation? From my experience, not necessarily. Option B: What if the connotation of this word lady or ladylike changed? That is, as opposed to veering away from acting like a lady, we change what it means to act like a lady, allowing it to encompass this very breed of difficult women.

Throughout In Praise of Difficult Women, Karen Karbo delves into the stories of 29 different women who dared to break the rules. From Ruth Bader Ginsburg (my role model) and Elizabeth Warren, Amy Poehler and J.K. Rowling, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Frida Kahlo, to Jane Goodall, Coco Chanel, Amelia Earhart and Eva Perón; each woman holds a very special yet communal experience when it comes to being “difficult”. Karen Karbo reflects, “Difficult women share many commonalities. But the one trait they all possess is complete indifference to what people think.”

While I did concede to wearing the overly-priced sweat suits with “Juicy” printed across my rear end much like the rest of my high school classmates, I was outspoken in different ways, and ultimately did not give a care in the world as to what others thought of me. Most of the “popular” girls hated me by the time I turned 13. Back then, I figured something was wrong with me. But really, to them, something was “wrong” with the way in which I saw the whole “system” as total crap. For example, the defiance of the clique culture. I grew up taught to include everyone. Thus, the more, the merrier was my mentality. What’s the point of being exclusive, in a world that’s already segregated enough? Bottom line: I was difficult, and disliked by many for being as such. Us difficult women often are, which is troubling for many due to our innate need to please others. But that’s the price you pay for being difficult. Not everyone is going to like you, but at the end of the day, you are making a difference. As long as you like yourself, keep keeping on.

The difficult women, as Karen Karbo deems them, are difficult, yes. As a result, they have effected incredibly positive change. From breaking political glass ceilings and changing the way in which the entire world sees fashion, to flying airplanes and conceiving a profoundly unique wizarding world, these difficult women have changed the universe. And they are all ladies.

We likely will not change the perception of ladylike in this lifetime, though I do have hope that it will continue to evolve. What we can change is our ability to embrace those women who possess an innate ability to be difficult, and consider them ladies just the same. That means tolerating an extra-loud daughter, stubborn wife, bold sister, and strong-minded friend. They believe in something. If you don’t agree, debate. But don’t simply write them off as an emotional, annoying, pain-in-the-butt woman. Or a misbehaved, disobedient, troubled, child. Any outspoken girl, lady, woman, adolescent (whatever you want to call it), must be empowered and encouraged; not silenced. Those who do speak loudly, speak for women everywhere: for those who have the freedom to do so, but are silenced by society or themselves, and for those who lamentably do not have the right to do so.

In honor of Karen Karbo, the twenty-nine women and their stories she carefully recounts, and the many other difficult women who weren’t included in her book, let’s be difficult ourselves. Let’s be difficult for the other women who struggle to rediscover their daring, fearless voices, and for those that don’t yet have the freedom to raise their own.

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