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

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, and once, he inadvertently ran over my best friend’s wrist. Classic. Nevertheless, gender norms = deconstructed (alongside her carpal bones).

I remember receiving scoldings for not clearing my plates or making my bed, and most recently, failing to offer 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 culinary abilities 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. Seemed feasible. Oven gloves, check. Light clicks off asthe temperature reaches 350 F, check. Game time. Soon enough, smoke alarms were sounding, loudly. I relentlessly rose from the couch, dog-earing the page in my captivating novel. Smoke encircled the kitchen, as it seeped from the oven. 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 navigate these “kitchen things.” Per societal norms, I am also supposed to be nurturing, organized, artistic, and agreeable, among many other qualities. Not upholding certain ‘ladylike’ qualities probably directly correlates to frequent childhood “timeouts” and the occasional removal of my bedroom door. I was a difficult girl, and today I am a difficult woman. Though as opposed to viewing myself as the “problem child,” thanks to Karen Karbo, I have learned to appreciate these difficult traits more than ever before, treasuring my fearless, courageous, difficult personality.

In Tokyo, I watched as a young girl at a neighboring table devoured 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, calm and poised would probably have been the last words to describe my demeanor. I also felt a deep connection with the younger sister’s boisterous, dramatic, and carefree disposition; she was a difficult young girl, and I hoped that someday, she would turn into a difficult woman.

In most societies, women are taught to be quiet, submissive, and present for “show.” This conglomeration of expectations and disguised stereotypes collectively build societies in which women are not empowered to be loud, opinionated, take up their fair amount of space at any table. The difficult women are the ones who break these norms and as a result (oftentimes unbeknownst to them), effect momentous change in our world. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

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. But does that allow woman, lady, daughter, mother, sister, and beyond, to adopt the same type of reputation? From my experience, not necessarily. 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.” 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.

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.” We may not transform 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. Women must be empowered and uplifted; not silenced.

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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