My friend Rodney, who is simultaneously one of the smartest and funniest people I know, used to play a little game where he would suddenly run up to someone, cup that person’s chin in his hand and say, “Get out of this without moving!” Then the victim was essentially paralyzed until the stasis of this situation forced my friend to eventually drop his hand, because there really was no other way to get out of it. Which was, of course, the joke.
I open with this anecdote because a mental version of this paralysis was my reaction recently upon being described as a “difficult woman.”
I don’t even like writing that, let alone imagine you reading it. Because now you’ve thought things about me, and there’s no taking back those thoughts now. That label has so many connotations, doesn’t it? And if I rail against them, that just proves the accusation, but if I laugh the whole thing off, that’s a kind of acceptance. So how do I get out of this without moving? To stay silent seems like resignation, though, and so I’m writing this.
Bear with me.
So…being ‘difficult.’ Why do women cringe at this word, anyway? It implies negative things, we think, and is viewed as the polite way to call someone a bitch, right up there with being “an acquired taste,” or “nice in small doses.” Women who demur, who are gracious and acquiescent–who are sweet–probably don’t get called difficult. I wouldn’t know, I guess. But how do those of us holding unshrinking violets deal with that dreaded word? And how do women–yes, all women–firmly avoid and denounce any harassment or debasement of their gender without provoking or embodying that term? Do we quiet ourselves down, deny our natures and become what those who label us desire us to be, whatever that is? Or do we shake our fists and boldly claim this classification, in our stridency becoming even more difficult as we “take it back”?
Hell, I don’t know. I’m having a hard enough time just putting words down here.
But I do think that it’s an issue worth examining, because frankly I think difficult is interesting. I like challenges, and figuring things out, and investing time in things that are WORTH IT, and the rewards that that investment yields. I don’t want things–or people–to be simple or easy. That’s boring, isn’t it? Well, I think so, anyway. And some of the women I’ve found most interesting throughout history were that way precisely because they were iconoclastic and boundary-pushing. Because they were difficult. They may have had their issues, but undeniably they were–and are–fascinating. And that’s probably the reason why we still know about them today, and will keep knowing about them in the future. I want to share some snapshots of those women, because dammit I need some inspiration, and maybe you do, too.
the feisty, golden-throated musician who left home at 15 to become a punk drummer in Tacoma, WA, and then an integral member of the seminal Canadian indie band The New Pornographers, while also obtaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and pursuing her own solo musical career. She took her shirt off at the Grand Ole Opry (an incident she later attributed to heat stroke and not a “fuck you punk thing”) which got her banned from that venerable venue for life. Regardless of the reasons, it was still a pretty ballsy move, in my opinion.
She also was voted “Sexiest Babe of Indie Rock” in a 2003 Playboy.com poll, but declined that publication’s subsequent offer to be photographed nude for the magazine. Not that there’s anything wrong with posing nude, of course, but she–as quoted in Entertainment Weekly after the fact–“didn’t want to be the girl who posed in Playboy and then–by the way–made some music.” This reaction no doubt caused some difficulty, but I respect her reasons. Now she tweets fearlessly and antagonistically about mental illness and animal rights, and is equally fearless and charismatic in performance. She’s a complicated, difficult woman, and I think she is all the more interesting because of that.
Vivian Maier. She was a nanny and housekeeper for various affluent families in Chicago during the 1960s and 70s, but also an incredibly observant street photographer who captured her environment and the people in it on a Rolleiflex camera, producing thousands of prints and negatives…that she shared with no one. Her obsessive documentation extended to video and audio recordings, and after her death boxes and boxes of this meticulous hidden archive were sold at auction, some to the historian and filmmaker John Maloof, whose fascination with her unusual story led him to create the 2014 Oscar-shortlisted documentary Finding Vivian Maier.
It’s hard to find her, though, because she was about as intensely private as a person can be. She almost never spoke of her childhood, sometimes used pseudonyms and possibly fake accents, and was notoriously protective of her personal space. Some of the children she cared for have nothing but pleasant memories of the time they spent with Miss Maier, but others recount tales of being pushed or slapped, forced-fed, or hauled along on her photography jaunts to unsavoury locations like stockyards. In her later years she depended on the generosity of her former employers, at one point squatting in a house some were trying to sell but refusing to let the realtors enter because they were disturbing her privacy. As another of her bosses diplomatically stated, Maier was, despite her insightful eye and prodigious talent for photography, “someone who didn’t quite fit in anywhere. She had these…edges.” That may well have been true, but it may also be true that her rough edges informed and shaped her, making her into the kind of person who could walk the fine line between observation and intrusion that is the hallmark of a great photographer.
Georges Sand, which was actually the pseudonym of the 19th century French writer and social critic Amantine Lucile Dupin. She married at 18, only to separate nine years later (after having two children) and have flamboyant affairs with numerous prominent figures of the time, including the composer Frederic Chopin and–possibly–the actress Marie Dorval.
She wore men’s clothing when certainly no one else did, because it was cheaper and lasted longer than the diaphanous frocks expected of women, and she unabashedly smoked tobacco–large cigars, even!–in public, which was of course scandalous behaviour for women of the time. Her politics were staunchly socialist, and she started her own newspaper during France’s February Revolution in order to publish and advance these viewpoints.
Her liberalism in all regards was understandably polarizing, and while she had many admirers, she also had her share of detractors. She did not part amicably with Monsieur Chopin, and her unorthodox behaviour and viewpoints prompted the poet Baudelaire to denounce her as “stupid, heavy and garrulous. Her ideas on morals have the same depth of judgment and delicacy of feeling as those of janitresses and kept women … The fact that there are men who could become enamoured of this slut is indeed a proof of the abasement of the men of this generation.” Wow. That makes her sound pretty difficult, doesn’t it? But frankly, I read that quote and think I’d like to hang out with Georges, because I bet it’d be a blast.
Well, there you go. Perhaps these brief biographies inspire you, or maybe they just confirm the “bitches be crazy” hypothesis. I don’t know. Whatever their difficulties, though, all these women seem to possess attributes of uncompromising independence, passion for their art and a protectiveness of it, and the fearlessness to live lives of their own choosing.
I can relate to that. Or at least to wanting that.
And although there may be downsides to those qualities (as perhaps certain of my ex-boyfriends can attest) I also feel that living by them means caring intensely about the things–and the people–I believe in, and defending them no matter what anyone thinks. Does that make me one of those women? That’s difficult for me to say, but if I am I guess I can’t get out of it, and you’ll have to think what you think.