Allow me to make a banal observation: it can be very hard to know how one is coming across, just as it can be very hard to know what other people mean by how they are coming across. It’s all just very difficult! Which is just as well, in some ways – we don’t want to be totally transparent – we don’t want our every gesture and intonation to be unambiguous and indisputable, like 2+2=4. We want a little flexibility, some shading, some room to maneuver – some doubt.
But in other ways it can be tiresome. We may misunderstand other people, and they may misunderstand us, and that’s not always helpful. I’ve just read the Zoë Heller novel The Believers; one of the main characters is a woman who started out in her youth being interestingly and amusingly irascible, so that people would say ‘get Audrey in here to talk to that jerk, she’ll soon sort him out’; but forty years later it dawned on her that what is charming in a young woman is repellent in an old one. That realization wasn’t as poignant or whatever it was supposed to be as it could have been because Audrey is so exaggerated – she is always bad-tempered and rude and just plain unpleasant, she is always on one note and not particularly amusing on that one note. But still – she does stand for something. One can think one is simply being forthright and clear, and then discover that to other people one is being mean and a bully and much too aggressive.
Especially, of course, if one is a woman. It’s a very familiar trope of second-wave feminism that what is seen as leadership and decisiveness in a man will be seen as aggression or ball-breaking in a woman. But that doesn’t mean no woman can possibly be too aggressive. It may however mean that a woman who thinks she is more indignant than aggressive will be surprised to be told otherwise.
This becomes all the more complicated when what the woman is irritable, or indignant, or aggressive about is itself something to do with her being a woman – when she reacts with hostility to a sexist jibe, for example. It may be that she reacts with hostility to sexist jibes on principle, as well as out of actual hostility. She may think that sexist jibes shouldn’t just be ignored or laughed off or brushed aside. We talked about this last month, but of course new occasions are always arising. So…women are kind of stuck, frankly. Damned if they do damned if they don’t. Stuck with sexist jibes if they don’t, seen as aggressive if they do.
Well no, that’s not entirely true. One can be skilled at calibrating one’s response, one can be firm but fair, and so on. But…sometimes one just wants to bark when yet another sexist taunt comes along. So one does. Woof.