In praise of being an unlikeable woman

If Cynthia Nixon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez don't give a damn, neither will I

Sirena Bergman
Tuesday 03 July 2018 15:52
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Last week saw the shocking primary success of Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old who beat the incumbent middle-aged male career politician and won the Democratic nomination
Last week saw the shocking primary success of Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old who beat the incumbent middle-aged male career politician and won the Democratic nomination

On the lapel of my favourite jacket sits a pin in the shape of a desktop computer. “Never read the comments,” it says.

This, along with “don't feed the trolls”, “it's not you, it's them” and “never share your address or phone number”, is a sort of mantra among women – mostly young – who write, say or do anything remotely provocative. I've worked with many journalists, and never met a man who encounters a comparable level of visceral hatred and abuse just for sharing his view. The internet has allowed this mentality to flourish, but society's disdain for opinionated women goes back way beyond the advent of social media.

Women are told to pipe down every day in hundreds of different ways: as children we're praised for being gentle and compassionate, rather than adventurous and assertive. We spend our lives internalising the message that we should take up less space, that our primary objective is to “trap” a man and that the way to do so is to be meek and submissive. These messages start when people tell us that “he's pulling your hair because he likes you”, continue at home when our parents play us Cinderella and Snow White (don't even get me started on The Little Mermaid, where she literally gave up her voice to entice a man) and are reinforced through a vast array of media messages, from Hollywood to Westminster.

Is it any surprise then that the women who do stick their heads above the parapet and dare to try and make waves – however small – face the criticism of being “unlikeable”, “shrill” or “arrogant”? This comes not just from men but from other women too, because the internalised misogyny we all carry around is hard to shake, no matter how hard we try.

New York State is having quite a moment for over opinionated women. First there was Cynthia Nixon, who decades after playing the highly sexual, often topless Miranda Hobbes in Sex And The City made the transition from showbiz into politics – which many men before her have succeeded in treading, but for which she received widespread criticism.

Her character Miranda was generally considered the least appealing of the bunch: she was the least conventionally attractive (read: had smaller boobs and shorter hair) than the others, and she was a lawyer: a high powered, opinionated woman who was punished for it, as she states herself on multiple occasions, namely in that episode where she has to pretend to be an air hostess to get laid.

Then last week we have the shocking primary success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old who essentially said, “F*** the system, we can do better”, and ran on an unapologetically progressive platform, vocal in criticising her fellow Democrats. Since she beat the incumbent middle-aged male career politician and won the nomination, she's been criticised for everything from her upbringing to random anecdotes about how she divvied up tips when she worked as waitress – yes, this is in the country run by a billionaire who tried to pass laws to lower his tax bill.

But men don't become “unlikable” when they express their opinions. Quite the opposite: they are praised for it. And if it makes them money they become desirable. The ability to be assertive and to think independently is viewed as an asset, rather than an unfortunate personality trait to be beaten out of you.

It’s hard to be a woman with vocal opinions when you're in the public eye – which we all are, in today's ultra-connected world. You have to grow a skin so thick that you can endure a daily barrage of microaggressions, insults, eye rolls, unsolicited criticism of your looks, your voice and your life choices. But these are the women we should admire – they are forging the path for a more equal world, because as long as only men are allowed a voice, the issues that affect women will largely go unheard.

Against my better judgement – and my sartorial reminder to the contrary – I do often read the comments, and the Twitter abuse and the rape threats, and the endless messages about my nose and my glasses and how I'm so fat and ugly that I shouldn't be allowed out of the house. I do it because it's a daily reminder that much more important than being likeable is being strong.

I just hope one day society realises that actually women, just like men, can be – and often are – both.

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