Goldilocks and the Double Standard
In high school, one of my favorite teachers said to me, “Rachel, I’m not sure that any high school boy could handle you.” Rather than taking this comment to imply that there was something innately wrong with me, I took it as a compliment on my personality and an affront to all boys.
In a similar vein, last week I received two of the best compliments ever. Within 48 hours, I was told that I am both “demanding” and “challenging.” While other people might have recoiled if described in this manner, I was flattered—perhaps I have too big an ego to see a diss as a diss but I will spend the next few paragraphs explaining why I genuinely believe these to be strengths, especially in women.
As a woman, I often feel like Goldilocks, having a difficult time finding the persona that fits just right. More specifically, women who are too “easy” are viewed in a negative way—either as pushovers or as sexually loose. But on the other hand, women who are too “difficult” face the Hillary Clinton dilemma of being called a bitch. The traits that would be described as “assertiveness” or “strength” in a man are simply the adjectives that describe a “difficult bitch.” (For more on this read Rudman & Glick’s 1999 research on the backlash toward agentic women in different fields).
But when forming relationships (either romantic or otherwise), it is boring to be too easy. Who wants to spend time with someone who never poses a challenge? I have entered past relationships on false pretenses (from ordering a side salad for dinner on a first date to being unnaturally nice and go-with-the-flow) and these never end well. As time goes on, I end up compromising myself in weird ways and when my true opinions begin to show, my “difficult” personality comes as a shock. I’ve found that it’s better to pose the challenge up front and those who can handle me will step up to the challenge and the weaklings will fall to the wayside.
My parents told me that I was not an easy child to raise. While I’m sure they could have done without my frequent temper-tantrums, having a child without opinions would be about as boring as a plate of penne pasta with butter—fine, but bland. Who wouldn’t rather experience the fiery flavors of an arrabiata sauce- a spicy tomato sauce, coming from the Italian word “arrabiarsi,” meaning “to get angry.”
As is common in most brother-sister relationships, my older sister’s boyfriend, C, and I often bicker and argue but he recently thanked me for always challenging him to think. And I take the strong, positive relationships I have with both of my parents as indications that they, too, appreciate my challenges.
So while it is hard to figure out how to present myself as a woman, I would rather have my “difficultness” scare someone off up front than watch as he struggles to stay afloat or to return the witty and challenging banter I throw his way. And yes, my high school teacher was probably right: no high school boy and few men can handle me. But I enjoy watching them try.