The perils of being critical while female


Natalie Reilly

"Watching Fey call it how she saw it gave me hope."

"Watching Fey call it how she saw it gave me hope."

"Different is good. Don't fit in." That's the advice Angelina Jolie gave in her acceptance speech at the Kid's Choice Awards last month.

"And ... cause a little trouble," she added. "It's good for you."

I was 11 the first time a teacher called me a bitch. She grabbed me by the face and pulled it close to her own to punctuate her point. It was the same year another teacher said I was behaving "like a female dog." I had not said anything to either teacher. I had not acted out or disobeyed instructions. But I had said something critical. And I had not said it quietly. Another teacher at the same primary school suggested I take up wrestling because I was loud and my legs were hairy. He was loud, too. I was 10.

Just in case you're wondering: I was not Madonna. But I was boisterous and smart-mouthed. I was 15 years old and in the middle of telling a joke to my friend when a stranger on the street flew into a rage. "Shut-up! Shut-up you fat bitch!"

 It knocked the wind out of me.

Actress Pauline Frederick once famously remarked that when a man gets up to speak, people listen, then look. But that "when a woman gets up, people look; then, if they like what they see, they listen." I wonder if I had looked like the other girls in my surrounding suburbs-- blonde, tan, skinny -- if those reactions might have differed.

What if I had have kept my comments to the failings of femininity? You know, who's pretty; who's fashionable; who kissed whom? Maybe that could be configured as typical girl stuff. Alas, I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I had an opinion on everything -- worse, it was often delivered in a mocking, even sneering tone. Sometimes I got laughs. Other times, I'm ashamed and embarrassed to say, I made people cry. If I'm really honest I'd call myself a bully. But no one called me that. Instead I was an animal, usually a dog.

When I was 16 years old a well-meaning friend told me "You're the most critical person I know." She was right – fault finding was a hobby. More than a hobby, a crutch. I had nothing going for me, save my loud, mocking opinions. It was a crude, if cruel, method of metabolising inadequacy.

Looking back, however, I'm struck that this same friend was dating a guy who vocalised loudly and often that women were idiots, clearly dumber than men and good for "only one thing." My friend said she loved that he was a "Bad Boy." People date "Bad Girls" too. But that definition seems to approximate slender limbs, heavy eye-liner and a penchant for emotional manipulation. A Manic Pixie Nightmare, if you will. A Jessa from Girls, or an Angelina.

Roxane Gay wrote in her book, Bad Feminist, that "an unlikable man is inscrutably interesting, dark or tormented." It seemed to me – and it still does – that all a girl has to do is call shit out and look plain doing it to be considered hateful. Add to this already dangerous combination a mocking tone and you have yourself a "bitch".

Gay wrote in the same book that it was when Vanessa Williams became Miss America that she believed she could become someone herself. Maybe even Miss America. We all need someone we can relate to, just to prove to us that who we are is not a mistake. For me, that person was Tina Fey. It was the first time I saw her on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update. Nearly twenty years ago, watching an ordinary woman (with a scar on her cheek and glasses on her face), deliver incisive pronouncements about the absurdity of sexism made my heart beat so fast my whole face glowed red.

I was an angry teenager, with a belly full of righteous indignation and Mars Bars. But watching Fey call it how she saw it gave me hope. Fey was hilarious but something bigger was happening. "This woman is normal-looking" I thought. "And yet she's allowed to mock people."

I had never seen it before: there were no negative consequences to Fey's opinions. She did not have to adopt an academic posture; there were no grasps at seriousness for credibility's sake. She did not have Sarah Silverman's "little-girl-says-poop" shtick. She was not deliberately catty like Joan Rivers. Fey just wrote her jokes and told the truth. She had found a way to metabolise her fury. And I revelled in her glory. Which is strange, considering.

I had entitlement. I came from a family of highly opinionated people. These people have succeeded in their myriad fields because they're opinionated. Unfortunately, I forgot to notice that they were all male.

It took me years to learn tact and empathy and self-awareness. It also took me years to unlearn what I'd learnt; that just because a female is criticising something – poking fun-- does not mean she should be shamed and insulted into submissive silence. On the contrary, it might mean it's time for a solution. Or, as Angelina said, these days, it might even be considered "good."