Imogen Palmer talks about her immensely popular course for womxn.
What makes someone a ‘Difficult Woman’?
According to some of the views this question drew up on my news feed, it can be anything from ‘not smiling’ to ‘asking for money as a freelancer’ to ‘existing in any way which upsets the patriarchy’.
The term ‘Difficult Woman’ came to my head recently when I watched Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up special ‘Douglas’ on Netflix. I am a long term fan of Hannah and this was my favourite show I’ve seen her do yet. In between laughing my head off, I kept shouting ‘yes! Oh my God, yes!’ much to the amusement of my partner. I finished it feeling high on life. Why? I’d just watched a queer woman take up space and confidently ‘bait her haters’ and own the fact that they hated her. She was proud that arseholes hated her. And why shouldn’t we be?
I have spent most of my life trying to be brave and sticking up for my values. The truth is (like loads of people) conflict makes me really anxious and scared but as a kid I decided I would rather stick up for myself and for other people when I thought things were unfair than keep quiet because that made you just as bad as the bullies.
This can be really hard. It can be particularly hard to do this when you look like a woman because of how we have been socialised. We have been taught to smooth over difficult situations and ‘get on with everyone’. Society LOVES prickly, rude white men (just look at how we glorify any one of the characters Benedict Cumberbach is typically cast in) but a woman? Being rude? Having an opinion different to others in the room? Negotiating for a fair wage? What a B****.
Some of the reasons we can struggle with speaking up is because:
1. We like to be liked
2. We are people pleasers
3. We were raised to be ‘polite’
4. We don’t think of ourselves as ‘difficult’.
I have had really weird experiences over the years when I expressed discomfort over sexist, racist or homophobic choices in the rehearsal room, challenged inconsiderate behaviour or when I expressed artistic opinions. In companies where everyone ‘talked the talk’ of being a friendly, liberal supportive place, their reactions baffled me.
When I questioned moments (in as light and friendly a way as possible, being the sweet little woman I was), both men and women became defensive and sometimes angry in response. I now understand more about DARVO (which is worth looking up if something similar has happened to you) but at the time, these reactions made me believe I was wrong and I wasted way too much time feeling ashamed for having spoken up, worrying I was ‘rude’ for having done so and sometimes even (now embarrassingly) apologising for having ‘rocked the boat’.
I know the treatment I received would have been different if I was a man. We praise men for being assertive. We’re used to men having opinions and views which deserved to be heard. We stop, listen and don’t interrupt them.
One of the many things movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter has shown me is, if you want to live in a more liberated world, we need to practice being ok with people finding you difficult when you challenge offensive or problematic behaviors which support a system of oppression.
We also need to practice being self-aware when we become defensive or prickly in response to a woman or member of another oppressed group speaks up.It is not enough to expect women and POC to do all the work. An improvisation class or rehearsal room can be a great place to practice this because in improv, we practice listening and also over-riding our self-censor which means a whole heap of subconscious biascan come to the surface. Great- a chance to learn from each other about this bias and how being aware of it is the first step to helping us unpick and override it.
Queer, black feminist Audre Lorde was on this 40 years agowhen she wrote:
‘Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.
Next time, ask: What’s the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.And the speaking will get easier and easier. ‘
Thanks to a lot of practice, inner work and queens like Audre and Hannah, I have officially given up on being liked.
I am proud of the people I’ve annoyed because if they want to live in a world where art forms like improvisation continue to be only accessible to white men then why would I want them to like me? F*** that.
I would rather work with people who believe in trying to make the world and the art we make as empowering and inclusive as possible by listening and learning as best we can, and creating spaces where feedback and difficult conversations can be practised in a sensitive way. This is an ongoing process but we can start by speaking up and listening when others speak up.
The workshop I have made includes some tools I have found useful to help me practice navigating some internalised misogynistic blocks around owning being difficult and supporting and championing women and oppressed groups. I don’t have all the answers, I don’t have the energy to fight all the fights all the time but what I do know is this: difficult women get shit done and being difficult is an art that can be practised.