Women in pop culture, and in general, are caught in a strange double bind. If they display emotion, they are ‘too emotional’ and ‘playing to stereotype,’ because, yes, there is an existing stereotype, a very strong one, that women are prisoner to their emotions and cannot handle the realities of the world. Under this stereotype, women are delicate flowers who fall apart at the first sign of trouble; they cannot handle emergencies, or criticism, or sad things, because their emotions are simply too strong, and at times destructive. Not for nothing do so many pervasive myths about ‘crazy’ women play specifically on the expression of emotion—the ‘psycho ex-girlfriend’ is shown to be crazy by being emotional.
At the same time, women who do not display emotion are criticised for being too hardened and unrealistic. Because all women are supposed to have emotions. And when women who are normally playful, or neutral, or fun, suddenly do express emotion, they are raked over the coals for it. They have shown their weakness, you see, and they must be punished for it, because while being unemotional is bad and wrong, having emotions is dreadful too. And the worst thing of all is talking about emotions, acknowledging that they exist, and are a thing that happens, and that, yes, sometimes they can be out of your control.
Emotions are complex things and they can be frustrating things, too. Sometimes it feels like they are our masters, dictating our lives for us. Sometimes we have unexpected emotional responses to things and they are difficult to articulate and explain; it is hard to say why a harsh word can reduce us to tears on some days and leave us laughing on others. One thing I do know is that the only rational way to deal with emotions is to talk about them. Is to take the elephant in the room by the tusks and dance with it.
Sometimes it only takes a few turns with the elephant to get to the bottom of things. Ignoring the elephant, though, standing at opposite ends of the room with your backs to each other, ends badly. And yet, this is precisely what many people demand of women, whether they are ‘strong female characters’ in their pop culture or very real, live, breathing women; journalists and musicians and writers and artists and bakers and mothers and all the other women in the world.
Because emotions are a bad, terrible, wrong thing that people shouldn’t talk about because it is not polite. Women are not allowed to say ‘this hurt my feelings’ or ‘I am having a terrible day’ because these are viewed as further evidence that women, as a whole, cannot deal with the world. They are expected to be superwomen not just by society in general, but by other women. Some of the most cutting critics of women who discuss emotionality are other women, which is deeply dismaying to see.
Attacking women for having emotions is rooted in misogyny. It’s rooted in the idea that women are too emotional and have an obligation to prove that they are ‘strong’ so they can engage with the world, and in the idea that women must present a ‘united front.’ Must be on their best behaviour all the time in order to impress people with their togetherness. Women tell each other to suppress their emotions and not talk about them and this is closely enforced, with women who do display emotions being hounded into silence or hiding in the corner and thinking about their sins.
What is so terrifying about feelings? What is so dreadful about admitting that people have them? People have been having feelings for as long as people have been people, and we’ve developed, as a whole, a lot of really unproductive methods of coping with them and addressing them. One of the least effective of those methods is pretending they aren’t happening. Women forced to suppress their emotions, to play nice, to not admit that something is hurting or angering them, have to smolder in silence until they explode. And when they explode, they do so rather spectacularly because they had no outlet.
And because women are often not supported when they are talking about their emotions, not in the cold, cruel world. In small corners and private spaces they may find support and friendship, but when they take those emotions outside, they’re pilloried for it. Repeatedly punished for…being human. Because having emotions isn’t about your gender, it’s about your humanity. It’s about the fact that we humans are sensitive, thinking beings, with brains that do a lot of churning and wriggling and sliding, and we react to our environment and the other people in it.
It’s about the fact that some things are emotionally upsetting, although we may not always react to them in the same way. Some people get angry when they are patronised, and may flare up with irritation because they’re tired of being treated like they are worth less than the people around them. Other people get really upset when they’re yelled at like they are worthless, and they want to cry, and are sad, because they are being told they don’t have value and they can’t do anything right. Some people react badly to criticism because they take it too personally, and other people get defensive initially because being told you’re wrong can cause a small twinge no matter who you are, even if you move on to discuss it. Emotions happen. They are not always predictable.
Emotions do not make people bad or wrong or unable to thrive in the world. They make people human. And I strongly dislike the suggestion that women need to be superwomen; that cooks who can’t take the heat should get out of the kitchen. The solution to a hot kitchen is to turn on the fan and open a window. Not to kick the chef out.