Curmudgeons, Grumps, and Gender

I’m a huge fan of Cleveland Amory, who wrote trenchant, sharp, really funny commentary on society, as well as animal rights. He led a fascinating life and I love that he founded and played an active role in an animal rights organisation while also being an important part of society and culture. He was a friend to film stars, to musicians, to homeless animals, and to his amazing cat, Polar Bear, who was the subject of three books.

He was also sexist as all hell.

It’s one of the most grating and irritating things about his books, because while it doesn’t happen on every page, it’s an unrelenting theme. Cleveland Amory may have believed in kind, fair, loving treatment for animals, but he also believed that women and men were fundamentally different, that there were some things women shouldn’t do and men could. One of those things was being a curmudgeon: He argued that no one had ever heard of a female curmudgeon, that it was a word meant for men only, that it reflected a lifetime of carefully-honed male grumpiness and that women weren’t allowed to take it over.

He’s not alone in that sentiment — if you ask people what the word means today, assuming they know it (I say this not in a snotty way but in a ‘this word can be a little obscure’ kind of way), they’ll often say that it refers specifically to a grumpy man, usually an older one. Us youthful curmudgeons aren’t considered in the framework of how the word is understood — though our old friend dictionary.com defines it as ‘a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person,’ saying absolutely nothing about gender. 

Some of us are grouchy, bad-tempered, short, cranky, and generally not always pleasant people to be around. We are, for lack of a better word, curmudgeons. I don’t want to cast values on these traits one way or the other — I’m simply recognising and noting that they are a phenomenon. What’s interesting, though, is who is allowed to have these traits, according to social attitudes.

A man is allowed to be a curmudgeon. In fact, while it’s not necessarily regarded as a positive trait, it’s not always cast as a negative one, either. Men are busy and important, they need to be allowed to focus, there’s so much in the world to frustrate them. It’s no wonder that some respond by becoming grumpy and irritable, because how else are they supposed to deal with the world? And people should tiptoe around them, respecting their known grumpiness and volatility. Don’t disturb them, because they’re important people.

Women with the same traits, though, aren’t curmudgeons who should be respected and handled with care because they’re important. They’re bitches, they’re cold, they’re catty. It’s telling that men are allowed to be cranky, and women are not — a woman who snaps at someone or expresses irritation gets a ‘mee-ow’ or ‘that time of the month?’ in response, while men who behave in the same way are treated just like they always are. Women who exhibit curmudgeonly traits are treated like pariahs, especially if they develop reputations for being generally grumpy, because women are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, sweet and nurturing, not grumpy.

There’s a profound difference between being a curmudgeon and being nasty — it’s possible to be grumpy and irritable without taking it out on people, to be laconic and terse without being rude. But it should also be acknowledged that some people are just this way. They’re cranky even when not under stress, even when not dealing with tough things in life, even when not being subjected to irritating things. They’re. Just. Grumpy. And that’s okay. No one is required to be a little sunbeam all the time — least of all women.

It’s telling and infuriating, though, that men are effectively given lots of leeway for being curmudgeons, permitted to be irritable and snappish and sometimes, yes, outright rude, while women are told to can it and be good little girls. The gendered disparity in how people respond to grumpiness, expressions of frustration, and grouchy people is indicative of how people relate to women as a whole, and perceive gendered emotions and roles.

People get uncomfortable around curmudgeonly women. They want an explanation for why a woman is not in a good mood, while men are generally allowed a free pass. Women who just aren’t that friendly and outgoing, women who prefer to focus on tasks and get them done, women who don’t want to play nice, are regarded as deeply suspect and they are the subject of nasty commentaries both in front of them and behind their back. This has real consequences — when an employer is seeking a reference, for example, and is told that a candidate for a job is grumpy and no fun, that employer will seek elsewhere even if the candidate is well-qualified, competent, and a perfect fit for the role.

Because no one wants a ‘bitch’ although apparently the same traits in men are perfectly acceptable. The male programmer who prefers to wear headphones and buckle down while working on code pushes is just doing the job — he’s even laudable, for not allowing himself to get distracted. His female coworker, though, had better make herself available with smiles and an easy laugh on demand, because she’s not allowed to be a curmudgeon focused on getting tasks done. And if she happens to have an inward-focused, task-oriented, irritable personality, well. Who wants her around?

Image: Curmudgnion, Kevin Trotman, Flickr