Women Are Complicated (and That's a Good Thing)
We used to set off down the trail behind our house in pursuit of honeysuckles, nestled in blood orange clusters along the slick cement. My mother called them crawdads. Later, when she showed me photos of herself proudly holding those same fish as a young woman, I looked at the nurse in front of me and back to the Polaroid in an attempt to reconcile the two. How could this girl, this muddied denim, crawdad-hunting girl, be my mother, beneath the scrubs and smell of iodine?
I started to archive the behaviors of the women in my family. I collected the breadcrumbs my mother mentioned in passing, like getting hit by an ice cream truck when she lived in Los Angeles, or sneaking out to ride horses at midnight. I counted how many times my grandmother’s voice changed tone throughout the day, depending on her mood. I compared stories of my great-grandmother as a merciless parent to the tiny woman who served me homemade zucchini bread when I came to visit.
The characters that populated my childhood seemed simpler. Maleficent was evil; Sleeping Beauty was good. But the women I lived with were more complex. Why was I only seeing women represented as embodying singular ideas? Why was I struggling to see people, especially women, as multifaceted? I knew better than this. And as I found myself oversimplifying the women around me, I felt ashamed.
When I consider how this issue has historically manifested, I think of how women in the Victorian Era were permitted to attain just enough knowledge to entertain their husbands. I think of the New York Times’ review on Bridesmaids as “unexpectedly funny,” as if they weren’t sure whether women could successfully helm a comedy. I think of Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s remark to Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca recommending she should “stick to the thigh-high boots” and abstain from politics. Most troubling, I think of how we, as women, don’t give ourselves permission to be dynamic, complex, and even wrong. Centuries of internalization and being taught to how to act (and not act!) increases the danger of taking on these oversimplifications as our own.
Nobody’s perfect, and it’s important for female characters to have flaws. Roxanne Gay touched upon this in her essay Not Here to Make Friends. She writes that “freed from the constraints of likeability, they are able to exist on and beyond the page as fully realized, interesting, and realistic characters.” It may be uncomfortable to experience that kind of truth, but it’s also a joy to relate to that squirm-inducing authenticity. And it’s way better than the frustration of having a character fall as flat as the page they’re printed upon.
Not to mention, incomplete characters lead us to believe that we should be less complex than we are. Anna McConnell addresses this in her essay Stuffing Myself with Immanence, and urges writers to write about “hatred of our bodies, dependence on men and mirrors, passivity...all those generic ‘un-liberated woman’ traits that are not supposed to apply to us intelligent 21st century girls and women who ‘know better.’”
By acknowledging the turbulence, complicated, and downright unpretty parts of womanhood, we can connect better to each other—and ourselves.
By Hailey Andrews, 18