Why is it that our praise of women always revolves around how much they give up for others? Elle Ayres on why we need to change how we compliment the women in our lives…
Can you say why you love the women you love without talking about what they’ve done for you, or what they’ve had to put up with from you?
How many wedding speeches have you heard where the groom references a time where he feels so lucky that his bride stuck it out? How many people, when talking about how great their mum is jump to say how grateful they are that she’d do anything for them? The ways in which we talk about women are problematic in a seemingly unexpected way; in how we praise them and in how we describe our love for them. We so often discuss the women in our lives as a means to some end, our end, without considering them as individuals. It’s a phenomenon that I’ll admit I’ve noticed more from men, but I don’t think it’s an exclusively male lead problem.
So often discussions centre around the woman’s relationship to ourselves, how they further our lives. There is no space for an individual, only a tool; a supporting character, but never the main show. Women are not defined by being a mother or a girlfriend or a wife, but too often the dialogue with which we talk about how much we love them runs parallel to this; sub-human and super-human to some role assigned to her, some other purpose.
Strength and sacrifice follow women around their whole lives. Young girls grow up being thrust into a role of being a ‘carer’, handed plastic babies and being praised and lauded for gentle attributes, for meekness. This language runs through everything we consume, from reality to film. Consider the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ in film; an entire female trope existing solely for the furthering of male character. A kind of vehicle for male self-discovery. The ‘cool chill girl’ is desirable so often because she’s easy going and seamlessly slips into the male’s routine. It is subtle, and so often unnoticed because this is the culture young girls are immersed in. We are the nurses to a doctor, the assistant to a magician. The self-sacrificing-angel stereotype runs rampant in literature and it runs rampant in life. If a woman is demanding and assertive she is difficult, if a man is… well he’s just a man who knows what he wants.
Despite a growing rhetoric among women celebrating the ‘girlboss’, history runs through our dialogue like an almost invisible thread. Almost. Loud women are still crass, funny women are still intimidating and the compliments given to women in our lives so often revolve around their supporting role. Your mother is good because she would do anything for you, your girlfriend is the best because she puts up with you so often. It is so rarely about their individual character, or those traits that make them stand out in their own right. Women are so much more than what they give up for others.
Perhaps a poorly worded compliment here does not seem like the end of the world, but it inhibits the female experience. It perpetuates the idea that a woman must be perfect, she must make life easy, she must be un-problematic because her value lies in being some kind of saint. It creates a world where there are so few female villains, or anti-heroes in fictional worlds; where a woman taking something for herself is bossy, not assertive. It’s a world where women who don’t want children are seen as selfish and cold for not wanting to give up their time and body. The life they’ve fought so hard to create.
Praising only those attributes that involve giving something of ourselves up puts an unimaginable stress on women to be almost mythical in their compassion.
But most women are mythical, without giving parts of themselves up for the people around them. Women are resilient, strong, intelligent. They battle microaggressions everyday and continue to move forward. Women of colour push against every obstacle to create a space for themselves where the world has not done its duty to do so. Trans-women battle stereotypes and abuse everyday, pushing against the hard words of others to feel at home in their bodies. Women are constantly fighting. They are fighting to reclaim their bodies and their rights. Fighting just to get a word in edgeways in a meeting, or to get paid the same as their colleague. We are constantly having to adapt ourselves to situations and people around us, but we are not defined by that.
Treat women as people, because that’s what they are. We never love people just for what they’ve done for us (that would surely be unfathomably hollow), and our language must reflect that. Love them because they are hilarious, love them for their brilliant mind, love them for that ridiculous dance they do in the car when their favourite song comes on when they’re driving. Love them for being kind and generous, but don’t love them because you benefited from it. Be thankful about that. Love the women in your life for being them.
Follow Elle on Twitter: @AyresElle