A dear friend recently told me I “come across like the villain in a didactic novella aimed at teen girls.” I had just made a callous appraisal of a mutual acquaintance’s musical taste that my friend found “cold,” deliberately so. He was right: Cold is the temperature at which I function most efficiently. I have never been described as “nice” without an accompanying “…if you know her.” I’ve come to accept this about myself, but it’s taken a while.
As a child I was happily weird and witty, inquisitive, daring, creative, and unafraid. But before I reached adolescence, I was tricked into thinking my strongest traits were shameful. Report cards described me as “smart but bossy,” two traits that were stigmatized, especially for girls, at my small-town elementary school. Most of the teachers there were suspicious of my preference to work independently; they said I asked too many questions. In the fifth grade, my homeroom teacher rolled his eyes impatiently when I asked how to use a semicolon. Oh, fuck, I thought. Have I asked for too much? And so I learned servility. I became scared of saying too much, of being seen as “too demanding,” of asking for respect or knowledge or help. (I still do not know how to use a semicolon.)
Thankfully, my mother—another “nice…if you know her” type—understood that “bossy” didn’t have to mean “asking for too much.” To her it meant “entrepreneurial.” Both of my parents were self-employed, and my mom worked from our home. On the days I didn’t go to school (which were frequent thanks to her lenience toward letting me skip), I’d overhear business calls during which she’d dress down male colleagues who dared question her authority. I accompanied her to meetings and appointments, to her lawyer’s office, to the bank, and out to lunch; everywhere she went, I watched her command absolute respect from everyone. She approached her work in a way my teachers would have called “disobedient.” My mom was bossy.
I respected her fierceness, but she was a grown woman in control, and I was just a kid. I aspired to respect myself the way my mom respected herself—the way she respected me—but figured I’d have to wait till I was well out of school. When I’m 35, I thought. That’s when I’ll find that confidence.
After all, at my school, bossy girls didn’t get respect—we got detention. If you were bright, smart, funny, talented, and/or influential, you were seen as a threat to the status quo. You were called “trouble.” Sadly, I’ve found that the rest of the world often works the same way. Women, particularly young ones, who command attention and respect and who dare question the status quo are all too often seen not as assets, but as threats to those in power, who, not coincidentally, are seldom young or women. So terms like “bossy” get used pejoratively to shame women into thinking agency, autonomy, boldness, and inquisitiveness are actually character flaws. What we should be, we’re told, is “nice”—often a euphemism for compliant, amenable, and weak.
I don’t mean to suggest that only men use this tactic, nor that it is used exclusively against women. But it’s just true that those in power are quick to denigrate anyone who threatens their position, and in our society, the people with the most power, on the whole, are older white (cis) men. And I know that of all the ways that oppressed communities are silenced, being called “bossy” is far from the worst. But the effects of such microaggressions accrue over time, and they can shut people up for life. They shut me up for 13 years, but I didn’t wait till I was 35 to find confidence and autonomy, thanks to the examples set by my mom and a bunch of other bossy women: Kathleen Hanna, Karen O, Salt-N-Pepa, Tina Turner, PJ Harvey were all pretty big then, and they all came into their power in their early 20s. When life got particularly stressful for me, these young, strong, mouthy women were the ones who held me up. In their music I heard the strength of those who have overcome expectations and broken rules.
Recently, Lorde has been the same kind of role model for me: She is smart, talented, and outspoken, and seems proud, rather than ashamed, of those qualities. She owns them. She is in love with being queen; she is never not chasing a million things she wants. She knows the value of herself, and she wields that value like a scythe.
It bothers me when Lorde and young women like her are treated with skepticism and disapproval. The impulse to push down any young woman who dares to embrace her own power is born of the same fear of women that landed me in detention for half of my adolescence.
Months ago I saw an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum that showcased the work of the mixed-media artist Wangechi Mutu. One of the most stunning installations in the show was a giant kentauride, or female centaur. I was drawn to that piece because of its name, a message I hope the younger version of me—that bright, bossy girl I lost on the playground then lovingly reclaimed—would be comforted to know I now live by: Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid, and her enemies began to fear her The End.
These days, I am not afraid of anything, and being called “nice…if you know her” feels OK. I understand that I owe it to myself to be a boss. And when my friend called me a “villain in a didactic novella,” I responded like a boss: I said I didn’t care. And I don’t. ♦
Carly Lewis is a writer who lives sometimes in Toronto and sometimes in New York. Her work has appeared in Vice, the Guardian, Bitch, the Globe and Mail, and The Atlantic.