Despite a society hellbent on silencing their stories, there will always be nasty women, fragile women, slutty women…difficult women.
Roxane Gay’s “Difficult Women” went to print at a time when the United States was putting its first female Presidential nominee against its most vehemently and openly misogynistic candidate in this century. To beat that female nominee, the misogynist would use labels: “liar,” “criminal,” “traitor,” and more. The label that would later unite women across the US against him, however, would be “nasty woman.” He would follow up with “lying woman,” “frigid woman,” “man-eating woman,” and “crazy woman” before the end of the election.
These labels are the very root of Roxane Gay’s “Difficult Women”, a book about feminine labels, create at a time when the leader of the free world tried so hard to reduce women to labels, and the women found the strength to push them back.
In fact, 2017 could be called the “Year of the Difficult Woman”. From the indictment of white women for electing Trump the black women who saved Alabama from itself, the pink pussy-hatted woman, silenced and disrespected women of Congress, as well as the most prominent difficult women, those of the #MeToo movement. The year was all about women marching, speaking up and speaking out against the sexual harassment that men once thought was their birthright. It was as if the Universe had read Gay’s work and decided to have it acted out in a single year.
In 21 stories and 256 pages, Gay explores the labels given to women in today’s society when that woman becomes something other than compliant. She takes the label, distorts it with the image of the woman carrying it. That distortion reduces the woman to a character that is still human, but now she is her label but is more palatable to a reader who has been conditioned to NOT see past the label. By the end of the story, the reader has no choice but to see the strength and power that underlies every woman as she struggles under the auspices of the label. The reader must empathize with her or simply gather an understanding and move on. This is how each woman fared in the 21 stories.
It’s not only the stories that make “Difficult Women” such a powerful force of words. It is Gay’s unfettered way of exploring the emotional complexities that plague women in the modern society. For example, in the story, “Break All the Way Down,” the narrator describes the pain and despair so vividly that the emotion pricks the heart of the reader. The “broken woman” label in the story becomes a heavy stone on a soul already shattered into pieces. The reader is given the image of a woman who has fled her life, a husband, a home, a suburban existence all to sooth the guilt of loss on her broken heart with the punishing damage her body seems to crave at the hands of bad men. Under this label, is not only a woman but the man who loves her despite the voices of many critics and others beseeching him to leave. He understands the woman behind the label, theirs is a more complex than we can know.
Like the aggressive woman in the futuristic tale “Noble Things” who is an intelligent, independent, liberal woman who married an alt-right conservative son of the leader of the New South after the second Civil War ripped apart the US. In that story, the focus is a woman trying to hold her marriage together, save her son, and keep her sanity when the politics and morals of society and her in-laws are threatening her every move. If we label her aggressive, we dismiss all of her sacrifices, work, and emotional lifting the woman has put into keeping her son safe in a post-Trump, anti-women, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-POC society. We erase her and all the greatness that may come from her acts. We also miss an opportunity to leave some great lessons from her madness. Maybe a lesson about the strength it takes to push past such adversities for the sake of a child.
Throughout the 21 stories, the label theme never loses its significance under such repetition from one story to another. In each, Gay builds—in bold unapologetic prose—an image of a labeled woman. Whether the backdrop of the story is a glass house or a post-Civil War II America, the reader is constantly aware that the focus is always on the women. The settings may change. So may the circumstances and even the genre of the story, no matter where or how the label shows up, it’s placed at the detriment to the woman, and as a benefit to society’s need to erase her.
Nevertheless, she is always there, and like all the women in Gay’s stories, she is much more than the label can contain. Her story begs to be told. By telling her story, Gay upends our need to erase the stuff that’s difficult to see, forcing society to admit, understand, and emote with the very woman it once deemed too difficult to accept. She does not need out acceptance, however. She just needs to exist in a society like everyone else. She has the strength and power to do so, just look at what she’s struggled through in order to live day to day.
Gay’s collection fuses magic realism, science fiction, and the drama into one space to explore several sides of the feminine label. She creates a world within her stories where the various complexities of the feminine existence—the frigid, the aggressive, the broken–can coexist in one place. They can not only coexist in this place but thrive in their own way, without masculine critique or misguided influences.
“Difficult Women” is an amazing and brilliant collection of stories that need to be required reading in a post-Trump society. The stories remind readers that, no matter what the masculine leaders of this country or the men who behind the #MeToo atrocities may say or tweet, we must not forget the power and strength in the women that society labels “difficult”. Harnessing this strength and channeling it is exactly how the black women of Alabama voted to keep a child sex predator out of Congress. Gay teaches us that our role is not to label the women but to try and understand them. This was the lesson of 2017, learning that women are not one simple.
The book demonstrates the importance of appreciating women’s complexities and learning from them so maybe our mission in 2018 is just that. The women are and always will be here. And, despite a society hellbent on silencing their stories, there will always be nasty women, fragile women, slutty women…”Difficult Women”.