When I was a child, I was told I was stubborn. I was in no doubt that this was a negative trait. My stubbornness wasn’t especially inventive. I am the youngest in my family, and generally I’d take a stand in situations where I thought I might embarrass myself. I always lost card games, for instance, so I would simply refuse to play.
On the rare occasion I was convinced to join in, I would sulk horribly. I remember once running away in protest, although I only ran as far as the garden shed. After 20 minutes I got bored and went back into the house. No one had noticed my absence. After a few years of this, I realised that people didn’t warm to me when I was throwing tantrums over losing at gin rummy. I realised that Not Being Stubborn was a choice. So I decided to stop being overly dogged. As a result, I won more card games because there was less pressure on the outcome.
I was reminded of this recently when I heard Theresa May being lauded for her grit and determination. She was so resilient, people said. Whatever you thought of her policies you couldn’t deny her ability to stick to the task in hand. Her admirers murmured approvingly of her ability to cling on to her Brexit negotiating position, no matter the cost. She herself professed to be proud of the label ‘bloody difficult woman’.
Her refusal to shift from a political standpoint that many regarded as shorthand for irretrievable national decline was often viewed as evidence of an indomitable spirit. Look at how she’s soldiering on when all the silly men who got us into this mess in the first place have abandoned ship, the narrative went, and don’t we all just feel sorry for the poor woman that she’s stuck in this terrible double-bind?
Well, no. I don’t feel sorry for Theresa May who, as I’m writing, is still prime minister. And if, by the time you read this, she is no longer in power, I’m afraid I still don’t feel sorry for her. I don’t believe that blinkered bloody-mindedness – in and of itself – is laudable, especially not when you’re selling a dodgy deal with the European Union that barely anyone supports. In moments like that, surely the most grown-up thing to do is to reflect on what’s being said and shift your attitude? It is to embrace a willingness to change rather than sticking firmly to the spot like an obstreperous toddler who has just been told it’s bedtime.
But my issue with all this breathless fawning around Theresa May’s intransigence is not just to do with Brexit, it’s to do with gender. It’s hard to imagine a male prime minister claiming he was a ‘bloody difficult man’ as if it were something to aspire to. A male politician would not be praised for his ability to stay put while singing loudly with his fingers in his ears to drown out the naysayers. It’s patronising: yet another way in which a woman can be boxed in to a certain category.
As woman, we’re allowed to be pliant or obstinate; sweet or sour; kind or bitchy. You’re rarely allowed to be an infinite variation of different and contradictory things. On screen, in films such as The Favourite or dramas such as Killing Eve, women enjoy more leeway, but even that prompts endless media discussions about the trend for ‘unlikable’ female characters. In real life, Theresa May can possess only one defining quality. So she’s tenacious and not much else.
But what if women are neither unlikable for their contradictions nor admirable for their relentless singularity? What if we enabled them to be how they truly are? I don’t want a prime minister who is adamant she’s right all the time. I want one who can alter her outlook in order to make the wisest decisions. That’s how you win at gin rummy – and perhaps it’s how you run a country, too.
This week I’m…
Adèle by Leïla Slimani. The bestselling author of Lullaby returns with the tale of a female sex addict that’s lyrical, compelling and profound.
VitSpritz Vitamin D3. This is such a clever idea – it’s so much easier to spritz vitamin spray on the tongue than to swallow endless pills.
You on Netflix. I couldn’t work out if it was trashy or good but I also couldn’t stop watching. Think Gossip Girl meets Misery.