Why do we hate it when women try?
When Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 stepped down as U.S. secretary of state in 2013, she was the most popular politician in the country, with an approval rating of 69 percent. Today, as the Democratic nominee for president, her approval rating hovers between 35 and 40 percent. That means she’s just as popular with the American people as overinflated water balloon Donald Trump, whose offenses are too numerous to list here, and Ben Carson ’73, a man who does not believe there should be such thing as a war crime and once said “Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”
A similar pattern emerged before, during and after her 2008 presidential run. Before she announced her candidacy, Talking Points Memo notes, she was “ an extremely popular senator both in New York and among her colleagues.” During the campaign, though, her steely determination inspired MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson to comment, “Every time I hear Hillary Clinton speak, I involuntarily cross my legs.” Four years later, when the dust had settled and she was no longer running for office, Hillary was suddenly cool and popular again. Said Stacy Lambe, a Hillary supporter and co-creator of the “Texts from Hillary” meme, “That photo just captures how people tried to make her out to be a bitch when she’s actually the head bitch in charge. Ever since she was appointed secretary of state there’s been a renewed appreciation for Hillary.”
Sady Doyle pointed out in a February article for Quartz that “when Clinton ascends to ever-greater positions of power — from first lady to senator, from senator to secretary of state — we start liking her again once she’s landed the job. It’s not her success that seems to arouse ire, but the act of campaigning itself … We can accept women in power, but not women’s desire for more of it.” America hates when Hillary Clinton visibly makes an effort to become more successful. But that’s not the only axis along which women are not allowed to openly try.
Women are expected to garner male attention, but only by accident — which is why Gurl.com, a website aimed at teenage girls, offers the helpful listicle “10 Signs You’re Trying Too Hard In Dating & Turning Him Off,” and Her Campus promises to share “The Secret Truth About Trying Too Hard With Guys.” The much-lauded Cool Girl speech from “Gone Girl” lambasts women who trick men into thinking they’re effortlessly cool, and the narrator expresses her desire to “grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much — no one loves chili dogs that much!” Because god forbid a woman try too hard to impress a man: that makes her a lying “bitch,” an “awful pretender” and “pathetic.” Someone better warn that poor guy!
Women are required to be thin, but they are absolutely forbidden from admitting that they diet and exercise in order to get or stay that way. Actual model Kendall Jenner claims to go to In-N-Out “all the time,” Jennifer Lawrence insists that she’d never diet, Kristen Stewart says she’s “naturally skinny,” Taylor Swift is “not a fan of working out that much” and Blake Lively doesn’t pay attention to what she eats. Admitting you work out and diet means admitting that you were once flawed, after all — and even worse, it means admitting that you care enough about what other people think that you’re making an effort to correct those flaws.
Women are required to be sexy, but Christian Bale says that “trying too hard to be sexy is the worst thing in the world a woman can do.” (Worse than murder, I guess?) Cosmopolitan promotes an article on date-night makeup with the tagline “Nailing the whole not-trying-too-hard thing has never been easier,” One Direction sings to legions of pre-teen girls, “You don’t know you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful,” and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton tells Cosmo that she thinks “a lot of people try too hard. Whenever you’re like, “I wanna dress sexy,” that’s a bad place to start from.” In the age of “I woke up like this,” it’s not enough to be beautiful — you have to be beautiful without all the effort that used to be required in order to achieve beauty, and without even being conscious of it.
Think of “Little Women,” perhaps the oldest and most perfect collection of female personality tropes. Meg is naturally beautiful and elegant, if a little snobby; Jo is energetic and independent, if a little rough around the edges; Beth is a selfless angel; and Amy is a vain, spoiled little brat. SparkNotes describes her as being “good at manipulating other people,” and positions her as a foil to heroine Jo. Shmoop opens their character analysis by declaring her “the March sister most readers love to hate.” Her childhood malapropisms are infuriating — why must she try so hard to seem smarter than she is? She tries to modify the shape of her nose by sleeping with a clothespin on it — why is she so vain? Amy is irritating because she always tries, and she always asks for more. She wants to be the prettiest, smartest, most talented girl around, and if that means sleeping less comfortably, occasionally misusing a word or focusing on her art at the expense of all else, so be it. Amy isn’t afraid to publicly make an effort, complete with the occasional failures that always accompany self-improvement.
And she’s not the only always-striving female character that readers love to hate. Emma Bovary tries too hard to be glamorous, Skyler White tries too hard to protect her family, Faye Greener tries too hard to become an actress and little Karen Brewer from The Babysitter’s Club tries too hard to seem smart.
In real life and in fiction, we don’t just hate women because they’re shrill, manipulative, emotional or bitchy. What we hate the most is that sometimes, they dare to try.