BLOODY DIFFICULT WOMEN
As a woman, it’s okay not to be liked, says Sarra Manning
I WAS NEVER THE SORT OF GIRL WHO WAS PICKED FIRST FOR GAMES OR WAS – IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM – POPULAR. Maybe it was because of my NHS specs, pudding bowl haircut (thanks, Mum) and dyspraxia, which meant that I was always cast as second shepherd in the school Nativity play and moved to the back in ballet class. No wonder, then, that while other girls were pretending to be princesses and playing with Barbie dolls, I sought heroines who reflected my own awkwardness back at me but then turned it into a triumph.
The first difficult women I chose as role models were Petrova Fossil in Ballet Shoes (who’d rather fly planes than take to the stage) and Harriet The Spy, whose amateur sleuthing set her apart from her peers. As I entered my teens, my heroines had to be difficult and doomed – and all the more brilliant for it: Sylvia Plath, Edie Sedgwick, Dorothy Parker and Zelda Fitzgerald, each determined to pursue their passions, whatever the cost.
In real life, I was fortunate to meet women who, 200 years before, may have been burnt at the stake or put in an asylum – once the fate of women who dared to be different. Everything I am is because of the difficult women who set me on my path when I lost my way. Like my feminist English teacher, who stood out at my strict girls’ school because she taught us about socialism and didn’t wear a bra. Or the professor who told me that doing an MA in critical theory was a waste of time – if I wanted to be a writer, I should return to London and write for anyone who’d give me a byline. These women inspired me, but they weren’t necessarily people I wanted to be friends with or who wanted to befriend me. Realising that it’s okay not to be liked is the most important lesson they taught me. Obviously, no woman is an island – I cherish my friends – but likeability is not a rent that women should have to pay to take up space in the world.
When I was asked to write a modern-day version of Vanity Fair, I was counselled by a fellow writer to decline. ‘Becky Sharp is problematic,’ she said of the scheming, social-climbing anti-heroine. ‘Readers won’t like her unless you warm her up a bit.’ Reader, I didn’t warm her up because Becky Sharp might be wicked and avaricious, but she’s nobody’s fool or victim, which is why she’s so much fun. When I think of Becky and other difficult women I’ve known, I think of what Richard Burton said after his first encounter with Elizabeth Taylor: ‘She was, in short, too bloody much.’
It seems to me that whenever there’s a woman living her best life, there’ll always be a man telling her that she’s too much. That, in fact, it would be best if she were a little less. But filing down the parts of yourself that others find disagreeable means that, in the end, you lose sight of who you are and who you could be. It’s much better to have a reputation for being difficult than to spend life dancing to the beat of someone else’s drum. So, here’s to the women who aren’t afraid to be strident, to take up space, to stand up for what they believe in and, more importantly, the people they believe in. In short, the women who are just too bloody much.
‘Likeability is not a rent that women should have to pay to take up space in the world’
Olivia Cooke plays Becky Sharp in ITV’S Vanity Fair