Express Yourself

Girls who have a ‘forceful personality’ are seen as different – even a bit wild – because they step outside of gender conventions.

Parallel Vision Productions | Michelle Melles

She is the strongest girl in the world, lives by herself in a colourful house in the forest, and has a pet monkey and a horse. Pippi Longstocking was my childhood hero.

I loved Pippi’s self-confidence, her fearlessness, her untamed red hair and freckles and the fact that she didn’t live by anyone’s rules but her own. But in ‘real life’, I quickly learned it was complicated to express yourself so exuberantly and assertively. Girls who have a ‘forceful personality’ are seen as different – even a bit wild – because they step outside of gender conventions. Strong, defiant girls who aren’t afraid to raise their voices stand out from the crowd. Like a hurricane disrupting the status quo, they tend to worry people. Girls like this are told to be quiet, to be more modest…

And, if you think about it, self-confident, outspoken girls seem to be divided into two camps when they’re young. The assertive girls who are unkind are labelled ‘mean girls’, while the self-confident girls in stories like The Paperbag PrincessAnnieBrave, or Pippi Longstockingare celebrated as role models because they stand up for what’s right. They boldly defy gender stereotypes and aren’t afraid of confronting inequality and injustice. They are heroines. Pippi, for example, would regularly stick bullies and rude policemen in trees.

Girls are told (or should be told) that they can be whatever they want to be. But when they get to the work force, they find that they are still being kept from positions of influence and power. And women aren’t able to achieve their full professional potential, they are told, because they lack the self-confidence of their male peers.

There’s a “Confidence Gap”, argue authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in their widely-read 2014 bookThe Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know.  In two decades of covering American politics, the journalists interviewed some of the most influential women in the United States and were surprised to discover the extent to which these women suffered from self-doubt. And in order to succeed, Kay and Shipman argue, confidence matters as much as competence.

And so, countless women have been made to feel that the reason they haven’t succeeded is because they lack confidence. And the solution? Be more like a man. Practice power poses, take up space physically, “lean in”, learn to speak up in meetings, project your voice, be more direct, assert yourself and promote your own ideas or work.

And now, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has burst onto the public stage and into our collective left-leaning hearts by fearlessly raising her voice and fighting for change. She’s seen as Wonder Woman on the left and the Wicked Witch on the right – but no matter how you look at her, she’s fierce, sassy and projects a self-confidence that is grounded in authenticity and strength. (I’m sure many white, older male politicians are a bit scared of her – and they should be)!

Ocasio-Cortez was elected as the youngest woman to serve in Congress in U.S. history (she’s 29) and she’s one of the few women of colour to be elected to the House of Representatives. She’s unapologetically progressive, revels in being from the Bronx (recently tweeting “Mr. President, you’re from Queens. You may fool the rest of the country, but I’ll call your bluff any day of the week”).  She doesn’t hide her working-class roots, and has no problem telling the world that she’s a feminist. “Ultimately, feminism is about women choosing the destiny that they want for themselves,” Cortez tweeted.

And as a feminist who also wants women to be able to choose the destiny that we want for ourselves (both reproductive and otherwise), I envision a future where women are given the freedom to assert themselves but are also valued for their complexity and strength of character. In my world, women are both heroines and antiheroes all deliciously wrapped up into wonderfully complicated human beings. Truthfully, I’m filled with self doubt one day and the next day channel the strength and confidence of Wonder Woman.

Women feel just as confident in their abilities and leadership skills as their male peers but are more hesitant to be self-promoting because they are often penalized when they do. 

The research on ‘the confidence gap’ is also nuanced. Recent studies question if the confidence gap between men and women is a myth. These authors state that women feel just as confident in their abilities and leadership skills as their male peers but are more hesitant to be self-promoting because they are often penalized when they do. Women who project self-confidence are often seen as less likeable and are penalized if they “do not temper their agency with niceness.” While men and ‘androgynous females’, aren’t perceived negatively if they promote themselves without also showing care for others.

There’s a reason that TV’s best antiheroes right now are women (think Jessica Jones, the hard-drinking lead in Sharp ObjectsKilling Eve and now, the Mother of Dragons in Game of Thrones). We all seem to be bored of the idea that ‘men can behave badly’ and are craving a different narrative: ‘women can behave badly too’.

We are all craving to see more complicated female characters – who defy gender stereotypes – represented in our stories. But projecting self-confidence and being a kind human being – caring for others – is a good thing all around and gender shouldn’t factor into that. We all need to be held accountable for our moral behaviour. And, hopefully, there will be many more strong, defiant women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who pleasurably assert themselves in the highest political and corporate offices without fear or backlash.

As Pippi Longstocking says, ‘he’s the strongest man in the world.’ ‘Man, yes,’ said Pippi, ‘but I am the strongest girl in the world, remember that.

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