Written by Maddie Kate
Graphic by Ana Isaacs
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
My friends and I often talk about “red flags” in relationships and the unfortunate tendency we all seem to have to ignore them. I know we’re not alone. The internet is crawling with memes which indicate that this phenomenon is widespread. I’m willing to bet that some of you reading this are, as we speak, wasting your time on someone sporting obnoxiously obvious red flags. Why do we do it? Why do we prolong the inevitable by overlooking the subtle or not-so-subtle signs of a dickhead? I have a hunch.
It’s a tale as old as time: the dismissal and demonisation of the vocal woman, and how we have internalised this. Doubting our instincts, overlooking red flags, and ignoring alarm bells have all become second nature to a lot of us. When looking back over my own colourful track record, I’ve noticed a recurring ultimatum that’s emerged within my internal dialogue: call this person out and kill the vibe, or hold my tongue and remain a “chilled”, “easy-going” dreamboat. I’m not proud to say that historically, I have a preference for the latter.
There’s no doubt that the “hysterical woman” stereotype is alive and well. Sure, we’ve come a long way from being diagnosed and treated for Freud’s “feminine disease”. However, the same notion of female hysteria has become embedded in the fabric of how men and women communicate. An argumentative woman, one who questions and/or disagrees, is quickly dismissed as being incapable of objectivity or reason. By virtue of being women, our statements are often discounted as hyperbolic, our judgements clouded by emotion. To combat this, like with all issues that afront women, we have circumnavigated the root of the problem by demanding that women be the ones to accommodate. Subsequently, what I think many of us are suffering from today is an idealisation of the “chilled” woman. To be desirable, we often try to come across as totally unfazed, unproblematic, and utterly likeable. This is done to avoid the alternative, which is to be deemed pedantic, overly-politically correct, hot-headed, or just plain un-fun. This dynamic is particularly relevant in the classic, quasi-relationship zone. I’m talking about the non-relationship, albeit exclusive ‘thing’. It’s too soon to ask, “what are we?” but you’ve started to hang out in daylight hours and you’re doing “coupley” things. It’s all very fresh and fragile. This is make or break territory, and you don’t want to disturb the peace. That could be dangerous.
It’s in the realm of the quasi-relationship that our fears of being seen as crazy or “too much” tend to thrive. It’s in this zone that we are most unlikely to disagree or to assert unpopular opinions. We want to be liked. The danger of this should not be underestimated. It’s in these infant stages of a relationship that habits and expectations form. It’s when the rules of engagement are being written and when power dynamics can become entrenched. Silence will be taken as an indication that poor behaviour is permissible. Before we know it, we then find ourselves in relationships that have been built on the expectation that our values are malleable and that our preferences can be easily sidelined or left entirely unconsidered.
Calling someone out at the start of a relationship is hard because it can seem too soon to diagnose little comments and tendencies as symptoms of bigger problems. When a love interest says or does something that unsettles us, it is easy to dismiss our instincts as being overly critical or negative. The patriarchy has trained us well for this, and it is an art that is made easier by the pure excitement and fun that comes with dating. It becomes easier still when the person we’re seeing makes grand gestures. God forbid we call them out and insult their generosity! In the business of remaining “chill” and making things work, we often subdue alarm bells by inflating a person’s positive traits. Alternatively, we put things on the backburner. We tell ourselves that we can coax the best out of people over time. In my experience with men, it’s been because of this subconscious belief that I’ve found myself effectively mothering a grown man. With the clarity of hindsight, it’s concerning to reflect on the sacrifices I’ve made for the sake of not causing a scene. Whatever way you look at it, when a person becomes entrapped by the idea that being chilled is a prerequisite for being lovable, a dangerous pretense for a relationship is established.
Being described as “chill” is considered a compliment because that’s exactly what is intended to be. However, in the context of relationships, particularly of the quasi kind, idealising the “chilled” woman is a problem. This paints a picture of women that lacks nuance. It nurtures and celebrates passivity while demonising assertiveness and suppressing opportunities for healthy conflict. Our human desire to be understood and our right to control how we are represented is frustrated under this false binary: where the alternative to being “chilled” is to be crazy.
Whilst the onus does not rest on women alone, we do have an obligation to ourselves and to each other to call people out. This is not about taking on the burden of being formative or mothering people through their shortsightedness. This is about setting new norms and expectations for ourselves and women more broadly. We need to rewrite the narratives that lead women to quell their anger for fear of undermining themselves or their cause. Of course, this is easier said than done. Restoring trust between women and their instincts requires a systemic shift in thinking. We can start by establishing new relationship goals. Steering away from the fixation on being “chilled” and “easy-going,” we need to idealise relationships in which difference is welcomed, being challenged is expected, and where there is mutual respect for each other’s values. To abandon the idealisation of the “chilled” woman would be for pleasurable for everyone. It would allow for upfront and honest communication, something that the dating world can often feel deficient in. Feeling the need to censor yourself should be upheld as the ultimate red flag. Fierce loyalty to our instincts should be regarded as a form of feminist resistance. We need to remind ourselves and the women around us that our instincts are there to be acted on. We must consciously fight the urge to dilute our impact in the interest of protecting the fragile egos of our partners. Being dismissed as ‘“crazy”, “dramatic”, or “too much” is, for starters, an indication that we’re wasting our time. What’s more, it is a small price to pay. One that is vastly outweighed by the price of silence.