A few years ago, I called my daughter an asshole.
We were driving, and we were arguing — I can’t even remember about what. Probably about what music to play in the car; she has strong feelings about playlists, feelings that often run counter to my own. Whatever it was, she was being especially pissy about it and the discussion had escalated, and so I asked her to please, please dial it back a notch.
She was not interested in dialing it back a notch.
“MOMMY,” she said (and yes, she was using all caps), “I AM JUST SPEAKING MY MIND. LIKE YOU TELL ME TO.”
That was a smart play. I had taught her to speak her mind; she knew that I would concede this. Which I did: “that’s true,” I said, “but” — and here, I was obviously not paying close enough attention to my words — “there is a very big difference between speaking your mind and being an asshole.”
If there was ever a moment for a record scratch, this was it. Everyone in the car went silent.
Emilia spoke first. Again, in all caps.
Long, ominous pause.
“MOMMY. YOU JUST CALLED ME AN ASSHOLE.”
Which, I had, I guess? Still, I protested. I babbled something parent-y about the difference between making a contrast or maybe a comparison and in any case NOTHING TO SEE HERE, I DID NOT CALL YOU AN ASSHOLE, IT JUST SOUNDED THAT WAY, PLEASE FORGET I SAID IT.
She was not having it.
“NO, Mommy. You called me an asshole.”
We drove the rest of the way in silence. When we got home, she marched in the door, grabbed a Sharpie off the counter and went straight into the bathroom. A few minutes later, she emerged.
She had written, in the thick black Sharpie, the word ASSHOLE across her forehead — backwards, because she’d written it looking in the mirror, which gave it a special give-no-fucks flare. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “OKAY FINE, MOMMY. I’M AN ASSHOLE.”
If you’re guessing that a long, awkward silence followed, you are completely correct. It was not one of my prouder moments — or at least, it seemed to not be at the time.
The thing of it was, she was right. I had been raising her to speak her mind and to disagree and to stand up for herself, and as it happens, these are things that lead women and girls to get called all sorts of names that are akin to ASSHOLE. “Difficult.” “Bossy.” “Angry.” “Abrasive.” “Ambitious.” And I’d just reinforced the reality of that in my reaction to her: yes, speak your mind, but only in ways that don’t conflict with being a nice girl. There’s a difference, after all.
And therein resides the challenge.
Of course I want her to be fierce and outspoken and determined and bloody-minded and contrary. But I don’t want her to be an asshole, right?
Or do I?
I’ve told this story more than a few times now, sometimes on stages, sometimes in conference rooms, most recently in an abandoned mining town in Northern California to an audience of fiercely angry, brilliantly abrasive, wonderfully ambitious women. I’ve never written it down, until now, possibly because I’ve never wanted a written record of this act of what I think is truly bad parenting — which is part of what I want to unpack here. Why does this story still make me uncomfortable, even when I get so passionate about sharing it? Why have I sometimes smoothed the rough edges of the story, put a bright slick focus on the Lesson That I Learned? Most times that I’ve told this story, I’ve called it “How To Raise a Rebel.” I’ve made a very emphatic point about not wanting her to be, you know, an actual asshole. At this point in the story, I usually say something to the effect of, “look, of course, I don’t want her to be an ASSHOLE-asshole, but I do want to her to be all of those other things. I don’t want her to be an asshole, but I do want her to be rebellious. Outspoken. Bloody-minded. Contrary.”
I kinda hate that I’ve been doing that.
Because the thing is, I no longer think that there is — at least, in our culture and under the terms of our social norms for girls and women — any substantive difference between being those more socially-approved types of girl-powerful and being an asshole. Or rather, being thought of as an asshole, or being labelled as an asshole — or other ‘a’ words, like abrasive, or angry, or ambitious. To put it another way: I think that it is absolutely crucial to our survival in this world that we recognize that there is almost no difference between being powerful, as women and girls, and being called or thought of as whatever the female variant is of an asshole.
I mean, we just saw it happen on the political stage — again. Elizabeth Warren — probably the nicest human being on any of the debate stages, even when she was tearing Bloomberg another orifice — was called a snake, for god’s sake. She was called abrasive and ambitious, and it was super clear that those were not compliments. She was blamed for Sanders’ poor showings, because how dare she assert her right to compete? She was — like Hillary, and like many other women — deemed unlikeable, and unelectable.
But if Elizabeth Warren is an asshole, that is exactly what I want my daughter to be.
(And here I feel like I need to hedge, because of course I do; the social pressure is too much and I, too, am a girl.) I want to be very, very clear that wanting her to be an asshole is not equivalent to wanting her to be mean or thoughtless. Asshole may be entirely the wrong word — I’m using because it’s the word that came to me in that difficult moment, because it’s the word that my daughter claimed. I’m using it because it makes us — because it makes me — uncomfortable, and I think that that discomfort is important.
I think that we need to get comfortable with that discomfort. Because we need to be able to stand in that discomfort if we’re going to make space for girls — and for ourselves — to be uncomfortably determined, uncomfortably outspoken, uncomfortably difficult. If we’re going to own and exercise our power enough to change the world.
Because girls — and women — absolutely need to be willing to make others uncomfortable if they/we are going to have an impact in this world. If we’re going to stand any chance of changing it.
They need to be willing to write asshole on their foreheads backward and defy the powers-that-be to scrub it off. They need to be defiant, because they’re growing up in a system that is stacked against them. We need to be clear about this: it is stacked against them. It is stacked against us. Beyonce told us that girls run the world, but we don’t. We’d be paying ourselves better and installing female presidents if we did.
And we’re lying when we pretend otherwise, but lie we do. I’ve lied to myself a ton. And ultimately that’s where I got to when I started asking myself hard questions about what kind of powerful I wanted my daughter to be — the myths about female power, and how they influence us.
The Myth of the Even Playing Field
We tell girls that there are reliable pathways to their success. We tell them that if they follow the rules and do well and get good grades and play fair, they will have an equal chance at success as boys. Stay confident, work hard, do your best, we say, and you’ll succeed. Anything boys can accomplish, you can too.
But this isn’t true. We all know this. It’s right there in front of us. It’s there in the wage gap, the investment gap, the leadership gap, the opportunity gap, and all the gaps between what girls and women dream they can do and what they actually can achieve, given our fucked-up system. Those gaps are wide and they are deep (dramatically more so for girls and women of color) and they are real. The data on this is relentless; you’ve seen most of it cited a million times.
Women represent less than 6% of CEOs in the United States, we receive less than 3% of venture capital (women of color receive less than 1%), we earn only 79 cents to a man’s dollar (women of color earn only 61 cents). Globally, the gender wage gap isn’t expected to close for — wait for it — over 200 years. And all the research on the topic tells us that these gender gaps are systemic — they’re not aberrations or bugs in an otherwise functioning system, they’re features of that system. They persist due to pervasively gender-hostile work environments, negative stereotypes about women in leadership, and unconscious gender bias.
So when we suggest to girls that if they’re good enough and they work hard enough, they can do whatever they want, we’re lying. Because for most girls, being good — even being the best — simply isn’t enough. Ask Elizabeth Warren.
The Myth of the Nice Girl
The second myth is the myth of the nice girl — the culturally imposed ideal of femininity that emphasizes being nice, polite, cooperative and selfless. This isn’t exactly the sugar-and-spice niceness of old — we no longer expect girls to be meek and passive. But we do still expect girls to be polite, responsible and cooperative. (There are tons of great books on this: see Rachel Simmon’s The Curse of the Good Girl, for example, and Lyn Mikel Brown’s Girlfighting, which breaks down the toxic effects of the pressure to be nice.)
But mandating good behavior for girls is like slapping on a pair of ambition handcuffs. When we tell girls to be polite, we’re discouraging them from speaking their minds. When we impose on them the pressure to please, their authentic selves get shut down. It stops them from standing up for themselves. It inhibits their willingness to take risks and invite failure. It encourages them to value social approval over accomplishment.
When we say, be powerful, but only in ways that are neatly packaged within a framework of niceness, we are setting absurd limits on their power. Because it actually doesn’t fucking matter. They can be the nicest person in the room, but if they are also the smartest and the most determined and everyone else in the room is a guy (especially an old white one), they’re set up to lose.
The Myth of Likability
The third, closely related myth is the myth of likability. Girls are taught implicitly — and explicitly — to value cooperation over competition, and to value likability over accomplishment. Boys, however, learn early and often that competition and winning aren’t at odds with having friends, and that they don’t have to be likable to be succeed.
Think about our male cultural heroes. We celebrate anti-heroes like Iron Man and Deadpool and Batman. We admire Elon Musk and every white male unicorn founder in Silicon Valley, even if we don’t like them. Bernie Sanders’ rumpled un-likability is a big part of his appeal to his followers. He doesn’t give a fuck! Isn’t that awesome? Not liking these guys is, in fact, the point. We not only don’t care if they’re nice, we kind of prefer it if they aren’t — we love a good anti-hero, whether he’s on the screen or on the cover of Fortune magazine. Geniuses aren’t kind to babies and small animals and they don’t bake cookies. We never, ever say of a successful man that we wish that he smiled more.
In that way, we give boys (and men) cultural permission to be difficult and disagreeable— and suggest to them that if they’re smart, talented and ambitious enough (or sometimes, just ambitious), it can be an advantages to be an asshole. The world loves rakes, rebels and bad boys. Because, we think, it’s the rebels and the bad boys that produce greatness by being contrary and disruptive; it’s the asshole geniuses that build the companies and the institutions and the movements that shape our world (we’re actually wrong about this, but that’s another topic for another time). Rebel asshole geniuses don’t spend their time making nice and following rules. And they don’t give a damn what you think of them.
I want my daughter to not give a damn what people think of her. Not because there’s power in being an asshole for asshole’s sake, but because the core characteristic of being a true rebel is denying the standard definitions of power. She should get to decide what her power looks like. She should get to wield it in the manner that best serves her, and the world.
I don’t want her to choose being likable over following her dreams. I don’t want her to just break the glass ceiling — I want her to break new ground. I don’t want her to try to join the boys’ club — I want her to start her own. I want her to fuck shit up, in the best and most purposeful way.
And that requires giving her space and permission and opportunity to at least risk being an asshole.
The problem is, that’s really hard — I’m her super supportive, super feminist mom, and I called her an asshole. I should fucking know better. So this is hard work — but I do it. I try.
I’m working hard to stick by these rules — and to live by these rules, for myself:
- To always remember that the game is stacked against her, and that it’s a hard game to break into, let alone change — and she needs me to be honest about that and to support her in taking that on. Because she can change it, but only by saying fuck the rules. I have to make it not only okay, but fully choice-worthy to do that.
- To that end, I need to give her permission, space and opportunity to NOT be a ‘nice girl.’ I need to actively encourage her to speak her mind and to challenge ideas, even — perhaps especially — when it makes me uncomfortable. And I need to be in constant conversation with myself about that discomfort. I need to challenge myself on that shit first.
- To always remind her — and every girl, woman, boy, human — that you can be a good person, a good human with a good heart, and still be tough and ambitious and determined and yes, disagreeable. Unicorns (the delightful magical kind, not the Silicon Valley kind) have horns, after all. The sharpest, pointiest part of unicorns is a big part of what makes them amazing. Without that stabby bit, they’re just a horse.
(Maybe that’s our alternative language — it’s not being an asshole, it’s being a sharp, stabby unicorn. Maybe one day, that will be our language. For now, I think, we still need to grapple with the reality of what it means for girls and women to be assholes, without dusting it in glitter and magic, as tempting as that is.)
So, Rule Number 4: to never forget that for anyone who has not had the freedom or opportunity to be the kind of asshole that I’ve described here, refusing to be afraid or ashamed of their asshole powers is itself powerful. Wildly powerful.
Imagine if we found our way to celebrating the underdog asshole, the asshole who uses her powers for good, the asshole with heart?
Imagine if more girls — if more kids, more women, more humans, more of any of us who have believed that they can’t or shouldn’t operate at full power, because it might be somehow shameful or unpleasant — what if we all, starting now, decided to just go for it? Started really, truly embracing ambition and risk-taking and disruption and disagreeability, in service of a better world? What if we decided to be assholes with heart?
What if we all took a page from Elizabeth Warren’s (and Kamala Harris’s and Stacey Abram’s and others’) book and decided to be fierce and tough and unapologetic and also really, actually, demonstrably good, all at once? What if more of us even just decided to support those who do.
What a wobble of the earth that would be.