Type the word difficult into Google and you’ll find three definitions.

  1. “Needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand” (She had a difficult decision to make).
  2. “Characterized by or causing hardship or problems” (A difficult economic climate)
  3. “(of a person) not easy to please or satisfy.” (Lily could be difficult.)

Lily could be difficult. It’s there in the dictionary — well, the Google dictionary, but I’m willing to accept it, as whoever comes up with the definitions there has pretty much written this blog for me.

Lily, because she’s not easy to please or satisfy, is difficult. Google is not saying Lily is impossible to please. Just that she’s not easy to please. You might have to make a little effort with Lily because, possibly, she has standards and maybe expectations. She’s not necessarily all about going along to get along. She might go along on occasion, even most of the time, but sometimes she’s not giving an inch. Sometimes, it’s the principle of the thing. Sometimes, everyone else has to figure out how to get along with her. Which makes her difficult.

We live in a time and place where most people believe that women are entitled to their opinions, but not to actually stick to them after a certain point. When our opinions don’t affect anyone else we’re welcome to opinion-away. (“I love Kate Spade!” is fine and welcome. “We need to move up the deadline, today!” not so much.) When there’s a difference of opinion, and someone’s got to give up a little ground, women are expected to be the ones to say, fairly early in the discussion, “I see your point.” and move slightly off of their own position in the interest of harmony. Or risk being thought difficult.

I just read a book called Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin, about the rise of the charismatic antihero during the so-called Golden Age of television. I was drawn to the title because difficult is rarely an adjective used to describe men, in part because behavior that would get a woman labeled difficult faster than you can say, “Sorry, but I disagree,”* is considered standard issue male behavior. It seems that in the fictional worlds of prestige cable series, a guy has to be a pretty vigorous sociopath to earn the same moniker we ladies can earn for arguing with the customer service.

The most difficult man in the pantheon was Breaking Bad’s chemistry teacher turned drug king pin, Walter White (played to perfection by Bryan Cranston who I have on good authority is a sweetheart, the very opposite of difficult). Walter is a controlling, sadistic, murderous meth manufacturer who routinely lies to the beloved family whose existence has given him the excuse he needs to be a monster. Walter is the show’s built-in binge-watching protector — completely he’s insufferable after two episodes — evil, but also wheedling, whiney, and mansplainy.

Still, during the height of the show’s popularity it was his wife, Skylar, played by Anna Gunn, who was considered so difficult websites and Facebook pages sprang up devoted to hating her. She was called “an annoying bitch,” and “a shrieking hypocritical harpy” simply for calling Walt on his lies and standing her ground. Somewhere along the road haters transferred their loathing of Skylar White onto Anna Gunn (really, the world has gone mad) and she started receiving death threats, prompting her in a very conciliatory and not-difficult way to write an Op-Ed in the New York Times (“I Have a Character Issue, August 23, 2013).

When I began thinking about this question of what it actually means to be female and difficult in real life, I queried my Facebook friends.
I posted, “As I research my new book on difficult women, I’m discovering that pretty much any woman who doesn’t go with whatever program there is to go with is often labeled difficult If she fails to comply with expectations from her family, husband, boss and society she’d “difficult” — help a sister out here, in what specific ways women considered difficult? Are YOU considered difficult?”

Hundreds of responses came rolling in. Passionate women who knew what I was getting it. Many confirmed what I suspected — that voicing and sticking with an opinion earned them the label difficult. One friend said that insisting on her own needs got her labeled difficult. Another said that questioning the status quo got her slapped with the label. Also, women who insisted on best practices regarding their own work were really difficult.

Filmmaker Beth Harrington said that when she asked for a tech check of her film before a film festival screening she was considered to be a pain in the ass, and was told by programmers she should consider herself lucky just to be there.

So, to sum up:

Difficult Men: lying, murdering sadistic sociopaths.

Difficult women: Excuse me, I asked for this medium rare?



*Did you see what I did there? “Sorry, but I disagree.” I can’t be the only woman who tries to soft-pedal a differing opinion with sorry. As if I’ve done something wrong and need to apologize!

Photo: Andre Kertesz


Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Daisy says:

    So sadly well put.

    It is hard to truly understand office norms, or cultural norms. To be told to be real, or assertive, act on your intention- only to be rebuffed for making a sensible statement.

    Often being labeled ‘difficult’ is a PC replacement for the real feeling, ‘I don’t like her’ ‘she’s a bitch’ ‘I cant stand her voice, the way she looks, walks, etc’ ‘why doesn’t she know her place’.

    Tragically, the label can really sting personally, professionally, and it is soooooo easy to throw out there, to the gossip ring, fertile ground for the label to be fed and grow out of control.

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