“Don’t get emotional.”
“Why are you so hysterical?”
If you’re a woman who goes to school, work, or engages in any kind of public activity, you’ve probably heard something like this before. You’re talking, innocently expressing your opinion when the assertive male voice interrupts you with the age-old question…
“Why are you so hysterical?”
You pause, look at him in disgust while attempting to maintain a slight level of professionalism and ponder the blatant sexism of why are you, a woman, so hysterical!
And suddenly you don’t know what to do as you struggle to find the words to react to such a confidence shattering moment.
It’s an old cliché that shouldn’t hurt you anymore, but it does. You lie awake at night, with your mind going over all the times you’ve spoken up, complained, or argued.
Sadly, I’ve let it bother me countless times and I have too many friends who have too. Even the most capable, seemingly confident women have been burdened by this humiliating comment and its evil twin… “emotional.”
You start to wonder if that’s what people think about you, if you’re really the shrill, hysterical woman that no one takes seriously. Are you being unprofessional just by expressing your feelings? Will sacrificing your emotional comfort and wellbeing win you respect, perhaps even street cred with the guys? And is it even worth it?
For some women, maybe it is. But the issue isn’t with how women behave; it’s how men judge us. If we talk about feelings, we’re discredited as soft, sentimental.
If we hide them, we’re strict, harsh, unapproachable. How can we win if every single one of our emotions is judged?
I have a close friend who works in a lab. She hides her emotions behind a blank face, trying to seem professional because in the past, her friendliness was seen as an invitation to either criticism or flirtation.
The men who work alongside her often tell her to lighten up. They treat her decently, sure enough. But when they go for drinks or parties after work, they don’t invite her.
It’s a game you can’t win, and unfair one at that! Men can be both sentimental and emotionless, and they’re treated with respect, while women must walk the thin line of professionalism, treading lightly amidst the minefield of double standards.
You can become a martyr for men’s expectations, play a role that’s not even you in hopes that they’ll respect you for not being “like most women”. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll appreciate… or even notice. Even worse, when you stay quiet, people start to walk all over you.
Are we hysterical? I don’t know. Maybe.
Maybe it’s just because modern women live under a pressure that men can’t even begin to imagine, the pressure to be everything—pretty but not promiscuous, sexy but not too provocative, professional but not too harsh, compassionate but not too soft, maternal but not too giving. We’re left constantly struggling to find the perfect balance, and expected to ignore the fact that men are never expected to do the same.
It’s a struggle to know that I am constantly doing my best, and that my best is somehow never enough. But I also try to see that there’s something missing in the simplistic assumption that nothing will ever change, when in fact it can.
When men look at women like you or me and tell us to calm down and stop being hysterical, maybe they’re not seeing the full picture. They see a weak woman and her fragile nerves, not a woman who’s trying her best to excel in all the different ways that society expects her to.
They don’t understand how discouraging it can be when you’re constantly chasing expectations you can’t live up to—and even then, being discredited because you’re brave enough to tell people how you feel or what you think.
I used to worry about being the hysterical woman. I went to high school alongside a group of cocky guys, guys who never doubted themselves, who side-eyed me when I walked into the room trying to feel any confidence in what I was about to say.
I wanted to be the cool girl that guys liked and respected, the one who was capable and compassionate. In other words, a perfect person.
But I’m not perfect. None of us are.
We can’t change society in one fell swoop. But we can change how we act and react when faced with disbelief and skepticism, and we can do our part to educate those around us.
So the next time a man turns to you and tells you to stop being hysterical, don’t question yourself. Question him, and why he’s so easily discomforted and emasculated by the slightest display of dissatisfaction, outrage, disagreement.
That’s what I do now, when I’m feeling brave. Oftentimes they get defensive. But sometimes, it seems like a realization dawns upon them. Like they’ve never seen things from that point of view before.
My “stone-faced” friend eventually broke out of her shell. She spoke up about the differing treatment of women in her lab, of how they judged her for both friendliness and trying to maintain a professional demeanor.
Surprisingly enough, the men seemed to come around to her point of view. They never really apologized officially. But now when they go out, they invite her too. I guess they’ve realized that just because a woman has emotions doesn’t mean she’s hysterical.
Sometimes it even takes a while for women to accept that too. But when we do, our work and personal life become so much better for it.
So don’t be afraid. Step up, speak out. At best, you’ll be able to make a difference; at worst, you’ll know that you can no longer be discounted or discredited just for expressing yourself.
And after all, what more can a modern woman ask for?
Want to vent? You should write for us! Tell us what’s on your mind here.