When a man puts himself first, without worrying about what society thinks, he’s an aspirational character. But give those same attributes to a woman, and she becomes difficult. The Difficult Woman has cropped up on screen for decades – perhaps because, with her empowerment and potential ruthless streak, she represents something that people fear. She’s historically been portrayed as a villain, or someone who needs to learn a lesson. But more recently, the way we read her is changing as we begin to question our own gendered double standards.
So where does the Difficult Woman character really come from? And, importantly, how has she evolved – and what do recent portrayals show us about the changing ways women are viewed and are viewing ourselves? Here’s our Take!
The Rise of the “Difficult Woman” on screen
In pre-Code Hollywood, women often played multi-dimensional characters – complex, fully-formed people with richly realized storylines. And these female characters were presented without comment, allowing audiences to make up their own minds. But then in the 1930s, the patriarchal Hays Code came along and began forcing women into very specific boxes – closely defined tropes that restricted their behavior, thoughts, and clothes and which they were never allowed to deviate from.
These restrictions didn’t mean the end of interesting female characters, it just led to a change in the ways in which they were allowed to exist. Whereas before a woman who spoke her mind and didn’t put up with anything was framed as aspirational, during the Code era these same traits made her difficult. She could still be hard headed or tough or a bit of a troublemaker, but now she was going to have to hear about how that was a problem for the entire movie and have to make her way back into a more acceptable box by the film’s end. Take Katharine Hepburn’s lawyer, Amanda, in Adam’s Rib, who calls out the double standard between men and women in a murder trial where she’s defending a woman who shot her cheating husband. Meanwhile, her husband, Adam (also a lawyer) can’t handle going up against her in court – he feels humiliated by her talent as a lawyer and how she criticizes the way men behave. He tells her wants his wife back. He didn’t sign up for a competitor. While Amanda is a complicated character, she’s back in her box as Adam’s wife by the end of the movie.
As incarnations of the Difficult Woman continued to evolve through the mid 20th century, she became far more objectionable, and much more of a villain – often going too far and hurting other women in the process of going after her own desires. In the 1980s we see portrayals of women like Katharine, the high powered businesswoman and villain in Working Girl. While Katharine gets away with her bad behavior at work, as the audience, we’re repeatedly shown that she’s difficult – that she’ll do anything in her power to achieve success, whether that’s professionally or personally. She’s given male characteristics, and is juxtaposed against the coquettish Tess, the hero, who manages to retain her femininity while coming up with great business ideas. As a result, Katharine’s jarring male characteristics are meant to repulse us, particularly when contrasted with Tess’s sweetness and honesty. The ending, where the evil dragon Katharine is slayed by soft Tess, is supposed to be a happy one. But the reality is that Katharine and Tess both exist in a deeply sexist environment, where successful women are perpetually pitted against one another. The movie never fully explores why it is that Katharine has had to behave this way to rise to the top. The 1980s were a decade in which women entering the corporate world in a big way led to fear that they would be leaving behind their femininity (and their “feminine duties”, like motherhood.) And so, on screen, we saw a number of cautionary tales about what befalls women who are too direct, too confident, or too successful.
But over the decades, writers also began questioning and challenging this notion that the “difficult woman” is a problem that needs to be solved or a nuisance that needs to be gotten rid of. As author Lucy Foley writes, the “pressure for women to be seen as nice, biddable, good, has seeped into our understanding of what we should be looking for in a fictional protagonist… As a writer, I want to write the stories of difficult women. From a pure entertainment-value point of view, they are the narratives with intrigue, conflict, drama, crisis—all of the interesting parts of being alive.” And as we neared the turn of the millennium, the difficult woman started to find new footing.
Embracing the Difficult Woman
There’s a modern sub-strand of the Difficult Woman who seems to grow out of the eighties ‘business bitch’ – the Girlboss. Spawning from the 2010s #girlboss era, she appears on screen and in real life – willing to do anything in the name of personal success. However, people started questioning just how empowering this idea of being ruthless and throwing everyone else under the bus to get ahead in business really was and more nuanced explorations of the type began digging into what really made these women feel the need to behave this way – instead of just framing it as an inherent evil within all women who desire any kind of success, these modern examples started to take more in-depth looks at the societal pressures that led to these women becoming “difficult” in a bid to get ahead. We also began to see more send ups of the type which didn’t knock the girlboss for being a woman succeeding in the corporate world but for the way her hypocrisies made her just as bad as the guys she was purporting to be replacing.
Though even during this era, media wasn’t always so willing to fully unpack the ‘difficult woman’. We can see an example of how ‘competent and not willing to get pushed around’ could still get re-framed as ‘difficult’ on screen with a character like Jan from The Office. She starts out as the genuinely serious foil to Michael’s buffoonery; she’s constantly trying to fight Michael’s many fires and keep the Scranton branch out of a lawsuit. And in the early seasons, she seems rational and pretty good at her job. This often makes Michael act as though Jan is difficult, whereas the audience (and most of his colleagues,) can see that she simply has the tough job of managing someone who often seems ungovernable. But as the series progresses – and Michael becomes more likable – Jan is forced into an absurd caricature of the Difficult Woman. She becomes power hungry, cruel, even predatory – and we’re encouraged to hate her. It’s a joke – but also a little frustrating to see one of the show’s most competent women reduced to a punchline.
But the 90s and 2000s also began to see the ‘difficult woman’ becoming embraced on screen. In 2013, critic Emily Nussbaum called the women of Sex and the City ‘Difficult Women’ in an article responding to Brett Martin’s book on TV antiheroes, “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad.” She proffers that, in the 90s, women saw their first anti-hero onscreen – and that it was Carrie Bradshaw. Carrie is difficult – both in the show, and to watch – maybe because, when she emerged, we were so used to women being cast in an onscreen binary of bad and difficult or sweet and kind. But Carrie can be all of those things – Nussbaum describes her as ‘anxious, obsessive, and, despite her charm, wildly self-centered’. And she makes human decisions, the kind women do make in real life, like cheating on the seemingly perfect Aidan with the infinitely harmful Mr Big. She paved the way for a new kind of female character on screen – one who could be unpleasant yet loveable.
This era saw the rise of modern Difficult Women who are, like their pre-Code counterparts, fully realized and fascinating, but also complex. Take Homeland’s Carrie Matthieson, who is brilliant yet flawed, and battling her own personal issues while dealing with (and causing) international conflicts. Or The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings, who is terrifyingly intelligent and immensely dedicated to her job – she’s willing to do whatever it takes to carry out her missions and follow the path she thinks is right. This leads to her coming across as cold and, well, difficult – but because she’s written as a full, complex human being, this doesn’t make us hate her but instead sympathize with her struggles. Like Carrie Bradshaw, these characters show us a side of womanhood that’s been neglected by Hollywood, in a way that the same aspects of masculinity haven’t been. Even young women are getting more space to be “difficult,” like Devi from Never Have I Ever. Devi is smart and hardworking, but also has a short fuse and is known to make some less than ideal decisions. But instead of punishing her for not being the perfect girl and forcing her to change and become “sweet,” like Carrie before her, she’s allowed to learn and grow while continuing to be imperfect.
Importantly as well, many recent versions of the difficult woman show that simply being complex – a well-rounded character – can lay the groundwork for accusations of being difficult. Scandal’s Olivia Pope and How to Get Away With Murder’s Annalise Keating are both prime examples of this. And it’s no accident that these characters are Black women – because, just like in real life, Black female characters are more likely to be labeled as difficult for just speaking their mind or doing their job. A recent portrayal, comedy-horror The Other Black Girl, shows us how this translates in the 2020s. Black editorial assistant Nella is singled out as being ‘difficult’ because she speaks out about the racism in a white, best selling novelist’s book. It’s an incisive look at how the ‘difficult’ label hasn’t shifted for Black women – and shows us that the idea that the label may have given way to something more positive isn’t necessarily intersectional. So even with all of the strides the “difficult woman” has made over the years, we still have a ways to go.
In her essay The Cult of the Difficult Woman, Jia Tolentino writes that, “The reframing of female difficulty as an asset rather than a liability is the result of decades and decades of feminist thought coming to bear”. We can see this in the evolution of the Difficult Women we’re given onscreen – from the early incarnations of women who’d step out of line only to be put firmly back in their patriarchy-sanctioned place to the point that we now see full casts of characters of women who are difficult in different ways banding together in shows of sisterhood. But Tolentino cautions against seeing ‘difficult’ woman characters as inherently worthy of praise or idolisation. She says, “Every woman faces backlash and criticism. Extraordinary women face a lot of it. And that criticism always exists in the context of sexism, just like everything else in a woman’s life. These three facts (create) the idea that harsh criticism of a woman is itself always sexist.” And, says Tolentino, that simply isn’t true. Just as they’re able to be compelling, complex and, yes, difficult, women have the capacity to be actually bad, too – and we shouldn’t mistake that for being difficult.
The “difficult woman” trope has evolved with culture’s perceptions of the “ideal woman” and what it means to exist outside of that box. Women deserve to exist in full on screen – with all of their many facets and complexities explored, even the less than ideal ones. And so the best way forward for the trope is to let go of the label “difficult” altogether – stepping outside of traditionally feminine behavior, questioning authority, and making mistakes don’t make you difficult, they make you human.
Hohenstein, Svenja, and Katharina Thalmann. “Difficult Women - Changing Representations of Female Characters in Contemporary Television Series.” Scribd, Scribd, www.scribd.com/document/447777713/Difficult-Women-Changing-Representations-of-Female-Characters-in-Contemporary-Television-Series. Accessed 13 Oct. 2023.
Kelly, Lisa W. “Television’s Difficult Women.” Women’s Film and Television History Network - UK/Ireland, 6 May 2020, womensfilmandtelevisionhistory.wordpress.com/2017/02/03/televisions-difficult-women/.
Lopez, Kristen. “The History of Hollywood’s Difficult Women: Features: Roger Ebert.” Features | Roger Ebert, www.rogerebert.com/features/the-history-of-hollywoods-difficult-women. Accessed 13 Oct. 2023.
Nussbaum, Emily. “The Difficult Women of ‘Sex and the City.’” The New Yorker, 22 July 2013, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/29/difficult-women.
TOLENTINO, JIA. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. Random House, 2019.