The female complaint - when will it be taken seriously?

·4-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

I love a good complaint. The righteous kind, the kind where you can sit comfortably on a moral high ground, dispensing devastating nuggets of passive aggressive politesse. I relish these moments. When the occasion calls for it, I pride myself on being a supremely competent complainer.

Over the past few months, I have had ample opportunity to test this muscle. My partner and I are in the process of buying a flat and have experienced dodgy estate agents, bad freeholders, ineffectual lawyers. We have mostly settled into a good cop/bad cop dynamic. I am the one vociferously complaining, strongly pointing out when things are being done badly, and he is the passively procedural one. I initially imagined this was due to our temperaments – he is quite calm, whilst I can be somewhat fiery (though scrupulously polite – remember, I’m good at this). I soon realised that the his complaints were received seriously, but when I voiced the same issues, there was the palpable sense of being humoured and patronised by the largely male solicitors, agents and brokers. I could almost hear the eye rolling. I tried out my experiment with a failure by our sellers’ solicitors. My call was met with a sigh. My partner called about the same matter, and it was settled immediately.

It got me thinking about the act of the female complaint. Society simply does not know what to do with it. It is frequently dubbed hysterical, over emotional, unnecessary, ‘crazy.’ We are whiney, emotional, fussy, a ‘hairy-legged feminist' or an 'angry Black woman.' Women are being ‘a bit much’ if they complain, whereas the umbrage of men is noted and dealt with unquestionably. When was the last time a man was called hysterical? The word, in fact, stems from the Latin ‘hystericus’ meaning ‘of the womb.’ There’s a nice bit of ancient misogyny for you.

Female complaints have been marketed poorly for millennia often with very tragic consequences. Our pain in hospital (especially for Black women) is often ignored, our cries for gender justice are derided as moaning or whinging – our demand for fairer maternity leave, safety from sexual harassment, hell – even the vote is merely met with: Oh women, they like to complain a lot, don’t they? What is it about complaining, as a woman, that so frequently falls on deaf ears? Am I not shouting loud enough? Or do they just need to hear it from a man?

It is so clear to me that this exists within a misogynistic – intentional or otherwise- framework. I have even internalised much of it. When I pen a strongly worded email to our seller’s infuriatingly dim solicitor, I immediately worry that they will not like me. Women are socialised into being likeable, palatable, amenable almost from birth. When we step out of line, we become ‘difficult’ - society instantly admonishes us, and we feel this too. If I have failed to be likeable, does my gender hold any currency anymore? I may be prepared to stand up and justifiably complain, but I sure as hell feel guilty afterwards and I doubt any of my male friends have this instantaneous recoil.

We women know that to complain not only means stepping out of our allotted role, but that the female complaint rarely gains traction. It is too broadly discredited, seldom taken seriously and, when it is, is almost immediately relegated to a trivial moan. The response to #MeToo very swiftly slotted itself into this predictable template. Cries of "you’re taking this too far", "men can't do anything right" and "why are you ruining things" were mingled with a healthy dose of satirical lampooning of 'women who complain'. The cultural reset women have been seeking for centuries, wherein they may feel safer, respected and protected – much of which reached a zenith after the death of Sarah Everard- was almost immediately met with a barrage of #butnotallmen or #mentoo before it was even considered. Where is the listening space afforded to the female complaint? Why must it be scrutinised, mocked or institutionally ignored for so long before anyone pays it any heed?

The problem, of course, is that women, and especially women of colour or trans women, are still an ‘other’ in society. Their complaints are normally a call for society to reshape itself to include her, for practices to change, assumptions to shift, for the generic, neutral benchmark of ‘person’ to be not just male. This is why, I believe, female complaints - even my cries for a less pea-brained estate agent - are ignored. Because to take them seriously, you would have to adjust your world view, let a little of your own privilege be shared, allow us permission to exist in a way that does not currently exist.

The irony is, of course, were that to happen, we would have a lot less to complain about.

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