Why I stopped calling women "brave"
Recently my best friend returned from a month long solo trip to Vietnam to celebrate her 30th birthday. The trip followed a rather brutal break-up, and the journey seemed to give her the space she sorely needed to find peace and heal up away from her busy, bustling life in London. Upon her return she was greeted with the same statement, commented ad nauseum by friends and colleagues: You’re so brave.
Whilst telling this tale my friend added how her ex had always gone traveling alone and was never met with this same commentary, regardless of where in the world he was stamping his passport. She couldn’t understand it; What was so brave about going on holiday?
Hearing her story I was hardly surprised that people were congratulating her for doing something which felt as natural a big moment to her as starting a new job or moving house, because I’ve been merited with accolades of “bravery” for simply being myself lately, too, and chances are so have you.
Recently I’ve been called brave for a lot of things which I’ve witnessed first hand don’t qualify as being “acts of bravery” for my male counterparts too. Shaving my head? You’re so brave. Playing bass in a punk band? You’re so brave. Going for a relaxing drink in a bar on my own? You’re so brave. My boyfriend, it should be noted, is also a vocalist in the band with me, has also recently shaved his head (we look like gross, hairless twins right now) and often goes for a drink on his own yet has never been given the verbal medal of honor for his “bravery” to do any of these acts.
And why? Because they aren’t brave for a man to do; these sorts of acts are deeply ingrained in the socially accepted identity of men. Women though? Our socially accepted identity is far more complex and it still carries with it the stigma of being seen and not heard, of being beautiful and delicate and of being dependent on the validation and assistance of men. When people tell us we’re brave for doing acts like these, there’s a very troubling subtext to the statement; they’re saying “you’re brave to step outside the status quo” or “you’re brave to challenge the expectations of your gender,” and with that there’s a very implicit and unspoken suggestion that society may be eager to punish women like us for daring to exist beyond acceptable forms of “femininity”.
And I’ll be honest: though being in band, having a shaved head or drinking alone are all acts which don’t scare me in the slightest, they’re definitely all acts which have put me in a position where men have wanted me to feel vulnerable for doing them. I’ve had men shout sexually suggestive comments at me on stage, there was once a man who climbed up on stage and tried to touch me whilst I was playing. There’s been more than a few times that men have taken my solo presence in a bar as an open invitation (um, no dude. I’m kind of reading a book?).
They aren’t acts which require bravery until you consider how society may respond to them. A recent New York Times article written by Caroline Paul asked some very crucial questions concerning the way in which women are raised from an early age to be afraid of things that men are not. The article, titled “Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute To Be Scared?” reminded me that there is a very definite gender divide when it comes to fear; young boys are encouraged to be daring, messy, troublesome and adventurous whilst young girls are taught to be careful, clean, gentle and ultimately, fearful. Paul writes, “fear is expected of women”, and as such when we step outside of our ingrained fear bubbles to possess traits that men have been brought up to believe are inherent to their gender, we denounce the fear we’ve been told is part of our DNA.
And let’s be blunt about this – fear is taught, it’s not inherent. So every time we tell a woman that she’s brave for being as daring, messy, troublesome or adventurous as her male counterparts, we’re reinforcing the idea that she has something to be afraid of. It’s like putting her on a pedestal but warning her not to be pushed off of it when we should just be providing positive accolades for how she’s owning that pedestal.
Instead of telling women that their brave we instead need to tell them that they’re cool, awesome, exciting and inspiring. We also need to celebrate women beyond the distracting parameters of how male perceptions, micro-aggressions or violence may be how the world responds to their actions because there’s nothing brave about wanting to simply define ourselves on our terms or having the agency to tell our own stories, sing our own songs or simply exist without commentary. We need to start living beyond bravery and live proudly, loudly, messily and adventurously without fear.