On Being an Unlikeable Woman Artist, Also a Feminist

It is easy, as a woman, to be unlikeable. Speak clearly, straightforwardly, with conviction. Have convictions. Do not smile when there are eyes on you. Do not make a joke of yourself. Do not cut yourself down in front of others. Take yourself seriously. Be smarter than you are pleasant. Do not deny that you are smart, possibly even smarter than someone else, particularly a man. Do not mutilate yourself to make other people comfortable despite the nightmare creature that is your intelligence. Stop adding smiley-faces, triple exclamation points, and little hearts to your emails. Be shitty at small talk, impatient with bullshit. Don’t ask about the kids. Don’t bother with the kids at all. Don’t compliment other women on their outfits, or nails, or hairstyles, or new shoes. Dress poorly. Assume it is entirely possible that you are right, much of the time, in what you believe, because you’ve worked hard to learn what you know. Be reckless and imperfect and ready to try and fail, even if failure is not a Good Look, when perfection is the bar set for women. Do not flirt. Don’t be coy. Get angry. Openly oppose someone, particularly a man. Explain to him why he’s being stupid or cruel.

Congratulations! You are an unlikeable woman.

Since anything you do, as a woman – if it is not smiling, submitting your body to the gaze, cooking wholesome meals for the whole beloved fucking family, or rocking a small baby//kitten//boyfriend to warm cozy somnolence against your milky bosom – will be held against you as a threatening and highly suspect undertaking, you are already at a disadvantage, with regards to likeability, if you are a woman artist, in other words a woman so unladylike as to actively attempt to do something, in this case: create art. If your aim is to remain likeable whilst being a woman artist, you’d best be prepared to spend a solid chunk of your time apologizing for yourself. A steady stream of apologies may be sufficient to console those confused by your being a woman, doing a thing. Apologies can be distributed in a variety of forms: giggling, nervous smiles, the deferential body language of shrinking oneself to occupy as microscopic a space as possible, cheerfulness, exceptional personal grooming (see: Beauty), self-denigration, and/or actual verbal apologies. Verbal apology is a timeless way to apologize for being a woman, doing a thing, because there is no limit to the things you can apologize for. The possibilities are endless. Whenever you do something, just to be safe, say you’re sorry for doing it. Be sure to articulate your self-doubt, conceal any confidence you might have in yourself or your artwork; if you’re going to talk about your work, adopt a diffident tone. Apologize, after you’ve spoken, for taking up the listener’s time. You can also mitigate the discomfort induced by this predicament of your being a woman, doing a thing (art), by carefully aligning your artistic persona and/or work with that which, unlike doing a thing, is accepted as womanly. Dress up in stylish ensembles when you attend art events. Take a picture of yourself in a bra and put it on the Internet alongside some of your art. This will make it easier to swallow; people will like you more, I guarantee it. Deal in feelings, not ideas. Appeal to the predatory voyeurism of your audience, who desire to consume you, exposed, as a woman, by peppering your work with details about your personal history, particularly your sex life. People, particularly men, will be interested, riled though they may be by the notion of a woman artist. Create work that is Pleasant, Pretty, Whimsical, Cute, or Titillating. Make reference to men’s work, to display due reverence for your fathers and intimate you know a thing or two about Real Art, meaning: men’s art. Follow these basic guidelines and there is some hope you’ll manage to be both a woman artist and likeable.

If you are a woman, and an artist, and a feminist, you have close to zero chance of being likeable. As a feminist, you stand with women, immovably, and you stand against that which harms women. Since taking a stand of any kind erects an obstacle on the road to likeability, as a feminist you’ve made a terrible error before we’ve even gotten to the crux of the issue: your allegiance to women, who are not men. As a woman, it is your social role, your duty, to serve men. Choosing to serve women, or yourself as a woman, above men is patently unlikeable. Worse, if you’re against that which harms women, you will often find yourself posed against men, as it is men who are responsible for much of the harm done to women all over the world. Saying that this is so – that men harm women – is likely to make the majority of men uncomfortable, as well as many women more likeable than yourself, who through their likeability have won (at least temporarily) men’s material//psychological support, who are, as a consequence, unwilling to lose the support on which they’ve come to depend, and thus have a stake in men’s comfort. You can try clinging to some modicum of likeability by being beautiful or coquettish or droll, appealing to voyeurism by operating in the confessional mode or playing along nicely with your woman’s role as the heart, not the mind, of the body politic by emphasizing your feelings over your feminist analysis, but in spite of your best efforts your chances of being liked are slim. You will be hamstringed by your inability to fall back on the definitive likeability trick: apologizing for oneself, for existing, as a woman. Because being a feminist is being a woman, existing, doing a thing, for other women, in opposition to those who hurt women, unapologetically. If you have any authentic investment in feminism, you know you cannot apologize for yourself as a feminist, or as a woman; to do so is counter-feminist. If your goal as a feminist woman artist is to be likeable, you are shit out of luck.

It is the easiest thing in the world to be unlikeable, as a woman artist, also a feminist. But if you are an unlikeable woman and a feminist, it is exceedingly difficult to exist, as an artist. The Arts as a social arena is as any other, wherein success is contingent upon one’s willingness//capacity to mix-n-mingle and sell oneself. The expectations for women are also as undermining of personal dignity in The Arts as they are anywhere else: likeability is critical. Mixing-n-mingling, as a woman, is comprised of a carefully cultivated amalgam of flirtation, performative eroticism, bland niceness, unquestioning reverence for established Great Male Artists, and explicit or implicit apologies for one’s own existence. As a feminist, this is not unlike letting a rat idle on your wrist chewing unhurriedly through your skin and then your veins until there is blood everywhere and eventually you’ll die, you feel it coming, you’re dying. Sadly, however, if you do not consent to mix-n-mingle as per conventions, no one will like you, no one will champion your art, and eventually you’ll die; you’ll be alone, no one having ever seen your work, which may or may not be less mediocre than other work made by people better at mixing-n-mingling than you were, prior to your death of aloneness. This will suck. But it would not suck less to mind your P’s & Q’s, feeling the scrape of your principles as they were chafed away to grit. If instead of smiling and being the Girl They’ll Like, as a woman, you hiss, cease sucking up to the boys//men, stop curtsying before the Fine Arts Phallus, rip up the picture of your bra you’d been passing out as a business card and present instead a considered analysis of the garbage nature of the party, focusing on the barely concealed sexism and the fact that any number of the wealthy white men all these nicely dressed, sophisticated people are there to celebrate are known rapists, then leave, you will not have a career. Men still own the resources you need to put your work into the world and they will not grant you access if you do not toe the likeability line. They will not offer you gallery space, they will not write about your show, they will not publish your poetry. As a woman artist, your choices are: be good to men, in word and deed, or accept invisibility. Either way you’re fucked, but at least in choosing the latter what’s fucking you will be your own integrity, not some smug creep whose art is shittier than yours. If you think you’ll be able to turn to women for sanctuary and support, be warned: women as well as men will recoil from your unlikeable person. They won’t want to be seen with you, because you are poison; the men don’t like you and the women realize they need the men. Having accepted mildness and people-pleasing as virtue, they too will try to coerce you into becoming a Nice Lady.

As an unlikeable woman artist, also a feminist, a male publisher will solicit your work, you’ll send it to him; in return, he will begin writing you emails bragging about going down on menstruating women and asking about your breakfast preferences. You will regret having sent your work to him, letting him feature it in his publication—you are now associated with this man. You will promise yourself to be more careful next time about trusting a man’s intentions. You will worry every time you consider submitting work to a man that he will use the power he has to publish or not publish your work to entrap you in some vomitous sexualized interaction. You will stop sending work to men. You cannot have a career without them.

As an unlikeable woman artist, also a feminist, you will challenge a male’s patriarchal assumptions, this person will be unable to withstand sharing space with you any longer, and women you’ve stood beside will not stand by you, because you were being “aggressive” and not-very-nice to challenge the male, to make him uncomfortable with the inappropriate force of your selfhood. If you were a proper woman, you wouldn’t think so goddamned hard, or have the audacity to put words to your thoughts, and utter them. Whatever support you’d scrounged up for your work will be rescinded. You will be chastened, reminded to prioritize the feelings of others, ostracized. You will not be able to continue with your work.

Striving to place what you make somewhere someone can see it, you will encounter men who reduce you to an art-flavored fuckable nothing and women who shut you out for the meanness implied in your resistance to being one more congenial female, or fuckable nothing. Haven’t you learned you’re supposed to beg? You don’t know your place, so there is no place for you. It will be exhausting, as a woman artist, to continue, predicting rejection, anticipating the penalties it is inevitable your noncompliance will invite. Social deaths. Locked doors. You will extract no satisfaction from being hated. It is painful to be disliked. It is a more fatal injury by far to be liked, as a woman, as an artist, as a feminist, for betraying oneself, for giving in.

If I am being honest: there is a powerful impulse writhing within my chest to apologize for everything I have written. But I am not actually sorry. I just want you to like me. Fuck it.