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What is a scary woman?

And why do we assume being scary is a bad thing?

Three older women novelists: Bernardine Evaristo, Deborah Levy, Margaret Atwood

From left to right: Bernardine Evaristo, Deborah Levy, Margaret Atwood – smart-not-scary women

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Are you a scary woman? I am, apparently. Or so I’ve been told, repeatedly, over the years. The first time I was surprised, dismayed even. Lil ol’ me? Scary? But I’m nice! Approachable! And if I don’t look it, well it’s just my pesky resting bitch face! Quite why I was in quite such a rush to prove them wrong, that I was, in fact, a pussy cat, I'm not sure, but I fell over myself to do so all the same.

But when it happened again, recently, (when TBH I’ve been feeling anything but scary), I stopped to wonder what it really meant to be called “a scary woman”, and what we are actually saying when we call another woman scary. The "called" is important here because there’s quite the difference between being scary and being perceived as scary.

I do it myself, all the time, particularly when I’m preparing to interview a successful woman: New York magazine editor Tina Brown? Scary. Comedian Ruby Wax? Scary. Novelist Kit de Waal? Scary. I’ve lost count of the number of times I've overheard myself saying something along the lines of “I was expecting her to be scary.” Invariably followed by, “but she wasn’t”. As if being scary is bad and turning out not to be is a badge of honour. (I'm aware as I write this that if we're saying it at all, we should, in fact, be saying not "she's a scary woman" but "she scares me", because this whole thing – as with all things – has so much more to do with the caller than the callee.)

Scary is one of those words like strong, indomitable, formidable. Words that, taken in isolation, can be fairly neutral, but when applied to women, come with a hefty side helping of negativity. An undertow of difficult, stroppy, bossy, hard work. (See also, disobedient, not a good girl, I could go on...)

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