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I was called aggressive the other day. It felt like a punch in my stomach. I did try to let it go. I really did. But couldn’t stop myself from ruminating over it, again and again. I talked with a girlfriend. “That’s bullshit,” she said. “Its sexist. Someone also called me pushy. Just recently. It makes you feel less of a woman.”

Indeed. It totally does. And what I try to scrutinize here is not so much the gendered label of “aggressiveness” per se but rather the differential thinking prompting to the application of such label, in terms of constructing a sexed and gendered self.

Tabloid magazines have for long argued that pejorative descriptions of women as aggressive and bossy, contrasting those of men as assertive, strong and decisive, are to a certain extent, gendered. Nevertheless, I do not abide by such binary clichés when striking back against the term.

Seeing gender dichotomies only a posteriori, in their effect and not in their generative, proliferated and reproductive principles, re-regulates women as (sexed) objects, not only by emasculating them (i. e. women should also be aggressive, assertive, etc. just like men) but also by legitimizing such emasculation as the only way to exit a sexed subalterness: solely by transcending the feminine particularity towards the male universality (i.e. women’s aggressiveness should be similarly accepted the way male aggressiveness is), by reinforcing a dominant-subaltern difference (i.e. men as the dominant can just be “aggressive”), by playing out penis envy clichés (i.e. aggressiveness as a phallus characteristic) while doing nothing in terms of dismantling the generative gendered logic that created such difference to begin with.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines aggressiveness as the readiness or likelihood to attack, confront or behave in a determined and forceful way. The word originates from the Latin aggredi. The French definition is more detailed: “naturellement porté à attaquer ; provocateur: Qui attire l’attention, choque par sa violence, par son caractère excessif.” In sum, the natural inclination to be forceful. Sort of like the opposite of what we consider women to (naturally) be. A ready-made gendered discourse.

When someone acts in a non-natural way than she is supposed to perform and act — that is by saying and thinking something that the other does not anticipate, expect or desire — it could be seen as forceful, determinate and aggressive.

I am not defending the claim that women should act in “manly” ways (whatever these manly characteristics are perceived to be) just to get legitimacy for what they want to say. Rather I am questioning why women are thought to be aggressive when they freely say and do what they want to say and do.

Why the need to strip down women of their womanhood only for refusing to react in a (naturally?) prescribed, desired and anticipated manner — and for saying things as they think them. But of course, the acceptance of such an act in itself — the act of saying what one wants to say — will consequentially decentre to a certain extent the subjectivity of the one having to do the acceptance.

I mean, yes, when someone says something we do not want to hear, we are partaking in some sort of violent experience — the something that is being said might not be aggressive per se but the experience of being subjugated to hearing what one does not want to hear is to a certain extent forceful and aggressive. It is not too difficult to understand how the label of aggressiveness gets shifted, moved and displaced from the violent experience proper, to the person who triggered the violent experience.

Consequentially, such “displaced’ thinking usurps women agency and positions them as less of a subject. It is a sexed logic that grounds the term “aggressiveness’. Because we take for granted men’s agency of saying what they want to say, without questioning it, yet we comparatively label as inadequate women’s agency to do the very same thing.

Gabriel García Márquez talked of machismo (i.e. sexism) as the usurpation of other people’s rights. That is the right to say, speak or share and say the truth as one sees it or imagines it. If aggressiveness is used to shut up a subject, it does triggers an obliteration of one’s subjectivity. Surely after I was called aggressive I felt guilty and just stopped communicating my point.

Luce Irigaray said that women “find it difficult to speak and to be heard as women.” Having agency as a subject to say what one thinks should not “make” a woman aggressive nor strip her of her female identity. And as Irigaray would say, a woman subject should self-define herself as a woman (a moi-elle) and women subjects should self-define by their own selves as women (a nous et avec nous elles).

I do not believe that what I am saying here is that new at all. Many have said it before. However, it is important to say it, as part of a speaking, writing and hearing process (as a woman). Part of using language as liberative. Part of an affirmatory process of subjectivity, of having and attributing subjectivity to oneself.

Or as Pierre Bourdieu would say, part of the act of standing up to words, of saying only one wants to say and of speaking instead of being spoken to. Saying what one wants to say not because some projected penis envy, nor because some aspiration to the phallocratic level of manhood, or some fake equality to the phallus (i.e. since the sexes’ naturalization can hardly be achieved), but because one is also subject. With own thoughts, emotions and reactions.

I am not aggressive. And not because men are not called aggressive when they say what they want to say but rather because I refuse this gendered comparison to define what should my thinking and saying be catalogued as. My thinking does not come from a comparative compromise to maleness. It comes from my own head. The head that situates itself above my shoulders and the head that I will like to keep straight. And I believe it is the absence of comparison, the lack of comparison with maleness that will allow women to say what they think and want as themselves and by themselves, as women. 

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Raluca Bejan

Raluca Bejan is an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. She has a PhD and a MSW from the University of Toronto, and a BA in political sciences from Lucian Blaga...