I’m worried that by making excuses for my daughter’s behaviour I’m telling her that her feelings and fundamental personality traits are wrong, and that her feelings aren’t as important as how likeable she is to others.
This article originally appeared on Role Reboot and was republished here with full permission.
Last week, in my undergraduate creative writing class, the students and I discussed Aimee Bender’s short story “Off.” The story comes from Bender’s collection, Willful Creatures, and follows a self-possessed female narrator determined to kiss three different men at a cocktail party. Unlike the other partygoers dressed casually in pants and mostly coupled up, the narrator wears a revealing silver dress (“I feel like an on faucet in it,” she says), and sets determinedly, unabashedly about her mission.
The students hated her.
About halfway through the story, there’s a scene where the narrator has just finished kissing her second conquest in the host’s bathroom. They were interrupted by another woman who wants to use the facilities, and who waits patiently outside the door. When the narrator finally exits the bathroom, she steps on the other woman’s foot—it’s not clear if this is an accident or on purpose—and the other woman apologizes.
The narrator is instantly upset: “‘Oops, sorry,’ like all women do and I am mad at that because it was my fault so why is she apologising?”
The scene marked a turning point in our discussion. Taken together with the narrator’s financial independence and sexual assertiveness, my class began to wonder if the challenge of “likability” (an issue that largely hamstrings female authors writing about women’s experiences) had less to do with the narrator’s actions, and more to do with her co-opting of traditionally masculine traits.
The story later reveals the narrator’s buried vulnerabilities, but this moment—her anger over an apology she didn’t want from another woman—deepened our inquiry into character. Willful creature indeed, and posing the important and timely question of what the hell we’re all so sorry for.