Difficult women and the good little girl syndrome

Olivia Fitzsimons on the struggle to be oneself, a challenge her female characters share

The first time I was called difficult I was young. A teenager. It was around this time of year – spring – the gush of everything stretching. Everything stretching outwards, upwards, evenings tinged with pinking sunsets, the feeling of warmth, tendril-seeped from the ground up into pastel yellow primroses splayed on the edges of busy hedgerows, and teenagers, our bodies stretching up and out too, gangly limbs barely in control of themselves, mouths and minds to match.

There can’t have been any important exams that year because no one seemed to mind when we came home late, or later than we should, dropped off in boy racer cars belonging to someone’s older brother.

I didn’t think of myself as difficult. I thought Maggie Thatcher was problematic (to say the least) because she didn’t like us; northerners, working-class people. Yet I knew she was powerful too. The most powerful woman I knew. It confused me. I don’t think I fully understood that being called difficult as a woman or a girl was not a good thing. The layers of what that word, used in a particular way, could mean.

Like easy, the opposing idea, whose meaning was not straightforward either. In Northern Ireland being one sort or another went with the territory, but I didn’t like that. I didn’t care what school someone went to or what version of God they believed in but I expected everybody to have an opinion on what mattered to them, whether I agreed with them or not. That seemed reasonable, logical to me.


It seemed that I became difficult like spring became summer. I did not always do what people wanted. Sometimes I did what I wanted, when I wanted. That was a problem. It offended me then, as it does now, that my decision to be in control of my mind, my body, could single me out as problematic. It was mine after all, I inhabited it. The idea that it belonged to anyone but me was utterly ridiculous. I realise now it’s a privilege that I think this way.

This idea, my ownership of self, my need to ask questions and interrogate things, has been challenged over and over again, through girlhood and womanhood. There are places in the world where these types of thoughts are dangerous. There remains a huge void between what is safe for us to say and do and be and aspire to. Some places are better than others, some men are better than others, but women still pay the price for highlighting when they are unhappy in a system and society often built by men for men, ignoring the female shape of things.

Sometimes it feels like our voices are just something to be managed. When we protest about injustice we are told how to protest, how to behave and then condemned for our anger. I despaired at the backlash against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe when she criticised the UK government for taking so long to negotiate her release. She expressed her justified frustration and there was outcry. She was eloquent and controlled yet some in society still complained; why couldn’t she just be grateful and ladylike? But why should she have to conform to any of these stereotypes?

As I write this I feel the weight of expectation, of not wanting to upset anyone, and it is a pressure, like it or not, that I’ve felt my entire life. The good little girl syndrome. It seems unfair that we are constantly being told we can do whatever we want but at the same time these systems conspire to keep us quiet and prefer us to be less challenging, more compliant; easy breezy cover girl versions of ourselves. Misogyny presents a clever face these days. I feel like we are always being measured, against some invisible yardstick of acceptability, and I am sick of it.

The setting for my book, The Quiet Whispers Never Stop, is rural Northern Ireland in the eighties and nineties but some of the issues my female characters face – sexual assault, childcare – are still problems for women and girls today. These characters try to move outside the boundaries society creates for them, they refuse to conform, they are seen as fractious women who aren’t happy with their lot, who want something else from their lives and relationships. They struggle, like all of us, as they try to live their complex, messy lives, figuring out what they might want and need.

In 1981 Nuala Malin is just about surviving. She longs for escape, to step outside her role as a mother, a wife. She needs to live for herself. The turbulent affair she begins with a 17-year-old paper boy burns away her doubts about leaving. He’s an open door and she’s walking through.

In 1994, 12 years after her mother Nuala left, Sam still struggles with the consequences of that decision every day. Sam Malin has been called difficult her entire life. She’s the daughter of a difficult woman, trying to find her way. She wants to find out who she is without worrying about the Troubles, she wants to be a normal 17-almost-18-year-old, whatever that means, and she wants to know who her mother Nuala really was, and why she left. Mostly she wants to be with a man who makes her feel like a grown-up. He’s dangerous and flawed like her, yet he seems to have the freedom to do whatever he wants.

No one really gets to do whatever they want. Life isn’t like that. There is only the messy possibility that things can and will change. I don’t find it easier to be labelled difficult now that I’m older. Time passing hasn’t made it simpler. Women should be free to do whatever interests them. Embrace all of it, all the curiosity, all the rage, all the love, all the living they want to do, simply because they want to do it.