The Sexism of Curmudgeonism


My book club is currently reading a Swedish novel, "A Man Called Ove." I'd already seen the film, maybe a year ago, but now I'm reading the book. It's a dark comedy about a man who loses the will to live when his beloved wife dies but is (spoiler alert) swayed away from suicide when a perky young couple and their kids move in across the street. In both the book and the movie version, Ove is the epitome of a curmudgeon, which Oxford defines as "a bad-tempered or surly person." (Short and to the point. Well done, Oxford.)  Synonyms include: sourpuss, whiner, malcontent.


Ove is all of these things as he patrols his little corner of the world with strict adherence to the posted rules: No motor vehicles on his road; Bicycles to be stored in sheds; etc. He kicks street sign posts to be certain they are solid. He double- and triple-checks door handles to verify they're locked. He frowns a lot. He mutters under his breath. He gives people dirty looks and refuses to pay a minimal surcharge on a shop purchase merely out of principle. 


Of course, in the end, he is redeemed (Sorry, belated spoiler alert), and even if he doesn't live happily ever after, he still ends up happier. But I'm not here to talk about that. 

I'm here to talk about sexism, because I am a curmudgeon, but I'm a woman. A curmudgeonette, perhaps... which sounds coquettish. So, no.


And the truth is, there just aren't that many women curmudgeons in fiction who are portrayed lovingly, or (even more accurately) worthy of affection, redemption, or attention. I'm thinking in particular of the woman on the scooter in "Waking Ned Devine" as everyone in town cheers (albeit unintentionally, due to correlated timing of another happy event) when she & her phone booth get bumped off a cliff to plunge to her death.


"Grumpy Old Men"? Adorbs. "Grumpy Old Women"? Not so much.


How is it that, in a man, at least in our Western culture, irascibility is somehow something to be shrugged off as inevitable and maybe even adorable, causing younger women to wrinkle their noses in that "Oh, he's not so bad" sort of acceptance and forgiveness of rude behavior, whereas women are described instead as bitter?


I personally come from a long line of curmudgeons. My father. His father before him. My father's sister. All that Russian peasant/immigrant background coupled with trying to raise five kids during the Great Depression sets one up to expect little good to come from Life's unfoldings. Muttering under one's breath and rolling one's eyes is nearly genetically pre-programmed in me. Add to that as many life experiences as is usually packed into a half-century of walking around on this planet, and while I don't think life is all bad, I am wary and tend to "know which way the wind blows."


People aggravate me. They just do. Not usually through malice -- in fact, almost never intentionally -- but just through self-absorption, laziness, lack of consideration of others. I'm sure some of these people have genuine distractions in their own lives -- family members in hospital, workplace concerns, the rise of fascism in the US -- but most of the time, it seems just ... more superficial than that. The grocery cart halfway across the aisle whilst the shopper reads every fucking label of every fucking salad dressing, so I have to try to scoot by as they make no effort to move while their toddler sits in the basket and throws M&Ms at me. Sure, that mom might be really worried about Putin's influence on the 2016 presidential election or the next supreme court justice selection, but I doubt it. -- No, there's plenty out there in the world to be curmudgeonly about, but why is it slanted as acceptable in men but not so in women?


In the workplace, I suppose I'm fortunate that veterinary medicine is mostly a woman's game these days. Working alongside a number of similarly curmudgeonly women, we serve as a good support system for one another. But out in the real world. no one ever seems to perceive my grumpy irritation at people jumping line at a coffee shop or parking their cars across the dividing lines as "charming," least of all, people of the opposite sex. Instead, I am encouraged to "lighten up," or even worse, "Smile!" 


This "Smile!" bullshit is, I know, a woman-wide problem. "Resting Bitch Face" is, after all, not usually used to describe men. In spite of the fact that there are plenty of things (especially these days in Trump-era 2018) to be wary, concerned and even despondent about, I'm supposed to shrug it off and trot around smiling like some brain-damaged imbecile, simply because women are "prettier" when they aren't so serious. -- Yes, a serious-faced woman may indeed be something to take note of.... That might actually be true. But in my -- albeit admittedly curmudgeonly -- mind, that's a good thing. A bit of progress.


So I'll go back to reading my book about curmudgeonly Ove, his redemption through the ministerings of his (cute, little, pregnant -- not threatening at all, eh?) neighbor woman who insists on bringing him food and waving at him and chatting him up at the grocery shops. But I can't help but wonder: Were Ove a woman, would she merely be written off as bitter, and instead of being embraced and adopted by her community, would she just be abandoned as the pariah our cultures deem her to be?

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