Books & Culture

Compliant Women in Contemporary Writing

Our culture supports compliant women, or at the very least, it supports compliance in the very systems that oppress, discourage, and disempower. And when women stop being compliant, the price they pay is often their very lives.

Look at the case of Britney Spears, and her often discussed conservatorship. We all want to “free Britney” now, but I remember with how much giddy joy the media took her down all those years ago. (And we all know there can’t be a takedown without willing consumers of that takedown.) And why? Because she got angry at a paparazzo invading her personal space and then decided to shave her head?

I remember one iconic image from the time, where Britney sits in the barber’s chair, gleefully shaving her head. There were many images of Spears from that time, and in all of them she looks pretty miserable, but in the pictures we have of her shaving her head, I noticed something. Britney was happy. Truly happy.

I remember thinking, “maybe this is the first real decision she’s ever made in her life.” Look closely at her face. This is not a deranged woman. This is a woman finally accessing her free will. She’s saying “fuck you” to everyone and loving it. Saying “fuck you” to standards of appearance, “fuck you” to the people in charge of her image, “fuck you” to the photographers, and to the superficial machinery that made her famous.

And what did that act of free will cost her? She lost her kids, her autonomy, her ability to guide her own career. In her Instagram videos, she looks overmedicated.

In several books I’ve read recently, I’ve encountered women wrestling with the consequences of their own compliance. The trauma is deep. While I believe our cultural narratives are changing, the consequences of women being raised to be compliant permeate our culture in very insidious ways, and I believe our culture of compliance continues to shape us.

In her book, Girlhood, Melissa Febos writes about women complying to have sex, because they fear the alternative to saying no is rape. Roxanne Gay, in Bad Feminist, writes about a boy she knew in middle school with whom she had a complicated relationship that escalated to him raping her. He would “tell me what he wanted to do to me. He wasn’t asking permission. I was not an unwilling participant. I was not a willing participant….I wanted him to love me.”

Gay explains that this kind of compliance is the ultimate struggle every “good girl” faces. “Being good is the best way to be bad.” She writes “as an adult, I don’t understand how I allowed him to treat me like that. I don’t understand how he could be so terrible. I don’t understand how desperately I sacrificed myself. I was young.”

In Girlhood, Febos interviews women who have consented to have sex they did not want, more acts of compliance. The fact that the women seldom speak about these experiences is itself a commentary on the ways in which compliance infects us, hidden beneath the surface. Gay also writes, “It never crossed my mind to say no or that I should say no, that I could say no.”

Oprah Winfrey writes about trauma and its role in compliance in her newest book “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.” I’ve reviewed the book in this blog, but here I want to talk about the role that trauma plays in compliance. Winfrey writes about her personal traumas and notes: “For the next forty years, that pattern of conditioned compliance—the result of deeply rooted trauma—would define every relationship, interaction, and decision in my life.”

While I think that conditioned compliance can be connected to trauma, I don’t think Oprah completely gets it right. Conditioned compliance is something hardwired into women from the moment we learn how to walk and speak. We are taught to put other people’s wishes ahead of our own. When a girl is old enough to have sex, or rather, old enough to be pressured into having sex, she will have often been so trained in compliance that she’ll readily put a boy’s wishes and desires above her own.

Compliance. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Compliance. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Our lives are shaped by what we believe we deserve.

When I was in high school, I thought I deserved nothing. When a boy I’d known most of my life asked me to do things with him in his truck, I complied. The next day in school, he acted like nothing happened. He wouldn’t hold my hand. My little girl-self wanted so badly to be loved that I accepted this arrangement. It made me miserable. I thought myself incapable of feeling pleasure. I told no one, not even my best friend.

We never had sex. We did everything else. It doesn’t matter. I was still nothing to him when we passed in the hallways. I accepted this. I felt terrible. I wanted to die. I thought I was crazy for feeling this way. I thought I was broken.

Then, the boy made a move on my best friend. When she called me to tell me, I drove to the mall alone. I climbed the stairs to the top of the parking garage, and I thought about jumping. I’m so grateful I didn’t jump.

When we talk about women and compliance, we need to talk about how our culture treats women who are not compliant. We need to think about how we treated Britney Spears all those years ago, right when she was finally showing the slightest degree of autonomy. We need to talk about the unspoken lesson the consequences of her actions taught so many little girls—lessons about whom their bodies belonged to, lessons about personal freedom. Britney Spears shaved her head and she was called crazy. I don’t think she was crazy. I think she was breaking free, and the great irony is that her attempt at being free was precisely the thing that led to her further imprisonment.

I think about other situations where women’s compliance may have played a role in their downfall. What about Monica Lewinsky, and the role that compliance may have played in her story with Bill Clinton? And then there’s Katherine Heigl who got cancelled because she didn’t want to play a role anymore. How many men decide they want to move on from a role and get that kind of crap?

I don’t think we’re talking about compliance enough, and the unspoken traumas it creates. Compliance is embedded in some of our culture’s sickest institutions. I think about Christian fundamentalism (with its requirements that adherents comply entirely with the church’s religious doctrines), the prison industrial system (which fosters obedience and not autonomy), our educational systems and the cultures they foster (where girls are sent home because their skirts are too short and where children are educated within systems of rigid rules and standardized tests), and the systems of compliance embedded in family systems. The kind of upbringing most girls receive, even in the best of circumstances in our culture, is not without its traumas.

Oprah writes: “When you’ve been groomed to be compliant, confrontation in any form is uncomfortable because you were never taught you have the right to say no; in fact, you were taught you can’t say no.”

People who are taught that they can’t say no also learn to ignore the alarm signals their bodies are sending them. Their ability to distinguish between danger and safety gets distorted. I think about that boy in high school, all my alarm bells ringing, and I complied anyway. How many times as a girl had I been taught to behave, to sit down, to cross my legs, and give hugs when asked. Could I have been any other way? Is it surprising at all that I complied?

Oprah writes, in “What Happened to You:” “Now when I begin to feel overwhelmed, I pull back. I have learned to say no.”

Perhaps the most radically feminist thing we can do right now, is to say “no” and say it often. And when compliant women get shit for “going bad,” we can speak truth to power, defend them, and hold their detractors accountable.

If you are in distress or are having suicidal thoughts, you are not alone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 to help. Call 1-800-273-8255.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.