Lucy Mangan: “Why we must strive to be more ‘difficult’”

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Lucy Mangan
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Stylist’s Lucy Mangan on why it’s time to speak up and get uncomfortable.

I don’t like a fuss, me. Someone pushes ahead of me in a queue – I say nothing. Someone is destroying my peace on a train journey in the quiet carriage I deliberately booked into? I hate them with the heat of a thousand suns and wish them a painfully slow death followed by an eternity in hell pursued by the tinny percussive leak from their own headphones – but I say nothing.

Part of this is nature – I don’t think I would ever have been a massively assertive person; passive resistance is probably my maximally bellicose setting – but a lot of it is nurture. It has been successfully pounded into me over the years – as a child, by my family, later on by society at large – that girls and women are supposed to be nice. Be quiet. Smooth over contretemps, not cause them. Take up as little space, literally and metaphorically, as possible. No heads above the parapet – play peacemaker instead.

Thus, I have always been awed by activists. They’re so… active. To become one myself always seemed like too much of a leap. But, recently, I feel like there’s a bridge forming between us, made up of the increasing number of moments in which ‘normal’ women (in the sense of those not involved with activism per se, and often not readily identified with support for women’s issues at all) are speaking out. 

At the Golden Globes there was Natalie Portman reading out a list of, as she independently amended it, “all-male nominees” for the best director award she was presenting.

During the same event there were also Debra Messing and Eva Longoria calling out – live on the channel itself – E!’s gender pay gap. 

In the UK there’s Carrie Gracie publicly resigning from her position as China editor for BBC News in protest at the gender discrimination in international editors’ pay packets.

Carrie Gracie resigned from her position as China editor over pay discrimination.

All these things, in their different ways, were united by one factor: they went strikingly far to upset people and expectations. You’re not supposed to use envelope-opening to make a point. You’re not supposed to draw attention to your host’s flaws when it’s broadcasting you. You’re not supposed to make your reasons for resigning known beyond your immediate managers. 

These acts all caused gasps of surprise verging on horror – and they all started conversations. That, of course, is the point.

And it’s made me realise that much as I love my comfort zone – and I really do love it – I can and I must step out of it. We all must. 

We need to take as our self-nudging mantra the question Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s EMEA vice-president, says her boss Sheryl Sandberg asks every time she sees her: “How many hard conversations have you had today?” 

A bit like the rule of always donating enough to charity that it hurts a bit, we must push our individual boundaries to the point of discomfort. That’s how collective progress is made. 

Think of it, in the year that marks the centenary of their triumph, as an homage to the suffragettes who sloughed off the tight bonds of Edwardian convention and social propriety to chain themselves to railings, go on hunger strike, burn postbox contents and break windows to bring attention to their cause.

I’ve not had a chance to try anything so dramatic yet. But I did this morning outstare the man who started swimming in my lane at the pool and evidently reckoned I should shunt over to the next. He moved. Baby steps – or strokes, in this case. It’s time to get uncomfortable.

Images: Clem Onojeghuo / Rex Features