As a professional life coach, speaker, and author, I’m passionate about confidence: my goal in life is to teach women how to finally burn the rulebook and help them build confidence that’s actually sustainable. Our culture undermines confidence at every chance it—even when it claims to be building women up—by telling you the inner mindset is dependent on the way you look: maybe a disaffected attitude, the tendency to get aggressive, and of course an iconoclastic fashion sense.
In other words, you’re told that confidence is a performative act. Fake it till you make it—with making it meaning losing all sense of who you are under that performance.
Here’s a list of women in literature who I think are badass. My picks are a little unconventional—some are famous villains, tortured souls, or even murderers. But they all have one thing in common: they’ve decided to get in the driver’s seat of their own lives.
1. Miss Jean Brodie, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, Miss Jean Brodie is famous for one saying: “I’m in my prime.” She said this despite her misfortunes: she’d come to learn that the blind faith she put in her favorite students would turn on her, and she never found the intimate love she craved. However, she was intensely committed to her students, who she called “her girls;” her love for them ran so deep that she said ‘burn the curriculum,’ and instead waxed in front of the classroom about poetry, philosophy, and her sex life. The novel is about Brodie’s downfall, but if there’s anything we can learn from her, it’s to never leave your girls behind.
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2. Amy Dunne, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Amy Dunne is a villain; we’re supposed to think she’s Crazy with a capital C. But there’s something really important we need to learn from this book: it’s not women who are crazy, it’s society’s expectations for them. Post-recession, Amy and Nick’s marriage falls apart—which is to say, Nick loses interest in her once their NYC lifestyle collapses and she’s no longer a Trendy Girl. Amy’s reaction is an exaggeration of the rage women feel when they compare themselves against what’s expected—and a desperate, calculated attempt to win control of her own story. Here’s a question for you: when you feel overwhelmed by the expectations society places on you, how can you rewrite your story?
3. Maria, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
The first phrase that comes to mind when you think of Maria, the tragic narrator of Play It As It Lays, is certainly not badass or boss lady, but those words can take on many meanings. Again, we need to pay attention to Maria because her story is all about the expectations society puts on women. Maria was a model, but as she aged and became less naive, her fame fell apart: men didn’t really want her anymore. No matter how unfair a hand life deals Maria—from her parents’ death to a traumatic experience that causes her awful nightmares—she never forgets her intention: a longing to reunite with her daughter. Through the trauma, her secretive strength comes through on every page. From Maria, we learn that we can’t always control which men show us attention or who wants to pay us for our work—but we can control how we respond.
4. Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Emma’s story ends tragically: in suicide. Throughout the book, the author mocks her selfishness, her materialism, and her infidelity. It was certainly not the author’s intention, but Emma’s character makes me angry at how little has changed. For hundreds of years, men have been holding women to an impossible standard. Every time she spent a few hundred pounds on useless garbage on her husband’s credit accounts, she was rebelling against his expectations for her to be “domestic.” Ladies, do not be held back.
5. Jo March, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous, that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.” Enough said, Jo.
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