Recently, I asked my Facebook friends to recommend some great grumps of history, and name after name that came up was male. Ty Cobb, Andrew Jackson, John Adams, GK Chesterton! Jackson Pollock, John Milton, Miles Davis, J.R.R. Tolkien! Philip Larkin! Ernest Hemingway! Mel Lewis and Freddie Hubbard! The only woman on the list was Djuna Barnes, and the person who recommended her followed it up with a “(seriously).”
If these were the only grumps you knew about, you might conclude that grumpiness is perfectly fine — even intellectually aspirational — in powerful men, but nonexistent or taboo or suppressed in women. And you’d be kinda right. Sure, you could argue that women aren’t encouraged to show any sort of negative emotion, and/or that grumpy women are actually so common that they’re a trope unto themselves: the nagging, PMSing bitch, epitomized in Daily Mail articles that crow, “Women spend 10 days a year in a grumpy mood: But men say it seems rather more than that!” But I think there’s something specifically squelchable and punishable about grumpiness in women. Death comes to the female grump. A sort of death, at least.
On Facebook, I watched the names of male grumps pour in with secret glee. No one was mentioning my personal favorite grump, a 17th-century woman with a really bad attitude. Someone I find quite relatable, despite her love of arsenic and destruction. A massive liar. A flirt. A serial killer. Her name was Elizabeth Ridgeway, and she ruined her own life by indulging so violently in her own dark emotions. If she hadn’t been grumpy, she might have been spared.
A “Dogged, Sullen Humour”
Our lady Elizabeth was a slightly psychopathic, moderately depressed, and very bored young woman who seemed to be going stir-crazy in her tiny English town. She was born at the tail end of the 1600s in the town of Ibstock and was basically in a bad mood from day one. She couldn’t stand it when anyone got in her way; she had a very low tolerance for any sort of disagreement. She was also excellent at holding grudges. Remember when Reese Witherspoon’s character in Big Little Lies says, “I love my grudges — I tend to them like little pets”? Elizabeth probably muttered the phrase first.
As a young woman, Elizabeth poisoned her mother after they got into what sounds like a quintessential mother-daughter disagreement: Sources reported that the squabble was either “some falling out about their Household Affairs,” or a lecture from her mother about “some other thing she disliked in [Elizabeth].” Her next victim was a young male co-worker who irritated her for reasons that will remain forever mysterious, but we know Elizabeth bottled up her frustration until she couldn’t take it anymore, and then stirred white mercury into his soup. He died in agony within hours. Sources noted, snidely, that this sort of slow-burning grumpiness was typical of our girl; she had always been characterized by a “dogged, sullen Humour.” (Who among us?)
Sullenly, Elizabeth killed twice more: first a young man who irritated her because he acted like they were engaged (they weren’t!), and then her own husband, who tricked her into believing that he was rich (he wasn’t!). When two teen boys found out about this final murder, she tried to kill them, too, but they ran screeching to the authorities. Elizabeth was promptly locked up. In the weeks before her execution, a local pastor attempted to get a confession out of her, but Elizabeth served him up a wild cocktail of moods: hostile silence, evil cackling, faux-penitent fabrications, and, of course, lashings of grumpiness. The pastor went home and wrote a sermon about Elizabeth, in which he declared her a “reserved, stupid, uncertain, yea, and false Creature.” If she had swallowed her grumpiness and begged him to ask the judge for some sort of clemency, who knows? Elizabeth probably could have saved herself from the death penalty, at least. Some of the jury members were already questioning the harsh sentence, saying that the testimony of teenagers shouldn’t have been enough to convict her. But instead Elizabeth sunk deeper and deeper into the maze of her moodiness, and refused to come out for anyone, not even for salvation.
Who’s Afraid of a Cruel Pig?
Grumpiness is deeply unsexy, etymologically speaking. The hideous word is rooted in the Scottish term for pig, grumphie, and also indebted to the Danish word for cruel, grum. It plods around in the mouth, onomatopoeic. Grumps make terribly grumpy and unfeminine sounds: humph, or worse, harrumph. Yes, it’s not just an ugly word, but a dreadfully unladylike way of being: angrily hunched shoulders, a furrowed (one might say an UNBOTOXED) brow, a pair of heavy, clomping feet. No one wants to deal with a woman like that.
Grumpiness has prettier cousins: the depressive moodiness and the consumptive ennui. Even the gothic moroseness can be totally hot if you wear enough eyeliner. These are attractive, feminine nouns; you can (and should!) embody them while floating around the house in a silk nightgown. You can be moody while a tear trembles on your lashes. Ennui is an excuse to melt down onto a chaise lounge, holding a flute of sweating champagne against your bosom. These moods are performative, nearly erotic if done right. Here’s Alexander Pope, describing an ennui-ridden woman named Affectation:
On the rich Quilt sinks with becoming Woe,
Wrapt in a Gown, for Sickness, and for Show.
On the other side of the family tree, grumpiness has its stridently feminist aunts: shrill, bossy, bitchy, ice queeny, frigid. None of them are nice words, and you wouldn’t want them flung at your mother or daughter, but they’re words that still reek — for better or for worse — of the female. I just can’t picture grumpy on either list. Grumpiness is Kanye West, not Kim Kardashian. Grumpiness gives you wrinkles. Grumpiness looks terrible in selfies and grumpiness has its own nefarious agenda that has nothing to do with your desires.
A Brief Personal History of Grumpy Women
I didn’t always used to think this way, that women can’t be grumpy or be anything negative at all, blah, blah, blah, insert stock photo of complaining woman here, lizard people run the government. When I was in the thick of my moody adolescence, I was a serious, dedicated grump. Because I was a girl, and grumpy, I mushed those two things together in my malleable mind and came out assuming that grumpiness was just what being a woman was. My mom could be grumpy, my mom’s mom could be grumpy — I was merely spending my emotional inheritance. It wasn’t flattering, but it was certainly female: Whether we blamed it on PMS or acne or sexism or mysterious hormonal urges, there it was, grumpiness, smeared around our respective female cortexes.
But I just don’t feel that way anymore. Today, I feel that grumpiness is the domain of the man, shut off to me, a grown woman. I recall with literal chest pains the times I’ve been obviously grumpy in front of friends. (Let’s just say there was a time on the East Coast when I performatively refused to eat a scoop of incredible raspberry gelato — o death, come quickly!) I remember several times when I’ve snarled at a man, and they’ve reared back so fiercely that I felt temporarily unhuman, like a monster bursting through female skin. There’s real shame to being grumpy as an adult woman: It feels childish, like you should be better than that. Of course, no one would call the grumpiness of J.R.R. Tolkien or John Milton “childish,” but you get my point already.
If you’re longing for a champion of female grumpiness who’s not a serial killer, meet my friend Meriwether. Her read of female grumpiness is a refreshing one. She sees it as an indulgence — a pleasure, even. “As an adult, grumpiness is one of the few negative emotions or behaviors I allow myself to show,” she writes to me in an email. “If I ran into an acquaintance on the street I would be MUCH more likely to admit to feeling grumpy than to feeling depressed. Maybe this is part of what I cherish about grumpiness — it feels like an emotional state I am less self-conscious about openly portraying.” Grumpiness can be a get-out-of-adulting-free card, if you play it right. “I find myself more prone to doing things to get attention,” Meriwether says, “like calling my mom a bunch of times for useless reasons, sending crazed texts, posting weird shit on social media.”
The grumpiest woman I know works at a dive bar near my apartment. Rumor has it she shut down an entire run of musical performances at the bar — putting tens of artists out of work — because she took offense to a single musician. She doesn’t even have the stylized grump of a gum-chewing diner waitress; she simply will not smile. She has become something of a legend among my friends and me for being so unapologetically herself — and such a strange, taboo self at that. But being yourself doesn’t mean you’re not playing with fire. There are penalties for being grumpy, and they can be brutal.
The Third Type of Woman
“Male grumpiness is an expression of character, while female grumpiness is a character flaw,” says Gianna Ward-Vetrano, writer and doctoral candidate in comparative literature at UC Berkeley. In fiction, grumpy men are often still grumpy at the end of their stories. It’s likely that their hearts have softened a bit, but you won’t find them weeping happy tears in a field of puppies. Still, you very well might find yourself drawn to them because, as Ward-Vetrano notes, grumpiness in male characters is actually quite appealing, since it appears to mask some deep inner lake of emotional sensitivity. Take Laurie’s grandfather in Little Women, Grumpy the Dwarf in the Disney version of Snow White, or T.H. White’s version of Merlin. “The gruffness that these characters adopt, holding those they love at arm’s length, is a roundabout way of propping those people up but without violating the unspoken strictures of traditional masculinity,” she says. “They love powerfully but can’t be accused of sentimentality.”
For female characters, who are already allowed to be emotionally sensitive in literature, grumpiness becomes more dangerous. Ward-Vetrano notes that female grumpiness is often linked to lack of romance via archetypes like the spinster, the jilted bride, and the childless widow. “These characters live at the margins of acceptability and have not wanted or been able to fulfill the role assigned to them by patriarchal society,” she says. “Their embitterment is attributed to perhaps a lack of steadfast virtue, as is the case with Edith Dombey in Dombey and Son, censured by Dickens for giving into a mercenary marriage to a cruel man, or, more baldly, physical ugliness, like the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella. These grumpy women are marginalized, a third type, neither virgin nor whore, not wholly visible.”
The other day, I ran into the grumpy dive bar waitress for the first time in months. My husband and I ducked into her dark bar for a drink, and she noted that we hadn’t been around in a while. This was extremely unusual for her — she normally pretends not to know us. As we chatted with her, we felt a sort of secret hysterical glee and poked each other under the table. Maybe she picked up on this glee and felt hurt by it. I don’t know. But at one point, I asked her how long she’d worked at the bar, and she said that she’d been there for something like 15 years. And then, apropos of nothing, she looked me dead in the eye and said, “Be nice to me.”
My husband didn’t think the interaction was strange at all. But I — attuned to whatever weird female transmission had just happened — found that moment raw and disturbing. The famous grump was suddenly vulnerable. She had broken out of the third space of womanhood that Ward-Vetrano identified, asking not to be seen as a grump (or as someone who’d worked in a dive bar her whole adult life), but as a defenseless human. And my smallest, meanest self was annoyed at that vulnerability. I wanted her to stay grumpy so that she could continue to be an icon of lady-grump in a world of grumpy men. But she showed her soft underbelly and so had become just like the rest of us. I didn’t like it.
Maybe she knew — maybe every grumpy woman knows — that the wages of grumpiness are pretty serious. In books, grumpy women must change or be left behind forever. “The ‘cure’ for grumpiness might be a realization of her own desirability, for instance, by being admired aloud by a man, sexual satisfaction, falling in requited love, or developing a maternal relationship with a child,” says Ward-Vetrano. “But the punishment for refusing to cheer up is to be alone.”
“I’ve Went Weeks Ignoring My Wife”
“It seems every time I come home my wife has that grump face on!” says a man on an internet forum that I’ve somehow stumbled across while searching for nonscientific grumpiness cures. “Except right after a date. I have so many gigs it’s hard to fit her in! How many days of grump face or if I deny her requested date, will she divorce me? I’ve put too much money into this relationship, I even bought her the 75k stars diamond ring! So can I ignore her for a day? Please help! Thanks all :)”
I marveled over this post for a minute or two. Who is this mysterious wife who plans to file for divorce after being denied a specific number of dates? Who is this abysmal husband asking if he can ignore her? Strangers doled out weird, robotic advice to the frustrated man. “I think you can deny a date for two days, but then when they call you on the third day it’ll be for a divorce,” said one. Another wrote, “I’ve went weeks ignoring my wife, so it could depend. But we’ve also been married forever and have max amount of children allowed.” Embarrassingly, I soon realized that I was not watching husbands deal with their real-life wives, but was on a forum for Kim Kardashian’s iPhone game, where users were struggling to balance their computer-generated careers with imaginary love lives. And yet their grievances read, for a minute, as real.
It’s impossible to talk about female grumpiness without talking about what, for me, is the most pervasive grumpy-woman stereotype: the nagging, dissatisfied partner. I don’t think I need to prove the trope of the grumpy wife to you (here, have this fun vintage ad); it’s a concept so clichéd and yet so insidious that I’ve found myself hyperaware of how many times, in my marriage, I seem to be slipping into it. It feels like something that might happen to me. When you’ve been a grumpy teenager, you know your own dark depths. And I can’t bear the thought of being the woman with “that grump face on.” As righteous and necessary as grumpiness can be, let’s be painfully honest: The idea of a grumpy partner is extremely unsexy.
Cures for a grumpy female partner abound, all idiotic. “Moods can be contagious,” chirps an article on the site Our Everyday Life. “If you drop by and your girlfriend is giving Grumpy the dwarf a run for his money, deliberately adopt an upbeat attitude that can’t be shaken. Play some fun music and insist that she dance. Insist that the two of you watch some comedy.” I like to imagine Elizabeth Ridgeway’s doomed husband attempting these petty cures, desperate to appease his morose, sinister bride; meanwhile, Elizabeth stirs the soup, watching him with expressionless eyes as he dances around the kitchen.
This idea of “insisting” on positivity quickly veers into strange territory. I was recently listening to a podcast about the Children of God cult and learned that teenagers with “bad attitudes” were sent away to a camp and forced to wear “smile machines,” which attached to their ears and tugged up the corners of their mouths. Is there anything creepier? A fake smile is absolutely bone-chilling (see: the Joker, cheeks forever slashed into a grin). This is what men on the streets, screaming at women to smile, don’t seem to realize. If you command a woman to smile, and she turns toward you, very slowly, and lets an artificial grin spread over her face, teeth bared and lips stretched just slightly too wide — well, now. That’s not what you wanted at all, is it?
I imagine that Elizabeth did smile, sometimes. I imagine that an eerily large smile was plastered across her face when she took out her vial of white mercury to kill that irritating co-worker. Rumor had it that she always hid poison in her hair, just in case.
The Death of a Female Grump
Of course, Elizabeth Ridgeway didn’t die because she was grumpy. She died because she was a serial killer. But her dark moods marked a rejection of society, and her rejection of society both led her to kill and caused her to be unwilling to pander, in the courtroom and the jail cell, for a pardon. I wouldn’t wish Elizabeth Ridgeway’s death on my grumpiest enemy. She was forced to watch the hanging of two criminal brothers first, which was an attempt to terrify her into admitting that she’d killed more people. One of the brothers was offered life if he would execute both his own brother and Elizabeth, but he wouldn’t do it, and so a terrified Elizabeth watched the siblings swing from the gallows.
She begged the authorities to hang her, too, but they refused. Instead, she was tied to a pole, kindling lit around her feet. As soon as the flames touched her, she screamed and tried to leap away from the fire so violently that she choked herself, which meant that she was unconscious while she burned.
Perhaps there are three ways to die as a female grump: alone, at the stake, or by growing up. I, for one, am no longer grumpy. My moods flash out, I get enraged, but I left the land of the grump long ago. I had to. I wanted to. I couldn’t bear that land anymore. It always seemed like a cage to me. As a teenager, I never felt like I was choosing to be grumpy, and that frightened me. Plus, I was painfully self-aware of how my grumpiness affected my family, casting a pall over family dinners, ruining moments of intimacy. I remember feeling like I literally could not open my mouth and answer my parents sometimes. I was just so goddamn grumpy.
Yes, there’s a lot to be said for allowing every human to access the full range of emotions. But I fear some of our emotions, no matter how much I joke around about grumpy serial killers. It’s partially because I fear the brain. It’s a healthy fear. A respectful fear. But a fear nonetheless. My cousin Aaron is a doctor, and when I asked him if there was a neurological basis for grumpiness, he responded, “Yes, there is probably a neurological pattern of electrical activity that is typical for each mood — but we’re years away from mapping it out.” We insist that our emotions are purely us, that indulging in them is our human right, but we don’t even know what they look like on a brain scan.
Years ago, my parents took us all to get ice cream. This was a pretty rare occurrence in my household. They must have sensed that we needed fun, or sugar, or time out of the house. And so we went to the local ice cream shop to get sundaes, piled high with handmade whipped cream. It was a warm summer night, and the ice cream was achingly good. I knew that my younger siblings were enjoying themselves and that my parents were doing something nice and that I should just smile and chat and not wreck things for everyone. But I couldn’t. The hand of my own bad mood was closing around my throat. Uh-huh, I said, if anyone talked to me. Whatever. I went into the bathroom to try to shake the bad mood off. “You are ruining your own night,” I whispered to myself in the mirror.
Elizabeth Ridgeway lived before mirrors, but I wonder what she saw when she looked into a pond or a puddle or the side of a pot. One of the more salacious legends about her says that she had a “familiar spirit” who slept with her for eight years and whispered terrible commands in her ear, commands like kill your mother or kill your co-worker or, twice, even, kill yourself. If you believe this version of Elizabeth’s story, you see a woman totally in the thrall of something beyond her control, helplessly obeying.
In the bright bathroom of the ice cream shop, my familiar spirit refused to let me go. In some ways, then, there’s nothing more female than a grumpiness you cannot escape. The mood is the head of the household; we have been trained for centuries to submit. Don’t smile, it says. I stomped back outside into the warm night, terribly ashamed of what I was about to do.