Why I'm Done Being Silent About Gender Expectations

American Gods star Yetide Badaki pushes back against a lifetime of conditioned expectations for girls.

More From Lenny Letter No. 91
5 articles
Jill Soloway Is a "Weird Girl"
Why Democratic Unity Is Nothing Without Women
How I Navigate Art School Debt
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

"Ladies should be quiet, ladies should be proper, ladies should be … nice."

I have heard those words, or some variation of those words, my entire life.

I still remember the day when I was taught what the world expected of me as a girl. I was about six and was running around my backyard in the glorious heat of a humid equatorial Nigerian day. I occasionally shouted with joy as I gave chase to my older brother, whom I idolized. As the rivulets of sweat trickled down our faces and backs in the sticky heat, my brother whipped off his shirt, and I gleefully did the same. And as I blissfully took in the feel of the cool breeze on my skin, I heard a woman call out my name, her voice filled with shock and horror.

More From Lenny Letter No. 91
5 articles
Jill Soloway Is a "Weird Girl"
Why Democratic Unity Is Nothing Without Women
How I Navigate Art School Debt
How Having a Girl Taught Me About My Own Biases

I was told that my behavior was inappropriate, that it was unladylike to make so much noise and especially unforgivable to take off my shirt. I was confused and asked why my brother could do these things but I could not, and I was told, quite simply, "You are a girl." There was no malice, no ill intent, it was stated as simple fact.

Over the years, I learned the lesson of proper femininity well. I learned that as my body developed, I shouldn't play sports because it would distract the boys. How I shouldn't wear tight clothes or short skirts because it drew attention. How to hold my tongue, be agreeable, be soft, and be likable.

I formed a protective weight barrier in my early teens, as there were advances even then. Feeling it was my job to avert the gaze, I helpfully began to hide within my own body. And while I found respite on the stage, where I could scream, shout, and explore with abandon, my everyday existence was still about exhibiting a straitjacket of niceness.

And then, the last straw. I was told I could no longer do what I loved — acting — because it wasn't "nice" or "ladylike." I tried to comply. I worked hard to fit in to the ever-tightening corset of perceived womanhood. I couldn't breathe. When would these restraints ever end? And the answer was clear: they wouldn't. This corset would either squeeze all the life out of me, or it was time to forget nice and break the bonds. So I did. I made my environmental-science major into a minor, got in to grad school for theater, and felt for the first time that I was truly beginning to live, to find my voice, to breathe.

***

Fast-forward through a marriage, a divorce, and about a decade, and I'm reading audition sides for a goddess who literally devours men with her vagina. Bilquis is an ancient goddess of love on the TV show American Gods, adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman. There were many who clamored to tell me how "not nice" such a character was and how "not nice" it would be for me to want to play her.

But I loved Bilquis. I had loved her from the moment I first came across her bold aesthetic reading Neil's book in 2001. And I began to develop an even deeper love for her as Bilquis's unapologetic approach to life continued to inspire and inform me, as I became a version of her.

I worked hard to appease, to placate, to never appear assuming or difficult or, heavens forbid, too assertive or ambitious. What had that accomplished?

Despite all this, there were still many hang-ups, many fears propagated by the shadows of my past. In a very politically charged climate, I found myself struggling to filter a taught aversion to discussing my beliefs. That was until I woke up a certain morning in November with a heavy heart and a profound sense of guilt. I had been complicit. Every time the shadows of my past kept me from continuing a discussion because it was not "nice," I had given permission for certain behaviors and prejudices to continue.

I started to tentatively enter the conversation. It was new ground for me. I stuttered and stammered my way through it, and at times I could barely be heard. But I was finally speaking. One night, while conversing with several acquaintances on a West Hollywood balcony about the perils of discriminating against others purely based on their differences, it all came to a head. I was not going to be complicit yet again, I was not going to allow prejudice to continue to take hold, and I was not going to allow for it to be normalized.

Then, in the darkness, I hear those ever-present words: "Be quiet." A wellspring of experiences and similar constrictions traveled up from my pelvic floor, rattled around my diaphragm, and rushed forth between my quivering lips — "DO NOT TELL ME TO BE QUIET."

There it was, the summation of the majority of my life thus far: making allowances, shrinking to fit in to the spaces that we are grudgingly allowed. Be quiet? That is all I had ever been! I worked hard to appease, to placate, to never appear assuming or difficult or, heavens forbid, too assertive or ambitious. What had that accomplished?

To be clear, I am not saying I have the answers, and in no way am I looking to be an example. I am flawed, I am learning, and I make many mistakes. But what I am doing is cultivating my voice now, hoping to aid in amplifying the voices of the women around me. I am reaching inside, holding out my hand to that six-year-old girl, and I am asking her to live out loud.

Yetide Badaki is an actress who currently stars in American Gods on Starz.

More from Lenny Letter: