Should girls be nice? asked the Guardian following a blog in the New York Times. The NYT blog left me with a lot of questions but “niceness” is open to such a broad range of interpretations that that seems inevitable. I’d imagine Catherine Newman’s main blog goes into more depth (but admit I haven’t read it). I’m just taking the concept and filtering it through my own lens, which also means I’m meandering around a bit in this post.
I don’t know if either writer stopped to think about this (surely they must’ve) but I immediately thought “sugar and spice and all things nice”. Certainly, women shouldn’t be forced by societal pressure to conform to a nursery rhyme version of femininity but then men shouldn’t be forced to be slugs, snails and puppy dog tails either. Outside of nursery rhymes, the arts, politics and social commentary, have women ever really been sugar, spice and all things nice? Oh sure, wealthy women (or more accurately, the female family members of wealthy men) could afford to be but how much sugar and spice was to be found in the daily life of a woman whose routines revolved around family and the back breaking grind of housework and often paid work (whether in agriculture, industry or otherwise) in the centuries before feminism? Women who aren’t fairytale princesses can buy into the whole sugar and spice thing now that we’re not scrubbing clothes and plucking chickens by hand anymore. Did women who had to do those things ever take it seriously? Did their fathers, husbands sons and brothers? If this concept is now being applied to more girls and women, it’s because it’s been imported from our so-called betters, and I don’t mean men. The higher up the social ladder you go, the more bland and princessy girls have historically been expected to be. Being sugar and spice isn’t just about being girly or womanly: it’s about not being a commoner. It differentiates the ladies from the women.
“Nice” can be used as a way of trying to enforce moral judgements: “nice girls don’t [insert outdated code of morality or etiquette here]”. My school even taught us nice girls don’t eat in the street (I still don’t, to this day, because it was enforced by punishment for so long it became normal to me) and I absolutely agree that these kinds of gender specific directions are a bad thing. They are used to impose specific norms, often on the basis of morality, and make girls (and later women) uncomfortable being themselves and desperately trying to live up to someone else’s concept of how girls and women should be and behave. In theory it’s possible to make a “nice girls don’t” statement which isn’t intended to subjugate them in any way (nice girls don’t bully/set fire to things etc) but the reality is that we all know how they are used in practice.
Maybe Newman only ever intended to talk about social conventions of niceness like smiling through life, even in the face of unpleasantness. Do women smile when embarrassed or apologising for some minor inconvenience to others? Yes, often, I’d think. I did it today while rummaging in my handbag for my purse at the till and I smiled at the guy behind me as I left to acknowledge I knew he’d been kept waiting (my debit card was playing silly buggers too, as it happens). What’s wrong with that? Would no man ever do something similar if he’d chucked his wallet in a ruksack before going out? When I see people faffing at the checkout and they don’t once acknowledge the people waiting behind them, I think they’re rude and arrogant and I don’t think that makes me an unenlightened specimen of womanhood. Do women slap a rigid smile in place in the face of rudeness, discrimination and harassment? Yes. Most of us probably do (and how many of us have steadfastly ignored worse things like being groped?) but that’s not to say men never do it either. They just face less discrimination and harassment. I think the word “nice” is being made to work a bit too hard in Newman’s blog, which makes it a bit jumbled but she seems to discard the idea that niceness purely for it’s own sake is ok. Polite, friendly and doormat are different things with different consequences though.
Newman mentions her son knows how to be nice, to use being nice and seems to be saying her own niceness is acceptable only when it’s a business advantage and puts people at ease. Lots of people do this and I’m one of them. I smile and am friendly. Mostly, that’s just naturally how I am. It’s not self-consciously done but I am aware in a general way that it smooths my path through life. I’m aware it can get me what I want but not because I feel it’s the only available option for a woman in a patriarchal society. It’s not like I simper and jiggle at men and I do smile and am friendly to women as well as men. It’s always been a particularly effective way of getting secretaries on board, as it happens. Yes, it’s arguable that knowing the impact makes the action manipulative but no more than any of the other things people do to smooth their way through life and it’s not sexualised behaviour on my part. People, whether men or women, who yell to get their way are pretty effective in getting what they want too, as are liars. Sugar and spice is a nursery rhyme. You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar is a trueism. What bothers me about Newman’s take on this is the implication that this is the only time it’s acceptable for her to be nice. Even her nod to the fact that niceness can put other people at ease still isn’t the same as accepting niceness for its own sake.
Niceness can also be an attribute of someone’s character, rather than something they just do. None of us behaves nicely all the time but it doesn’t mean we can’t be nice. If Newman has such strong reactions to her own nice behaviour, it doesn’t have to mean she doesn’t have this attribute. It’s just as likely we have different interpretations of what it means to be nice – she seems to see it as something passive and apologetic. I take it to mean, well, just plain nice: friendly, kind, decent, honest, that kind of thing. What’s so wrong with that? And is it really controversial to suggest the world contains a lot of nice men as well as nice women? In fact, it’s a trait I value pretty highly in a man. On one occasion I ended a description of someone to a friend “he’s just so nice”, I was frustrated by lack of a better word which goes to show how beleaguered the word has become. Come to think of it I’d definitely describe that friend’s husband as nice and I remember friends years ago envying my always managing to meet nice men even when drunk so I’m hardly alone in this. I don’t value niceness to the exclusion of all other aspects of a person’s character but someone who’s nice in the way I use the word isn’t dull, charmless, straight laced or weak (or isn’t necessarily – I suppose there’s bound to be some people who are and they’re the ones I wouldn’t be interested in). Maybe nice people need to retake the word nice.
Sometimes being a nice polite person who believes other people are basically nice can lead you into trouble. 99% of strangers who say something to me in the street are nice. The 1% can create a real risk but I’m not willing to treat everyone as a potential threat on those odds. I’ve met some lovely people by not giving in to the fear of the 1% and remaining nice. Not everyone’s willing to risk it though. I met two men within a couple of weeks of each other, neighbours who both said they thought we live in a pretty unfriendly neighbourhood. They were nice men. One, a former bouncer, had recently become a Jehovas Witness and was about to go to South America to do charitable work when I met him. Neither of them was sleazy towards me. The only reasonable explanation I can see for their experiences is that the nice people I know in my neighbourhood were intimidated by them and weren’t willing to take the risk of being nice. Incidentally, when one of the 1% started seeking me out, following me for weeks, it was the brother of one of those two men who intervened and chased him off for good.
Another niceness versus risk example: mostly if I don’t have human company and I’m out walking I have a giant woolly dog or a barky smaller dog along but I sometimes just wander off into the fields of North Herts to blow away the cobwebs of office life. One time I was walking near Wallington (home of Orwell and the farm Animal Farm is supposedly based on). I saw various people who I greeted cheerfully as we tend to here (if I find myself in a place where people are grumpier I take great delight in being even more chirpy once their sour faces get close enough – Newman didn’t mention niceness as a form of mockery), including an older couple who stopped for a chat. Since retiring they’d taken to walking the area. The wife said she thought it was “very brave” of me to go walking alone. I was surprised. To me, the biggest risks are getting attacked by marauding sheep and getting lost for long enough to desperately need the loo in an area with no pubs within spitting distance. That and the fear of being hit by a car on the stretches of road walking (which I avoid as much as possible). She asked what I’d do if I got injured. I said I’d be surprised to get a serious injury on a walk like that but there’s always people around. Someone would come past and help me. What about the risk of being attacked, she asked. Well firstly, I said, I look pretty boyish all bundled up and with a woolly hat on but mostly I don’t believe there’s a serious risk of being attacked. I said I refuse to live my life trapped indoors because I’m a woman (if it sounds like I was a bit rude, I wasn’t. I’m just cutting through most of our waffle). There’s something desperately sad about nice people not realising they’re in the majority and/or living their lives in risk adverse fear. I choose not to.
Newman’s daughter seems to be strong minded and true to herself. The odds of her making it to adulthood without abandoning some of what currently makes her her seem quite slim. She’ll probably come to realise you can’t act as if other people’s feelings and egos don’t matter when it comes to politeness (and I sympathise with the idea some conventions seem stupid, for example the requirement to say goodnight to everyone in the office Waltons-style has always niggled at me but I do it because sometimes life involves doing silly unnecessary things to keep the peace) but she may also be pushed by peer and societal pressure to become the more negative form of nice: compliant. I’m wary of extending what Newman’s saying too far beyond her daughter’s particular character and/or the form of niceness that involves conforming to the unhealthy convention of simply accepting discrimination and harassment though. “Nice” can also be used as an alternative way of saying meek, mild and even biddable. Some women might naturally be meek, mild and biddable. They might be happy that way. Some men might also be meek, mild, biddable and happy. Newman doesn’t do so but sometimes it seems we berate the women and mock the men who’re like that. What lies behind that isn’t just gender stereotyping though. It’s the assumption that it’s better to be the opposite: to be extroverted, or even aggressive. It seems like an increasing number of people are so intent on making themselves heard and winning every argument (even when there was no argument there in the first place) that we’ll be lucky if the economic and societal gears don’t get completely clogged with self important bullshit. I see it in a business context. There is definitely such a thing as taking a good thing too far and both genders could be accused of doing so in the crushing desire to keep it real, a juvenile concept with no basis in the reality of interaction which is making it increasingly tedious to work with people who watch The Apprentice. Yes, I appreciate the irony in my forcefully expressed opinions.
Newman’s blog was a jumping off point to thoughts already brewing in my head. She’s talking about her own daughter but the Guardian put the wider question, “should girls be nice?” I’m just as tired of feminists who feel the burning need to tell other women how they should be as I am of glossy mags etc. No. Don’t be a shy quiet unconfrontational person! Go balls to the wall (no balls, no barrier after all) after anyone regardless of who they are and what the broader circumstances are! Stay feminine! Adopt masculine behaviour! Shout out! Be silent!* Say, do, think, be what we tell you to!
The concept of stubbornly trying to classify others and to judge them by whether they fit heavily politicised views of how people should be and behave (whether demanding they conform to gender stereotypes or the opposite) annoys me because I’m a mass of contradictions and act and think in ways which are traditionally both masculine and feminine. Lots of people (most?) can say the same and why shouldn’t we? As long as we’re basically decent people and true to ourselves, why should we listen to women telling us not (for example) to be diffident and mild mannered in the face of rudeness any more than we should listen to men telling us what to do? I’m impetuous and stubborn despite also being polite and “nice”. I’m outgoing, outspoken and cheeky when I’m in my element but shy when I’m not and always need time to myself either way. I’m very nonconfrontational (to the point that I physically get mildly panicky if I even hear an argument breaking out near me) and I rarely stand up for myself but despite this I don’t think twice before standing up for someone else (one time getting kicked out of a club along with all the fighting men because I’d plunged into the middle to rescue a friend’s glasses when they got knocked off in the fray and I knew how strong his prescription was). I’m a problem solver (traditionally a masculine trait, of course): it’s my answer to just about any crisis and why I’m suited to my job. I’m not cold. I’m certainly not unsympathetic or dispassionate but I do want to fix the problem. I don’t think any of this is related to gender politics particularly. It’s who I am. I don’t exist in isolation and you could argue I’m just deluded but while my environment has an impact on me, I don’t see why anyone, misogynist or feminist, should have the right to pick at any of these things and tell me they’re wrong because I’m a woman
Left: me and my grandad with a book of nursery rhymes (probably why I remembered these photos). Right: taken the same day, presumably I was “helping” my mum and grandma in the kitchen. It’s my expressions that make me think sugar and spice one minute and slugs and snails the next.
I drink beer, watch rugby, swear, make rude jokes and my car doesn’t have a name. I also drink wine (although only red so not such a stereotype), do pilates, cook amazing food, go soppy over cats and dogs, cry over the news sometimes, wear pretty clothes (an emotional weather vane – if I’m looking at the wardrobe thinking “I don’t care” what I’m going to see all day it’s a sure sign I’m really unhappy and/or exhausted because fabrics and cheerful colour reflect when I’m happy or I’m not but want to be) and an ever growing collection of cute sexy shoes. I read fantasy books (great female authors include Kate Griffin, Kat Richardson and Tanya Huff by the way), love Dumas’ Three Musketeers books (even the non-famous ones) and find Jane Austen boring. I don’t like romance novels but am privately a hopeless romantic. The friend with the nice husband I mentioned above? Her husband’s an only child and I know his parents. Apparently his dad’s in awe of me because I can “read Ikea instructions and bake cakes” (as my friend pointed out, so can she!). So what, to all of this. Should I be testing all of these characteristics against a litmus chart running from oppressed to independent as defined by famous feminists?
Yes, I bump up against societal norms – my hang ups about myself being a case in point (let’s face it men have plenty too though, and just as many about their bodies as women from what I’ve seen). A common theme in the press and blogs at this time of year is the great bikini debate, with glossies saying “get a bikini body!” and feminist writers “wear a bikini with pride!”, followed by blogs by other feminists saying “don’t wear a bikini if you don’t want to!” – if women keep writing the same thing every single year we’ll eventually have vast plains of data warehouses devoted solely to the issue of bikini wearing…and still more for the politics of hair removal. Although I agree glossies add to our insecurities, criticism of insecurities (overt or implied) is the most pernicious kind of criticism for women to make about other women to my mind because insecurities are normal. If we didn’t have one kind, we’d have another. I fall into the same traps as anyone else, like hating my thighs and thinking men want someone more sophisticated than I’ll ever be (someone who never has bruises on their legs because she’s not a clumsy oaf, for instance). Oh, and I hate my walk, which is ridiculous because I’ve never even seen it properly. I can walk normally (I think) for a few metres but anything more than that and I have to compensate for the back and hip problems. I can temporarily hide it by wearing heels but in flats I feel like my right side gives me the gait of an inelegant duck. So, yeah. That’s the double, isn’t it. A hang up about a physical condition I can’t change and how it affects my femininity. Like I say, we’ve all got them. Why do some women add to the load by demanding that we shed our insecurities, slough them off because they tell us that we’re being insecure about the wrong things and should really feel bad about the way we’re aiding and abetting the patriarchy by allowing ourselves to have them (particularly if they’re related in any way to how men see us)?
I haven’t studied feminist theory, don’t belong to a particular camp. I’m just another woman but it seems to me the point of feminism to make it ok to be all these things, do all these things: that it’s ok for women and men to be themselves. My advice to women and men alike would be do, think and say what you like, love who you like and be who you are without any regard to your gender. But do, think and say what you like, love who you like and be who you are with every regard to your humanity. That’s what feminism means to me. In fact, I’d rather shed a badge which has become a bit tarnished and call it humanism. Oh, and I’d add to feel free to ignore my advice and the advice or demands of any other stranger on the internet because you’re probably complicated and contradictory too and none of us have the right to tell you who to be.
* (no separate post on the Twitter Silence by the way because I was a bit meh on it as a form of protest and had nothing to add. I certainly didn’t have an issue with people I follow doing it but did get irritated by some of the media types)
@HayesThompson shared this FT article from last weekend with me saying that we Brits are nicer and kinder than we think. For a peaceful life, I’d better point out he didn’t buy it – it was lying around in the office. He was quite clear about that 🙂