In this otherwise very inspirational graduation speech, writer George Saunders argues we should all be kinder. And while the world could certainly use more kindness in it, something about that advice irked me.
Women are taught to smile, to be polite, and to be "nice" from the time they are girls. How many times has some old man told you, smugly: “You’d look prettier if you smiled”? It’s been happening to me since I was a kid.
Now I roll with a perma-bitchface in an attempt to ward off chatty men and would death-glare anyone who demanded I smile just so they feel better about looking at me, but when I was a child and teenager, I did as I was told.
“Oh, sorry sir! I forgot my raison-d'être was pretty-thing-to-look-at and that no one likes a grouchy decoration!”
I’m not sure men are ever ordered to smile. I think it’s perfectly acceptable for men to walk around looking pissy. I also don’t think men learn that the most important thing is that others around them feel comfortable or that their feelings/needs/desires are less important that the feelings/needs/desires of those around them. Which isn’t to say there aren’t generous, thoughtful men, but it is to say that girls are taught to be pleasant and agreeable in a way that boys aren’t.
Simply, I don’t think women need to told they should be “kinder.” I think we’re told that quite enough thankyouverymuch.
The trouble is that, for women, being "nice" often translates into putting up with things we should never put up with. How many times has some creep sat uncomfortably close to me on the bus and stared me down, yet I’m too afraid to just get up and move, lest I offend him?
We smile when we’re harassed on the street or hit on by jerks. We laugh at sexist jokes. We learn that when we have strong opinions, we’ll be called bitches and that if we get angry, we’ll be called hysterical. When we say what we want, we’re called pushy or aggressive.
Part of learning "ladylike" behavior is about learning to smile politely when someone is being crude. Femininity has long been attached to passivity and to being docile. Men fight, women giggle and fume silently. Or talk behind people’s backs. We aren’t encouraged to be direct.
My mother is one of the nicest people I know. I wish I were more like her, in many ways. But she constantly compromised. Her response to questions like "Where should we go for dinner?" would be "Wherever you want to go." While my father is one of the most stubborn people I know, my mother just wanted everyone else to be happy. It's angered me for as long as I can remember.
In the New York Times, Catherine Newman writes that she doesn't want her daughter to be nice. Partly because she doesn't "think it is a good idea for girls to engage with zealously leering men." She's right.
In many ways girls and women would be better off if we learned not to be nice, but to say what we mean, ask for what we want, not talk to strangers, and generally be less pleasant and compromising.
Compassion is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it's hurt me in many ways. I've stuck it out through a number a bad -- even abusive -- relationships because of compassion. Because I believed that, deep down inside, these men were good and deserving of love. That everyone deserves second and third and fourth chances.
Many women believe men will change if only they are loved, and cared for, and understood. If we are just patient, goodness will overcome. If we act as nicey-nice role models, maybe they’ll catch on. But, in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. “He's not a bad person, he just has problems," has never served me well.
Yet when I have cut people off -- knowing, without a doubt, that they don’t deserve my time, love, or compassion -- I’ve mostly felt nauseous, cruel, and horribly guilty.
I’ve actually slept with men so as to not seem like a bitch. Or hurt their feelings. Or start an argument. Or because I wanted them to like me. And I bet many of you have too. And man did I feel gross about it afterward.
You wonder why it’s common practice for women to fake orgasms? Faking an orgasm is the most pointless, backward, UNEQUIVOCALLY UNHELPFUL thing a woman could possibly do. All faking an orgasm does is teach men how to be bad in bed and that women who don’t “orgasm” are prudes or sexually flawed in some way. But women do it all the time. This is where “being nice” has gotten us.
The amount of emotional energy and labour women put into their heterosexual relationships is rarely equal to the amount put in by their male partners. But instead of holding emotional baby-men accountable for their own actions and feelings and expecting them to put the same emotional work into their lives and relationships we do, we feel sorry for them. We coddle them. We tiptoe gently around their egos.
While telling men to be "kinder" might actually be a good thing, I’m feeling like fuck it. Women are nice enough. It’s someone else’s turn for once.