On Feminism: Being “Nice”

Thursday, 22 September 2011

nina leen 1945

When I was a little girl, my mother used to take me with her to her art exhibitions. Some things from your childhood you remember well, and this is one of them. As people gazed at her work, they would turn to me, often standing by my mother’s side, holding her hand. I still remember the question they would ask me, with a strange consistency: “Are you as clever as your mum?” This was asked in the most coo-ish, cloying, baby-ish tones, like they were talking to a small dog. The word “clever” was laden in a false honeyed sound, as if to imply that both my mother and I were not seriously “clever” just sweetly “clever”, in a feminine, inoffensive way. Of course, I had no way of understanding this question with such complexity when I was little, but I did smell a rat. It made me uncomfortable, and it made my mother uncomfortable. For her, it was a question masked as a compliment, but really representing a form of diminishment. Her art was interrogative, and so often people tried to make it unthreatening by infantilising it. They turned to her child, and baby-talked, and took the focus away from her real “cleverness”. To this day, I still remember the disappointed look on her face when people bent over to me and cooed this question.

Now that I’m an adult, I recognise how my mother and I disagree on many things, including feminism. But what she has given me throughout my childhood are the tools to disagree with her, and to do so with seriousness. Looking back at those countless art exhibitions, I realise that people were trying to make my mother and I “nice”. And I’m old enough to understand that I don’t want that kind of “nice” imposed on me. My mother asked me serious questions when I was little. She never talked down to me and she always answered my own inquisitive questions with long, detailed and serious responses. When I went to university, I wanted more of those questions and answers. But what I noticed was a gender divide. Perhaps an unintentional one, but it was palpable. Girls couched their questions and their answers in apologies, deflections, self-deprecation. They tried to console the class for their questioning ideas by convincing everyone they were “nice” and hence, unthreatening. This is something that became even more obvious to me when I began teaching myself at university.

The truth is, women are still required to be “nice”. To be unthreatening. You can show me all the token examples of assertive modern women, but the fact still remains that more often than not, I hear women deflecting their seriousness, their cleverness, their interrogative spirit, via a systematic persona of infantilising niceness: “Hey look, I may be clever, but I’m not out to rock the boat, please don’t hate me, please love me, I’m ‘nice’”. It’s basically the equivalent of saying, “I’m not a feminist, but ...”. I.e., I really believe in equality, but I’m afraid you’ll hate me if I say so, so I’ll deflect my desires.

What are we so afraid of? Well, that we’ll be hated, made fun of, called a humourless bitch, an ugly slut, etc., etc. So much of our culture is based on women being desired and wanted, that the idea of not being wanted seems quite frightening. Just look at the way female politicians are treated in the media: I hardly hear anyone debating their policies and ideas with any degree of real seriousness, but rather, talking about their hair, clothes, sexual attractiveness (or lack thereof). Just the other day, I was sitting next to a man who saw Julia Gillard on tv, the female Prime Minister of Australia, and he began laughing at the bags beneath her eyes and makeup. This a way of deflecting their seriousness into the familiar ground of “who’s hot?” When men are serious, it’s sexy; it implies a commanding personality, someone who’s in control, someone with a backbone. When women are serious, they are bitches or unattractive, humourless hags, in need of sprucing up and “feminising”. How many times have I heard some of the cleverest women I know being called “feminist bitches” simply because they don’t conform to the “nice” girl image? Or, simply because they ask difficult questions and expect serious answers.

But there’s another way to be “nice”, and it’s one that doesn’t infantilise women. It’s a niceness I try to enact in my daily life. It’s having decency, empathy, sympathy and a desire to connect with people without losing your interrogative spirit. The fact is, being “nice” shouldn’t have a gender, it should be a general human characteristic that implies compassion and integrity. It should not be co-opted into a rather insulting idea of femininity.

Image credit: Nina Lean, 1945. This photo always reminds me of my mum.


melancholyswan.com said...

Thank you for this post. My chair has regularly shut me down whenever I disagreed with him, and this is a regular occurrence for the women in my department. He says that coming from UCLA made me too "strong" in discussions. I'm currently applying for a new position but I'll likely be there for a while.

katherine said...

Thank you so much for sharing this, i feel like when a women does something unexpected or questions anything there is this negative response from the still male-dominated society, it's makes me glad that someone else feels the pressure to be nice all the time and denies it. ;)

yelena bryksenkova said...

i recently faced a situation in which i felt that the amount of work i was doing for a client warranted a raise in budget, and it was the first time i had to brace myself and figure out how to negotiate to get what i want but in a graceful, respectful way.

i spoke with my manager (at my day job), who is a strong, assertive business lady, and she had some great insight about being a woman in business. she offered to help me, so i drafted an email to my client, sent it to my manager, and she sent it back to me almost immediately with her revisions and some explanatory notes on why she made those changes. it was an amazing transformation! simple things, like changing "i would like to put together and invoice" to "i will put together an invoice" made all the difference. it was incredible how apologetic and meek my first attempt seemed.

even though theoretically i know it's business and nothing personal, it's still hard for me to not feel like i should sugarcoat everything or make excuses for myself to avoid sounding too demanding or bitchy.

(although i have been getting better at removing that smiley face that i am sometimes tempted to put at the end of an email for that wrong reason)


p.s. everything went smoothly with my client and i got what i wanted without any issues

Veuve said...

Brava; and thanks for your post!

Leah said...

Someone I worked with told me recently about a study that looked at the way people greet little girls - almost always with a compliment about their clothes or their hair or shoes, general appearance-based baby talk.
Ever since she told me that, I've realised how true it is - even working in a shop, if a parent and little girl check out together, the urge to say 'what a pretty dress!' or 'I love your hair!' to her is overwhelming!

I've been making an effort to comment on what they're buying (working in a bookshop, this can only lead to good and educational things...), saying things like 'Oh cool, what a great book! Have you read it before?' or 'Wow, good choice, I wonder what it's about?'

It's quite incredible how early on we get them used to the idea of being a girl, isn't it?

Wishcandy said...

Yes! Super glad you wrote this. I know so many people try and degrade me. I'm somewhat assertive, unapologetic, and full of moxie. People tell me that i need to be more feminine because i speak my mind. I wear pants, love the color black, and i'm intelligent. I don't see anything unfeminine about that.

And when i say i like how i am, they speak down to me about how i'll never find a boyfriend this way. As if my worth is based upon my ability to attract a mate based on societal standards on what being female is.

I also tried to talk to my brother and a mutual friend about feminist issues. They laughed at me, i wouldn't drop the topic, and they talked over me and switched the topic. Pretended like I wasn't there.

pRiyA said...

Excellent post. So well said. Thank you for this.

Gwyneth said...

Great post. One of the things I hated most about being a child was adults constantly saying "give us a smile! Why aren't you smiling?" as though I owed them something. It happened on a regular basis, because I was quiet and serious.

While a non-smiling boy-child is an adorable 'tough/fierce little man' a non-smiling girl child is apparently very disturbing.

Of course, as an adult I have learned that smiling can aggravate just as much as not smiling! I sometimes make a point to beam happily at people who are being very rude - it makes them wild...

Rambling Tart said...

I love this post more than I can say. I was raised in a religious cult that crushed women and forced us into idealized roles as helper, servant, prop, and made us think only of what would make our father/husband/brothers/males happy. We did not matter, and any strength of will or character was swiftly squelched and publicly shamed. I'm so glad to be free now, to know I do matter, am clever and valuable, and am worthy to make decisions and do whatever fulfills my heart. I love that we have emerged from oppression retaining kindness and respect for others even though it was not granted to us.

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting (and completely true) post! It really annoys me when people seem to pay more attention to criticizing a female politicians looks rather than her policies.
What you say about the nice/unobtrusive female image has made me consider why I'm very shy and unobtrusive myself. On the one hand I do want to be nice/decent/fair, but probably come across at times as too apologetic and self deprecating. I partially think its just part of my personality. However, I do worry about when I go into the working world if I would stand up for myself if I was in a situation where a male colleague was earning more than me for the same job.

Caro said...

I really needed to read something like this tonight. Thank you for writing it and sharing it.

Nancy Baric *negfilm said...

thank you!
i too stand for human characteristics as well but i must admit sometimes i am rather baffled by the restrictions or definition of what it is to be a woman vs femininity, that women sometimes place on one another or adhere to under the male gaze.

gracia said...

"What are we so afraid of? Well, that we’ll be hated, made fun of, called a humourless bitch, an ugly slut, etc., etc." Ah, yes, that old hoary chestnut. Know that one well.

On another note, I like that this photo reminds you of your Mum.

Olga said...

Hila,so much to say on the subject. Yes and yes, I'm constantly reminded of this issue in my life, it shows up everywhere, and of course it's not just me. As a creative person, I find it hard to express that I don't think my work is rubbish, even though I have a lot to learn and a long way to go, without feeling arrogant. The expectations to be self-depreciating are there and it's just so damaging. Yet more than anything I admire your talent to write about such loaded issues with so much clarity and passion at the same time.

Anonymous said...

What I find even more annoying than having this kind of feminine ideal placed upon me, is when I see other women deliberately act all 'cute' and place this ideal on themselves

lauren carney said...

your bloggy blog is sugar, spice and everything nice!
many compliments your way for all the overt loveliness compact into your page!

merci! x

Mariella said...

So true Hila! So so true and I admit I am guilty myself of trying to be "nice" in order not to make other people uncomfortable, I do this way too many times in my daily life. It's strange how I read your post in a time of my life I am thinking about this very often, I think about how much do I have to give up of myself and personality in order to please other people?And this is valid in relationships, work and any kind of environment.

Caitlin Rose said...

Oh well said hila! I wish I didn't have to run to work because there's so much on this topic that I'd love to discuss. As a pretty domineering woman, I often get people commenting on how "I wear the pants in my relationship." this is a HUGE pet peeve of mine, because it means that people assume because I am a strong woman jon (my partner) just listens to what I say and is some sort of demasculated dog. my boyfriend is incredibly strong willed, and I do not boss him around, my voice is just louder. haha.

The other thing is that I notice that sometimes I'm afraid of crushing men when they say something that is clearly un-researched and uniformed. When I know more about a specific topic and I hear a man making an inaccurate comment I often question if I should correct them. and when I do I sometimes feel like I've crushed them into oblivion and I feel guilty for having done it. It's silly, and I don't even think that most of these guys would say such uninformed comments with other educated men.

anyway, that's all I have time to complain about at the moment, but I entirely agree. oh, one more thing, sometimes I find myself playing the "girl" in certain situations if I feel uncomfortable playing myself. Like it takes confidence to be me, so my defacto scared version of me, is said "un-threatening girl"

thea said...

AMEN girl! Completely agree with this post. Dror and I were having a chat the other day and he said to me that he is always surprised by how passionate I am about us being equal. Feeling equal, putting the same work/effort/thought into things & our relationship... he says it's naive in that women and men are just NOT equal. I will defend him and say he didn't mean it as a chauvinist pig (which I would be the first to call him, don't worry, hehe) but as a sort of fact... and well, it's this struggle we have now of being equal but not being equal and grappling with the complexities of it all in a feminist or pretending to be feminist society. It's sort of fascinating... not sure how eloquently I am expressing all this... a topic for tea one day perhaps... sigh, time for bed for me, but very eloquent post on your part. x


Marla said...

I really enjoyed reading your article - you wrote such true words. Society tends to treat women still very differently than men and because of that it so importent that women write about this, out of their own perspective - like you did. Clever women should not have to hide their cleverness and you can be smart and sexy at the same time.
But it is hard - this occured to me just yesterday, I was pitching some ideas to my boss and really had to restrain myself not use sentences like "Maybe I could do...." "I don't know, but perhaps it would be a good idea to..." etc.

RJF said...

This post really resonates with me. I've just started grad school in America, and I find that not only in the classes, but in the networking and social events, I'm having so much trouble putting my view across without a self-deprecating caveat at the start of each sentence, or resorting to a giggle. It makes me wince on the inside. I remember talking to my mum about it and her getting really upset, as she said it was the one thing she wished she hadn't passed on to me. I don't think its as simple as that, but I still think that there is a socialization process involved, that I need to shrug off, somehow.

nancy said...

this topic really gets my blood boiling. I see this in our society and I struggle with it myself. I really appreciate this post, and I agree with you.
and, as always, very well written!

Enia Is (Almost) Here said...

you know i am going to love this with all my heart without me even needing to say it, so i won't elaborate. just to say this is part of the reason why 'nice' has become such a horrid word to me more generally. as in, you meet someone and ask a friend what they thought about this person afterwards and they say 'oh, s/he was nice'. aaah. i can imagine nothing worse than being the kind of perennially inoffensive and painfully bland person who after someone has met them elicits no further characterization than 'oh, nice'. give me opinionated bitch any time (though of course i agree with your practical lived approach to being nice in daily life). and it is of course rarely men who are given or give this label. and don't even get me started on 'i'm not a feminist, but...'. Feminism's descent into a 'dirty' word is at the same time one of the most baffling and infuriating things about contemporary social life.

tywo said...

Thank you for this. Such wisdom..I'm no saint at this, but I try to be on equal terms at almost everything I do.
As you said, nice shouldn't have a gender. It should be a part of our everyday lives.
You inspire me.


Sasha said...

As I read this I was confronted with one of my biggest problems. That niceness is not only instilled as the "acceptable" for my gender but it's also the norm in the location I grew up. Passive aggressiveness is the official stance of the most of the people I grew up with. And I find myself battling this on both fronts. I cannot actively or aggressively state my purposes unless I'm really heated about something. I DO always cushion my often valid points with disclaimers of opinion or citation. Much more so in an academic setting which often leaves me feeling more weak and unintelligent than I am. It also leads to second-guessing, for me personally anyway.

I've also seen my mother try to use her voice in the academic world and she was belittled so thoroughly that she still harbors deep resentment to the institution of education.

This comment doesn't really have a decent conclusion. I'll just say that your posts always so thought-provoking. Thank you for the much needed intellectual exercise!

Tana said...

So true described the image of a woman.
and of course i completely agree with your conclusion that being 'nice' shouldn`t have a gender. Thank you,Hila for this post!

Jane Flanagan said...

I'm very guilty of couching something clever in something self-deprecating. I always have this notion that I sound too haughty or cocksure if I'm more direct and say what I think with confidence.

I think it's also because women (or at least I) constantly think about how we're perceived. We play devil's advocate with our own words and try to head any criticism off at the pass by levying it against ourselves.

But, you're so right, it's not the important form of niceness and it's a very alienating thing to practice all the time. This post contains so much insight! Thank you.

Petra said...

great post. I wholeheartedly agree. unfortunately we are far away from women standing their ground, and sometimes I worry we even go backwards.

pierre said...

i m in love...word after word

Olga said...

I know that many women start any interaction with apologies. I wonder - are they apologizing for existing.

E. said...

Hila, thank you for this post! It really speaks to me and I recognize so many things in it! It's also beautifully written! I've often been accused of not being 'feminine' because I have never been good at being 'fake nice'. My mum, who was/is a true feminist, brought me up in a completely different way than most of my peers (this was in the early seventies). Although I'm proud of what she instilled in me, it hasn't been easy. At times I've felt inferior or disadvantaged, but always, inside of me was that voice that told me 'be who you are'.

x E.

E. said...

p.s. It'd be interesting to see you investigate/write something on how some women actually use that fake cutesy-style as a tool to get what they want. Too often they get what they want in this society we are living in. They are often the ones who are very negative and hostile towards intelligent women. At times, I get really frustrated by this!

x E.

Victoria said...

Amen! We've gone so far with feminism that sometimes we forget how far we have left to go. This isn't directly related but I think you might like it:

message to women from a man: you are not crazy

onesilentwinter said...

thank you hila, your childhood memories are very much like my own. my mum was and artist who insisted on working outside the home. my father was chauvenistic it made for a very interesting house hold yet both these things gave me great insight.

my father later in life, perhaps because i broke what he believed to be the mold of what young ladies should be like,( yeti always did it with respect for myself and others) he has since changed and in a sincere way. as for my mum somehow being the baby in her belly as she went on feminist marches, i know she regressed in the corporate world. she became the "nice". although a lot of it is genuine she fell into a gender game she did not want to fight anymore, or perhaps she fought it till she did not want to anymore.

Megan Champion said...

So well said. I’m often so thankful I grew out of my own ‘niceness’ and that my husband thought it attractive far more than any visual attributes I had going on.

Jen said...

I've just read this brilliant piece of writing (and haven't had a chance to read all the comments yet, but am very interested to!).

You've highlighted something so very relevant to me (to all women) that I have not been able to vocalise, and now I know why. I'm finding this sort of behaviour amongst the on-line Uni community... and it is slowly driving me crazy.

A word to my fellow gender: Stop apologising when you have nothing to be sorry about.

Thanks Hila! The perfect way to start my Wednesday morning.


Felix Curds said...

TRUE DAT! Women have be sexy, sweet, maternal, serious, EVERYTHING! Men put females up on a pedestal but that in itself is quite small place and may as well be a prison, hmph!

hila said...

melancholyswan: that's ridiculous. I wish I could say I haven't been there before myself. What the hell does 'too strong' even mean? Infuriating.

katherine: I can't say I'm perfect about this issue either. I do my best not to deflect, apologise and maintain my sense of self. But it's hard. Some days, you don't feel like fighting.

yelena: yes, I can completely relate to that situation, I've faced it many times. I'm conscious now not to use that kind of language, people also tend lose respect for you when you slide into hints rather than stating what you want. You're there to do a job, not to make everyone love you to bits. And there's nothing wrong with being demanding if it's warranted. Men do it all the time in the workplace and are commended for it.

p.s. I'm glad your situation worked out!

veuve: thanks

leah: yes, I read that article too, and it's so true. I like the questions you ask, I think they're quite apt.

wishcandy: we still have such a limited idea of 'femininity', huh? There's something so fascist about expecting so many people to conform to a narrow idea of what it means to be a woman. I get dismissed too, it only fuels my resolve to talk about these things.

priya: thank you!

gwyneth: you make me giggle gwyneth. I got that 'give us a smile' line too. I was quite a serious little thing as well, and it sure made people uncomfortable.

rambling tart: I didn't know that about you! I'm amazed that you managed to escape, it must have been incredibly difficult. And it must have taken a lot of strength.

anonymous: oh I'm not trying to put down shy people at all. I'm shy myself. But, I don't feel the need to apologise for myself.

caro: my pleasure

nancy: yes, me too. We spend so much time gazing and judging each other. I don't think that's 'natural', it's something we're taught to do implicitly. And I don't like it.

gracia: I know it well too! I guess when they have nothing smart to say, insults work best.

olga: thanks, and yes, it's a fine line. I don't think there's anything arrogant with being proud of your work. But I know, there's that fear of being perceived as 'arrogant'. I constantly feel like I have so much to learn, but what surprises me is when people interpret my desire to express certain ideas as 'arrogance'. So strange, and it's so not the point.

anonymous: I know, play-acting 'cute' bugs me so much. You know, it's the whole Paris Hilton pesonna: 'I'm a dumb hot-chick'.

lauren: thanks

mariella: I've been thinking about precisely the same things. I'm tired of sacrificing bits of myself for other people. What's the point, it just makes you miserable and instils a sense that who you truly are is not enough.

caitlin rose: I can empathise! look, I'm not perfect either. Sometimes, daily life takes it out of me too and it's so much easier to retreat into 'unthreatening woman' mode just to get things done. But the point is, we shouldn't have to. It bothers me that we still have to pretend like this, and yet, all I hear around me are people saying that feminism is 'irrelevant' because the feminists have 'won'. Really, are they serious?

thea: maybe he was trying to say men and women aren't the same? Well, I think most people aren't the same, it's not just based on gender. That doesn't mean we shouldn't all start at the same point, be treated equally, and be given the same chances to be ourselves. You get what I'm saying :)

marla: oh I know, it is hard, I catch myself saying the same things too when pitching ideas. It annoys me, because I don't mean it, I know I'm just saying it out of trained habit.

hila said...

rjf: yes, unfortunately, it's hard to shrug it off when it's rammed down your throat, because then you become the odd one out. And it's hard being the odd one out.

nancy: thank you!

enia/maja: yep, so sick of feminism being a 'dirty' word. We should 'clean' it up by using it more often. I knew this post would resonate with you, fellow sister-in-arms!

tywo: ha, not wisdom, probably frustration! But thanks :)

sasha: my pleasure sasha! I really enjoyed your post on Marilyn Monroe. Yes, I'm still surprised by how women are belittled, even in more open-minded contexts such as academia. Sometimes, it really disheartens me.

tana: my pleasure tana!

jane flanagan: I agree with every word you've said, and I've been guilty of it myself. The path to equality is still fraught with so many personal negotiations and sometimes the easiest thing to do is back off and deflect. But it does end up costing a lot in terms of self-worth.

petra: me too, in fact, in many aspects of our society, we have gone backwards.

pierre: thank you!

olga: that's exactly what I think! I once saw a man bump into a young woman head on. It was his fault, she couldn't move, and he could have stepped a few steps aside to make room for her. But she was the one who apologised, while he ignored her. It's a small example, but it's a good metaphor. What the hell was she apologising for? For existing, for being there, and in his way? So ridiculous.

e.: yes, well, unfortunately, the idea that we must compete with each other and develop 'bitchiness' as a way to get ahead in instilled from a young age. From my personal experience, it just seems pointless to spend your time constantly competing with other women. It's exhausting and ultimately unsatisfying.

victoria: thanks for the link! and yes, we have a long way to go ...

onesilentwinter: I don't want to fight some days either. But then I think, the goal is to get to the stage where you don't need to fight to be who you are. Maybe this is youthful wishful thinking, but ironically, it makes me pursue the fight even more.

megan: your husband is on to the right idea!

jen: I'm glad you've noticed it too! It does drive me crazy, I admit. And do read the comments here, they're fantastic.

felix curds: 'Men put females up on a pedestal but that in itself is quite small place and may as well be a prison" amen! That's so true. I don't want a pedestal, thank you very much.

Casey said...


hila said...


Mia said...

I can't believe...I really needed to read this right now! Thank you!! xo Mia

Clare said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I just started law school and the entire process of meeting new people and figuring out who others are in class is weighing on me a bit in terms of this. I feel my desire to be liked and perceived as "nice" conflicting all the time with the need to speak up, question, and discuss, especially in the classroom setting. The law school atmosphere is so bizarrely competitive that people are quick to cut you down and judge. The other day I heard people in my class talking about how a certain three girls always ask questions and although my immediate reaction was to be glad I was not one of the said three, I quickly countered myself and realized that I should not be intimidated by my classmates perceptions of how women and girls should behave, or my professor's for that matter. I do think in this particular situation they were mocking people who raise their hands often in general, but there's no denying that it's so much more stigmatized if you're a girl.
It's so hard when you're meeting new people and trying to make friends sometimes to stay true to yourself, and this new setting has been especially challenging for me in terms of finding a balance, or weighing whether I think I should even be trying to balance being perceived as "nice" versus speaking up when I have something to say or a question to ask. All this to say, thank you, thank you, thank you.

hila said...

Mia: my pleasure!

Clare: I do understand your dilemma and position, I've been there before. I think it does get better, the more confidence you gain. That being said, I'm still trying to work my way through people's expectations of me, and my own expectations.

delia said...

this is beautiful and so well articulated. i often find myself softening my language, whether it's with words that show hesitation when i have none or tossing in "just", "sort of", "um", "like", or "uhh" when i know full well what i have to say. while i dislike doing it, the difference in people's reactions to my statements is palpable. here's to the latter variety of nice.

hila said...

delia: I do the exact same thing. It's hard to unlearn these things. I'm not always vigilant about it either, but maybe over time, I'll just stop relying on those 'softening' crutches. Thanks for this comment.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I...really don't have more words than that. You point out something I didn't notice as much before, because in my father's family, my Gran (the Matriarch of the family) is very serious, and is one of the best deadpan snarkers I've ever met. Still, I notice that when interceding my opinion I say things like 'sorry' or 'that's my opinion', and things that are completely irrelevant. It wasn't my family that taught me these things. It was society. But to you, I really want to thank you. Every day, I am finding my eyes a little more open. You managed in a way that gave me an iota of hope. That is something precious given the day I've had.