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.