A Response

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Jane published an excellent post yesterday, and I urge you to go read it now. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it – it’s one of those things you read and then turn over in your head in bed, instead of shutting your brain down and going to sleep. So Jane will have to forgive me here for responding to her article with my own perspective.

I couldn’t help relate Jane’s article to a bunch of ‘etiquette’ advice posts I’ve read on some big blogs lately. The sense of frustration I felt when reading these left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s clear to me that many such posts are created with good intentions, and no doubt many bloggers and readers out there would like to emulate the model of ‘success’ of the big blogs. But what we actually end up with is a flattening out of ourselves into some formula. Like Jane, what disturbs me the most is the advice thrown out to be happy, positive and avoid the negativity at all costs; to avoid criticism (both on the receiving and giving end), to avoid expressing sadness and to avoid calling people out. It’s like trying to sanitise both your blog and your life where the default tone is happy shiny positivity with a ribbon on top.

I’m aware that many of these blogs are businesses and so the people who run them feel they have to manage themselves this way in order to maintain their income. Fine, I get that. But maintaining a blog that is also a business does not mean having to rule out any space for critique, sadness and necessary negativity. It’s also about time the blog world learned the difference between abusive trolling and valid criticism. I’m sorry, but I do roll my eyes repeatedly when I hear a blogger exclaim in a preppy dismissive tone when encountering thoughtful criticism that ‘life’s too short, be happy and nice!’ I can definitely get behind the sentiments of being kind, giving people the benefit of the doubt and treating other people with decency and respect. What I can’t get behind is the assumption that I should just ‘get over’ stuff that is ethically wrong or problematic, simply because it is deemed ‘negative’ to raise these topics and discuss them honestly. Yes, life is too short; it’s too short not to fight for things that are worth fighting for – things that may make others uncomfortable, and things that may be difficult. Life is too short not to care. If I am only here on this planet for a short time, I sure want to live it as ethically and as responsibly as I can. I don’t want to gloss over the ‘bad’ stuff, I don’t want to look the other way when I see something that feels wrong, I don’t want to shut my mouth all the time and play ‘nice’.

These advice posts aren’t particularly unique as they speak of the general suspicion within our culture of any emotion that isn’t readily upbeat and simplistically ‘happy’. When somebody asks you how you are, you’re supposed to say ‘I’m great’, or ‘I’m fine’. If you tell the truth on crappy days you will most likely risk alienating people – because, after all, you’re supposed to be ‘happy’ all the time! This should be obvious, but life isn’t a freaking rainbow. Human beings have a wide range of valid emotions and our default setting isn’t HAPPY WITH A SMILE. And you know, sometimes responsible adults have to be negative, they have to criticise when they see something wrong, they have to call out unacceptable things. This is not being a grumpy nasty-pants, it’s called living in the world as a self-aware human being with standards and ethics. I am a human being, not a brand; I do not need to be fixed, managed, or marketed.

There is also another issue here. Because I regularly write about feminism on my blog and elsewhere, and because I have a PhD, I get repeated rounds of other condescending ‘advice’ via emails and comments (and sometimes twitter and tumblr) telling me how I am just so wrong about everything, right down to how I do my hair (gleaned from the one measly photo of myself I was willing to put up on this blog), to what I think about a certain film, to guys lecturing me on how my feminism is just bullshit and they’ll teach me how to live properly. I think my favourite ‘advice’ comes in the form of ‘what would your mother say?’ or some other lame attempt to infantilise me by calling upon the authority of my mother. Here’s a hint: only my actual mother can get away with this, because she is my actual mother. Everyone else who thinks they can talk down to me by virtue of my gender can fuck right off.

I know the inner tactics of this unsolicited ‘advice’ now. It took me some time to recognise how it operates through implicit sexism. But now that I know what it is, it simply comes across as desperate attempts to put me in my place. It’s perhaps the most demeaning and insulting form of the ‘be happy!’ advice that I regularly receive. Because it always comes masked as ‘concern’ when I talk about difficult and uncomfortable topics on my blog – fake ‘concern’ that my poor little female self just can’t handle life.

I guess what I’m saying here is that the imperative to ‘be happy’ comes in all shapes and forms, and whatever way someone tries to put you in your place, there is usually an internal bullshit-detector that will warn you of what they are doing. It takes time to find this bullshit-detector when it’s been buried under years of ‘be nice little girl’, but it’s there. And I hope everyone finds their own detector, because your humanity and individuality is a fragile and beautiful thing, worth preserving and worth fighting for – even if it means being (gasp!) ‘negative’ sometimes.


Karenina said...

GREAT post. This is why I love your blog. The Internet needs more real people, real perspectives. Never be afraid to tell it like it is and stand up for what is right.

carolinefryar.com said...

Amen. If we can't talk about whatever we want on our blogs--even if what we talk about is 'negative,' or messy, or critical--then there's not much else place for the discussion to go. It's important to make the caveat (thank you for making it) that blogs are sometimes business-places, but they ought, I think, also be places that protect exploration, vulnerability, and sometimes-unpopular opinions. I'm so glad to know that yours is one that stands up for individuality and humanity--thank you!

Chuck said...

Hila, I reeeeeally want to go to one of your M&B lectures. They sound amazing. I'm actually quite unhappy with the edit on my M&B but it's my own fault for not getting back to them in time so I can't legitimately whine.

I have happily missed these etiquette posts but I find it deeply irritating being told to be happy and cheery all the time. As long as I'm not being actively offensive I'm under no obligation to anyone to be delightful, sunshine and light. Criticism is helpful and productive and grinning moronically in the face of problems isn't going to solve them. x

Jane Flanagan said...

Thanks, Hila. I'm flattered that you felt moved to write a post in response to my own!

Teresa said...

Well said Hila!
I agree with Karenina. This is one of the reasons why I love reading your blog so much. :)

rooth said...

You know, along with the whole "negativity" issue, it somehow always turns into some kind of pissing match with "well, it could be worse like this..." or "it's not as bad as this..." - when will people realize that it's not a contest?

vegetablej said...


Great to see some common sense on this issue. I stated out all shiny and happy but started choking on it pretty quickly. At some point I stopped writing so much because I really couldn't say what I needed to. I'm slowly starting to come through that and get up the courage to speak about what I need to.

I come here just because this is not another bland, smiling spin-blog. And in my day, I couldn't walk down the street without some guy telling me to "smile". Wish I'd had the nerve to deck them.

Oh and Happy Valentine's Day!

Hila said...

Karenina: Thanks!

Caroline Fryar: Maybe part of all these 'advice' and 'etiquette' posts by big blogs that are run like businesses is that they assume all blogs do the same thing and should be run like a business. But even if we assume that, there is still room within a business model to get it wrong, to make room for constructive criticism, to be human.

Chuck: Best lectures ever to give - so many giggles in these lectures, and students turn up!

Jane: Thanks for writing the original post Jane.

Teresa: Thanks :)

Rooth: Oh yeah, that gets on my nerves too - my thoughts exactly: this is not a competition guys!

vegetablej: I'm not a naturally happy shiny person - my happiness lies elsewhere, in a more reflective realm that to some seems 'sad', but really isn't. And if it is 'sad' sometimes, then so what? I get told to 'smile' all the time too, and I keep thinking: being perpetually 'pleasant' is not something I owe the world as a woman. People need to back off and let us be human.

l b said...

Thanks for this. It's a feeling that's also been haunting me of late. I particularly identified with this:

'This is not being a grumpy nasty-pants, it’s called living in the world as a self-aware human being with standards and ethics. I am a human being, not a brand; I do not need to be fixed, managed, or marketed. '

It applies across the board of social media as well - I was sort of hurt when a friend of mine criticized my facebook page of always being 'empty', that 'nothing ever happens on it'. It angers me because I feel it implies I have nothing to show for myself, and in order to suggest otherwise I must provide some sort of entertainment, instead of using facebook simply as a way in which to contact others. More and more I see my peers using facebook as a platform for showing off, slandering others, judging others. It's the whole point scoring mentality that annoys me - as though the fact that I have nothing interesting to show on my facebook page makes me worthless.

Anyways, before I go off on a tangent, thanks again - I really love your blog and intend to revisit it often!

Hila said...

lb: Oh yeah, I've experienced that 'point-scoring' mentality too. It's a waste of time.

Mariella said...


Hila said...

Oh that dismissive smile and 'be happy' jingle just pisses me off constantly. I know what you mean Mariella!