The bell rang dismissing us from Ms. Gail’s 4th grade class. Within minutes Jeremy and I found ourselves rumbling near the stairwell. We were eventually pried apart and taken to the principal’s office where our mothers were notified via phone we’d been suspended from school for fighting.
Jeremy was no different from most elementary school boys who teased or playfully (and sometimes aggressively) hit you because they had a pre-pubescent crush. “Look at that big ol’ head on your little body. You look like Mr. Potato Head.” “Ya mama!” I barked back. I’d missed the memo that “ya mama” jokes kicked Jeremy’s hyper-aggression into drive—even for a girl much smaller than him—so he hit me. Oh, we’re going to rumble ’til death, I thought. Protecting myself at all costs, especially against a boy, was my only concern.
I was never meant to be a ‘nice’ girl. I share the blood of warrior women. Docile wasn’t something I’d witnessed.
For the New York Times’s parenting blog, Catherine Newman opined why she didn’t want her 10-year-old daughter to be nice in a 971-word piece titled “I Do Not Want My Daughter to Be ‘Nice‘.” The proud “radical card-carrying feminist” lived her entire life smiling when she didn’t want to so she’d be liked by everyone. Newman didn’t want her daughter to be a carbon copy of herself. She wrote:
Birdy is polite in a “Can you please help me find my rain boots?” and “Thank you, I’d love another deviled egg” kind of way. But when strangers talk to her, she is like, “Whatever.” She looks away, scowling. She does not smile or encourage.
I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice. I tell you this confessionally. Because do I think it is a good idea for girls to engage with zealously leering men, like the creepy guy in the hardware store who is telling her how pretty she is? I do not. “Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!” “Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!” I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament.
Her thoughtful piece on Birdy’s lack of niceness that patriarchy tells women they should have (it’s part of being feminine, duh!) led to commenters pitchforking Newman down.
Sounds like it’s more about Mommy’s anger and her wish for a do-over of her own past than it is about Birdy.
Why does this girl have to be an unpleasant and unlikeable grouch to be strong and say “No”? Of course the over-pleasing has to go. But can’t it be replaced by serenity and love, with an inner strength? That is true power.
That’s great, but don’t expect anyone to care when your daughter complains that the world is hard, people are uncaring, and no one appreciates how great she really is.
Good. I won’t be “nice” to her, either.
Scrolling through the 100-plus comments I scratched my head at the opposition to the author’s argument, which was not without fault like her correlation to an older man calling a little girl pretty automatically being a creep, or as if smiling through life automatically would lead to the stripper pole. I also didn’t get the assumption to a strong-minded young girl with no desire to over-please led to the assumption she was a disrespectful, rude little grouch. The only indication the mother gave that Birdy may be snappy at times was when she noted Birdy looks away “scowling” when strangers talk to her. It was strange that commenters couldn’t understand that since we typically teach children as early as preschool to “never talk to strangers.”
In the reader’s mind there were only two ends of the spectrum: Nice or Mean. God forbid anyone challenge gender norms. And what about a happy medium?
In Jezebel’s “Being a Good Person Versus Being A Nice Girl,” writer Katie Dries basically agrees with Newman while offering her own personal experiences. Dries writes:
Be a good girl?” “Smile, sweetie.” “She’s such a nice girl.” They’re all phrases most women have heard in their lives, whether they’re on the receiving end of them or have heard them being said to another woman. “Good” and “nice” are adjectives that have a lot of baggage for women, which is why it’s so refreshing to read about a woman who is trying to avoid teaching her daughter to be either of those things.
…I have spent my life trying to be a good person – Newman uses the word moral, which also works – not a nice girl. I realized pretty early on, in middle school, that I was probably going to spend my life being called a bitch because I wasn’t overly sweet and friendly to people. The only time it ever bothers me is if I find out I’ve actually upset or hurt someone. Because if I was actually a bitch, I wouldn’t have good friends and strong relationships and a family who loves me (she said to herself, convincingly). I don’t give compliments easily. I don’t smile at people on the street unless I’m in nature and it’s the first person I’ve seen in miles. I am polite to grocery store baggers. I try to be purposeful with my actions.
I have sugary sweet female friends. If you don’t like them it’s you, not them. I’m also friends with women who aren’t conventionally nice but are kind, good people. Because I am so different from the former group I’m always interested in how they can be so damn nice when life gets hard. I admire them for it.
Admiration and all, I have no desire to be the nice girl in the way it’s intended for women. This puts me in sticky situation as a black woman. The Angry Black Woman meme is pranced around the media as another way to pathologize black women. First Lady Michelle Obama couldn’t escape the ABW accusations from the right when she firmly but professionally approached her heckler at a fundraiser or when her Princeton thesis surfaced on black disparity. Mrs. Obama was all too familiar with the ABW trope. Last year she told “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King, “I’m not some angry black woman” as the media had tried to portray her. Anger is the one emotion every other group of people understandably can feel, just not us. Black women are publicly and privately silenced by fear of being deemed too emotional or angry. It’s a burden we must carry the minute we leave the front door of our homes and present ourselves to the world—a world that for the most part has already defined us into stereotypical boxes. Not wanting to be nice comes with a heavy price for women, an even heavier one for black women.
But if being nice means I bite my tongue when a stranger touches my ass on the subway, I don’t want it. If the nice card means I’m spoken over in meetings while presenting an idea, I’m not interested. If nice is staying silent the 101st time I’ve been street harassed in a day as to not be considered a bitch, I will gladly pass. Unfortunately as women, niceness is often equated to weakness and the perception of weakness can mean fighting for your life in more ways than one.
My lack of interest in being nice doesn’t mean I delight in—mine or other’s—obnoxious, rude, mean or hurtful behaviors. I don’t. I work everyday to be kind, compassionate, ethical and moral. Kindness and girly nice isn’t synonymous. Usually niceness is done as a fake pleasantry and I’d rather authenticity. I’m an opinionated writer who unintentionally ruffles feathers. Nice wasn’t in the personality cards for me. And I’m ok with that.
It’s important to remember nice is relative, but as it relates to women it comes with a level of expectation to be “good” or act like a “lady” and a host of other standards I couldn’t care less about following. I hope my future daughter (and son) are who they are, authentically. I will be OK if my daughter is girly nice because I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I’m also very aware of the repercussions for ballsy, no-nonsense women. As one NYT commenter warned using her own adult daughter as an example, “Unfortunately, there is a downside [to being tough]. She has had trouble keeping jobs (and friends… and boyfriends… ) because she can be rigid and judgmental and caustic. Girls pay a greater price for being tough?” Yes, we do.
If my daughter happens to encounter her very own Jeremy, the one thing I’d hope she doesn’t do is take the high road by being nice while he’s punching the crap out of her. Take him down. Because nice just doesn’t work in some circumstances. Not even for girls.