A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a drink with a table of women at a night-out event for my MFA program. As our peers mingled around us, as the sun set over L.A., as promises of late-night karaoke were made, our conversation turned to our unpleasant experiences with men. We had many of them. One by one, we shared of situations where a man went too far, where we felt uncomfortable, uncertain, or unsafe. The common thread of our stories was that we couldn’t say “no.” We couldn’t stop it from happening. We didn’t know what to do.
This is over drinks, right? So we’re laughing, playing it cool; we don’t want to ruin the jolly atmosphere. But as we were talking, I was struck by this idea that it would somehow be worse to be considered rude than to be stuck in a horrible, painful situation, doing things we don’t want to do. It’s better to be considered pleasing than to be comfortable and safe. Our well-being and self-expression are not nearly as important as how others see us.
These thoughts are sickening. They are absurd. But they are powerful, and they have been drilled into me and other women for years.
Nice is a bad word. It is more dangerous and ruinous to young female minds than fuck, ass, shit, damn, bastard, bitch, cunt, and hell.
Niceness necessarily implies repression, because no one is naturally nice.
I’m not saying people can’t naturally be caring or generous. There are times when I feel so happy and so self-expressed that my heart overflows and I look on everyone around me with joyful benevolence and good wishes. At these times, I want to share the love that I already feel. I’m not being nice, I’m just being happy.
Whenever I act nice, it is unnatural. I do it out of a sense of duty, obligation, or people-pleasing. The only way I can act nice is through self-repression, self-censorship. When I act nice, I am repressing my natural thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and putting on a mask. Niceness is inauthentic. It is dishonest. I am lying when I am nice.
Allow me to get Foucauldian for a second. Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, describes the Panopticon, an architectural structure shaped like a circle with a tall tower in the center. The tower has windows at the very top. Around the circle, there are individual cells—they could be prison cells, hospital rooms, classrooms, etc. Those in the tower can look down and see everything. Those in the rooms can’t tell if there is anyone inside of the tower, so they never know if they are being watched or not.
But they could be watched at any time.
The modern-day example would be security cameras. For all we know, no one’s actually up in the security room watching us (granted, it’s probably all being recorded anyway). But whether we are actually being watched or not, we could be, and so we monitor our own behavior. We behave. No one needs to keep his eyes on us, because we’re watching ourselves. If you’ve ever stopped at a stop sign at night when there is nobody around, you know what I am talking about.
What better way to get women to police themselves than to make them think niceness is a virtue?
All through my life, I have been told that I am a very nice person.
I don't think this is a good thing.
It means I am censored. It means I have learned to keep quiet, to listen to others, to be a caretaker, a people-pleaser, a good Christian.
I have learned to put myself last so that others can be put at ease by my calm, cheerful smile. Who cares what's underneath?
I have learned to feel ashamed of my anger, my sadness, my not-nice emotions. I have learned to repress and repress until I don't know who I am anymore because the mask is so tight I can't get it off and I don't know where it ends and I begin.
I have learned to be nice.
The cult of niceness is the emotional abuse women face on a day-to-day basis.*
*Note: I am speaking as a white, middle-class woman. My experiences may not reflect those of women of color, nor do they represent the experiences of all white women. I’m sure there is diversity in those experiences as well.