"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.
On the New York Times' Motherlode blog, Catherine Newman writes about her daughter Birdy, who BTW, sounds like a kid that can hang:
She is deeply kind, profoundly compassionate and, probably, the most ethical person I know — but she will not smile at you unless either she is genuinely glad to see you or you’re telling her a joke that has something scatological for a punch line.
Newman says she's encouraging Birday to behave exactly the way she wants to, in sharp contrast to the way Newman feels like she's lived her own life. Despite being a "radical, card-carrying feminist," Newman feels like she's constantly giving "out smiles indiscriminately, hoping to please not only friends and family but also my son’s orthodontist, the barista who rolls his eyes while I fumble apologetically through my wallet, and the ex-boyfriend who cheated on me."
Newman brings up two different issues: one, that she is teaching her daughter to be polite but is trying hard not to encourage her to be "nice" because she knows what nice means for women. Nice is something women are forced to be, not something they choose. And two, that being told to smile is something that, unfortunately for a lot of women, invites random men to feel even more like they have the right to bother you in public, because a smile is always an invitation.
I completely identify with both of these points. 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.
On the second count, growing up in a major metropolitan city meant that yes, one of the first lessons I got before I was allowed to walk around the streets of New York from my parents was not to smile at random people. Though it bums me out that we live in a world where women feel like they have to not show emotion on the street so that they don't get bothered by men, if taken generally, that lesson isn't as ominous as telling women that they shouldn't wear revealing clothing if they don't want to get raped. If we lived in a world where women didn't get raped I still wouldn't want to smile at every person I passed on the street because honestly, I'm a bitter jaded New Yorker who doesn't want to talk to randos. Even women who may or may not be creepy, when smiled at, will start talking to you on the street. Not wanting them to is totally your right as a member of this world that we live in. So Newman worrying about her daughter getting bothered by men who she might smile at on the street has broader, less rape-oriented implications.
Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, the commenters on Newman's piece don't seem to understand the nice girl phenomenon. Some of them are very supportive of Newman's thesis, but a ton of them basically back up everything that Newman is writing about, complaining that her daughter sounds like a bitch. There are a few different types of these people:
The people who don't understand what rape culture is:
Couldn't get into this article. I smile at people I pass on the street, not because I want them to like me but that's the way I am. My children are the same and if someone told them they were cute or nice they thank the person and move on. Smiling does not encourage rape or abduction.
The people that don't understand the distinction between being polite and feeling the need to please others constantly:
With any luck, somewhere between being a surly middle-schooler and reaching adulthood, your daughter will learn that kindness and a game face will get her a lot further than a rude attitude and "whatever." You're not doing her any favors by encouraging disrespectful behavior and poor manners in the name of feminism and strength.
The people who are stuck in the 1950s:
"I don’t want her to accommodate and please." I'm sure she will make someone a wonderful life partner one day.
The people who think that if you're not "nice" you're uptight and unhappy:
My hope is that you and your daughter both learn to lighten up.
Somehow, I've managed to get through my life semi-successfully by trying to be a good person, much like Newman's daughter, giving affection freely and being polite the rest of the time. But yes, it'd be better if I just shut the fuck up and smiled.
Images via Getty