Rachel Shukert's moving essay about defending Courtney Love after Kurt Cobain's death — and the resulting treatment from her peers because of that choice — is a poignant reminder of how it feels when you don't stand up for someone.
Shukert was in eighth grade when Cobain died, and on shaky social ground. But when the kids she hung out with responded to his suicide not only by blaming Courtney Love, but by saying "I hope she gets raped," Shukert took a stand. She reflected,
It took a special kind of guts to be a fuck-up as a woman, I thought. To say to hell with being a nice girl, the responsible one, the one who makes sure the man takes care of himself and eats properly and doesn't take too many drugs. To be just as nihilistic and self-destructive as a man, knowing all along that you'll get crucified for it, because somehow, the world will make everything your fault. He'll be a martyr, and you'll be a succubus. He'll be a genius, and you'll be a groupie. He'll be a hero, and you'll be an ugly fat crack whore who deserves to die.
And so Shukert she acted, telling her friends, "That's a disgusting thing to say. She lost her husband. She's a widow, with a baby. This isn't her fault." The other kids called her a "poseur," but Shukert remembers the event as a moment of nascent feminism (her essay also appears in an anthology of such moments). I had a similar opportunity to defend another woman (well, girl, really) in middle school, but I remember it far less fondly. Like Shukert, and like many people, I keenly felt my social awkwardness at that age, and I pretty much wanted to be liked at any cost. But not all my friends felt this way. When a girl I'll call Beth found out about another, more popular girl stealing from a classmate, she committed the ultimate social suicide: tattling. The other kids immediately shunned her. I could have chosen friendship over social expediency, continuing to sit with her at lunch and talking to her in the halls and generally refusing to cave to the nastiest kind of unspoken peer pressure. Instead, I started ignoring her too.
This choice may have saved me from total social ostracism, but it didn't make me cool — I never penetrated the popular crowd — and it certainly didn't make me right. And while Beth's situation wasn't the same as Love's — she wasn't being blamed for the actions of a man — she was still the victim of a depressing truth about human social behavior: it's far easier to stand with the ostracizers than with the ostracized. Exclusion happens to boys and men, too, of course, but the small social misstep or shift in power that leaves you on the outs forever remains more of a female narrative. Perhaps this is because, as Shukert says, we're always expected to be "nice girls" — except when we're supposed to be mean, but not too mean, to people we're not supposed to like. When we fail to speak out for people who refuse to meet those expectations, we implicitly enforce them, and we increase the likelihood that we and generations of women who come after us will continue to have to tamp down our personalities in order to measure up. I'll always regret not standing up for Beth, but sometimes shame can be as powerful as pride, and my eighth-grade failure has informed not just my feminism but my desire to be a decent person — and my understanding that social pressures will probably always fight against both.
Nice Girls [Nerve]