No, Women Should Not Set Themselves on Fire to Keep Others Warm
But, unfortunately, we’re still expected to — and that comes with its consequences
‘Steely, icy and frigid’ — these are just some of the adjectives used to describe Taylor Swift’s reaction to a ‘joke’ about her relationship at the recent Golden Globes ceremony.
Some also claimed the singer was ‘overreacting.’
What did she do exactly, you might wonder? Well, she sipped on her drink while a male comedian nobody seems to have heard of before tried to make a joke at her expense. That can hardly count as an ‘overreaction.’ That’s barely even a reaction.
But it’s precisely doing nothing that’s part of the problem. At least when you’re a woman.
You see, when you happen to be one, you’re always supposed to laugh and smile at other people’s jokes, even if they’re unfunny and make you uncomfortable or angry, and even more so if they’re coming from a man’s mouth. But to react with a ‘hard stare,’ as some headlines proclaimed Swift did? Oh, no, sweetie — that’s reserved for men.
Only when men do the same thing — Ryan Gosling had a similar reaction, or rather, lack thereof, to some other ‘jokes,’ for instance — we don’t really make a big deal out of it and move on.
Still, it’s good to see someone with so much undeniable influence on millions of women and girls refuse to play by the rules of ‘nice girl’ behaviour.
Because, unfortunately, we haven’t left them firmly in the past where they belong just yet.
In one of the experiments on Channel 4’s ‘The Secret Life of Five-Year-Olds’, an award-winning 2017 documentary series focused on gender differences, boys and girls were split into separate groups and then given lemonade with secretly added salt.
As one could expect, when the lemonade was served to the boys, they almost immediately declared that it’s disgusting and spat it out. But the girls took a more polite approach and… pretended to like it. One even said it was ‘incredible.’ Another admitted, ‘I pretended I did like it so it made Kate [the teacher serving the lemonade] happy’.
This stark difference in reactions between the boys and the girls isn’t all that surprising, though, is it?
After all, it’s the result of an idea imprinted on us practically from birth: above anything else, women ought to be nice.
We ought to override feelings of discomfort, sadness or even pain and smile when we’re not feeling it. We ought to ignore our own needs and comfort and put those of others, especially boys and men, ahead of our own. We ought to laugh at the condescending jokes of men we meet in bars. We ought to rein our passions and opinions to not seem too much, too difficult, too hard-headed.
We ought to be quiet and docile and selfless and proper and palatable and well-behaved and ‘ladylike.’
So when someone hands you a lemonade with salt, you drink it, smile, and then say: thank you, it’s delicious.
The salt in it? Ah, no, that’s fine. Heaven forbid our emotions should impact anyone else’s day.
These expectations of ‘feminine niceness’ are particularly — and painfully — obvious when you look at how women in the public eye are treated and described depending on whether they meet them or not. And, just like many other things, they tie back to the long-standing sexist assumptions about women’s ‘gentle nature.’
But even though this extra-super-level of niceness is presumably in our ‘nature,’ more often than not, it’s just a game of pretend.
Some time ago, I came across this quote by Penny Reid:
Don’t set yourself on fire trying to keep others warm.
And it recently dawned on me that it’s actually a good metaphor for what this tyranny of niceness does to women — we are constantly expected to set ourselves on fire to keep others warm. To keep making sacrifices to conform to these antiquated notions of how women should and shouldn’t behave.
In its most extreme form, the ideal of feminine niceness found among highly patriarchal cultures, religious fundamentalists, the ‘trads’, and other groups that place a high value on ‘traditional’ gender roles isn’t really just niceness — it’s passivity and full compliance with whoever’s in charge. (Always a man, though.)
Writer Anne Helen Petersen recently compared it to ‘self-annihilation’ when talking about the phenomenon of tradwives, and that’s essentially what it is. Well, I guess the term ‘self-immolation’ would be even more appropriate here.
But this subservience in the name of being ‘nice’ unfortunately lays women and girls open to all sorts of bad things as it fosters environments where men feel entitled to seek control and abuse them. And where women think they have no choice but to accept that abuse with a smile.
As Clarissa Pinkola Estés wrote in her book ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves:’
This early training to ‘be nice’ causes women to override their intuitions. In that sense, they are actually purposefully taught to submit to the predator. Imagine a wolf mother teaching her young to ‘be nice’ in the face of an angry ferret or a wily diamondback rattler.
And yes, both anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that excessive female submissiveness enforced by a range of socio-cultural factors often comes at a high cost to women and sometimes also their children.
But even in its less extreme form, niceness can still be crippling. And not only in our relationships and domestic life but also in professional settings.
In the latter, women must still make an effort to curb their authentic selves and walk the narrow line between being warm and friendly enough to avoid being perceived as ‘unfeminine’ and a ‘bitch’ but assertive and tough enough to seem competent. This is the phenomenon social scientists usually refer to as the ‘warmth-competence tradeoff.’ Only studies suggest that if you act too warm and too friendly, you’ll be perceived as less competent, regardless of your actual abilities, and might even earn less money.
On the one hand, niceness, together with other stereotypically ‘feminine’ traits like compassion and kindness, are indeed expected from us. But on the other, they are culturally undervalued. This is why fields such as health and social care that require these skills and are still heavily female-dominated are also among the lowest paid. And why all the unpaid domestic and care labour women do — globally, women and girls still perform 75% of it — remains unpaid and is often perceived as ‘easy’ and not ‘real work.’
We’re told to set ourselves on fire to keep others warm and that our value lies mainly in going along with it all, but that doesn’t mean this is actually adequately appreciated. It’s not. And it never really was.
Of course, there’s a cost to not playing by these rules, too. You get labelled ‘difficult’, ‘icy,’ ‘angry,’ ‘shrill,’ and ‘hysteric.’ You might even suffer abuse, discrimination and harassment.
But if there’s a price to pay either way, isn’t that even more reason to at least try to live life on our own terms?
If we started evaluating men based on the criteria of ‘niceness’ we normally only measure women by, how many of them would actually pass it? How many of them always smile at jokes made at their own expense, laugh off things that make them uncomfortable and choose to always put others’ feelings and needs above their own?
There would be some, for sure, but off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any man I know who’d pass it. However, I can think of quite a few men who were able to make their entire careers out of being utterly unpleasant.
For men, unpleasantness is a feature.
For women, it’s a flaw that must be remedied.
To be clear, being a rude, self-obsessed and unkind person is definitely a flaw. And I’m not against compassion, empathy, kindness or selflessness. If anything, I think branding those as exclusively ‘feminine’ traits, and hence ‘inferior’ and ‘undesirable’ for men, has done society a massive disservice over the centuries. And it still does today, seeing how many of the men hailed as ‘geniuses’ and ‘real-world’ Tony Starks are just greedy and selfish assholes.
But the expectations for women far exceed what niceness or kindness or compassion actually entails. That’s the whole problem.
And no, there’s no empirical evidence that suggests women are just ‘built this way’. Study after study shows this is mostly due to gender socialisation. But also that despite of it, women are as risk-taking, assertive, competitive and confident as men.
Feminine niceness is and has always been, a largely performative act that, although it helped us survive, was also one of the most potent forces holding us back. Because this isn’t only a personal matter — it’s political, too.
We tend to forget and sanitise those parts of history, but it’s not niceness that helped the women’s liberation movement secure the vote for women. It was hunger striking, criminal damage, arson, bombings — aimed against property, not people — and even throwing a hatchet at a carriage carrying the prime minister.
We didn’t get to where we are today by politely asking for it. We got here precisely because the women before us finally refused to play nice.
And today, there remain plenty of societal structures and issues that need this need well-intentioned and well-directed disobedience. Not only coming from women, but everyone else.
I’m glad Taylor Swift refused to smile or react in any other way to that ‘joke’ at the Golden Globes.
It’s a little thing, sure, but considering how many women and girls follow and copy her every move, it is something. One more step in the direction that women and girls everywhere should be taking — shedding all those layers of performative niceness we grew up thinking weren’t even optional.
Although I don’t think I was ever that much of a ‘nice girl’ — which I partially have my Eastern Europeanness to thank for — there are times when I find myself slipping into that Stepford Wive-like smiling-and-nodding state.
It takes some time and practice to get out of these habits, and that’s ok.
But we must first realise that, well, actually, we shouldn’t be setting ourselves on fire just to make others warm and comfortable.
And that life is far too short to spend pretending you like lemonade with salt in it.
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