Falling In Love With the Women Who Taught Me Not To Be Nice
Underneath my stony exterior (I have, alas, been afflicted with Resting Bitchface Syndrome from birth), I’ve always been a nice girl. I don’t like conflict for the sake of conflict, don’t say anything if I know it won’t be friendly, don’t treat others the way I wouldn’t want to be treated.
But I am also well aware that this niceness is not incidental. Girls are taught, either explicitly or in thinly veiled words, that being nice is tantamount to being holy. It is instilled in us, so early and so effectively, that we flex muscles we’ll end up using all our lives: the turning of the other cheek, the welcoming of blame that should never have been ours from the start, the grinning and the bearing in excruciating situations, the shouldering of others’ pain in addition to our own.
“If a boy pulls on your pigtails, it’s because he is trying to get your attention.”
“If a man makes a vulgar remark about your appearance, you should probably reassess what you were wearing.”
“If you speak your mind and act “hysterical”, you might ruffle some important feathers.”
Prominent pop culture examples seem only devised to reinforce that idea: until recently, Disney princesses were created with the sole purpose of propagating this notion of propriety and devotion; entire fairy tales are woven around the concept that nice girls get all the riches in life; many a woman’s film and musical career has been erected and torn down by the public interpretation that she was not suitably cordial — Kristen Stewart, for example, has barely escaped the slaughter.
The message seems simple enough.
The reality of it is far, far from that.
As most important life lessons go, this is one I learned only in retrospect: namely that ”nice“ and “kind” are not nearly as synonymous as they appear. That the latter is what we should all aspire to be as a whole. That the former is a fickle friend, an enabler for hypocrisy and denial, and a gauge for respectability imposed only on certain members of society: on minorities, who are inherently seen as threatening, on women who are constantly on the brink of being called “emotional”, on children whose honesty and candidness is often curbed in favor of civility…
Being nice has gotten me far in life: I have made friends, I have coasted through school, through professional engagements, through social obligations. But being nice has also brought me more trouble than I can put into words. Being nice has facilitated the worst kind of abuse — this, because at the first perceived pliability, people will suck on your kindness until you are completely, utterly spent.
It was a gradual change over the years; the older I got, the less I gravitated toward those pristine heroes and heroines who charmed entire crowds with their graciousness. I have found, in retrospect, a home in those girls and women who, broken or whole, have stopped giving fucks, who have reclaimed their identities, while being anything but nice.
When I started looking around, I realized that they were there, had always been there for me, I just hadn’t been paying close attention. I am grateful for them, those girls who are redolent of integrity and inner strength, and who walked alongside me as I grew into the person I am today, the person who can recognize the damaging patterns I’ve stopped internalizing since.
I meet Pippi Longstocking as a seven year old: and I am instantly smitten. She comes onto the page like a hurricane, with her lawlessness, and her no-filter take on life. She speaks her mind, is loyal but follows her own rules. She stands up to bullies and protects her friends. She rejects the stereotypes tacked onto girls — she won’t “play nice”, lives alone and with her own money, is resourceful enough to take care of herself, and never apologizes for her tomboyish demeanor.
Pippi Longstocking is a wild child, but she is also surprisingly profound, multilayered but also straightforward, almost mythical in her physical strength, but also down-to-earth; and while she is ultimately kind (she defends her friends Tommy and Annika against the neighborhood ruffians more than once), she isn’t particularly nice, nor does she compromise when she doesn’t deem it necessary. This firecracker of a character is a revelation for me, standing out from all the Meg Marches and Jane Bennets of the literary world. But I don’t appreciate her yet, nor do I know how valuable she will be for me in years to come.
When I meet Daria, I don’t yet understand who she is. I am nine years old, at the slowly crumbling peak of optimism: the world is still at my feet, my rosy-colored glasses still full-on in front of my eyes, and I am living life, even if the cracks are beginning to show. In the following year, I will learn, in many cruel ways, that the world is not my oyster, and my life will never be the same.
But at that precise moment, I am on a different wavelength. Around that time, I am already seeing the parallels between my outward charming personality, and the way people respond to me. I am understanding that a bright and sunny disposition, even if it doesn’t line up with my insides, will apparently get me more friends, and keep those open doors swinging. Daria, with her biting sarcasm, almost repulses me.
By the time I am ten, however, I have started listening. I don’t realize I’ve been looking for Daria until I see her, truly see her. Her attitude reeks of disdain, her temperament is blunt. She is everything I am not from the outside, she is everything my insides are telling me is real: namely, that it’s all a sham, and that the world is more complicated than it seems. I fall in love with her and Jane, with their middle fingers to the patriarchy, their unabashed embracing of their outsider-ness. I love Daria’s flat affect, and that her refusal to be peppy doesn’t make her any less of a woman than those charming and glamorous ones: they show me that this is possible for me, too.
And while my reaction to Daria is powerful this time around, it will take me half a decade, until my late teens, to fully appreciate how much she has gradually changed me.
The same thing happens with Rizzo from Grease (1978): I don’t yet focus on her, although a part of me has already been paying attention. The starry-eyed prepubescent girl I am is dazzled by Sandy Olson, and indeed, the film goes out of its way to point to her as the focus, while Rizzo is painted as the minx-y villain; I buy into that scintillating fable, because I’ve already assimilated the fraudulent notion that women can’t be friends, and that people function solely on opposites and dichotomies. But I also buy into it, because above all, Rizzo isn’t nice. She’s pretty mean, actually.
And while Sandy’s plotline could be — and has been — dissected for how ultimately questionable it is, underneath all the excitement, Rizzo, when she is carefully picked apart, emerges as the actual star of the musical. She is believably, palpably real: petty and catty and kind of cantankerous, but also badass and confident and with no fucks left to give. She is also vulnerable and honest with herself, and so intimidating that it is awe-inspiring.
“There Are Worse Things I Could Do”, her solo showcase, underscores all of the above, and confirms just how profound her character really is: it is an anthem that celebrates love and self-love, as well as all the parts about herself she has learned to embrace, and those she still hasn’t. Most of all, it smashes to pieces the notion that niceness isn’t antithetical to kindness, or vulnerability:
I could hurt someone like me
Out of spite or jealousy.
I don’t steal and I don’t lie
But I can feel and I can cry.
A fact I'll bet you never knew.
By the time Rizzo re-enters my life, years and years later, I have begun to appreciate what I hadn’t seen all along as a child, underneath the acerbic tongue and the swaggering attitude: namely an insecure girl on the cusp of phenomenal womanhood.
I cross paths with Lisbeth Salander as an irascible teenager: I’ve already seen how thankless the world can be, and the grim account of the Swedish hacker from Millennium resonates with me in ways I am unprepared for.
It could be argued that Lisbeth is a Mary Sue: she is almost inhumanly skilled, attracts almost every man she comes across, and is somehow, always at the center of dastardly plots from which she emerges victorious and laudable. But she is also a deeply flawed, deeply damaged human being who, more than once, keeps us readers on our toes.
And this, mainly, comes from her brusque, uncompromising attitude. Author Stieg Larsson admitted that he created Salander as a homage to Pippi Longstocking (my connection to Salander was always destined to be), and this shows: like her red-headed inspiration, the hacker is tough-as-nails. She doesn’t accommodate those she doesn’t deem to be worth it, and doesn’t try to make people comfortable at the expense of her own wants and integrity. Salander doesn’t smile, doesn’t back down, and certainly never apologizes. Her relationships have suffered from this, and at times, she even comes across as an opportunist (she shamelessly approaches her boss Dragan Armansky when she needs a favor, cuts him off when she is done with him), or simply cold and unsympathetic.
But there is more to Lisbeth than meets the eye. She is, first and foremost, from a terribly broken family, a foster system child, a rape survivor and, as a result, a lonesome, solitary wolf. She is different from other “tough girl” characters in popular culture, who are sometimes given the persona for the sole purpose of having it tamed and broken down by meeting the right man. On the contrary: falling in love with Mikael Blomkvist, one of Millennium’s protagonists, does not change her, nor does it make her nicer. Instead, it gives her more depth, as her deep-seated vulnerabilities, regarding her upbringing and her womanhood, slowly emerge.
Lisbeth Salander isn’t perfect after all — and it’s a relief. Unlike the other girls whose lessons settle on me belatedly, hers is a paradigm I am instantly awoken to: in these teenaged years, when my niceness is in danger of being engulfed by inconsiderate people, the girl with the Dragon tattoo is like a compass, teaching me that I don’t have to apologize for myself, don’t have to explain, don’t have to come with a warning label. I can just be.
Arya Stark comes in later in my life, in my very early twenties. She, at nine years old, is nearly a decade younger than me, but still, the attraction I feel for her character is no less powerful.
She immediately reminds me of Pippi Longstocking, she reminds me of the wild, unruly girl I would have stayed had it not been inculcated into me that women needed to be agreeable if they wanted to get anything out of life. Arya stands out like a fly on a wedding cake among her siblings, and especially compared to her sister Sansa, who has seemingly embraced all the tenets of ”suitable” womanhood. Where the other Starks sometimes look to please or compromise, Arya consistently tosses the gauntlet: as a result, her arc is thrilling to behold, even when it leads her down sinister, sinister roads (this is well done, albeit less subtly, in the television series).
Arya can go to the mat with men and women thrice her age and with ten times her life experience. She is a fighter, she is candid, and her loyalty is unshakable. “Nice”, in her vocabulary, is just another synonym for ”hypocritical“ and “insincere”, which is remarkable considering that most of George R. R. Martin’s huge cast of characters thrives on backstabbing and shady intrigue.
Arya is often put down by her peers and even her own family, for not being ladylike. She is unfavorably compared to her gorgeous sister who enjoys whiling afternoons away with cross-stitching and romance books. She is lambasted because she doesn’t want to idle around until a man whisks her away. She is chastised for wanting to learn sword-fighting, instead of waiting to be defended.
But I am deeply smitten by her, even when she is indefensible. I find her beautiful in her own way. I love her for how she is able stand in her truth and make her own destiny, especially in a world that doesn’t want her to do that: and she shows me that, however belatedly, I too can navigate my own thorny life without pandering to anyone.
Jessica Jones is the natural conclusion to my love affairs with rugged, hard women who don’t give a damn. Brought to life from the comics by an extraordinary Krysten Ritter, Jessica Jones is kind-hearted, perceptive, nostalgic, a softie through and through at the end of the day — but she is as insensitive as they come.
I meet her halfway, unprepared to like her as much as I end up doing: this, because her attitude borders on callous. Whereas others, like Pippi, is abrasive as a last resort, Jessica seems to relish in being disagreeable, past the point where it is necessary. She gives no truce or quarter: strangers, friends, family, lovers, enemies… all undergo the same fate because of her cutting disposition.
But just as I find myself writing her off in frustration, I become deeply aware, once again, of the internalized double standard. Men are allowed to be mean, given free rein to be assholes, but at the slightest opposition, we women are regarded as “difficult”. Why should Jessica give people the time of day? Why should she have to smile and be nice and stroke some egos, especially when it is far from how she truly feels?
Moreover: like Salander, Jessica has gone through emotional and physical trauma, and this has made her hard and suspicious and buttoned up. Like Arya, her refusal to walk the line has made a pariah out of her. Like Pippi Longstocking, her strength intimidates and makes men uncomfortable; and like Rizzo and Daria, her crabbiness confounds those who would have her play nice.
But Jessica is no less a woman, no less capable of being vulnerable and protecting those she loves, as well as herself: she slowly, clumsily takes back control of her life from her abusers, and carves out her own space in the world. As I finally come to terms with that ”niceness“ I am trying to wrestle away from myself, I suddenly find that the chasm I felt with the other girls isn’t as strong. It tells me that I am closer to being the person I want to be than I ever was. It tells me that at last, twenty years’ worth of lessons have finally started to pay off.
Evidently, this achievement was the consequence of many different combined factors in my life; namely, maturity, self-acceptance, and the innate coming-of-age that would have happened regardless. These popular culture figures were simply there as checkpoints along the way, proving that I was going in the right direction — and it was important to have that, to drown out the other voices that told me that there was no other way.
I still suppress the instinctive urge to just smile and bear it when a random passerby tells me to: instead, I storm through, throwing daggers with my eyes, thinking of the many ways in which Lisbeth Salander would have dealt with that one.
I don’t shrug off comments telling me to calm down during heated conversations, and remember that being passionate, like Arya Stark, does not mean that I am a hysterical banshee.
I challenge, when I can, the antiquated idea that taking care of people and lending an ear has to do with women being nurturers: why can’t it simply be because I am compassionate?
It took me nearly two decades to understand the difference between kind and nice. It took me nearly two decades to unlearn the lie we women have been told: that our propriety is the only thing that matters. We have been reduced to that word, “nice”, as the summation of all our complex, beautiful beings.
I would have liked to have been told that I could be the woman I wanted to be, and that it didn’t have to rhyme with sweetness, or docility. I would have liked to have embraced these pop culture women without guilt or puzzlement, because the knowledge would have been intrinsic.
And so, I wish for every new generation of women to have and to recognize these, and the many other, models as an example of how complex they themselves are allowed to be: but above all, for them to embrace that complexity from within — and if that ruffles some feathers, so what?
We are leaders, strong, courageous and inventive; we are protectors, defenders, geniuses first and foremost. We are more than out courteousness. We are brave and resilient and go through so much, so young. Why should our niceness be the thing that defines us?