‘Sorry to bother you’ I write, beginning yet another email with the all-too-familiar phrase before adding a few more exclamation marks throughout just to make it very clear that I am everything I am meant to be as a woman: easygoing, polite and most importantly, nice.
The trope of the Nice Girl, or the Girl Next Door has infiltrated so many aspects of life, from the office to films and literature - take most romcoms and you’ll see a “bad woman” (she probably doesn’t care about her appearance, swears and most likely drinks beer), as she becomes more feminine and thus a viable love interest.
In the workplace, women often feel as though they must always be agreeable. This manifests itself in the way that we write emails as we attempt to seem overly enthusiastic. For me, this means that I will agree to more than I can take on, overfilling my schedule. Women are valued less than men in the workplace so I constantly feel like I need to bridge this gap, proving to those higher up that I am worth at least the same as my male counterparts. We are held to a standard that is not required of men, always needing to prove that we are worthy employees.
Nowhere is the idea of nice women more prevalent than in politics. On one end of the spectrum there are leaders like Margaret Thatcher who was dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ due to her coldness; the polar opposite of our expectation for women’s behaviour. Similarly, Theresa May was frequently criticised for her emotionlessness, excluding her teary resignation outside Downing Street, something which arguably received more media attention than the resignation itself. Both of these women became a Lady Macbeth type figure who in saying ‘unsex me here’ confirmed that to be a woman is to be emotional.
In contrast, Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, displays herself as a woman comfortable with her emotions, showing compassion after the Christchurch Mosque Shooting which led to legislative change as she implemented new gun laws. This is a rare example of a woman being praised for her emotion as it led to positive, long-lasting change for the country.
This is the trade off women must make in politics - either be cold, un-womanly and respected, or emotional and run the risk of being seen as weak and unworthy of a leadership role. Trump was a champion of the misogynistic belief that women are too emotional and thus make poor leaders, frequently implying that they lack the strong qualities required of a US president, all while showing himself to be incredibly emotionally erratic.
The pressure women feel to be agreeable can manifest in being a people-pleaser above all else which can be particularly damaging regarding consent. As we saw with Aziz Ansari, men often do not understand the programming women have undergone which can prevent us from honestly expressing our desires. This can cause additional trauma beyond just the sexual assault as we blame ourselves for our inability to refuse unwanted advances, failing to recognise the systemic issues which cause this.
I, like many women, have been in uncomfortable situations where I have felt unable to say no out of fear of causing offence, emphasising the extent to which being a people-pleaser has become innate. This inability is heightened in public settings where women may fear being seen as over-dramatic so remain silent instead. Again, this is a societal issue and as we have seen, telling a man no doesn’t always make any difference anyway. Ultimately the problem lies with the men committing sexual assault, not the female victims.
As Kristen Scott Thomas says on Fleabag: ‘women are born with pain built in’ and the pressure to be ‘the nice girl’ is perhaps the biggest burden of all, shaping us in ways we might not even realise. I have dulled so much of my personality in order to fulfil the role of the ‘nice girl’, terrified of no longer appealing to the male gaze which I so desperately seek approval from.
Positive journalism, celebrating women in all their forms, would go a long way in undoing some of these tropes, as would better representation in film. Emotions can be very powerful and women need to learn that they shouldn’t be afraid of expressing their full range of emotion, whether that be anger or empathy. The world would be so much better if we didn’t have to reduce ourselves to the mechanical idea of femininity we currently conform to.
Written by Colette Fountain