“We need to talk about the real problem with ‘unlikeable’ women”

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Kayleigh Dray
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Alexandra Burke was deemed “unlikeable” on Strictly Come Dancing, an opinion she strongly believes came about because she demonstrated confidence in her dancing abilities. Here, editor Kayleigh Dray examines the real reason we dislike certain women on sight – and calls upon readers to start celebrating the nasty women of the world.

Let’s state facts: Strictly Come Dancing isn’t the sort of show that makes headlines (unless you count all of those speculative tabloid stories about the so-called ‘Strictly Curse’). Instead, the BBC One show focuses on delivering nothing but sequins, fabulously choreographed dance routines, more sequins, celebrities tackling dangerous-looking lift moves, and even more sequins: all in all, it makes for cosy viewing on a blustery winter night.

However, the dance contest – or, more specifically, contestant Alexandra Burke – recently became something of a talking point on social media. Not because of her high-octane performances and impressive high kicks, oh no. 

Instead, everyone was talking about the fact she repeatedly came bottom in the public vote, despite her obvious talent – and why she, as an “unlikeable woman”, deserved it.

At the beginning of 2017’s Strictly contest, Burke had been the favourite to take home the Glitterball Trophy: her deftness on the dance floor was unquestionable, her enthusiasm for ballroom clear to all.

But, as more and more people damned her for being “unlikeable”, the odds of her winning decreased – and more and more baseless stories about her “diva-like” behaviour made their way into the news stands.

“She’s got very little likeability,” insisted one viewer on social media.

“She just doesn’t come across as a very nice person,” said one more.

Another added: “She’s in the bottom two every week because she’s so full of herself and people are sick of seeing her fake tears.”

“Her personality just doesn’t draw me to her,” another claimed.

Elsewhere, others said that they couldn’t stand Alexandra, although they were unable to pinpoint the reason for this: again, there were vague mutterings that the singer “doesn’t seem like a nice person”. Again, there were those who have said she “lacks the warmth of the other women on the show”.

And, yet again, we have another glaring example of the gender gap in “likeability” – a point which Alexandra Burke has addressed in her newest interview with the BBC.

“I find it bizarre, because women shouldn’t feel that if they come across as too confident it can be mistaken for arrogance,” she said. 

“I got lost in a little bubble on Strictly. That minute and a half where I had no cares in the world… it was just a special moment for me to not do anything but dance and be carefree.

“And that, yes, that has been mistaken for over-confidence, but there has to be an ounce of confidence for you to go on the stage and do something out of your comfort zone. I was trying to prove something to myself.

“I wanted to learn Latin and ballroom because I’ve never done it before… if you get a challenge, why not try your best to execute it?”

Of course, there is a lot of pressure on women in 21st century, and that’s putting it lightly. We’re working hard to clamber up the career ladder, fielding intrusive questions about our marital and reproductive status from every corner and dealing with sexist dress codes – dealing with sexism full stop, actually (remember who’s in the White House at the moment? Remember the gender pay gap? Remember how Harvey Weinstein’s accusers were hideously victim-blamed by members of the press and public?).

It doesn’t stop there, either: we have ridiculous beauty and body expectations to contend with. Maternity leave discrimination is still rife in the UK and across the world. Abortion is still banned in countless countries. We’re not trusted to use contraception in (what someone else deems) a responsible fashion. And, on top of that, we’re reminded on an almost hourly basis to be kinder to ourselves. To be more confident, more exceptional, more brilliant, more outspoken, more patient, more… well, more of everything.

But all of that just isn’t enough. We have to be bloody likeable as well.

The uniquely feminine ideal of “niceness” is taught to us from a very young age – basically from infancy. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the lyrics of this popular nursery rhyme:

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice
That’s what little girls are made of.

Nice. It’s a beige, bland little word – one which many writers, including myself, would do anything to avoid using in their work. But, while that fluffy four-letter term may seem innocent, it’s loaded with meaning: “nice” demands that we go above and beyond to make others feel comfortable. To put their needs above our own. To be polite, courteous and accommodating – no matter what. To be soft, and kind, and gentle. To be lovable (it should come as no surprise to learn that the majority of men would prefer to date a “nice” – aka a “compliant” – woman). To laugh at jokes we don’t find funny (that we might find downright offensive, to be honest). To be understanding of others’ discriminatory views. To constantly apologise, even when we’ve done nothing wrong. To avoid ruffling any feathers. To accept the short end of the stick. To let men do all the talking. To put up with things we really shouldn’t have to.

Above all else, though, “nice” conditions us to stick to the boringly inoffensive roles that society (read: the patriarchy) has given us. 

Hillary Clinton knows, all too well, how damning an “unlikeable” status can be for women

As Suzanne Clisby and Julia Holdsworth explain in their novel, Gendering Women: Identity and Mental Wellbeing Through the Lifecourse: “[Young] girls are rewarded for certain behaviours, such as ‘being good’ and not being disruptive and that more outgoing behaviours such as speaking out and being disruptive attract censure from both peers and adults”.

If so many of us are taught that niceness and complacency are a woman’s desired – nay, our natural – state of being, then, it should come as little surprise to learn that many balk when a woman breaks out of her box and embraces her so-called nasty side. Why? Because they know that, if she escapes the confines of “niceness”, there’s no limit to what she can do.

“Why are you such a bitch?” asks the dude you reject after he slid, entirely uninvited, into your DMs. The online community demands you “keep your opinions to yourself” after you dare to voice an alternative view in a forum. You fail to smile after receiving negative feedback about your dance performance, so you’re branded “up yourself”. Your colleagues insist you “aren’t a team player” when you refuse to work late for the fourth day in a row. A stranger assaults you and you lash out, so you’re labelled “unladylike”. The public don’t think you’re as “warm” as the woman you’re covering on maternity leave, so your entire career is thrown into jeopardy. You’re forced to spend 15 years in exile after shoplifting from Saks department store on Fifth Avenue. You’re threatened with arrest after simulating masturbation during a staged version of your hit Like A Virgin song. You’re branded “overrated” after using your platform to speak out against a high-profile misogynist. Your Twitter account is disabled after you publicly name your rapist. You’re dubbed a “gold digger”, “bitch” and “fame-whore” for accusing your famous husband of domestic violence (despite the fact you have video and photographic evidence). Your opposing candidate in the US presidential campaign describes you as a “nasty woman” for challenging his opinions and refusing to let him interrupt you every few minutes. You’re told you “should have stayed sober” when a college swimstar rapes your unconscious body behind a dumpster. You’re shot point blank in the head for daring to even write about life under Taliban rule in Pakistan.

And so it goes on and on, forever and ever.

Rose McGowan’s Twitter account was disabled after she publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of rape

The same is not true of men: after all, little boys are made from “slugs, and snails, and puppy-dog tails”, so they don’t have to be nice. Ever. Think about it: Johnny Depp, Mel Gibson and Casey Affleck haven’t seen their careers hampered one bit by the weighty accusations made against them. Donald Trump is still POTUS, despite… well, despite every awful thing he’s done so far. Fans insist Craig Ferguson’s deeply inappropriate interview style is “fun and flirty”. Simon Cowell and Crag Revel Horwood have become the UK’s most popular reality show judges, thanks to their scathing tones. And Piers Morgan genuinely makes millions of pounds every year simply because he’s unlikeable.

So what’s our reward for subscribing to gender stereotypes and being as nice as apple pie? Well, nothing: polite and accommodating women may be better liked (and more likely to be considered “wife material” by certain obnoxious beings), but they are scientifically proven to earn far less than those dominant, assertive women who clearly express their expectations and do not retreat from their demands.

“Women aren’t aware that more agreeable women are being punished for being nice,” said Dr. Biron in his paper, The European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. “The nice women we polled in our study even believed they were earning more than they deserved.”

Feminist blogger Jessica Valenti, writing for The Nation, adds that “women adjust their behaviour to be likeable and as a result have less power in the world.”

And even Sheryl Sandberg (aka Facebook’s second-in-command) has lamented the impact of this deeply sexist trade-off on potentially high-impact women.

“I believe this bias is at the very core of why women hold themselves back,” she writes in her 2013 take-charge manifesto, Lean In. “It is also at the very core of why women are held back.”

Sure, some people are not nice people and you could argue that it is nothing to do with their gender. But it’s undeniable that there’s a certain vitriol reserved for women. That we’re so much more likely to dislike a woman with certain personality traits than a man with the same. That our society sets up an all too familiar dichotomy for womankind: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. 

Essentially, you can either be brave, ambitious, determined, difficult, complex, flawed – or you can be likeable.

I know which I’d rather be.

Images: Getty