From university drinking societies to dismissive boyfriends, Imogen Crimp, author of debut novel A Very Nice Girl, explains how she finally learned to reject the ‘nice girl’ narrative and why it’s so important.
My introduction to the rules of “nice girl” behaviour took place at university. Fittingly, though, for a model of womanhood that promotes compliance and passivity, I barely even realised it had happened until years later.
When I got a place at Cambridge, I’d imagined forming a friendship group of non-conformist intellectuals. Instead, I entered a world where boys gave each other nicknames like Sex Pest (for always targeting the drunkest girls) and Chav (for not going to a public school).
A world where it was common to hear songs about slags being chanted in the college bar. Where it was normal to joke “it’s not rape if you shout surprise”.
It was, it’s fair to say, a culture dominated by a particular type of man, and misogyny was embedded into all its main social institutions.
The most extreme examples were drinking societies – gender-segregated groups that went on events known as “swaps”, where one group would go for dinner with another of the opposite sex. Boy-girl-boy-girl seating. A cattle market, essentially.
After dinner, “fines” would be called out, where you had to stand up and down your drink if, for example, “the last girl you slept with was so drunk she couldn’t remember your name”. Another game played was Cock or Balls, where a boy would reveal a small part of his genitals to the girl sitting next to him, and she had to identify (yes, really) which part it was.
As a woman in that environment, your value lay purely in going along with it all, in being attractive, being “fun”.
Looking back, it all seems appalling to me. But at the time? I’m ashamed to say I didn’t challenge it. I was studying English, and spent most of my academic life writing moody essays about the patriarchy, but I was incapable of spotting it at work in my own life.
I went along to swaps, wearing “slutty” fancy dress while the guys were all in jeans. I laughed at jokes at my expense, overrode my feelings of discomfort. I put the boys’ wants above my own interests. I didn’t want to be disliked, to draw attention to myself, to make anyone else uncomfortable. I was, in short, a “nice girl”.
Nice girl behaviour is so ingrained it’s sometimes hard to notice we’re performing it. As women, we’re taught that a base level of niceness is expected of us. This starts incredibly young. In a fascinating experiment on Channel 4’s The Secret Life Of Five Year Olds, boys and girls were split into separate groups and then given lemonade with salt in it to drink. The boys immediately spat it out and said it was disgusting. The girls? They were already weighed down by the burden of niceness. They pretended to like it.
It’s a burden we continue to carry into adult life. You only have to look at the expectations placed on women in the public eye to be palatable and inoffensive, and the abuse directed at those who don’t conform to these standards of niceness. Men, on the other hand, seem able to make entire careers out of being unpleasant.
While in many ways my experiences at Cambridge seemed disconnected from reality, in others they felt like a rehearsal for the next few years of my life.
Throughout my 20s, I found myself in similar situations behaving in similar ways, and trying to ignore that all too familiar feeling of unease. Laughing along to the condescending jokes of men I met in bars, even giving them my number, barely realising that rejection was an option.
Entertaining a long-distance relationship with a guy who expected me to travel to him every weekend because, so he claimed, he was busier than me (he was a student) – the same guy who once, when someone asked me my opinion on a news story, answered for me: “Imogen’s not really interested in politics.”
Staying quiet and obediently doing whatever I was told on an unpaid six-month long internship, and then watching as the less qualified male intern – who refused to answer the phone (our shared duty), but did do a lot of irreverent bantering with the men in charge, and insisted on going to all the important meetings – got given a permanent job ahead of me.
But a few years ago, I was with some female university friends, and talk turned to drinking societies. My official line had always been how much fun we’d all had, because that’s what everyone else said, but instead, I found myself being honest. And one by one, so were the women I was with. Strangely, it hadn’t occurred to me that they’d felt as uncomfortable as I had. We’d all been crippled by niceness, even to each other. And underneath that paralysing niceness, we were angry.
I’d like to say that my nice girl days are completely behind me, but the fact is, I do still find myself slipping into smiling-and-nodding mode when sitting next to a misogynist at a dinner; and I do still feel instinctively guilty when my boyfriend does the same amount as me around the house, assuming I’m putting him out.
I’m more aware of it now, though. Because the fact is that being a nice girl doesn’t actually mean being genuinely nice. It doesn’t mean being kind. It just means being passive, and passivity means compliance with whoever’s dominant. It means not sticking up for yourself or for other women.
Nice girls are what’s needed to keep the patriarchy rolling. We don’t need niceness; we need the rage underneath.
Imogen Crimp’s debut novel, A Very Nice Girl, published by Bloomsbury is available now.
Images: Getty, Jillian Edelstein