Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. Here, Badass Women’s Hour presenter and journalist Harriet Minter says it’s time we dispel the myth that being a feminist means taking no prisoners.
Like the rest of the nation, or at least the rest of my Twitter feed, I’ve spent the last few weeks glued to Love Island. Like everyone else I’ve enjoyed watching the relationships unfold, mentally congratulated the producers on coming up with ever more ingenious schemes to try and break people up, and fallen in love with Marcel. However for me the highlight has been watching the girls blend together feminism, humour and kindness. Rather than drama and bitching, it is a group of women just being rather sweet to each other. They’re nice girls – and I think this new nice is feminism’s secret weapon.
I saw it as Camilla calmly stood aside so that her then beau could couple up with another woman, in Montana providing endless support and good humour to her dumped friends (despite being in the same situation), and finally as Gabby tried to hide her upset at not being picked for a date so that she didn’t take away from her friend’s happiness at being chosen.
Generally this level of calm, rational behaviour would be pulled apart on Twitter. The women would be called boring and the producers would be pushing for more drama, but instead the world of social media seems to be lapping it up. Have we finally reached a point where women can be strong and independent but also, well, nice?
Previously a ‘nice girl’ seemed to be the very antithesis of what feminism was fighting for. We wanted to be able to speak our minds and fight back against oppression – but we couldn’t do this if we were holding everybody’s hands and people pleasing.
Take Doris Day, for example. In the fifties, the actor and singer epitomised feminine niceness. In her autobiography, Day argues that her roles provoked discussion about domestic violence and rape and that her lightweight rom-coms helped to normalise the idea of women in the workplace.
Despite this, Day’s cutesy fluffiness led her to be seen as complicit in upholding the patriarchy. It simply wasn’t possible to be nice and be taken seriously as someone advocating gender equality. So feminism turned its back on nice, preferring to be strong and fierce rather than friendly.
But I think we’ve reached a turning point in female power. Finally we’re beginning to see enough women leading governments and business to be able to admit that it’s entirely possible to be a powerful woman and a nice person.
And here’s the kicker: nice women lull those around them into a false sense of security. We’re so used to ‘nice’ being a synonym for ‘pushover’ that when we’re both kind and confident, we take people – mainly men – by surprise.
These people assume a nice woman in 2017 is still the nice woman of the fifties: a woman who nods and smiles, and dies inside. They see nice as weak. The new nice, however, is anything but. Yes, it’s friendly, polite and thoughtful, but it’s also firm and confident. The new nice isn’t afraid to disagree with people or stand up for what it believes in, but it also listens and makes space for other viewpoints. It’s Montana on Love Island accepting her ex’s apology but declining to hug him just to make him feel better.
The new nice collaborates and builds relationships, and then it uses these relationships to make the world a better place. Nice isn’t about endorsing the status quo or letting the patriarchy go unchecked, but it can lure those who support those things into a false sense of security.
When we accept that women can be strong leaders and nice people, we also free them up to be completely themselves
Traditionally, society has linked strong women with the archetype of the woman who pulls up the ladder behind her. Think about Margaret Thatcher and her nearly all male cabinets. Or Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, deftly double-crossing Melanie Griffiths. We’ve been the Queen Bees and the Strident Feminists, the accepted trope being that if you’ve dared to step out of the ‘nice girl’ mould then you must be one of those difficult women, somebody that it’s impossible to like. It also created the myth that women didn’t like each other; that if we disagreed with something another woman said, it was the start of a rift that would never be healed.
Of course the power women of the eighties were fighting a much harder battle than we are now. One 1984 study showed that in order to succeed in the workplace, women had to show significantly higher levels of ‘masculine’ behaviours such as aggression and dominance. Today we’re beginning to be more comfortable with women showing stereotypically female behaviours, such as empathy and communication, in the office.
It’s arguable whether that’s entirely a good thing: some suggest that the reason women who demonstrate these ‘feminine’ behaviours do better at work is because they’re conforming to expected feminine behaviour.
Regardless, the conflict between feminine and masculine work styles would have once led to the world trying to pit women against each other. But when we accept that women can be strong leaders and nice people, we also free them up to be completely themselves, rather than trying to conform to society's expectations.
We’re seeing this ‘new nice’ in businesswomen and celebrities around the world. Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In didn’t just encourage women to put their all into their careers, it also created groups where women could get together, air their problems and receive support from other women. When it was announced that Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman would be hosting Strictly Come Dancing together, the press predicted catfights and bitching. Instead the two hang out as friends, congratulate the other’s success and outfits, and generally look like they’re having a thoroughly good time together.
The new nice isn’t something women do in secret, we’re out and proud about it.
This new nice is showing the world that women can be powerful and kind, strong and thoughtful.
And it’s filtering into popular culture too. Wonder Woman was hailed as feminism-meets-superhero, but the thing that really struck me as I watched the film was just how nice she was without compromising any of her strength. She cooed over babies, listened as others told her their sad stories and cried over the way humans can treat each other. And then she kicked the arse of the bad guy and saved the world.
Nicki Minaj, a rapper whose lyrics take no prisoners and who wouldn’t hesitate to take down someone who crossed her, this year showed that just being nice can change lives. Realising that some of her followers were struggling under student debt Minaj took it upon herself to pay the debt off, just because she could. She didn’t worry that people would take advantage of her or that she’d be seen as soft. Minaj knows that there’s as much strength in a random act of niceness as there is a powerful put-down.
All of which brings us back to Love Island. It’s a reality TV show about dating on ITV2 for god’s sake, and yet the women are discussing feminism while politely informing the men that they’d rather be single than coupled up for the sake of it. They’re kind and thoughtful towards each other, they have each other’s backs and they’re not reliant on the men for approval. They don’t slut-shame each other (in the brilliant words of Olivia, “it’s 2017, if you want to sit on a dick, you can”) and they deliberately save contestants if they think they have a chance of finding love.
Meanwhile the public are loving it. This new nice is showing the world that women can be powerful and kind, strong and thoughtful. Finally we can bring our whole selves to the table and take over the world, with a smile on our face and a girl gang behind us.
No wonder it’s feminism’s secret weapon.
Catch Harriet Minter at Stylist Live with Badass Women’s Hour. ‘Pitch Perfect: Learn the Lingo, Win the Gig’ on Friday 10th November at 3pm.