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“The big problem with our reaction to The X Factor’s Grace Davies”

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Kayleigh Dray
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Grace Davies provoked a response from The X Factor viewers all over the country – although not necessarily for the right reasons. Here, stylist.co.uk editor Kayleigh Dray looks at the public’s disheartening reaction to the singer, and underlines the big problem it represents.

Even if you don’t watch the ITV singing competition, it would be hard for anyone in the UK not to have at least heard of The X Factor’s Grace Davies by this point. Not only has she made a point of constantly wowing both the show’s judges and viewers at home with her own original music, but she’s also performed live with Paloma Faith, had one of her songs hit the iTunes top 10, secured the public vote on the opening live show, and garnered a pretty huge (and incredibly loyal) fanbase – particularly among her fellow Blackburn locals.

The 19-year-old had staunch competition in her fellow finalists, though: over the weekend, Rak-Su beat Grace in the X Factor final, making them the first boy band to win since the show started in 2004. And, yes, the Watford-based group were extremely deserving winners: much like Grace, they had wonderful stage presence, and made a point of penning and performing their own ridiculously catchy songs – which marked a change in the show’s approach this year.

The quartet also shared Grace’s confidence and unwavering belief in her own abilities. However, while Rak-Su’s self-assurance was deemed acceptable by viewers, the same cannot be said for their fellow finalist.

Don’t believe me? Try typing her name into Twitter and see what comes up. 

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there are more than a few negative adjectives which have seemingly become synonymous with Grace Davies. ‘Cocky’, for example, and ‘unlikeable’.

The most common one by far, though, is ‘smug’:

“Grace is good but she comes across as smug.”

“The smug face on Grace [makes me so angry].”

“Is it just me that can’t stand Grace? She is just too smug and fake.”

“I don’t want to see Grace in the final. Something very irritating and smug about her.”

“Would like to see Grace in the bottom two, just to wipe the smug diva look off her face.”

“Grace needs not to be such a smug cow. People don’t like smugness, honey.”

“I find Grace to be so smug and irritating…”

You get the picture.

And it’s not just the general public who have made a point of criticising this supposed aspect of Grace’s character: the Mirror recently ran a story about the teenager, in which it quoted a show insider’s complaints about the singer.

“Grace acts like she is [already] a big star,” the source claimed, before going on to suggest that Grace had developed a “bit of an attitude”.

It makes sense – to rational people, at least – that an X Factor hopeful such as Grace wouldn’t just be aware of her own singing abilities, but willing to believe that her vocal stylings can secure her a successful music career. That she is confident when it comes to her undeniable talents (enough to apply to a world-famous talent show, at the very least). That she is proud of herself – and, as such, all too ready to accept any praise/applause as an indicator that things are going very well for her.

However, pride apparently isn’t something the British public can get on board with – especially when it comes to a woman in the spotlight.

How Grace Davis failed to adhere to the accepted narrative

In the last few years, research has found that, for women, there’s nothing quite as terrible as being seen as cocky or too confident. And it seems as if our reasoning for this is rooted in some logic, despite being horribly depressing: women who are assertive or forceful (aka intent on pursuing their dreams and achieving their goals) are perceived as 35% less competent than non-assertive women, according to a 2015 VitalSmarts study. And one Stanford University paper, which compared employees with certain masculine traits – like being “aggressive, assertive, and confident” – with feminine traits such as “acting like a lady”, found that a woman can’t step outside of her traditional role without making waves, or experiencing a backlash.

“To be successful, you must be assertive and confident, but if you are aggressive as a woman you are sometimes punished for behaving in ways that are contrary to the feminine stereotype,” the researchers theorised.

With this in mind, it makes sense that so many people balked when Grace owned her talent on live TV – and that so many people on social media experienced an irrational hatred of her from the moment she first stepped confidently onto the X Factor stage. They would have preferred her to bashfully bat away compliments, talk down her skills and insist she’s far more mediocre than the world gives her credit for. To be cowed, simpering, and full of self-loathing. To flush red with embarrassment whenever Simon Cowell gave her that ever-so-slightly-patronising wink. To spout out lengthy monologues about how terrible she’s been, and is, and will continue to be. To begin every single sentence with an apology.

“In our culture, there is this unspoken rule that women are supposed to be modest,” Alyson Lanier, a psychotherapist and life coach in Wilmington, North Carolina, tells Women’s Health. “If we accept a compliment fully, the fear is that it’s going to come off as bragging.”

The sexist semantics of modern-day language

Of course, ‘smug’ is just one of many unfair labels we use to describe women: men can be confident, while women are dismissed as attention-seekers. Men are allowed to know and demand exactly what they want, while women who do the same are dubbed as divas. And men can be the boss, while women are contemptuously described as bossy.

The proof is in the pudding: you can plug words like “rude” or “brilliant” into an interactive chart created by Benjamin Schmidt and see how often those words are used to describe professors in more than 14 million teacher ratings. Disappointingly, women are more likely to be described as “disorganised” whereas men – praised for their eccentricities – are more likely to be called “knowledgeable.”

There’s no getting around it: the semantics we use on a day-to-day basis are deeply sexist – and they can be not-so-subtly used to undermine a woman’s strength, instead of holding it up as something to be celebrated. This can be most clearly seen in the adjectives used to describe outspoken and resilient women: think “yelp”, “screech”, “bleat”, “bitch”, “whinge” and “nag”, to name a few.

To echo the words of feminist comedian Bridget Christie: “I look forward to a time when a woman’s voice, publicly expressing an opinion, isn’t compared to that of a sheep or a goat.”

What can we learn from the online reactions to Grace Davies?

The vehement reaction to Grace Davies’ “smugness” is a staunch reminder that we, as women, need to readdress how we view ourselves and others – and that we need to think about the language we use to describe one another, too. That we need to make room to receive praise (try pausing, reflecting and saying ‘thank you’ the next time someone compliments your performance at work, instead of immediately backing away, for one).

Above all else, though, we need to be wary of telling womankind that they need to be “more confident” if the sentiment is nothing more than empty words – and a way of pushing society’s many problems onto women and away from the patriarchy that holds them back.

Need an example? How about the fact that a number of high-profile men have repeatedly dismissed the gender pay gap, insisting it is merely the result of women failing to muster up the courage to ask for a pay rise? Or the shockingly high number of people who have insisted that Harvey Weinsten’s accusers should have spoken out sooner if they wanted him to stop his behaviour?

If we truly want women to be more confident – and for them to be able to express that confidence in a way that creates meaningful change – then we need to start by creating a culture that values self-assured women. That values their voices. That encourages them to speak out. And that doesn’t seek to demean them as “smug” and “bossy” when they do.

We need to stop listening to the voices that tell us to live quietly. Instead, we need to go out into the world and crank up the volume as loud as we possibly can – just like Grace.

Images: Rex Features

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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