Greta Thunberg has been criticised for not being ‘nice’ enough while campaigning for action on climate change. But her refusal to play ball is wildly refreshing.
By anyone’s standards, Greta Thunberg’s achievements are remarkable. In the course of just one year, the 16-year-old from Sweden has transformed her one-person school strike into a global movement for action on climate change, with an estimated 4 million people taking part in rallies across the planet on Friday 20 September. She has shown the kind of courage, determination and conviction that many adults are never called upon to display in their lifetimes, and inspired multiple generations – far beyond her own – to get serious about tackling climate change.
But as well as being one of the most inspiring activists of the 21st century, Thunberg is also a young woman. And so despite her clear extraordinariness, she still has to contend with something that ordinary women and girls face the world over: being told to smile. Cheer up. Calm down.
Complaints about Thunberg being grumpy, moody or overly hostile have been bubbling away in certain quarters ever since she became a well-known figure on the world stage. But after the activist delivered a blistering speech at the 2019 UN climate action summit in New York – the event she sailed across the Atlantic to attend – those criticisms grew louder.
Writing in The Sun, Jeremy Clarkson accused Thunberg of having “an angry, tearful strop… a full-on adolescent meltdown”, before instructing her to go back to school “and work hard in your science lectures. Because science is what will solve the problem [of climate change] eventually.”
Just in case anyone was unsure if he was actively trying to be unbearably condescending, Clarkson added that Thunberg should “be a good girl [and] shut up” – prompting his daughter Emily to lightly mock him on Twitter.
Elsewhere on Twitter, a user by the name of Chris Wright lamented that Thunberg is “so strident! Just her speaking style, if we can set aside for a moment what’s she’s speaking about”. Wright said he believed Thunberg’s message was “critically impotant [sic]”, but argued that this was “all the more reason to win over a broad base with an agreeable presentation; you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
The British political pundit Toby Young, meanwhile, told Thunberg – who he mocked as a “furrowed-browed little soothsayer” – to “cheer up”, before reeling off a meagre handful of statistics to show that the climate catastrophe isn’t all that bad.
Never mind that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a body that generally offers relatively conservative analysis on the effects of global heating – recently warned that hundreds of millions of people could be displaced by rising seas by the end of the 21st century. Toby Young is here to tell Thunberg to gizza smile, and inform the rest of us that “no bird has gone extinct in Europe since 1852”!
Then, of course, because few things make him more uncomfortable than a young, bright, fiercely progressive woman (see also: The Squad), Donald Trump weighed in. In a post that has been widely interpreted as dripping with sarcasm, the US president retweeted a video clip of Thunberg’s UN speech with the comment: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”
Inadvertently, Trump’s pay-off reveals something crucial about why Thunberg makes so many people (not just men, although it is worth noting that many of the people frothing themselves into furies over her existence online do seem to be male) deeply uncomfortable. She doesn’t play nice – or, in fact, present herself in any of the ways we have been conditioned to expect from women and girls in the public eye.
Thunberg is not polite to adults she knows damn well have not done enough to preserve the planet she was born onto. And she does not seem to care about primping and priming herself into conventional teen ‘prettiness’ – something that Trump, at least, is sure to find baffling. This is, after all, the man who oversaw a teenage beauty pageant for years (and is alleged to have walked in on adolescent contestants changing).
Neither does she plaster a charming smile onto her face as she enters a room. This may be related to the fact that she has Asperger’s syndrome (the condition is linked to lower levels of “social smiling”), but just look at the genuinely happy photos she posted from her voyage across the Atlantic, or the expression on her face when 10-year-old Zayne Cowie stepped in to protect her from photographers at a recent event in Washington. Contrary to her detractors’ complaints, Thunberg absolutely does smile when she feels like it: she just has no interest in using her face as a social balm.
Instead, Thunberg is tough. Uncompromising. Unsentimental. Furious. And to a certain kind of adult, this is wildly discomforting. Because we expect women and girls to be smiley, solicitous, sympathetic. One 1987 study in the Psychology Of Women Quarterly found that unsmiling women were judged more harshly than similarly unsmiling men, and perceived as less happy, less carefree and less relaxed.
“If women fail to perform expressive and warm nonverbal behaviour, they will be evaluated more harshly than men,” the researchers concluded at the time. That study may be more than 30 years old, but it’s hard to believe that its findings would be particularly different today.
Thunberg also raises hackles because of how fiercely she makes her demands (see Chris Wright’s comment on how “strident” she is, and how you “catch more flies with honey than vinegar”). This is a classic example of tone policing – a rhetorical strategy in which someone declines to engage with the substance of what someone is saying, and instead derails the conversation into a debate about how they said it (which, when you’re talking about something as important as climate change, really doesn’t matter all that much).
And research highlights how women are penalised when they make explicit demands, rather than subtly hinting at what they want. One study on gender roles in the workplace by Carnegie Mellon University found that women who unambiguously asked for changes to the status quo were often penalised. Other women – who had internalised the message that they shouldn’t ask for what they wanted – simply kept their heads down and hoped their wants and needs would be noticed.
The stereotype that ‘nice’ women and girls don’t make demands – that we should instead rely on the more subtle arts of persuasion, flattery and bloody hard work – is a pervasive one, and it undoubtedly affects the lens through which Thunberg is viewed by some.
But here’s the thing: we don’t have time for niceness. Campaigners have been trying to make the case for action on climate change for decades now, yet this week’s UN climate summit was still woefully lacking on concrete commitments to cut the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 – a step that researchers say is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 °C.
The era for asking politely is over. Thunberg is right to be angry – and she doesn’t owe her smile to anyone.
This article was originally published on 24 September and has been updated to include Jeremy and Emily Clarkson’s comments.
Images: Getty Images