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No More Nice Girls

Hijacking the backhanded “compliments” that have been bumming me out.

Illustration by Leanna

Illustration by Leanna

When I was 18, I was released from the confines of homeschool into the wide, exciting world of college. I quickly discovered that I was woefully unprepared—not for the academic part, which I knew would be rigorous, but for dealing with all those people. At that point I had never dated anyone. I had never had a beer. I had neither kissed nor been kissed. I had not, for the prior two or three years, spoken to anyone except when it was absolutely necessary. I’m not blaming home education for my dismal lack of socialization—I know that the normal homeschool experience includes a lot of interaction with the outside world via churches, field trips, volunteering, community theater, and the like. But such was not the case for me. I had used homeschool as an excuse not to interact with anyone outside of my immediate family. I entered college with a nervous desire to make friends, but zero understanding of how that process actually worked.

When you are severely socially stunted, other people can sense it. Not that I made it very hard—I provided lots of clues. There was the wild, deer-in-headlights look on my face when I found myself in a room with more than three other people, and the fact that I didn’t get 98% of people’s pop culture references, and my habit of, after someone told a joke, asking for clarification. At one point someone said they wanted to “take me out,” and I said, “You mean, like, with a gun?” You know: fun, sexy, cool stuff like that.

But despite all this scared, awkward, frankly off-putting behavior, dudes seemed to LOVE me. Let me be more precise: The worst dudes loved me. Everywhere I turned, there was a 28-year-old pot dealer who lived on his brother’s couch, or a senior who made it his business to nail as many freshman as possible, or, once, during my summer internship, an older man who taught my friend math at community college. They were just popping up like awful incubi every 30 seconds, all of them ready to yank the glasses off my face so they could remark on how “pretty” I was underneath them, or to gently brush my horrified face with their creepy pot hands, or to just lean in and purr, in “sexy” voices that made them sound like Midwestern Draculas, “You’re great. You’re so innocent.”

First of all: EW. Second: I was not “innocent.” I was a shut-in. Being attracted to me was like wanting to date E.T. And yet, somehow, the precise lack of social skills that made me…challenging, let’s say, to hang out with also apparently made me downright irresistible to a certain type of guy: that kind that is easily intimidated by women who can do scary, threatening things like make eye contact and converse with others out loud. One look at me and these guys may have thought that this E.T.-like creature (So unaccustomed to this modern world! So childlike in her ignorance of our earthly ways!) would be more open to their fumbling, grabby modes of seduction than a reasonably experienced and assertive young woman might be. Other girls would surely tell them to get lost. Me, you probably could have trapped by putting a line of Reese’s Pieces on the floor.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being innocent. With innocence comes the kind of trust that keeps you open to the world around you. Once you’ve been scuffed up a bit by life it’s hard not to close parts of yourself off as protection; as Danielle argued here, to remain playful and curious is an asset, as well as an act of bravery. There’s also nothing wrong with being called “innocent”—it can be a genuinely appreciative, respectful compliment, meaning someone likes your fresh perspective, and that you don’t have a lot of cynicism and aren’t too quick to insult or dismiss new things.In Zen, this admirable innocence is called “beginner’s mind”: coming at something without any assumptions about what it is or how it should work.

But it’s amazing how, in a patriarchy, anything—even a genuinely noble virtue—can be used to belittle women. Because when those guys in college leered at me and told me I was “so innocent,” they didn’t mean it as a compliment (I didn’t ask them, but you know it when you hear it). They weren’t attracted to my purity of spirit. My inexperience made me vulnerable, and that can be a siren’s song for anyone (not just guys) who needs to feel stronger than the person they are pursuing. They seemed to sense that they could get away with all sorts of BS with me because I wouldn’t know that I could (and SHOULD) call them out on any of it. For example: TOUCHING MY FACE. WITHOUT MY CONSENT. I must stress: This happened MORE THAN ONCE. Over a decade later, I am NOT DONE being creeped out by this.

There are other words like this: sweet, for example, and pretty. None of those are bad things to be, but somewhere along the line someone decided that these were girly qualities, and if they were associated with girls, they must somehow signify inferiority and weakness. Add to this mix the simultaneous but contradictory fear of women and girls that comes with sexism and you get a culture that fetishizes helplessness in women (because if we think we’re supposed to be weak and helpless, maybe we won’t figure out that we’re not). So “sweet, pretty, and innocent” isn’t just a description; it’s become an order. That’s what girls are supposed to be like.

Starting from the day we’re born, we’re trained to be a certain gender. Right there in the hospital, boy infants are dressed in blue, girls in pink. It’s how we’re identified before we even have an identity. And it only gets more intense from there, as Riley here explains:

Girls get dolls, which you dress up and look at and cuddle and tend to, boys get trucks and guns and other things that act upon the world around them.

The image of girlhood that we’re taught and sold is pink, it’s happy, and it’s nonthreatening. It involves canopy beds and no discernible desires excepting the endless one to please and appease others (especially men), and perhaps occasionally to roll around in a field of flowers, giggling. Now: If someone were to offer me a pink canopy bed I would take it, no questions asked. But actual girlhood (as any girl knows) isn’t really like that. There are sharp angles, corners, and shadows, and to erase those from the picture creates an unrealistic ideal that no real person can ever live up to—plus, it leaves a lot of the interesting stuff out.

So here’s what I propose. Let’s counter that verbal hocus-pocus that turned these strengths into weaknesses with some word-fu of our own. I’m not saying we should leave innocent behind. Or pretty, or sweet. I’m saying let’s add some of those shadows back in, and make those virtues powerful again. Here are some other ways to think of those words—feel free to replace sweet, pretty, and innocent with these alternatives in your head whenever you hear them, or just know that when someone says you seem “so innocent,” they mean you’re learning stuff and that means you’re awesome. Here we go:

Sweet → Compassionate

Again, there’s nothing wrong with being sweet. Like innocence, sweetness can be an admirable quality. When Jane Austen describes someone as having a “sweet disposition,” you like that girl—you get the sense that she’s generally open to life, that she has a generous spirit that isn’t likely to sour under adversity. She’s game. She’s brave. But then you have the diluted-by-patriarchy meaning, which is “nice all the time to everyone ever and everyone likes her the most because she’s never been angry or sad or stressed out or had even a mild headache.” From babyhood, girls are praised for being “sweet” and “pretty,” while boys are more likely to be called “big” or “smart.” (Do people still teach toddlers this nursery rhyme? Let’s get Riley on the case.) And so girls become women who haven’t learned how to do a lot of stuff that’s pretty important in life, because that stuff isn’t “sweet.” It’s not “sweet,” for instance, to tell somebody to back off, or to demand better treatment for yourself. It’s not “sweet” to tell a misinformed blowhard who’s dominating the conversation that he’s wrong. It’s not “sweet” to tell somebody you’re not interested in dating them, or to cut a toxic person out of your life. Later on, it won’t be “sweet” when you ask for a raise at work. It’s not “sweet” to campaign for political office, protest an injustice, or report a sexual assault.

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37 Comments

  • stelliform April 4th, 2013 7:19 PM

    Fantastic article!! Thank you!

  • Annie at Cher Ami April 4th, 2013 7:35 PM

    This is such a great article Sady, I completely agree with how about how society has made us view men and women as completely different personality types, just because a girl isn’t called ‘pretty’ or ‘sweet’ by her peers, it doesn’t mean she’s worthless! I think we need to change the definitions of these words, and Riley is amazing too! Annie x

  • dreamygirl April 4th, 2013 7:42 PM

    Exactly what I need right now, thank you SO much. Your pieces are always perf.

  • queenofgeeks April 4th, 2013 7:45 PM

    This article is incredibly relatable. I’m really tired of guys calling me innocent and using that to their advantage. I’m really really tired of guys wrapping their arms around my waist or stroking my thigh without my permission. While reading this, I was thinking of a “romantic exploit” and wondered, why did I think I was supposed to return his affections because he liked me? Why didn’t I feel like I could just say “No, I’m not into you”. I thought that because I didn’t hate him, I was supposed to go out with him because he liked me. Ugh.

  • spudzine April 4th, 2013 7:53 PM

    Let me just start this off by saying that THIS IS TOTALLY ME. For real, though. I mean, I’m recovering from some honest traumatic experiences, and I could say that if you fail, IT’S OKAY. if you succeed, IT’S OKAY. No matter what happens to you, or what mistakes you’ve made, IT’S OKAY. Why? I’ve been building my confidence not in order to please people, but to please myself. And honestly, the only way I have ever felt good in this world is when I DON’T GIVE A FUCK. So, what I’m saying is, is when you stop caring about what others think of you and stick to an image that makes you feel happy, then be that person. Be YOU. Confidence is really just being happy. With yourself and with life in general. Once you’re happy, and you no longer give a fuck, then BAM, you’re confident. That’s how it works for me.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/

    • marthaflatley April 5th, 2013 12:11 AM

      dude, you are kind of brilliant for saying this. this is the best explanation of confidence i’ve ever heard. great article too!

    • mulberry April 7th, 2013 4:22 AM

      THANK YOU. This is ridonculously perfect.

  • 062131 April 4th, 2013 8:11 PM

    I love this so much.

  • jenaimarley April 4th, 2013 8:23 PM

    So beautifully put.
    You are such an inspiring person, Sady!

  • Tayhla April 4th, 2013 8:44 PM

    OH I know what this is like!! it’s happening to me all the time now at college.

    I am rather compassionate, so when I am nice to people who aren’t great at picking up on social cues or who are usually left out by most groups, like a lot of international students, I ended up with them fawning over me!
    Its creepy and I don’t like it, yet I find it difficult to explain to these guys why they should back off. They really don’t understand the social norms or that it is very weird and uncomfortable to stare at me all the time, or to tell me incessantly “you’re my favourite specimen of person”….

    I don’t know how to deal with it, actually. But mostly I just try to avoid these guys, who at first I put in effort to make them feel socially included. :P
    Help?

  • Narnia April 4th, 2013 8:49 PM

    All the awards to you and this article, Sady! I can not tell you how outraged I get when I hear people’s views on women at school (and even at home). Another word I dislike is “ladylike”? “You’re not being very ladylike” WTF IS THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN? Stop categorizing women as the equilvilent of paper doilies. if i want to see with my legs uncrossed and you can’t stop staring up my skirt/at my crotch then maybe the problem is you not me. also dictating how one should act according to gender is a (quiet) form of fascism.

  • laurajane April 4th, 2013 10:32 PM

    I needed this. I’m the one of the “nice, innocent, quiet girls” and just yes. Amazing article!

  • Paprika April 4th, 2013 11:19 PM

    Great article, I really needed this! I’m only 17 and I’m already feeling feminist exhaustion, this sharp critique of patriarchal society helped with some of my frustration. I’m tired of people saying that “The Patriarchy” doesn’t exist when we clearly live in a patriarchal society.

  • Katherine April 4th, 2013 11:26 PM

    I love this because I feel this so much. In my aikido training, I have a hard time performing punches because I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not nice to punch, even in an instance when punching is necessary.

    My only quibble is with the point on dolls. They can act upon the world just as much as trucks or other “boy” toys, depending on how you play with them, and can be used to teach children about many important issues, such as gay rights.

    It’s upsetting how a girl who plays with trucks and toy guns is applauded for breaking gender stereotypes, whereas a boy who plays with dolls is mocked.

    • sissiLOL April 5th, 2013 3:27 AM

      Right this article and your comment!

    • Anaheed April 5th, 2013 4:03 AM

      That’s a good point. (And I want to make clear that that line was my idea, not Sady’s. Sady is not the dumb-dumb! ’Tis me!)

      • Molly April 5th, 2013 8:22 PM

        Yeah I agree with you, Katherine. I’ve been wondering about the fact that boys can’t play with dolls because it’s too feminine for the average Tough Guy to do, but a girl who plays with trucks and guns, like I did, is praised for doing something that men usually do. I’ve never really thought about much, but now I think that, nowadays, the word feminine is used as a synonym for weak, which (in the meaning that it originally had) it is because be feminine has always bee

        • Molly April 5th, 2013 8:28 PM

          sorry I wasn’t done. You people at Wherever your Rookie HQ is must be pissed at me, but I was saying that being feminine has always been thought of as the lesser alternative to being masculine– or in other words, manly– because women have never been given a chance to actually play a part in politics and such that the most respectable man is expected to immerse hisself in. We’ve always had to earn our still-developing path into being taken seriously. So maybe this means that we need a new word for the way that women are, like maybe: Awesome.

    • Runaway April 9th, 2013 10:46 AM

      I think our patriarchal society is OK with girls who break gender stereotypes because it can be considered as a form of flattery: ‘girls try to act like us men because we are better than them’. (Anyway, it’s not that cool if you carry that line of conduct into adulthood; somewhere along the way you are expected to go from ‘tomboy’ to ‘lady’).
      So, girls are seen as trying to be better, like those on top of the social ladder (men), but why would a boy want to act like a woman? I think society see that as unnatural, because boys are by birth above us girls. It’s OK to aspire to be on top of the social ladder, but why try to do the opposite? I think that’s the line of reasoning behind all that.

  • AliceS April 5th, 2013 5:26 AM

    Great article. Really great. And I was like Riley when I was a child and I’m still question myself and the people around me about the same issues.

    http://toomuchlightburnsthenegative.blogspot.it/

  • Vasia April 5th, 2013 5:54 AM

    Once again, great article Sady!!!
    However, I was under the impression that you did go to high school. Didn’t you write an article about your experience? I think it’s called “Great Expectations”.

  • zoeah April 5th, 2013 7:39 AM

    Such an amazing article! I can totally relate to this. I’m quite petite and a bit vertically challenged, so I often get guys assuming I’m incapable of doing stuff. I used to counteract this by acting ‘strong’, ‘tough’ and ‘boyish’ but I really felt like I was trying to prove something all the time. I think that one of the greatest insecurities that many of us still have, once we start to consider ourselves ‘confident’, is the fear that someone will realise we aren’t as secure as we seem. Thank you Sady for pointing out how it’s totally ok to be vulnerable, and show it, yet be confident and badass at the same time!

  • LouderBlues April 5th, 2013 8:45 AM

    Uuugh this is soo me! I absolutley hated it when people told me I was innocent, it felt like they were laughing at me or something…but what I was (and still am) was socially awkward.
    At least I knew I had to push that type of guys away, though I never did it in a “graceful” way…I need to learn how to reject people properly!

  • kimberleighrc April 5th, 2013 9:23 AM

    This article is excellent. I love the idea of transforming those “virtuous” attributes into something we can really own. A great re-imagining of femininity, to borrow from second-wavers.

  • wallflower152 April 5th, 2013 10:21 AM

    I love Riley! I saw that vid tweeted by Feministing and I was like…that’s totally my future daughter/son. But most importantly this is a GREAT article! I need to hear this sort of thing cuz I’m the kind of person that doesn’t state my needs enough. Kinda because I’m shy and kinda because I don’t like conflict but probably also cuz of the reasons stated in the article that I think that I’m supposed to be “sweet.” When I was younger I didn’t have a lot of friends so the friends I did have I let them walk all over me and same thing with boyfriends. I’m way better than I used to be but I still need to improve a lot. So thanks for the encouraging article! : )

  • Sunshine April 5th, 2013 10:38 AM

    Amazing article. Haha, this is so me. I was homeschooled & then thrown into public high school. I get the whole “you’re so sweet and innocent…awww :D” all the time…and I’m just like… “………………..’”

  • girlhero April 5th, 2013 1:03 PM

    best article on rookie, i want your name tattooed on my neck Sady

  • flocha April 5th, 2013 3:57 PM

    Riley is officially my new hero.

  • Elva April 5th, 2013 5:38 PM

    thanks for this! put words to my feelings really well. i love your articles.

  • Molly April 5th, 2013 8:03 PM

    Just recently I heard about how people are saying that women are not as good at working as men are because we ” cause too many problems”. But I think that it’s really because we have been driven to the point that we feel we always need to prove ourselves. Most men are such “good” workers because the typical stereotype for a man is that you are strong and proud, and a desirable women must never be that. We’re always expected to be frail and sweet and we can never argue. If we’re anything but nice all the time, everyone thinks we’re being uncooperative and because we don’t live up to everyone else’s low standards we’re labeled as bitchy and mean. But I think the truth is that most men don’t ever want to have it be that a woman could be stronger than him.

  • thecoolcustomer April 6th, 2013 7:10 AM

    This is such a great, informitive article..I am thirteen years old and most of my friends are at the age where they are crushing on people and giggling about things most would deem inappropriate and trying to top each other with experiences and knowledge about the inappropriate things. If anyone is like, ‘whats that?’ or ‘what does that mean?’ then they are immediatley classed as innocent and everyone thinks they are so much more grown up and sussed, they don’t even bother telling them without giggling and exchanging ‘oh my goddd!’ glances.
    http://www.thecoolcustomer.wordpress.com
    xxxx

  • Ellie G April 6th, 2013 5:00 PM

    Great article! I know I often have this trouble where I feel like I have to always be nice all the time, and if I call someone out on something or do anything rude or impolite ever, I have soiled my niceness and become a bad person, like there’s no balance.
    And not being able to find that place where you can be compassionate and and caring and still stand up for yourself and others, rather than being either a) a pushover with no desires of your own or b) a constantly callous and insulting, violent person.
    And I guess a lot of that comes from the idealization of girls, and the pressure to be this perfect person, where being a perfect person means you let everyone do what they want to you.

  • limegreensunset April 6th, 2013 7:40 PM

    this. this so much.

    http://limegreensunset.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Lacenailsmermaidtails April 8th, 2013 5:49 PM

    This child..she is speaking the truth and it’s hilarious. Wish she could be my kid! <3

  • ItsKelsey April 9th, 2013 12:30 PM

    I feel like I am headed towards the same place as you, Sandy.

    Growing up I always thought I had to be quiet, smart, nice, and helpful to the people who never spoke to me unless they needed help with schoolwork. And of course in my case, “nice” was helping people endlessly but not getting anything at all in return. I would send everyone tricked-out valentines loaded with stuff every single year and I only got about 12 back. Even in high school, I sent all of my friends candy canes for christmas and I never recieved any back. Basically I was an unloved doormat.

    I thought I was happy but I am realizing as I grow up that this isn’t what happy feels like. At work, when someone took credit for my idea I actually stated that I was the one who thought of it (they went on about it three times before this). It is so stupid that I am wired to feel bad about correcting someone and taking credit for myself and my ideas. But I’m starting to realize that my ideas are great and so is my worth as a friend and a person so if anyone wants to be in my life they need to treat me as such.

    I would hate to be 90 and look back only to see how many regrets I had like not telling that gross guy at the bar “I’m not going to smile for you” or telling another guy that “I don’t want to kiss you” doesn’t mean “buy me a drink and we’ll see”.

    I actually feel like I’m at a turning point and it feels really good.

  • neenbean May 3rd, 2013 12:36 AM

    This is such a fantastic article. I feel so good after reading it. The emphasis on being pretty needs to change into being confident, because who wants to strive to fit a boring old beauty ideal anyway? <3

    I hate that men often feel they have a right to touch and grope our bodies when we are young, no matter how "innocent" their actions may seem.

    http://greybluedreams.blogspot.com

  • Floey June 5th, 2013 2:42 PM

    I really love this article. It means a lot because I’m forever being called sweet/innocent/lovely/cute (that’s the one that really gets me) etc. I know all these things (maybe not the ‘innocent’) are compliments but it just makes my blood boil. But it’s hard to retort, I find, because if someone calls you a bitch/slut/jerk/idiot etc you can easily turn around and defend yourself and no one bats an eyelid but when someone calls you ‘cute’ you can’t really give them a mouthful. I get so annoyed about these ‘compliments’ because to be honest I can’t see their origin. I am petite, blonde and a nice person. Does that make me weak and childish? I’m sure other people can vouch for this, but don’t you just feel like slapping someone round the face when they claim you are ‘too innocent’ to do/hear something? I find that this is what gets to me the most (strangely I’d rather be called a bitch/slut because those labels have a bit more strength to them) because it’s so hard to defend yourself without seeming unnecessarily moody, as this perception of the ‘cute’ you doesn’t allow for any protest. You are ‘cute’ and ‘likeable’ and ‘sweet’ and ‘lovely’. If I’ve learnt anything from school it’s that from now on when I meet new people I need to show my strength almost immediately or I’ll be forever condemned to a life of ‘sweet’ just because of my friendliness and appearance.