Niceness Alone Doesn’t Cut It

“In our culture, people tend to be valued for being inspiring and entertaining.  With perhaps the notable exception of some morning-show hostesses, people are rewarded for being bold and inventive.  For being assertive, funny, and individualistic.  For having a bit of an edge.

Yet, when it comes right down to it, women are still encouraged to be, above all else, capital-N ‘nice.’  We learn that it’s more important to be nice than to be interesting.  It’s more important to be nice than to be ourselves.  It’s certainly more important to be nice than to keep it real….interestingly, throughout the 1990s, Republicans insisted that political races should be about ‘character.’  They elevated character to an ‘issue.’  The problem, however, was that the Republicans confused character with virtue—with being a  close-minded sniggling, sanctimonious do-gooder…well, as we’ve all learned, Americans aren’t really interested in character in terms of virtue or niceness.  We’re interested in character in terms of personality.  We’re a country that prefers Scarlett to Melanie and Rhett to Ashley.  We like our leaders large, colorful, mythic, entertaining.  We’re not nearly so compelled by leaders having character as by their being one….why else would people have voted for Ronald Reagan?  Or Sonny Bono? Or Jesse ‘the body’ Ventura? Why else would people prefer Bill Clinton to Al Gore? …..

Face it, if we really cared about character in terms of traditional virtue—if we really wanted our politicians to be goody-goodies—Mister Rogers would be president.  But on some level, we know: niceness alone doesn’t cut it.

And yet, here we women are:  still striving to be pleasing, sweet, cheerful, agreeable—we’re still hoping to get voted Most Likeable, even though that stuff won’t get us into the White House….’Good Girls’ are accommodating and giving.  Good girls don’t hurt other people’s feelings.  Good girls are not overly “aggressive,” competitive, or boastful.  Good girls please others.  But what good girls are good FOR is a good question.  I mean, it’s one thing to be decent; it’s another to be a doormat….

Nowadays, it seems, we gals are presented with two idealized modes of behavior.  We can either be nice or nasty, a pussycat or a bitch…in the long run, of course, neither choice serves us well.  We really shouldn’t have to choose.  Most of the greatest, most enduring women of our culture are hybrids.  Take Mae West.  Barbara Jordan.  Eleanor Roosevelt.  Julia Child.  Molly Ivins.  Queen Latifah.  They’re complicated women.  They’re not afraid to be strong, rich personalities.  And they’re not afraid to be ‘not nice.’  Beyond everything else, these women have got personality.  They’ve got chutzpah.  Sometimes they’re brash.  Sometimes they make mistakes.  Not everybody adores them—and they don’t really give a **** if everyone does.  But their appeal has endured—and in certain cases, their words, work, and influence have outlived them.  Why?  In part, because they refused to be constrained or confined to the roles of either a good girl or a bitch.  They’ve had the courage to be themselves.

So if you’re ever feeling cowed or self-conscious—if you worry about what people will think of you or whether you’re not being nice–think about the power and the importance of cultivating your own personality and keeping it real.”

——Susan Jane Gilman,

Kiss My Tiara: How  to Rule the World as a Smartmouth Goddess

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