I have come a long way with feminism. When it first hit the fan in the early 1970s I was living in a thin-walled apartment next to a woman who held assertiveness-training workshops that included bloodcurdling shouts of ‘This steak is tough! I demand to see the manager!’ Now, 40 years later, assertiveness is all about careers. The new steak is the glass ceiling that women can’t cut through because they are still too ‘nice’ to ask for a promotion and a raise, and the new shout is, ‘This job doesn’t pay enough! I demand to see the company president!’ Books by female executives have given them their marching orders: stop apologising, remember the new swear word is ‘sorry’, and above all, forget about being ‘nice’.
Above all, they certainly have done that. Niceness is the eighth deadly sin for any self-respecting feminist. Women protesting the establishment stances of male politicians routinely hurl challenges of ‘Man up!’ or ‘Put on your man-pants!’ and even ‘Grow a pair!’ Moreover, they make sure their own pairs are on view when they go on TV. The plunging neckline, once strictly reserved for after six, can be seen on the morning news, the noon news, breaking news, cooking shows and the weather report. The cleavage is not intended to be seductive but competitive, and it has caught on so fast that nobody feels self-conscious about it. A ‘nice’ girl would rather die than expose herself on TV, but who cares about being ‘nice’ when there are viewing figures to think of?
Niceness is also under assault from the raucous guffawing now being heard from women on talk shows. Big, loud, forced laughs, like men at a stag party intent on proving how comfortable they feel in the in-group. Nothing irritates a woman more than overhearing this kind of male laughter in public places because it ‘sounds dirty’, but frantically competitive women are even willing to irritate themselves. There is nothing they won’t do to get rid of niceness, which explains why the subject of bullying has become almost overnight the latest bandwagon in the endless parade of American cultural crises. Why the sudden fascination? Bullying is male in that it is a search for hierarchy; it is also American in that it is a twisted plea for leadership to bring order out of our run-amok equality; but best of all, it is a niceness-ridder that can’t be beat. The next guffaws you hear will come from ‘Women and Bullying’, a news special in which the all-female panel regale us with confessions of what they did to other girls at school and what the other girls did to them because — wait for it — ‘Women bully too!’
Euphemisms are a form of niceness that women invented so as not to seem crass. About the only euphemism left nowadays is ‘pro-choice’. It really means ‘pro-abortion’ but you can’t say that because a feminist demands the right to combine career and motherhood and that requires motherhood.
Even during pregnancy, there’s no relaxing for a modern girl — no lapsing back into niceness; no retiring for a while from the fray. A modern girl must make sure that she displays her bump to the world aggressively, to show it’s never once interfered with her life or her chosen profession. A lot of the showing takes place on TV, which is starting to look like an obstetrician’s waiting room. The real ‘get’ nowadays is the pregnant guest who is combining career and motherhood in some astonishing way, like a heavily pregnant marathon runner.
For the woman who really wants to divest herself of niceness for the sake of combining career and motherhood, pregnancy offers the ultimate win: declare the slightest objection to prima facie evidence of discrimination and sue everybody in sight under America’s new first amendment, ‘Diversity rocks!’
At least niceness is not quite dead. I was cheered to hear the other day that Wimbledon officials had ruled that only white underpants may be worn. It was another way of saying that women who wear bright colours obviously want them to show. Calling them ‘underpants’ was also significant: it automatically rules out thongs.
Florence King’s books include Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, Lump It or Leave It and With Charity Toward None: a Fond Look at Misanthropy.