Mean Girls: feminism, the internet, and being "nice"
This week I got into an argument in the comments of a blog post about rape allegations on another website. The location of this argument doesn’t matter, and although most of the content doesn’t bear repeating, it provided an almost textbook example of the prehistoric attitudes that women – and in particular, feminist women – face in online discussions. Rather than engaging with the evidence and reasoned arguments that women were putting forward, some of the male commenters were less interested in what we were saying than how we were saying it.
The problem? Apparently we women weren’t being nice enough. When we said that it was offensive to automatically assume that all rape allegations are false, we were told that we were being too emotional; if we responded with statistics about how common rape is, and how rare it is for anyone to be convicted, we were criticised for being too “academic”. Our points just couldn’t be taken seriously if we said anything was interpreted as sarcastic, angry, condescending, or lecturing. Nothing we did could convince them that we deserved to be listened to as equals.
As far as some of corners of the internet are concerned, women should only be allowed to join in with a discussion if they do it nicely. Goodness knows where they got that idea from, because most of the men who perpetuate this idea don’t hold themselves to the same standard. They can be as rude, aggressive, or dismissive as they like, and still think that they should be listened to. Of course, it isn’t sexist when they address a woman like that, because that’s how they speak to everyone, but if a woman uses the same tactics, that makes her a symbol of everything that’s wrong with feminism. If only feminists could be more agreeable, they say, then they would have already won.
Except that we wouldn’t win by being nice, because disagreeing with them at all is what puts us outside the boundaries of niceness. The only way to be acceptably nice is not to get involved in the debate – essentially, to concede the argument before it has even begun.
This is all bound up with gendered expectations of behaviour. Women are socialised to put up and shut up to a much greater degree than men, so when people tell women off for not being nice, what they often mean is that we’re not being feminine. An intrinsic part of femininity is behaving in ways that are pleasing to men, and this becomes so normalised that some men think that they’re entitled to demand certain types of behaviour from women. Think of those guys who pass women in the street and tell them to smile – it’s a similar thing; we’re not here to be awkward, we’re supposed to make the world more pleasant with our presence.
Perhaps the worst thing about this is that most of them aren’t being deliberately misogynistic when they tell feminists that we need to be more careful about how we express our views. They actually think that they’re the good guys, because they’re letting us into some secret knowledge about how to make feminism appeal to men. But they’re asking for it to be sanitised and separated from the strong emotions that many women feel when confronted with sexism (particularly when it’s in the form of sexual assault), so that they don’t have to deal with anything that might make them feel uncomfortable.
If telling the unvarnished truth means that I’m not being nice – then fuck nice. When people make excuses for violence against women, there are plenty of women who are going to get angry about it. Why? Because it’s difficult to remain calm and objective while discussing an issue that has such a major impact on our lives. When one in four women in this country will experience sexual violence first hand, haven’t we got good reason to be angry?