Women don’t have to be made of ‘sugar, & spice, & everything nice’

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In a society becoming gradually self-aware of its toxic, gendered expectations of behaviour, it’s time we abolish the women-centred stereotype of ”niceness.”

There are many accepted inequities when it comes to how women “should” act—a prominent example being the demand that women be nice and overbearingly friendly. Although girls may not always be told explicitly to “be nice” growing up, they get the message from the societal clues around them.

The patriarchal power imbalance between genders creates pressure for women to act according to the standards set by men—and that can mean bending over backwards to be a quiet, accommodating people-pleaser.

But in a society where something as simple as an action or phrase has gendered connotations, rejecting the expectation of niceness is complicated.

An outspoken girl interested in sports is labeled a “tomboy.” A woman who sends a smiley face in an email at work is automatically a “flirt.” It feels like there’s no right answer when it comes to how to act—any choice can result in disapproval.

And that’s the crux of the issue.

When women are constantly faced with criticism whether they do and do not fit into a reductive gendered mold, they feel pressure to internalize certain aspects of themselves. Always being worried about what other people think of one’s actions leaves little space for being assertive in one’s beliefs.

But often assertiveness isn’t the magical solution it appears to be. Unfortunately, it’s naive to assume that once you speak up, you’ll overcome those expectations.

When women are assertive, they can be seen as rude, overbearing, or unlikeable.

Additionally, there are also many intersectional factors to consider, including the additional levels of oppression experienced by women from marginalized groups. For women of colour, for example, assertiveness may perpetuate pre-existing negative stereotypes. For their safety, it might not be an option.

Responsibility falls on our society—men in particular—to confront and unlearn misogynistic ideals and accept assertiveness from those willing to show it, no matter where they fall on the gender spectrum.

At the same time, women shouldn’t have to be assertive to be seen as worthy of respect.

When we make a blanket statement that all women should behave in a more “masculine” way, we devalue femininity. Women should be able to act in the way they choose—whether it’s by being nice, being assertive, or both—and still be respected.

Women don’t owe anyone “niceness,” but they can be nice if that’s what they want. It’s the freedom to make those decisions without fearing social punishment that’s important.

Add exclamation marks to your emails, or don’t. That should be a tiny choice that’s up to women, not an indication of their feminism or resolve.

Gendered behaviour is an arbitrary concept—it’s time to let it go.

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