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Column

The Niceness Trap

Both Biden and Trump called out young women for not being ‘nice’ this week — because they think that will shut us up

A photo of Greta Thunberg.
A photo of Greta Thunberg.
Activist Greta Thunberg attends a press conference where 16 children from across the world, present their official human rights complaint on the climate crisis to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

FFrom the time we are young, women are told to be nice. To be polite. To smile more often, to not curse or confront, to be pleasant — and most of all, to make others feel comfortable.

When 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke at the United Nations yesterday, she was not cute or pleasing. She did not try to sugarcoat the environmental crisis humans have created, nor did she attempt to coddle adults’ feelings. She was powerful and most definitely not “nice.”

And so it was no surprise that the president of the United States, a notorious hater of “nasty women,” responded with a snarky tweet: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future,” he wrote. “So nice to see!”

Attacking a teenager trying to save the planet is very much in line with Donald Trump’s comic book villain persona, but what stuck out to me was how similar his tone was to an exchange between a female reporter and Joe Biden last week.

If we’re not sufficiently pleasing or deferential, we’re not really worthy of listening to.

At the LGBTQ presidential forum in Iowa on Friday, moderator Lyz Lenz pressed Biden on his policy record and asked about calling Vice President Mike Pence a “decent guy.” (Pence has a long history of supporting anti-gay policies and conversion therapy.) Biden responded sarcastically: “You’re a lovely person,” he said. Later that night, Lenz tweeted that as she was walking offstage, Biden said to her, “You’re a real sweetheart.”

There is a reason men resort to calling women “nasty” or suggest we’re unpleasant when we try to hold them to account: They believe it’s a conversation ender. If we’re not sufficiently pleasing or deferential, we’re not really worthy of listening to.

This kind of dismissiveness has been around for a long time, but men in politics would do well to notice that we’re not much in the mood for it anymore. Trump’s inauguration was met with the biggest political protest in American history, women are voting and running for office in record numbers, and we are outwardly furious about what we see happening around us.

For as much progress as feminism has made, it is really not a good time to be a woman in America. A new study from the Violence Policy Center shows that the number of women killed by men has increased 20% since 2014. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month that one in 16 women’s first experience with sexual intercourse will be rape. This is to say nothing of the fact that we have a president who has been accused of rape and two Supreme Court justices accused of sexual harassment and assault.

Perhaps there’s a reason we’re not feeling so nice.

With the presidential election on the horizon, I imagine that there are plenty of voters, mostly male, who don’t really mind the way politicians speak to women; that they quietly, or even loudly, agree that women should be nicer and less strident. I tend to fall on the more optimistic side of the fence — the side that sees the motivating power of women’s anger and frustration.

If you need a little hope to believe the same, consider that on Tuesday Greta Thunberg changed her Twitter bio, reclaiming Trump’s insult against her. It reads: “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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