Since earliest childhood, girls have been admonished to be kind and accommodating. To repress our intuition and gut instincts. We’ve been socialized to gaslight our innate sense of right-and-wrong and self-preservation in order to be NICE, to appease. Good Girls never get mad. They never judge or clutch their pearls. They’re not allowed to have boundaries—it’s so unfeminine!
Even now, when we think we’re in a more progressive age, “Be Kind” T-shirts are mercilessly marketed to women and girls who are still expected to be the default support humans, even if it’s not in their best interest.
This is what indoctrination looks like.
This is a cautionary tale about being kind and the curse of female socialization.
Long ago in another country, I belonged to a fantastic circle of friends, all of them smart, accomplished, vibrant people. Except there was this one guy who seemed a bit off, a bit sketchy. Let’s call him Richard. He happened to be the husband of my brilliant, amazing friend—let’s call her Elizabeth. It seemed churlish to find fault in Elizabeth’s husband, even if he gave off a creepy vibe. The way he sometimes spoke to Elizabeth in front of the rest of us was enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck, yet I didn’t dare say anything lest I appear unkind or intolerant. Elizabeth seemed to take his remarks in her stride. So, who was I to make a fuss?
The group respected Richard. He was revered in his workplace. At every gathering, Richard never tired of reminding us just how important he was. In case we had any doubt. I tried to focus on Richard the Professional and not Richard sitting across the table and telling dirty, misogynist jokes that everyone dutifully laughed along with, especially the women, because to show offence would create drama and conflict. It would humiliate Richard and make everyone uncomfortable. Richard had pointedly informed us that he hated feminists with no sense of humor. We should all be cool girls.
He was just one guy in an otherwise fantastic group. I tolerated him because I didn’t want to lose the friendship of the others. I tried my best to tune out his crassness. Just ignore him. That’s what our parents taught us when we were girls. If you’re walking down the street and some creepy guy wolf whistles or cat calls you, ignore him. Don’t talk back. Keep your mouth shut at all times. Pretend he’s not even there.
Hit him with your umbrella! We know you want to!
As a group, we made excuses for Richard. He was lonely. He was an old school guy who couldn’t keep up with changing times. He couldn’t help it. Maybe he wasn’t even aware that he was acting like a sexist creep. He didn’t really mean it that way. It was just banter. Deep down, he was a really great guy. Why else would Elizabeth stay married to him?
Then came the fateful night of Richard and Elizabeth’s house party when I drew the short straw. Richard decided that he would sit next to me and monopolize my attention. I felt uncomfortable about this, but, then again, I didn’t want to seem difficult or intolerant. I had, after all, accepted the invitation to come to their house party. Did I think I was too good to sit next to the host?
Richard liked to manspread, liked to literally lean into women while talking to them. Each time I inched away, he leaned closer. Yet still I didn’t dare make a fuss. That would have been rude. What if I made a scene and became exiled and shunned from my entire friendship group?
Richard launched into his usual monologue about how Important he was. But not everyone recognized his brilliance, he confided bitterly. A group of women in his field wanted to bar him from a function intended for women in their field. Men like Richard won’t tolerate being excluded—it’s simply not on. Nor would he tolerate my taking the side of these women. He shut me down and carried on with his monologue.
During this entire rant, he was leaning into me, almost daring me to see what would happen if I—like those evil, evil women—asserted personal boundaries.
I felt as though I were trapped in a bubble with the Excruciating Misogynist in the Room while all my friends, including Elizabeth, were on outside the bubble, laughing and having fun.
Eventually I managed to wriggle away and made it through the evening without making a scene. But later, at home, I felt filthy and awful, like I’d been slimed on by a swamp creature.
This incident happened before #metoo, but even if it had happened now, Richard would have argued that this was not a #metoo narrative. Nothing happened. He was just talking to me in a room full of other people, including his wife. Only a hysterical pearl-clutcher would object to that.
Maybe there’s a Richard in your life. Maybe he’s the guy at church who’s a little too interested in your teenage daughter, but nobody dares to complain about him because he’s celebrated as a pillar of the community. Maybe he’s the guy in your Wiccan circle who groped you during a ritual and when you called him out, he mansplained that you should be more sex positive.
Guys like Richard know exactly what they’re doing and they get away with it because they count on women being kind, not raising their voices or making a fuss. We have been groomed since toddlerhood to be compliant little doormats. Only bad, awkward, humorless women have boundaries.
I was a younger person when the Richard incident happened. I like to think that if this happened to me today, I’d own my strength and agency and stand up for myself even if I risked being shunned by my friendship group as a result.
I’m a big fan of Yoga with Adriene. In her December calendar, she had a delightful class focused on the Throat Chakra and our power to speak our truth. The affirmation she gave was, “I set my intention to speak my truth openly and freely.” May every woman trust herself enough to speak her truth.
If you wish to empower other women and girls, please, please don’t inanely recite the “Be Kind” thought-stopping cliché.
Fuck being kind. It’s time we all learned to be bad-assed women, snake-tongued and fierce.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, is now out in paperback. Visit her website.