Be Nice! How Our Culture Creates Girl-Victims

I watched it unfold with horror. The little girl — maybe five years old — wanted to climb up the slide like the bigger kids were doing, when a boy pushed her out of the way and she shoved him back.

“Be nice!” her mother scolded, pulling her out of the pack of kids, “You can’t do that. You can’t go up the slide. You have a dress on” — as if this little girl should learn early and often that the clothes she wears will limit her freedom — “Don’t shove people!”

The grown up was embarrassed that her little girl had asserted her place in the playground queue and didn’t understand the decorum involved in climbing up a slide. Mom didn’t address the boy bully behavior, of course, but panicked and went into girl default mode: Be nice — dear God, what is that? We continue to teach our little girls to be “nice” when we should be teaching them to be fierce.

The #metoo “movement” is as old as human history. I’m 61, and from the time I was an 18-year-old waitress I’ve had some guy in just about every work environment try to push me around using sex. When I rebuffed the “advances” of the chef at the Jersey shore restaurant where I worked he ruined every order I put in, throwing the plates at me with burnt meat or watery vegetables. The customers yelled at me, my tips diminished and I quit. The pattern continued when I practiced law, from the time a male attorney grabbed my ass at the copier to the time a “rainmaker” state senator (who was a partner) asked me if he made me “wet.” The guy was notorious for talking dirty trash to every woman in the office but the big boys thought it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny. Who was I going to complain to? The male partners who loved the political power that brought them more money? Seriously?

I have a very deep advantage over that little girl on the playground. I grew up with three brothers in an Italian household. They taught me how to be strong, and Italians are not shy; the culture supports guts and moxie, so when this slimy politician cornered me in the library and asked that horrible question I turned to him, slowly, and said:

“You ever talk to me like that again, and I will be your Anita Hill. I will take you down.”

He stood there, frozen, and his face went pale. Anita Hill was testifying on television daily about Clarence Thomas, and his career was in shambles. That’s all this dude cared about — his political currency — and he never spoke to me again. Fortunately, the older I got the less aggressive men became about sexual bullying and one fabulous side effect of aging is that you become invisible and men leave you blissfully alone. No doubt, sexual harassment is geared toward younger women and no one would want to (or dare) mess with me now. Now all that happens when I sit in a meeting with men is they stare intently at each other, marginalize me completely, and talk about Important Things.

As an attorney, I litigated sexual harassment cases and they were brutal. Defendant/employers had several tactics for discrediting female complainants — everything from casting her as a crazy liar to subpoenaing gynecology records to look for other causes of “emotional distress.” The legal system is the worst place to address these behaviors. I love that social media is outing a lot of creeps and women and men now know there is safety in numbers when coming forward to expose gross and unconscionable actions. Public shaming is a fabulous and effective means for taking people down. And I’m happy that Kevin Spacey’s career is over, as is Louis C.K.’s, Weinstein’s, and the other salacious man-boys who think they can do whatever they want, wherever they want. Go down in flames, all of you.

But what about the secretary in the tiny office who may not have a band of sisters she can rely on? What about the nurse who needs her job badly and is too scared to go to HR? When a woman feels isolated and is trapped financially, what should she do? Be nice? Parents are not preparing their little girls at all for what they will face when they tamp down assertiveness, put them in dolly clothing that limits their options, and urge them to quietly conform. We should be teaching our girls to roar. To be fierce. To stand their ground and look bullies in the eyes and say, with confidence, “Do that again, and I will take you down.” Niceness gets you nowhere. We should be compassionate, collaborative and civil in our dialogue. But fuck “nice.”

In addition to ballet and cheerleading, how about we supplement our girl activities with jiu-jitsu classes where they can learn about using mental strength to support physical safety? Maybe we stop scolding girls who are “bossy” by nature — like I was — and cultivate the tendencies that would be considered “leadership” in boys: directness, assertiveness, strategic thinking, a desire to reach goals and get things done. I’d rather my granddaughters sit in meetings where their voices are heard and this won’t happen if they are getting the smack-down to be “nice.” Although many people are not assertive by nature, these skills can certainly be taught.

Anyone who uses power to intimidate others deserves the kind of humiliation and fear Twitter and Facebook can offer so let’s keep on outing these asshats. But at the same time let’s change our language with girls and young women and stop asking for cuteness and conformity. Teach girls to find and use their voices so when that inevitable creep suggests that she’ll get what she wants if she complies with some sexual act or listens quietly to the disgusting and foul language of men without boundaries, she will not be “nice.” She will be clear and she will be fierce. Teach her to stand her ground, without violence or hate. Teach her she doesn’t have to have or use physical strength to take down a bully. It’s no wonder so many women who are taught to be nice are totally paralyzed when the boss rubs himself in front of her. We don’t need to be paralyzed; we can speak up.

There is always something that predatory man cares about more than using his power to bully you with sex. Threaten to call his wife, call the police, call a lawyer; find what he loves — power, status, fame, his fake marriage whatever — and threaten to blow it up. Silence that parental voice that taught you that “niceness” is important to survival in this world, because it’s not. Don’t cripple your daughter so that you feel comfy knowing she’s “socially appropriate.” Arm her with the self-esteem and certainty she will need when the bully moves toward the prey. Teach her that pushing back is often absolutely necessary, it’s good to draw clear lines, and she can stand her ground. Find a script that works and use it.

Here’s what I found that works, because people in power will always listen to this: Do that again, and I will take you down.

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I’m a warrior and joyful crone on a mission to help every human uncover their greatness.

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