Like a lot of women, I cry when I’m angry. I say this so that you understand that when I tell you that I stuffed a scarf in my mouth while watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech last November so that my co-workers couldn’t hear my sobs, you understand that I was weeping as much out of rage as out of sadness.
And like a lot of Americans, I’ve been grappling with the competing impulses to build bridges and to blow them up for almost a year now, so I was excited to dive into “Nasty Women,” a new essay collection curated by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding and named for President Trump’s self-revealing slam at Clinton during the campaign. The book, subtitled “Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America,” is a convenient field guide to many of the debates that have sprung up since the presidential election, and many of the intra-left grievances that preceded it. But the book is a disappointing reminder that even when women try to reclaim slurs and difficult emotions, the gravitational force of the need to please can be nearly impossible to escape.
The thing that stood out most to me about “Nasty Women” was, in fact, how generally polite and nice it is. The book strikes a careful balance between pieces by white women and women of color, straight women and LGBT ones. Its contributors say that “anger is not enough,” that “I have no choice but to try and be a bridge” between Trump’s supporters and opponents. There are defenses of politically radical tactics, including civil disobedience, strikes and destruction of property, though it’s only Meredith Talusan, writing from a transgender perspective, who suggests that women who engage in these tactics are often treated as if they’ve violated the norms of their own gender. But there’s a difference between the confrontations involved in militancy and actual meanness.
“Nasty Women” contains a few moments when the writers urge readers to shuck off their customary politeness. Katha Pollitt urges women to quit churches and synagogues that don’t back their reproductive rights, “never mind . . . how nice the priest or rabbi is.” Randa Jarrar harshly (and justly) rebukes a white woman who, assuming that Jarrar is also white, says racist things about Syrian refugees. Samantha Irby ducks her neighbors in her new rural community and even swipes at any of her readers “who had your hearts broken when the lady who called the police on your dreadlocked cousin that one time didn’t start leaving her front door unlocked and inviting you over.” It’s no mistake that Irby and Jarrar’s essays, which are the closest the collection comes to actual nastiness, are two of the most readable pieces in the book.
I understand why the editors of “Nasty Women” wouldn’t want to encourage more women to be nasty in the style of our commander in chief. Public life in America is plenty coarse and corrosive with only half the population given permission to act this way. And the gender double standard is such that a woman who takes even a tiny fraction of the liberties Trump does is quickly ostracized. But I wish the collection had included more impolite emotions and some serious exploration of whether politeness and diligence actually served Clinton — and whether they serve many other women — all that well.
Co-editor Mukhopadhyay writes that Clinton’s defeat “played out like a morality tale gone wrong, in which the smart girl who had done her homework loses to the class clown who barely seems to show up for school.” But the truth is that in most of our popular storytelling*, the “smart girl who had done her homework” is the prude, the scold, the try-hard enemy who exists to be either turned or defeated by the looser, more charismatic man in the story. What if it’s a trick of the so-called meritocracy that teaches girls and women to please others, only to reveal to them that there’s always someone who will insist that to earn his approval a woman must restrain, restrict or even reinvent her behavior?
I ask this question as someone who has a personal stake in the answer. Niceness is a major constituent part of my private personality and public persona. I write thank-you notes to my own parents when they send me birthday gifts, and I respond to all but the most abusive reader emails. As much as is possible, I try to see everyone’s side as I pick my way through difficult arguments. I have friends and defenders across the political spectrum. During last year’s presidential campaign, I tweeted some minor praise for Clinton’s ability to be lightly mean and funny all at once, and a much more prominent male journalist decried me as a hopelessly compromised fool, sending his followers to trash me as a shill. I simply sat tight and let other people come to my defense. (Elsewhere on Twitter, I mute; I don’t block.) A boss of mine once described my niceness as one of the qualities he valued most in my work.
He meant it as a compliment, and most of the time, I think it is. Trying to be kind and respectful, which are more powerful subsets of niceness, is often a useful way to defuse an argument without giving up your own position. And for me, being nice generally feels better than being mean. But both “Nasty Women” and my own experience often left me feeling that even if I’m succeeding within someone else’s rules, I’m still playing a rigged game.
*“Parks and Recreation” being a notable counterexample.