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LIFE HONESTLY

What happens when a woman rejects the notion of niceness?

Photo: Getty Images

Little girls are taught to facilitate others, so should we applaud women who forge their own selfish paths, wonders Jean Hannah Edelstein

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By Jean Hannah Edelstein on

The Q train from Manhattan to Brooklyn is never good on a Monday morning, not if you like being at a normal temperature, or breathing. If you’re a Londoner, the experience resembles the Central Line between Bank and Holborn around 9am. If you’re not a habitual taker of underground trains, imagine pressing your bare, sweaty limbs against those of strangers, while wearing a paper bag over your head. I always hate everyone on the subway, but this week, after 20 minutes of being squashed between sweaty strangers, I felt extra offended – I saw a person who had brought a bicycle on to the train.

I concede that bringing bikes on the New York City subway is not illegal. At that day and time, however, it's an act that shows an acute level of disrespect for the wellbeing of other miserable commuters who are trying to eke enough space for their hips and elbows. “Who is that dickhead?” I thought, as I passed the train car that contained the offending cyclist, but then I did a double take – the dickhead was a woman and all of a sudden I felt a little less righteous outrage and a kind of grudging respect. For while this woman was doing a very rude thing, it was hard not to feel a bit of admiration for her relaxed display of the kind of selfishness that I would never dare.

That it was my job in life as a woman to be nice (not kind, necessarily, but nice) and generous was something that was drummed into me from the earliest age. I watched the women who were my role models make efforts – some subtle, some less so – to make other people's lives more comfortable at their own expense. Holding back from taking second helpings of food so that men at the table could have more. Letting other people go ahead of them in lines. Giving men seats with legroom and spending whole days driving children around in cars. Don’t be a taker, I was told, again and again, in one way or another – be a nice girl. Be a giver. Listen, don't talk. Be polite. Share, share, share.

It's not a feminist act to be rude to other people, even if it's in opposition to gender stereotypes

There’s nothing wrong with sharing, of course – it’s a good and important thing – but instilling an understanding in young women that it is their explicit responsibility isn’t fair, either. In my case, it means that I sometimes give more of myself than I really want to, and struggle to ask for much, whether that’s space on an airplane seat armrest, a pay rise at work or a restaurant preference. Such is my abiding fear of being deemed not nice or unaccommodating, or not prioritising other people's happiness above my own, that when a boss called me a “cheeky bitch” when I named a figure after he asked me to state my salary requirements, I spent some time in my head chewing over where I’d gone wrong.

By contrast, young men are not, by and large, encouraged to bend over backwards for others. It is made clear to them their worth is measured by the scope of their ambitions, their ability to achieve them and the aggression with which they pursue those ends. There's no doubt that this model of masculinity is painful and suffocating for many men, but for others it's a route to success. At its most extreme, the celebration of this kind of machismo has rewarded us with men like Donald Trump, whose abject disrespect for the space and wellbeing of others was key to his path to the White House, thanks to an electorate that recognises grabbing things without permission – bodies, resources, space – as a sign of masculinity and power.

I had an urge to admire a woman who was so clearly ignoring social norms for women on the subway, bicycle by her side, just for a moment. But I can't admire her in the long run. Selfish behaviour is just selfish behaviour. It's not a feminist act to be rude to other people, even if it's in opposition to gender stereotypes. The world will not be a better place if we normalise this kind of behaviour and enshrine it as something to aspire to. Putting your own needs aside for others at your own expense can be a dangerous way to live, but an increase in people who practise selfishness will lead us to a crueller, less equitable world.

I'd like to say that if I again encounter that lady with a bicycle, I'll let the air out of her tires. But the truth is that if it happens, I'll probably say nothing – I wouldn't, after all, want to be impolite.

@jhedelstein

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Photo: Getty Images
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LIFE HONESTLY
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