On women, sweetness and confidence

jumpI’ve been thinking a lot about how women can increase their profile.

I have a performer friend who works very hard and has had considerable success in her field. She’s an intellectual force with an extremely interesting and complicated mind – but this isn’t a big part of her public image, which involves a sweetened up version of herself with an endearingly troubled fictional love life and other qualifiers to knock the edges off the seriousness of her message, which is otherwise a stunning display of typically ‘male interest’ knowledge.

I’m sure the contrast helps to bring out the power of her material and that reducing the element of surprise in this way makes her work more accessible, but the fact it happens at all is interesting. It is as though, to let people in, women must remove some of their perceived mystery and show the world a private life – or at the very least, a contextualising history.

The (female) Guardian journalist who wrote about my talk at Boring 2012 didn’t believe I was interested in IBM tills until I started giving my (partially elaborated) history of growing up near an IBM plant, as a small girl playing with electronic components etc. Like it’s simply unfeasible for a woman to have an interest of their own, of any level of intensity, without a ‘sweet’ context. Until the world catches up with the idea that anything can come from anyone, maybe we need to hand people an interpreter along with our offer – a way that helps our audience to make sense of us.

It feels like giving up, of course! But, I think it’s an extension of something very common. If we have something important to say, we instinctively temper our offer to reduce the risk it will be bounced back wholesale – the less conventional our offer is, the faster we become masters of that enormous social art of meeting people halfway (or die trying). The simplest way to communicate something, to get people into your mind and latching onto your ideas, is to find a shared language, and one universal language – a series of symbols that people recognise and can readily interpret – is vulnerability. Perhaps “I’m choosing to open up to you,” is an unacknowledged power in our society, in the same way that toys favoured by girls contain unacceptable joys, in a world that tends towards male-as-default.

I read this interesting post about how women who describe themselves as ‘sweet’ or ‘ambitious’ get the most responses on dating sites. The writer wonders whether anyone is calling themselves both sweet and ambitious, and whether one can be both these things. I think there are crucial differences between being these things, being labelled these things, and labelling oneself these things.

I remembered another celebrated – and very driven – friend who was called ‘coltish’ in an interview and embraced it, decorating her blog post accordingly. First I wondered whether, to some extent, women simply are sweet. Then I realised we’re all sweet – men, women, boys, girls… but it’s only women that are allowed to be open about it. I suddenly felt very sorry for men, who can only be sweet behind closed doors. We’re all sweet but it’s part of the well-documented paradox of the modern western woman that women have to be publicly private, and men can’t be. The reaction against ‘female’ toys – cuddly animals and dolls – again, is partly a reaction against sweetness wherever it is found. Maybe we don’t just need to make girls more tough, we also need to allow boys to be sweet.

It seems to me that there are advantages to being a woman. As a man, you can be a person. You can even, if you really want, choose to be a ‘man’ and follow the various pursuits that involves in whatever culture you live in. But if you can be a person, you can be a non-person, while a woman is always something. The author of the article talks about sweet now meaning ‘sweet like a kitten’, but sweetness is not necessarily weakness, because for those of us over the age of five taking it into our public lives, it’s effectively an impersonation. If we can own it, there is power in this performance, because we’re in control of it. It’s also pretty much exclusively feminine, and I can’t help but feel we should check we’re not rejecting it for that reason.

I understand the objection though, of course I do. However disarmingly powerful you may think your projecting of yourself is, your reception is (sometimes startlingly) out of your hands – and this is about authority.

Authority is about finding difference; sweetness is about finding sameness. Authority has a profound psychological effect on those in its orbit. It makes everyone surrounding it become hyper self-aware. Sweetness, on the other hand, makes you forget yourself.

Sweetness is also synonymous with ‘charm’ – a word I see attached to female performers, again, much more often than male ones, and a label I’ve had mysteriously slapped on me before, too. It’s one of those terms that has somehow got through, because it’s positive, but don’t think we don’t know what you mean! WE KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN! And of course, it is positive, but it’s nothing at all to do with work, or even to do with respecting the character they are working hard to project into the world. Because ‘charm’ is something that happens to you – it’s a word about how you’re receiving someone, not how they’re transmitting. But if you find a profoundly impressive, serious, funny, political, award-winning playwright, for example (of either gender) principally ‘charming’, you’re stifling their transmission with your perception. You’re saying, in a way, “The way you are is how I experience you.”

To project is to communicate authority. The word ‘author’ is even in there, for goodness sake. If you’re the one with the authority, you get to write your world. Your characters don’t have to get a say in it. In the presence of authority, transmissions are silenced and over-written. And make no mistake – authority is blind faith, on both sides. It is utterly irrational, and significantly male.

Half-way through writing this post, I stopped to read a very good, very depressing piece about women and confidence. I’ve long suspected that confidence can protect you from anything in life, and, to return to the beginning of this post, that a lack of confidence is professionally installed over time by the cultural definition of the default human, and its inherent lack of female-ness.

But at the same time, I am always immediately suspicious of universally-accepted assumptions, and this one – that women are the ones lacking – does keep coming back. It’s our fault; we’re missing something. We’re doing something wrong. Again.

And we can check ourselves every day to see if we’re holding back, and we can make steps to improve things for ourselves, but if we want something to happen we have to ask much bigger questions. Unsettling ones. Ones that force us to move away from our obsession with gender defaults, how we lack or fail, and find a new starting point.

Forget every article you’ve ever read, forget what your mates want and what your course tutors tell you, and what the news says and ask: what do you actually want and why do you think you want it? I mean, do we want the same as men? Given that sameness is just another word for sweetness or charm, and antagonistic to authority? And isn’t, in fact, a total blindness to the idea of difference the route to true difference? We don’t need to stifle our human right to be sweet, but we do need authority, and it takes a special kind of irrational confidence to broadcast our own perception over the top of someone else’s transmissions.

One thought on “On women, sweetness and confidence

  1. Kat Sommers

    This really chimed with me, Leila. Especially the question: what do you want? I often think I know what I need – I’m really good at determining what others need too – but what I want is quite hard to pin down.

    Also I’m reading Nora Ephron’s essays about feminism at the moment, and the thing that has struck me about her writing is how she manages to combine authority with modesty (perhaps another word for what you describe as ‘sweet’?). Every essay opens with what she doesn’t know, or an admission that she reads the tabloid she’s about to lay into, or that she has ulterior motives for writing – and yet her perceptions and analysis are so sharp they’re formidable. I recommend them if you’ve not read them already.

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