The tyranny of the emoticon (or, be more like a lady, lady.)

How many times, in your life as a girl/lady, have you been told to “Smile!”, to be nice, to be polite, to stay positive!, or to generally be more fucking pleasant? If you’re of the female species, probably a lot.

It’s the ladies who are constantly told, from the time they are very young, by strange men on the street that they “would look prettier” if they would just “Smile!” Our parents and teachers tell us to be nice to others and, as we get older, self-help books and new age a-holes tell us not to be so negative, lest we give ourselves breast cancer or fail to attract a husband. How many times have you read dating advice that says that men prefer women who are “happy and positive” rather than, you know, normal people with thoughts and feelings and lives and problems?

Let’s be real. This is a lady thing. Women are expected to not only be docile and agreeable, but they are expected to keep a smile plastered across their faces in order not to offend those around them.

In business, it is perfectly acceptable for men to be pushy, to be driven, to be forthright, and to make demands of others. Women who act in this way are accused, simply, of being bitches.

We know that these kinds of expectations are common-place but what happens when these kinds of expectations and this kind of behaviour is carried on by feminists?

You’d think that we would know better, at this point, than to accuse other women of acting too much “like men” — of being too driven, of having too many opinions, of not being bubbly enough, and yes, even of not using enough emoticons.

No joke. It was recommended to me by another feminist to use more emoticons in emails. In order to appear more upbeat, I suppose, or perhaps more palatable… I was shocked. Are you?

As women, we are expected to maintain a certain style of communication. We are taught not to be direct, but rather to skirt around issues so as to ensure we don’t offend. We are taught to be gentle, we are taught to be non-intrusive, we are taught to agree with one another even when we don’t actually agree, just to keep the peace. Even I, someone who, let’s be honest, isn’t particularly ‘agreeable’ silence myself in public discussions so as to avoid being perceived as, you know, thinking I have a valid opinion, or appearing ‘difficult’ or ‘argumentative’.

As women, we silence ourselves all the time. We are silenced by others and by society at large, of course, but we also silence ourselves.

Can you imagine asking a man to use more emoticons in his emails? I can’t.

Can you imagine criticizing a man because he was focused on his career or too driven or too successful? It doesn’t happen. Women are attacked for abandoning their families in favour of having a career; not men. Women are accused of being ‘ball-busters’ or ‘bitches’ or of being ‘too demanding’ or of being ‘nags’ if they actually are clear about what they want. We are cold and hard when we set boundaries. We are offensive when we say what we mean or when we dare to assume that our opinions are worthwhile and make them heard.

We know this happens outside feminist circles all the time. Look at what Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency went through for daring to imagine she could might have something critical t0 say  about the sexist, male-dominated world of gaming? She was attacked and harassed and threatened before she even managed to form her critique. That, my friends, is how we silence women’s voices.

So why are feminists doing this to one another? Why encourage a certain ‘lady-like’ standard of behaviour among feminists? Yes, we are socialized to expect this from ourselves and from other women, but when we start accusing other feminists of essentially ‘acting like men’ by criticizing one another for not being polite enough, for being ‘too angry’, for being too driven, for being too direct, or for not using enough emoticons in our emails, I think we need to check ourselves.

I’m not defending name-calling or ad hominem attacks by any means and I’m certainly not arguing that we should not aim for civilized, respectful debate but I do question when feminist women accuse and shame one another for displaying in what are typically viewed as ‘male’ behaviours.

Encouraging women to not speak out, to avoid saying what they mean, to not be direct, to choose passive-aggressive behaviours over honest expressions of their beliefs and opinions reinforces gendered behaviour and it reinforces the silencing of women.

I have been accused, one time too many, of all of these things. But not only by men. In fact, what has angered me the most is when other feminists have tried to push ‘feminine’ behaviour onto me or to shame me for having, for example, too many ideas or opinions.

I’ve even been accused of ‘wanting a career’, something which struck me as particularly classist — the idea being, I suppose, that I should remain poor forever, trapped in the so-called pink ghetto in order to be a ‘real feminist’??

This kind of work to keep other women down, to keep feminism on the side-lines, to keep feminists over-worked, under-appreciated, and destitute, strikes me as very backwards and very gendered. Only someone who was already gifted with the privilege of a free education, who never understood what it was like to not be able to pay their rent and bills or to struggle to find a job would righteously accuse another woman of being too ‘career driven’ for trying to claw their way out of the service industry or secretarial work, the typical, historically acceptable, underpaid domains for working women.

I am doing something difficult. That is, I’m trying to be a feminist journalist in a world that isn’t particularly interested in feminist journalism. I am trying to remain true to myself and my beliefs and my ethics while also trying to survive. The idea that women should work for free (and believe me, much of the work I do is for free at this point) while men continue to hold most positions of power in our society, make most of the money, and of course have the most powerful voices in journalism, is not pro-woman or pro-feminist.

As Jessica Valenti wrote back in 2010:

This is a movement-wide problem: Expecting activists and feminists to work for little to no money isn’t limited to speaking.  Anyone who has ever worked in feminist nonprofits knows that the pay is minimal; this is especially true if you’re a younger person or in an entry-level position.  Now, low pay for nonprofit work is to be somewhat expected.  A lot of organizations, especially smaller ones, don’t have large budgets and struggle for funding.  But there are a lot of bigger, mainstream feminist orgs that do have money.  And I heard the argument from higher-ups more than once – particularly when people were asking for raises – that this was about the work, not the money, and that working for peanuts was just “doing your part” for the movement.  (Never mind that many high-level employees at these organizations had trust funds and/or rich partners that allowed them to work for the sheer joy of it.)  It’s the same argument I hear from feminist orgs and publications that expect bloggers (again, mostly young women) to write for free – that we should be happy to be associated with the movement, and to have access to an audience and to this very important work.  The feminist movement’s work is done on the backs of unpaid and underpaid young people, volunteers and interns – and it’s not right.

At the end of the day, it’s about how much feminism is worth to you, and not just in the financial sense.  Do we really want to support a system that only allows a privileged few to speak for our movements?  Do we want a model of activism that devalues feminist labor, or one that takes it seriously – ideologically and economically?  The truth is, if we want a movement whose internal workings mirror our external values, then we need to do everything in our power to ensure that feminist work is valued and that activists’ work is sustainable.

Now, of course, many organizations and sites don’t have money to pay bloggers, I certainly don’t pay myself for blogging here but most certainly would love to be in a position, some day, to compensate other women for contributing to this site.

What is key here is that other feminists are devaluing women’s work and feminist work when they accuse one another of having or wanting careers. As we know, being driven, caring about one’s work, and wanting a career (aka, wanting to be able to pay the rent and buy groceries) is a ‘man-thing’.

Just like having ideas, speaking out, being confident and taking up space in this world are ‘man-things’.

So no, I won’t smile just to make you feel more comfortable, I won’t fake positivity, I won’t shut up, I won’t choose passive-aggressive behaviour over being direct, I won’t be more polite or more agreeable and I won’t use more emoticons. I certainly won’t sabotage my work and my goals or stop standing up for what I believe in lest I be accused of acting too much ‘like a man’. And I expect feminists to stop attacking one another when they don’t choose passive femininity over their own integrity and their own, honest voices.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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