In a speech at the 2015 Girls Write Now awards ceremony, acclaimed Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “I think it’s important that you tell your story truthfully and I think that’s a difficult thing to do — to be truly truthful. It’s only natural to be concerned about offending people or possible consequences.”
She says that what she says to her female students, in particular, is “forget likability.”
I think that what our society teaches young girls, and I think it’s also something that’s quite difficult for even older women — self-professed feminists — to shrug off, is that idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable.
And I say that’s bullshit.
So what I want to say to young girls is forget about likability. If you start off thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending… And that’s going to ruin your story, so forget about likability. And also the world is such a wonderful, diverse, and multifaceted place that there’s somebody who’s going to like you; you don’t need to twist yourself into shapes.
Amen. The most boring writing around is the kind that puts being polite above all else.
As much as it may appear as though I give no shits about being “liked” (it’s likely I would bite my tongue more than I do if it were a top priority), in my day-to-day life, I catch myself trying to make others feel comfortable more than not. My feminine socialization runs deep and I try to be polite, sometimes, in situations where I should speak out. Yet I have regretted that which I have not said, far more often than I have regretted staying silent.
This makes sense, of course. We’ve learned the hard way, as women, what happens when we don’t play nice. When I do speak out, when I do tell the truth, and when I do stick up for myself, I am usually punished for it — ostracized or attacked by friends, co-workers, a million randos on the internet, even other women and feminists. Men, especially, are ruthless when women push back. And as much as I’d like to pretend I don’t care, I do. And it hurts. It hurts when friends distance themselves because you’ve said something that makes them uncomfortable, that is unpopular, that challenges their life choices or worldview. Many prefer comfort over all else. This is why people so often side with their misogynist and abusive friends over the women in their lives who speak out against these men, choosing the bro code over what’s right. This is why people side with idiots and bullies over women who tell the truth. They are choosing their own safety and comfort over women’s lives.
Lately, it’s really begun to sink in that this is what I’m going to be dealing with for the rest of my life. This is what all women who say that which they are supposed to stay silent about will deal with for the rest of their lives. Ostracization, attacks, and hatred. Co-workers and friends will simply stop talking to you, never really saying anything to you, but making it clear you’ve stepped out of line and that you will be punished for that. It is their cowardliness that is the problem, at the end of the day, but it is you who will suffer for it.
I’m in a position to speak out in a way that many other women are not, and I appreciate that and do take advantage of that position, but at the same time, that position and privilege is not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s really, really hard. The repercussions of my work are immense and infinite. And I wonder if I will be able to manage it. I’m not entirely convinced I will be able to. It feels overwhelming. And then, of course, I think about the millions of women who are suffering around the world in ways that are incomparable to what I have had to deal with and tell myself to get over it. To be hated is nothing in comparison to the day-to-day lives and struggles of countless women.
And the fact is that if you are going to push back against popular narratives and dominant discourse, it’s unlikely you will be widely liked. Beyond that, I think that often writers and public figures are viewed as things that can (or should be able to) take a beating — almost as though we exist for that sole purpose. I know that, often when I’m responding to particular ideas or quotes or articles, I haven’t always considered the person at the other end of that. But even when I feel as though I’ve tried to be polite, considerate, or gentle, I’m treated like the antichrist. It’s almost as though women can’t win.
… Scratch that — women can’t win.
Women can try to be liked their whole lives, and they will still be shit on. Likeability never protected any woman from misogyny. And no matter how polite your opinion is, if you have one at all — particularly one that is critical or challenges the accepted party line, it’s likely you will be perceived as “difficult” or as a “ball-buster” — definitely you won’t get to be a “cool girl.” Cool girls are fun and nice and not ever disagreeable. You’ll be told to lighten up and to stop complaining so much — the world is a beautiful place, some middle class nitwit will tell you. Take those selfies and get those boob jobs and pose for Playboy — you go girl! YOLO.
If you want to be popular, be quiet, only approach difficult subjects and controversial issues in the most tepid of ways. For women, it is preferable to simply say something neutral, but enthusiastic, when faced with a conundrum: “Beyonce is hot!” for example. Or, “Sexy makes me feel sexy!” “I like things!” is also an acceptable female response to just about anything.
There are plenty of things I don’t say, for fear of attack or ostracization. Believe it or not, I edit myself to the point where I often feel as though I’m silencing myself. Yet, at the end of the day I wonder what the purpose of this is, considering that I could probably say, “I’m not interested in cats,” only to be called a cat killer.
In her Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture last month, Adichie addressed the “codes of silence” that govern American life. She said that Americans like to be “comfortable” and that she worried this has brought “dangerous silencing” into American public conversation.
“The fear of causing offence, the fear of ruffling the careful layers of comfort, becomes a fetish,” Adichie said. As such, The Guardian reports, Adiche said the goal of many public conversations in the United States “is not truth,” but “comfort.”
“To choose to write is to reject silence,” she added. And indeed, silence won’t get you anywhere. At the same time, when you choose to speak out, to say something that goes against popular discourse, that make people uncomfortable, or that isn’t “nice,” you will be punished for it. You will be told to shut up and to step back in line. And if people actually listen to you, well, the push back will become ever more intense. You are really dangerous, then.
Our choice, as citizens, but as women in particular, is to be liked or to tell the truth. We can pick and choose our battles, but at no point will having challenging opinions make your life any easier. And if likeability is what you desire, then get used to biting your tongue and making trite statements about how empowering it is to be sexy or how great it is that a rich, white Republican looks pretty on the cover of Vanity Fair.
Silence is golden if you want to be the most popular girl at the party. So is stupidity. Get it, girl.