A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for the LA Review of Books blog about the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. One topic I emphasized is something that many women write about: the importance of being likeable. The ideas is that, if you’re likeable, maybe you won’t get assaulted or sworn at or told you’re a bitch. That you’re somehow safer the more likeable you are.
On October 11, Tin House published an article by Lacy M. Johnson, On Likeability. Johnson writes searingly of how likeability will not save us, and could instead destroy us.
“I learned, soon enough, that being liked meant favor, meant preferential treatment, meant I was safe but only in certain ways…I tried diminishing myself in such a way that I wouldn’t provoke him, wouldn’t anger him, tried to bend myself according to his pleasure so that he would like everything I did and said and thought. It didn’t matter, because no matter what I did, it was never enough. I kept at it anyway, until there was almost nothing left of me, of the person I had been. And that person I became, who was barely a person of her own, is the version of me he liked best.”
She talks about her daughter:
“I like it when my daughter talks back to me, even though it also makes me mad, and I like it that she is so bold and so weird. I hope she stays bold and weird forever.”
And she wonders how that daughter will make her way in a world in which:
“Raped women are unlikable, apparently. So are strong women. Women who survive. Ambitious women are unlikable, women who are good at their jobs, women who tell the truth. Women who don’t take shit are unlikable, women who burn bridges, women who know what they are worth.”
I could quote the entire article, it’s that good. Especially when she opens up the sphere of of who is labelled unlikeable to include Black women, Black men, immigrants, people of certain religions, and more. But instead I’ll ask you to consider, carefully, how it is that we’ve ended up here, in this culture of likeability, when it won’t change how we are perceived, how we are hurt, how we are used in everyday life.
Why are we (i.e.g, those who are not white men) pressured to be likeable?
“I think, perhaps, one reason — maybe the primary reason — that the world tries so hard to pressure us to be likable (and to punish us when we aren’t) is because they are afraid we will realize that if we don’t need anyone to like us we can be any way we want. We can tell any story. We can tell the truth.”
Johnson’s essay reminded me of another viral Tin House essay – this one by Claire Vaye Watkins, entitled On Pandering.
Watkins writes about Stephen Elliott (former editor at The Rumpus, who is now suing Moira Donegan for creating a Google doc in which women could list “shitty men in media”), how he came to visit the university where she was doing an MFA program. Watkins and a male student, Kyle Minor, work together to host Elliott, ferrying him between events and ultimately Watkins lets him sleep on her couch. But in a daily newsletter Elliott writes the next day, the male student is described in detail along with his MFA status, while Watkins is demoted to “the student I stayed with.”
“Until my friend forwarded that e-mail to me, I’d been under the impression that since I wrote, I was a writer, period. If I wrote bad I was a bad writer, if I wrote good I was a good writer. Simple as that. I was, I knew, every bit as ambitious as Kyle Minor and Stephen Elliott. I loved books just as much as Kyle and Stephen did, read as much as they did, and worked just as hard to get the right words in the right order. But now I was confronted with Google Groups listserv proof that, to Stephen, Kyle was a writer and I was a drunk girl.”
As Watkins notes:
“I’d been getting the messages of Stephen’s e-mail long before my friend forwarded it to me—all women do. We live in a culture that hates us. We get that. Misogyny is the water we swim in.”
But not only that, Watkins realizes that underneath it all,
“…I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.”
After having a baby, however, Watkins changes her mind about writing. She’s had enough of pandering to white men, to men who make up the literary “canon.” To men who only read your books because another man has recommended them.
“I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.”
Her solution is devastatingly simple – which means it will never happen:
“Let’s burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.”
One of the common responses to essays like On Likeability and On Pandering is that maybe women need to act differently. Forget being likeable or pandering to others, to the higher-ups that make the decisions as to whether or not you’re worth listening to or reading about. Maybe women need to act more like men. An experiment that Dr. Judith Taylor from the University of Toronto tried and wrote about in The Star.
She talks about watching Friday Night Lights, a popular high school football show, and how much the character of Coach Taylor gets done by responding to people briefly, usually in monosyllables, and often extremely directly.
She decides to be Coach Taylor for two weeks. No being likeable, no pandering. Just brevity, monosyllables, and brusque directness. And it works – both at work and at home.
“I wasn’t co-operating, I was dictating, and I used a lot less energy. No one asked followup questions, there was less negotiation, and I didn’t lose time wondering if everyone was OK with the decisions. Students were more productive, and I was more effective at getting what I wanted. I will never forget that my colleagues, with PhDs and argumentation in their bones, dropped a proposal after I uttered five words. Adopting white male southern swagger was pretty darn effective for getting my way.”
Does this mean Taylor thinks all women should adopt male mannerisms to get through the world these days? No. But the fact that people responded to her non-cooperative, brusque approach more effectively than they did to a collaborative approach made her realize that society rewards force and intimidation.
“Being a good partner, mother, professor and citizen to me has always meant being deferential, inclusive, transparent about what I am thinking, as concrete and thoughtful as possible in explaining my decisions, and collaborative with students, family and colleagues. But these features are not often respected as signs of good leadership, and they are exhausting to perform. I won’t promote getting one’s way by force and intimidation. I won’t promote the silencing of dissent through verbal muscularity.”
Taylor’s experience made me think of another article I’d read at Catapult Magazine: Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses? by Melissa Febos.
Febos’s piece takes the best of the above three pieces and merges them into one potential approach to taking what we need from the world instead of it continually taking from us.
“we…are conditioned to ever prove ourselves, as if our value is contingent on our ability to meet the expectations of others. As if our worth is a tank forever draining that we must fill and fill. We complete tasks and in some half-buried way believe that if we don’t, we will be discredited. Sometimes, this is true. But here is a question: Do you want to be a reliable source of literary art (or whatever writing you do), or of prompt emails?” (emphasis mine)
Febos provides a list of things women can consider – and reconsider – in how they interact with the world at large. Don’t try to answer every email within the shortest amount of time possible. Stop giving away advice for free – at least get a coffee, or some in-kind support. Decline invitations – re-learn how to say “no.” Respect your time for writing – schedule it into your calendar and treat it like an appointment. Rethink being “good” – similar to being likeable.
“Patriarchy (and institutional bigotry) conditions us to operate as if we are constantly working at a deficit. In some ways, this is true. You have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. I have spent most of my life trying to be perfect. The best student. The best dishwasher. The best waitress. The best babysitter. The best dominatrix. The best heroin addict. The best professor. I wanted to be good, as if by being good I might prove that I deserved more than the ephemeral esteem of sexist asshats.”
Remember that saying “no” to one thing automatically means you’re saying “yes” to something else.
“You are not saying no to an opportunity; you are saying yes to the revolution. You are not saying no to that person who might be disappointed in you, you are saying yes to a life in which you are not in bondage to the fear of other people’s disappointment.”
I think Febos’s article is the perfect antidote to likeability, pandering, and/or acting like a man. Want to get your writing done? Respect yourself and your time, respect your work, and ditch anyone or anything who won’t give you that same respect.
4 thoughts on “Beyond Likeability, Pandering, and Acting Like a Man”
Sarah, thank you for the excellent, timely piece. It is the first thing I read this morning, and it has been an inspiration for me and my writing.
You’re welcome! I also found these essays inspirational – a call to action for a different way of existing in the world.
Awesome! A great morning read as I head into work, to do stuff and be likeable during my probation period…
Haha yup that probation period is critical – good luck with the likeability!