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Attractive Femininity Doesn’t Save You

Last week, a young man told me he felt he got treated less nicely and was helped less in public than women our age. He then continued to say that you got treated best in public space if you’re a young and attractive woman.

I don’t blame my friend for this misconception. He sees women being smiled at, opeed the door for and brought drinks. He doesn’t see that opening the door is being expected to make the woman speak to the opener, the drink being expected to get him the seat next to her at the bar and maybe even later in the cab. The alternative is invisibility. Invisible women don’t get extra treatment.

Before I continue I would like to clarify two things:
1. Yes, there are exceptions. Some guys are just nice to everyone without second thoughts and some are nice to no-one. I don’t have a problem with either of them except that, unfortunately, there aren’t enough of them.
2. I’ve experienced both the expectations and the invisibility. That being said, I’ve only seen them from a white, able-bodied position and I can only imagine both being a lot more intense than what I have to tell if you’re in a less privileged position.

Ok, back to the niceness. In her book Women & Power (Profile Books, 2018), Mary Beard explains the long Western tradition of silencing women. One of the earliest mythical examples she gives is that of Io, deemed attractive by Jupiter, who then turns her into a cow when he can’t have her anymore after being “nice” and getting her pregnant (pages 9-10). Sure, she gets treated differently from her male and less beautiful female counterparts at first. And she even pays for that treatment with sex, but still it ends in the consequence of her being treated way worse than the others. Sure, Juno, Jupiter’s wife, gets given Io to show that he can’t be sexual with her anymore. But the decision to turn her into a cow is made by Jupiter, he’s the one who approaches her and later decides over her fate.

The dynamic of this false niceness is still alive and well today.

The culturally coded “payments” for a man being nice to us differ greatly according to the situation. They range from a smile to a right to our bodies. And saying no can be dangerous. But let’s start with the smile:

I finally got my closet delivered. When I offered the two delivery men from the shop to help carry the parts up to my apartment – a job that I was paying them (a lot) to do, but I wanted to help – their response was “That’s ok, just keep smiling that pretty smile you have now.”
Their “help”, which they were already getting paid for, required the extra payment of me making myself aesthetically pleasing to them. Obviously, this situation is annoying but nothing compared to being turned into a cow. But it gets dangerous when being sent a drink requires the payment of spending the evening with the sender (or at least having a long, flirty conversation with him). Of course you can say no to the drink, but that you pay even harder for by being frowned upon by everyone he’s there with and maybe even the bartender, by having to explain yourself to him and maybe even having to put up with the “nice guys finish last”-speech. All of these things happened to me and to countless other women.

Saying no to a “nice guy” (there’ll be an article up on this species soon) can have very dangerous consequences, especially for women of trans experience. However, while individual cases can be found and time and time again are written articles about when they happen, there is little to no research out there on victims of violence who just said no to a man’s advances. There are already few articles on femicide (one example here) and not many statistics on the issue (the exception of the UK’s femicide census report of 2016 here). None of those texts include numbers on how many of those women faced violence as a consequence of refusing male advances, even though given what can be read in newspapers again and again it would be high time to include this aspect. Having said that, I do also want to clarify that I’m in no way suggesting most refusal to have such devastating consequences, but it is important to keep the most dangerous realities in mind when talking about this topic.

So no, (attractive) women don’t get treated better. But to notice that, we have to look past the opened door at the consequences to having turned down the drink.

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