If you know me, you know that I admire Amy Poehler and the work she does as a comedian and a TV feminist. I’ve also been a fan of Smart Girls at the Party for a few years. I like the idea of showcasing girls doing smart, interesting things and advocating for “changing the world by being yourself.” Sometimes, like Alyssa Rosenberg writes, however, “Smart Girls at the Party feels less like an expression of Poehler’s spiky humor than one of Leslie Knope’s more-earnest and less-successful projects.” (Slate)
Smart Girls‘s main presence is on its Youtube Channel Amy Poheler’s Smart Girls, and on Facebook. Over the last year, I’ve observed a progressive trend away from the raw, fun, if Knopey, feel of the original webseries and toward an explicit emphasis on positivity and niceness. In short, the brand seems to be having an identity crisis.
Smart Girls does have some really fun elements such as the “Girls of the World,” which is overly-simplified but informative in its way, and the “Boy’s Minute,” which serves no real purpose but to prevent the feminist project from excluding boys and men. This summer, I enjoyed the “Get Your Hair Wet” series of posts, which encouraged girls to get out and have fun in active ways. The YouTube channel also features a number of women doing cool things like movie stunts, firefighting, triathlon-ing, or slam poetry. I have to wonder why there aren’t more girls and women of color, but in terms of gender these parts are strong and fun. “Operation Nice,” however, is getting the bulk of the attention on Facebook and Pinterest, encouraging girls to do nice things for other people. Most of the actions are simple random acts of kindness while a few focus on picking up litter or helping the homeless.
I struggle with watching “Operation Nice” unfold because of my own strong feelings about niceness. On one hand, I think thoughtfulness, compassion, and manners are important. I firmly believe that gentleness shows tremendous strength. On the other hand, as others have started to point out on Smart Girls‘s Facebook page, girls are conditioned to be nice in a way that often functions to shut their voices down. I think I’m generally a nice person. Through teenage bullshit and being told I was difficult, I made it a point to be a nice girl. Looking back now, however, I know that being nice has also caused my internal struggles. On days when I hate myself, my concern over niceness is at the root. I have a pathological dread of making people angry. I’m hesitant to speak up. I frequently kick myself for not having more moxy or being more outspoken. If my work serves as a type of therapy (as humanities work often does), it is in some way an effort to reclaim parts of myself that were shut down, or that I shut down, over and over again until I emerged as an adult, wondering who I might have been if I hadn’t been so nice. I’m a work in progress in this regard. Confessionally speaking, I have deeply internalized that sexist notion that it’s bitchy to be assertive or selfish to ask for what you want, even as I admire friends and colleagues who do these things. I will champion selflessness, compassion, gentleness, and tact. But nice sucks.
(What is nice, even? The first definition is “pleasing; agreeable; delightful.” While the qualities I listed above seem to me to be more about conscious choices and priorities, nice just reeks of passiveness, subservience, and going along with what will make others happy.)
I’m partly drawn to girlhood studies to right this wrong and to advocate against it for other girls. Maybe I’m on a crusade against niceness and in favor of more diverse, complex representations of girls and female agency. As I’ve mentioned before regarding Katniss Everdeen, I think it’s important that girls have role models who are not easily labeled as “nice.” I think one of the most endearing elements of Leslie Knope herself is that she’s assertive to a fault. Leslie is thoughtful and loving, but she also steamrolls people, is obnoxiously competitive, obsessive, and doesn’t back down unless she genuinely thinks she’s wrong. Is Leslie Knope a bitch? No. Is she nice? I don’t think she’s that either.
Although I agree with Rosenberg’s sentiments that Smart Girls feels like a Knope project in its cheesy aspects, I like to think that if Leslie Knope were really in charge, she’d be pushing girls to be engaged and involved in their communities, focusing on democracy and service, not on “niceness.” I think that’s the intent of Project Nice, but by calling it “Nice,” Smart Girls has stepped on troubled ground and tapped into one of the wounds that a sexist culture inflicts on strong, willfull girls.