Most women have probably heard this phrase at one point or another, probably from a man. An ex-boyfriend used to always say this whenever I would get mad at him, and it would just infuriate me further, only adding to his glee. I couldn’t express exactly why it irritated me so much (being cute is good as a woman, right?) but I just found the words while reading Marilyn Frye’s The Politics of Reality. She discusses the oppression that women face, and explains that although men can be negatively affected by the oppression of women (sexism) in ways such as not being allowed to express emotions apart from anger, and dealing with pressure to be tough and strong, men are not oppressed. She elucidates that although these are legitimately difficult and damaging regulations placed on men, they are in place because of the oppression placed on women, and still serve to perpetuate male domination.
This may be hard to understand, but a point that Frye made that really helped me get it is that although men and women both have harmful expectations and regulations placed on them, men are rewarded for following them, while women are stuck in a double-bind. Men have a way of winning, which is following the social expectations of the male gender: be emotionless (except for anger), be dominant over women and other men, make money, etc., we all know what a “real man” looks like. There are systems of oppression that affect certain groups of men that make it more difficult for them to attain the gold medal of masculinity, but sexism is not one of them. While the expectations of masculinity are no doubt very difficult to deal with and a huge cause of societal problems, there is a way for a man to Be A Man and be rewarded with esteem by society at large. Women, on the other hand, can never win. If we have sex we’re a whore, but if we refrain, we are frigid. If a woman decides not to work, and to stay home and raise children instead, she is judged for rejecting the work of feminism, being lazy, and not living up to her potential (feminism exists to give women the opportunity and right to decide whatever they want for themselves, including staying home and raising children). If a woman decides to go to work and leave her children with a babysitter she is scorned for being a bad mother or not loving her children.
There is one way for women to be approved of by society, and that is to have a friendly, sunny disposition. Speaking as a woman with Chronic Bitch Face I can tell you with some authority that unfriendly women are perceived as mean, rude, angry, and bitchy. Though being Miss Bubblegum Sunshine gains us societal approval it also removes our agency. Being sweet and gentle, as Frye says, signals our “docility and our acquiescence in our situation”. We contribute to our own subjugation by making ourselves smaller, easier to deal with, and subservient. Now, I am not to be misunderstood as saying that women should never smile or be friendly. I am simply advocating that women examine when and why they smile or are friendly when they don’t feel happy. Personally, I know I smile when I am near large men and feel intimidated, or when I do something that I think may have irritated the other person. In these situations I am using my smile in the same way that a dog uses rolling over on his back; expressing submission and asking the other not to attack me. That may sound dramatic but I think it is true for many women, whether they consciously realize it or not. Regardless, women’s behavior is only societally approved of if it directly reinforces their subjugation.
Frye says “being male is not a factor which would make [one’s] anger impotent – quite the opposite”. Men are expected to be angry, and are rewarded with the deference of others for it. This is because anger is an emotion of power. It is a powerful emotion, but men are not allowed to feel or express powerful emotions other than anger, only emotions of power; emotions that can assert power and dominance over others. Powerful emotions are for “hysterical” women who should be disregarded as being dramatic, or on their period. I realized while reading Frye’s work that women’s anger is seen as laughable and “so cute” because women are not seen as capable of possessing or wielding power in the way that angry men are. It’s adorable that a woman would try to imitate a man’s strength because it’s like a toddler flexing their little chubby arms and claiming they can beat their dad at wrestling. A woman’s anger is met by male laughter because it is laughable that a woman could have the same authority or potency as a man.
So, with that I realized that my ex, by disregarding my anger, was perpetuating sexism and disrespecting me and my feelings entirely on the basis of my gender. My female anger could never harm him and his male insouciance. A man would never call another man “cute” for expressing anger. If they did, it would only be offensive because it would be likening the man to a woman, the highest insult of all.