It's cruel to be called kind

Earlier this week my husband forwarded me a link to an article in design magazine Dezeen, knowing that it would send me into a frothing rage (we’ve been together nearly 12 years, he knows how to push my buttons by now…). The article reported on the Italian furniture firm Lago creating a series of 8 interiors in what they call an “ode to woman’s kindness”.

As the brand put it, "Kindness is universal ( . . . ) However, it seems to most naturally belong to women. Lago has therefore identified the woman as a natural bearer of kindness, a muse who inspires interior design projects that embody this concept." The 'however' and the 'seems' in that sentence are so telling, right? Like, we know rationally that kindness is universal, however, it suits us better to pretend that it isn’t, and to earmark it as a 'female' trait. And we have no data that it belongs more naturally to women, but we think it seems to. So that’s good enough for us to press on with our project in defiance of the facts. We live in a post-truth world, so who cares?

Adding insult to injury, the article points out that the rooms were in fact designed by Lago’s creative director who is – guess what – male. Women can inspire, but never create. This is a trope I have seen over and over again in my career, and in culture in general. As literary critic Cyril Connolly famously said back in 1938, ”There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway." (Incidentally I love the way that phrase has been reappropriated, Prams In The Hall's webpage is definitely worth a look.)

To give Dezeen their due, although the article is not explicitly critical of Lago, it does point out the continuing gender inequities in the design and architecture fields, implicitly positioning this project as reflective of a wider problem.

The fury induced by this article got me thinking again about Margaret Atwood, whose classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale has recently been in the news as a new adaptation launches. I wrote my PhD dissertation on Atwood, mainly because I so enjoyed her female characters, in all their horror and glory. Her novels were amongst the first I read growing up where I really recognized the women, where they seemed to be allowed to be good, bad, nice, evil, weak, powerful and all the things humans are, regardless of gender, and were not just essentially faceless wives, mothers, daughters. The adaptation of the novel has reopened debates about its feminist credentials, leading to Atwood writing in The New York Times in response to the question of its feminism "If you mean a novel in which women are human beings – with all the variety of character and behaviour that implies – and are also interesting and important (. . . ) then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist”.'

This led me on to thinking about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, in which she talks about the double bind faced by women in business, where being competent is considered less important than being nice, but yet if a women is really nice, her competence is often overlooked or underrated.

This goes to the heart of it, for me. The longer that we try to reduce women to single characteristics like' kindness' or 'niceness', the harder it becomes for them to be taken seriously when they move outside of those characteristics whether it be to create art, or to display competence and ambition in their professional lives, or whatever. To paraphrase Atwood, I’d like to see a world, and in particular a business world, in which women are human beings, with all the variety of character and behaviour that implies, and are also interesting and important. That’s a vision of the future I can really get behind.


Thanks for reading, as always!

Nancy x