One of the less convincing parts of the #YesAllWomen craze was the treatment, by some, of all compliments from strangers as street harassment or catcalling. At the same time, I don’t know if everyone realizes how threatening or annoying some interactions with strangers can be.
I thought of it, again, when I came across this tweet last week:
Man at the car repair place called me beautiful. Okay thank you sir but please examine the way you address women and how you express respect
— Anna Swenson (@annaswens) July 31, 2014
It’s a fine tweet and I don’t mean to ridicule Ms. Swenson, who is hitting on this tension about compliments on beauty and style. I actually want to thank her for the tweet because it gives us an opportunity to talk about the fine art of giving and receiving compliments. It’s a skill and one we seem to have completely lost as a society.
Learn How To Give Compliments
First, let’s address the giver of the compliment. It’s always a good idea to remember that a compliment is, by definition, polite. If you’re not being polite, you’re not giving a compliment. Merriam-Webster defines compliment as “a remark that says something good about someone or something” or “an action that expresses admiration or approval.” This same dictionary says it comes from the Spanish “cumplir,” which it says means “to be courteous.” Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think that’s actually what that verb means in Spanish, let’s just agree that compliments need to be polite to qualify as compliments.
Telling a woman her butt looks like two pigs fighting under a blanket isn’t terribly polite. It’s not going to be received as a compliment because it’s not given in a courteous manner. Objectifying a woman and reducing her into some kind of means by which you fulfill your lustfulness is not polite.
The media gave a ton of attention to a woman recently who confronted Minnesota men who called her “hot” on the street. Or, actually, the dude — with ring on his finger, natch — shouted in her general direction that Minnesota women were hott. Unfortunately she’s gotten a lot of this. She wrote a Craigslist rant about men objectifying her last year and if what she says happened is true, it’s men behaving without any regard to virtue (Trigger warning: link to Jezebel). Anywho, she now records her interactions confronting such men and has a thing called Cards Against Harassment, which she gives to men to encourage them not to harass her. Sample:
While it’s totally true that she rather over-reacts to some comments from strangers, it’s hard to blame someone who’s been subjected to years of questions about her underwear choices. Men, don’t act like loser pervs and then be shocked when women don’t react with glee.
Don’t Panic When You Hear A Compliment
Now, receivers of compliments, please remember that a kind word spoken about a trait you are blessed to have is to be received with gratitude. And remember not to be too self-obsessed about it. If you are told your dress is beautiful, remember all the people who helped you develop style or helped you get to the place where you have enough money to purchase it. And then to indicate that you understand how all sorts of people and things conspired to put you in such a situation where you are blessed to be wearing a beautiful dress, and that you generally have kind feelings about civil society and your fellow man, you get to say something along the lines of “thank you.”
Feminism has made it some kind of hate crime to offer compliments to strangers but it’s worth remembering how difficult it is for some of us to just say “thank you” to anyone, including our friends and family members. Perhaps the best demonstration of this is an Inside Amy Schumer sketch where a group of women downplay every compliment they receive from each other. The sketch is “uncensored” and totally over-the-top in offensiveness and, well, NSFW as a result. But here’s a sample of the dialogue that won’t make your pastor put you in remedial catechesis:
Woman 1: OMG Bree, you dyed your hair! It looks amazing! Woman 2: Oh no, you’re just being nice. Woman 1: No seriously it looks great Woman 2: No, I tried to look like Kate Hudson but ended up looking like a golden retriever’s dingleberry. Woman 2: Hi, I love your hat Woman 3: Are you drunk? I look like an Armenian man. People are trying to buy carpets from me. Woman 3: Miss Jessica! Congrats on your big promotion! Woman 4: I’m going to get fired in like two seconds. I’m legally retarded. On my SATs I just drew a picture of a house on the first page and I ate the rest.
At the end of a sketch, someone compliments a woman on her coat and she responds with a simple “Thank you!” and it’s so awful for the other women that they all kill themselves in dramatic fashion.
See, it’s ridiculous when you’re unable to learn the art of accepting a compliment.
The Bleak Land Of No Compliments
Still, we don’t want a world where feminism or any other ideology has destroyed the practice of knowing how to give or receive compliments about style or appearance. It is good for humans to recognize beauty and beautiful things. What’s neat about this is that you can do this with literally everyone you come across if you have gratitude and see the best in others. Not everyone is going to have the voice of Karen O or the compelling strength of a Misty Copeland. But people need not have outsize talents or look like Kate Upton to be complimented. Everyone likes a compliment about their beauty or taste. A typical woman will feel delighted to be told she’s pretty or has pretty clothing or accessories.
And here’s the thing about killing the practice of complimenting others, particularly related to beauty. The fact is, and I know it’s super controversial to say obvious things these days, but the fact is that men respond to female beauty because it is part of their nature to respond to female beauty. That drive to make babies works in part because women respond to certain male traits and men respond to certain female traits. Women are hot. We are. Men go all googly eyes with us. This is not to say we don’t have other admirable traits in addition to our God-given beauty and it’s not to say that beauty absent virtue can be counted on to appeal to the opposite sex — but it’s one of the things we have going for us. We’re basically luscious. And that’s a good thing, not a bad thing!
Men of course need to discipline themselves and be civilized as they live in a world of female hotness. That discipline is partly seen in men learning how to offer formal compliments of beauty. If you want to see undisciplined men in this reality, I would refer you to the DJ Snake and Lil John video Turn Down For What. I would refer you but it’s, like, so awful in offensiveness that it makes that Amy Schumer sketch I linked to above seem like a clip from Sesame Street.
The Turn Down for What video contains three and a half of the most hypnotic minutes of a filthy man ripping clothes off of a woman and humping a television set you will ever see. It’s a James Poulos Pink Police State pulsating fever dream. It’s man’s natural passions unrestrained by any reason or civilization. It’s also kind of a scary environment. Guns! Incest! Lots of ambiguity about consent!
Women As Powerful Instead of Women As Victims
A world in which men have the freedom and discipline to offer compliments to women about their beauty is a civilized world where women hold a lot of power. Because men have natural desire for women, this gives women some power. Power is difficult and at times scary to hold, certainly, and it causes all sorts of imbalances, but women hold it so long as men desire us. Women should be given some tips for how to effectively manage this power we have. I myself have found the best advice on this topic comes from my mother, the mothers of a few of my best friends, and the entire music catalogue of Prince.
If we instead take the feminist line that compliments are basically the equivalent of sexual harassment, that removes our power and turns us into victims.
No, it’s not always nice or easy to hear compliments from people. Givers of the compliments need to work on how they phrase things. They need to be gentle, polite, not too effusive and not too flattering. And recipients of compliments need to develop a talent for accepting compliments and responding politely as well.
It’s definitely too much to say that the future of civilization rests on each of us improving our skills in this regard, but only by a little bit.