The other week, colleagues and I shared a piece in The Thesis Whisperer about a "circle of niceness." Most of my colleagues being, like myself, level B or aspiring to level B, it had particular relevance.
The question was posed: "As we talked we started to wonder: do you get further in academia if you are a jerk?" The piece ends: "It’s hard to do, but wherever possible we should work on creating circles of niceness. We can do this by being attentive to our own actions. Next time you have to talk in public about someone else’s work really listen to yourself. Are you picking up a prevailing culture of assholery?"
Of course, it is tricky. It can be difficult to be honestly critical or in disagreement with a piece of work while still being 'nice'. Nice itself is a fraught concept. It can come across as false, which made me start to think...
The fairy tales of the female authors during Louis XIV's reign were frequently criticised as being artificial. The authors weren't regarded as highly as their male counterparts, even another fairy tale author like Perrault, who, in fact, wrote more simplistic tales. Yet, these female authors appear to have created a circle of niceness in spite of - or because of - this.
Murat addresses her contemporaries with praise: "You are all beautiful, young, with a good figure, fashionably and richly clothed and housed, and you live exclusively in royal courts or in enchanted palaces."* The forewords of many collections include elaborate compliments for fellow authors and female members of Louis XIV's court. The latter may be flattery, in light of the necessity of patronage, but in some cases it can be speculated that genuine relationships or respect had sprung up between the authors and royal women. Then you have cases where Lhèritier, for instance, dedicates a tale to Murat, declaring her charming and proposing that the moral may please her (a little ironic in light of the scandals that would colour her reputation).
The tales are linked, of course, to the salons, which themselves fostered a co-operative culture among women and, even, men.
Were these "circles of niceness"?
In the tales themselves, while there are remarkably unhelpful and often jerky fairies, princes, queens and so forth, there are also fairies who help without agenda. These fairies frequently occupy high positions and are praised for their beauty and intelligence. They are in a position to help and help they do.
Murat even calls one "Obligeantine," which unsurprisingly means obliging and kind. Obligeantine appears in "The Savage" and is especially wonderful as she rides around in a black painted giant's skull. She takes the heroine under her wing, protects her from harm and helps to clear her path to social position and love. She really doesn't ask for anything in return and makes no outrageous demands. She's in a position to be nice, so she is nice.
While often patriarchal structures set women against women, these tales reveal the value of being obliging, kind... nice. It isn't about being artificial or less clever or even weaker: it's simply about being in a position to help and, so, helping. Maybe it's time there were more fairies in universities?
*Bottigheimer, Fairy Tales Framed: Early Forewords, Afterwords, and Critical Words (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 203