As Grace Tame knows, orders to smile and be polite are just orders to stay quiet
A strange thing happens when rage builds; the tears follow.
And with that, the lump in the throat, the burning in the eyes, comes the fear.
“Am I making a fool of myself?” “Have I caused more problems?” “Am I even making sense?”
Giving voice to that rage comes with constant calculations. And if you’re a woman, it’s usually followed by an apology.
So what happens when we’re no longer willing to make nice? What happens when decades of conditioning to smile through the discomfort, for the sole purpose of making others feel comfortable, shatters? What happens when women start declining to make Very Important Men feel better about themselves and their offensive opinions?
I found myself thrust into that moment, when appearing on The Project to discuss an essay I had written on covering the sexual assault allegations that dominated the last parliamentary year, as a sexual assault survivor myself.
Day after day I had relived parts of my rape while listening to leaders discuss whether we were even able to have a discussion on sexual violence.
People, mostly women, told me their stories – countless stories of lives thrown off course, of potential never realised, of fear and shame and anger – while men lamented how tired they were of covering the “issue”. Politicians were quick to deflect, like rape and sexual violence was just another political game, one they could play to their advantage, or dead bat away.
I wrote about the rage I saw building, and spilling, the rage that has not dissipated, that is not forgotten. The rage that still simmers below the surface.
Today, Grace Tame met with the Prime Minister at the Lodge, with now-viral photos appearing online. We discuss the day and the differing opinions with @AmyRemeikis. #TheProjectTV pic.twitter.com/9TsYJbFKfY
— The Project (@theprojecttv) January 25, 2022
Since then we have been assured, by Very Important Men, things have been happening. Action was being taken. Women were being listened to.
And then Grace Tame didn’t smile at a staged political photo opportunity.
Never mind that she had shaken the prime minister’s hand. Never mind that she appeared to be walking past quietly when the prime minister called out to stop her. Never mind that she survived being groomed and told what to do by a predator who attempted to steal her sense of self away from her as he raped her.
Grace Tame didn’t smile or appear at ease while having her photo taken in a situation which clearly made her uncomfortable, and in the politics of civility she had committed the worst of crimes.
And then one of those men whose actions and words and decisions had contributed to why I wrote of the rage women felt in those months, and still feel now, felt the need to write a piece criticising Tame.
Faced with the audacity on national television, my rage bubbled to the surface. I shook. I heard my voice struggle past the emotion in my throat. My eyes burned, my breath caught, and I found I could no longer play nice.
And as I shook afterwards, I could only think “Did I embarrass myself?” “Did I even make sense?”
We expect women and those with less institutional power to keep the peace. We expect them to smile. We coach children to smile in situations where they are clearly uncomfortable, and then some are expected to keep smiling for the rest of their lives. Because sexual assault is obviously very serious – but could you just be polite while you speak on it? Surely you could just smile for the camera? And if you can’t do that, then just don’t show up. You can have your place in the room – but only if you behave yourself.
How can Very Important Men take you seriously when you’re ranting and raving like that?
The response to not playing nice has been a little overwhelming, but it has also revealed just how little we see it. Very Important Men and crumb maidens have made a career out of speaking over smaller voices, of challenging others, of playing “devil’s advocate”, of using false equivalence to trip someone up, and discredit what they are saying. But if someone outside of the accepted mould challenges the politics of civility, then civility is weaponised against them.
In that arena, it doesn’t matter what you have to say. You didn’t say thank you, so you no longer deserve a seat at the table.
Until you learn some manners, you can stay in your place. That place, of course, being far away from any position of power or authority which could challenge the status quo.
And in the end, that’s what it is all about. Orders to smile, to be polite, to play nice are just orders to stay quiet. It’s just dressed up in a more polite way.
Amy Remeikis is a political reporter for Guardian Australia