We're Not "Sweet": Three Generations of Women on the Oppression of Gendered Words
“Kineret, do not feel like you have to be nice to everyone all the time. It will get you into trouble,” my mother told me in my early adolescence. It was her version of “the talk”: the imparting of wisdom from mother to daughter, wisdom that is only achieved over time and through many challenging experiences.
Since I began to develop my own feminist identity, I have struggled with the word “sweet” and its many connotations. To me, the word “sweet” signifies above all else the art of pleasing others, often older men. To be sweet is to be a peacemaker rather than a rabble-rouser, to support rather than to challenge, to comply rather than to question. I want to be a peacemaker, a supportive friend and partner, and somewhat compliant. But when do these attributes, which are unquestionably positive, become oppressive and confining? When asked to examine these questions, I immediately knew that the thing to do was to seek out the most beautifully complex, thoughtful, and in the words of Tyra Banks, “Fiercely Real” women I know: My mother, Deborah, and her mother, Gloria. So, on the occasion of my aunt’s wedding in South Carolina, I sat down to talk to these two women about womanhood, growing up in the South, and what “sweet” means to them.
My grandmother is unequivocal. “Is ‘sweet’ a gendered word?” I ask. She answers, “Oh, absolutely!” For my grandmother, growing up “sweet” was an injunction rather than an attribute. To be “sweet” was to be well mannered and respectful, especially of her elders. She recalls being told upon every visit with her grandparents to “mind grandmother and be sweet.” My grandmother explains to me that the sweetness she was told to demonstrate to her own grandmother was more than an expectation; rather a standard that she was held to in all aspects of her life. She was supposed to be deferential, quiet, and compliant all the time, while her parents carved out spaces for her brother to be the antithesis of these things—opinionated, self-confident, and risk taking. My grandmother is also adamant that the meaning of “sweet” has changed for the better, allowing girls to grow up more free to express themselves: “I think sweet certainly has nothing to do with behavior, or being good, or following a certain path. Rather, it has more to do with being kind and considerate.” However, she adds that while “sweet” is a thing a woman is, rather than an injunction, it still carries the burden of archaic expectations.
My mother, who grew up in small towns in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, recounts similar experiences. She recalls that growing up, “sweet” was synonymous with “well-mannered.” In the South, she explains, for a girl to be well mannered is an important attribute and a measure of the quality of her upbringing. However, she explains, while being considerate, polite, and helpful are important, they should not be valued to the exclusion of other qualities such as directness, bravery, and strength. She adds, “When always praising a woman for being sweet, you’re sending a message that what you value is niceness and conflict avoidance. You are suggesting that you may not support her when she needs to exercise her voice.” Most important to her is being true to oneself even if that sometimes means making other people uncomfortable.
Rosh Hashanah is a time for reflection and self-awareness. With this self-awareness comes an acceptance of our imperfect, complex selves. But rather than view this complexity as detraction from our collective “sweetness,” I hope that we can recognize the beauty in the multi-faceted nature of our personalities. Let us remove ourselves from binding yet superficial labels such as “sweet” and instead encourage each other to delve into the foundation of our being. And with this new freedom we, like my mother and grandmother and so many other women, can be as strong, loud, and fierce as we need to be.
How to cite this page
Grant-Sasson , Kineret . "We're Not "Sweet": Three Generations of Women on the Oppression of Gendered Words." 23 September 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 19, 2018) <https://jwa.org/blog/were-not-sweet-on-oppression-of-gendered-words>.