Mia Mercado Examines TV “Good Girls” (and Herself) in New Book

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Mia Mercado Examines TV “Good Girls” (and Herself) in New Book

In her second book She’s Nice Though, Mia Mercado declares an end to defining herself by who she was in high school…but still wonders which mean girl from early 2000s movies she’d win over IRL.

As a millennial who also worries Clarissa-Explains-It-All style how even my breathing can “come off” to complete strangers throughout the day, I say: same. I finished the book feeling seen through the same rose-bedazzled shades I was pressured to steal in 6th grade at Claire’s.

Mercado sat down with me via Zoom to talk about the inspiration for the essay collection, which struck on the heels of her debut book of essays Weird But Normal, released in 2020.

It’s the first time I’ve seen her since we met at the New York Humor and Satire Festival in 2019. Now, after internalizing the traumas of a pandemic and the discourse that came with the 2016 election, as well as the #MeToo and #BLM movements, she’s taking on the dangers of daily niceties with quick, jabbing punchlines from the perspective of someone who is not a man, not white, and someone who is not from just anywhere in the United States. She’s from the Midwest, the country’s “nicest” region.

“The idea that you can’t disagree or be in conflict and also be kind is what this book is about,” Mercado said. “That mentality discourages people who need to speak up from actually speaking up.”

We’re both in our 30s now, and as I flip through dog-eared questions about She’s Nice Though, Mercado takes me back to the days of Dawson’s Creek and Princess Diaries, when TV shows taught us what “being nice” was versus what it actually means in its purest form. Yes, Lizzie McGuire is deliciously culpable, so read on.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Paste Magazine: The book’s introduction immediately reminded me of my favorite essay from your first collection Weird But Normal called “Can I Be a Good Girl While Still Getting F—ked Up.” At what point did you realize you had a book’s worth more to say about this?

Mia Mercado: You are a psychic genius because it was while I was writing that piece! I struggled to come to any big conclusion at the end of that essay, which was mostly about how I grew up assuming that goodness and obedience were one in the same. I started pulling at one thread (like, lol remember when I thought the main thing that made me “good” in high school was abstaining from drinking) and that quickly unraveled decades worth of assumptions I had about goodness, kindness, rule-following, agreeability, etc. That felt like a solid signal that maybe I had more to say on the subject. Also, I came up with the title She’s Nice Though in the editing process of Weird But Normal and loved it too much not to write a whole book about it.

Paste: Lizzie McGuire and Love Island make cameos as examples of characters and shows that have shaped your idea of “niceness” and what “nice” even means. How?

Mercado: Lizzie McGuire came out when I was 13 and I did not view the show through any kind of creative/analytic lens outside of “I love her and I want to be her.” I identified with all parts of Lizzie’s persona: feeling uncomfortable, wanting to be cool while wishing I didn’t want to be cool, unrequited crushes, and stupid outfits. I also conflated Lizzie McGuire (the character) with Hilary Duff (the actor), attributing characteristics of one to both. Like, “Wow, I can’t believe Hilary Duff is gawky and kinda annoying just like me!” My obsession with Lizzie, Hilary, et al was based on my desperation for someone, anyone to validate the parts of myself I thought were ugly and “bad.”

Love Island is a masterclass in the performance of self. Every contestant is playing a producer-curated version of their real-life counterpart because reality TV leaves little room for nuance. Boring!! The contestants who seem “nice” are rarely the contestants whose story lines are the most interesting, whose reactions are the most dramatic, and essentially, who are the most fun to watch. Obviously, this is nothing new, but even though I’m able to recognize how contestants’ images are being manipulated (and my experience as a viewer is also being manipulated) my lizard brain still wants to watch a new cast of hot, sentient abs fight for love and Instagram followers every season. (Maybe the only exception to this rule is Ekin-Su. I think she may be as delightfully unhinged in real life as she was on the show.)

Paste: If you could create a Love Island challenge centered around niceness, what would it be?

Mercado: It would be a version of the challenges where contestants have to transfer food mouth-to-mouth, but, instead, all the producers have to compete.

Paste: Ha! I scared my dog twice while cackling to the essay “Good Girl, Bad Bitch” where you admit you’re more of a nervous bitch. Can you explain the difference in species?

Mercado: Your dog is a nervous bitch like me! Twins! The Bad Bitch is the one who’s like, “Let’s pop our pussies and rob a bank.” The Good Girl is the one who’s like, “Guys, are you sure we should do this?” The Nervous Bitch is the one who says, “No offense but I have to be up for a dentist appointment at 7 so maybe we could try for another time?” In truth, we are all each of these bitches all the time.

Paste: Agree. What would you say is the scariest stereotype under the female gaze and why is it “The Relatable Girl?”

Mercado: It is absolutely “The Relatable Girl,” yes. Fake vulnerability and faux sincerity are spooky to me. Stop pretending that the most embarrassing thing about you is you have three dirty dishes in your sink and tell me the first cartoon character that got you horny.

Paste: You touch on the concept of “Midwestern Nice” and even rank midwestern accents by niceness. What would you say yours sounds like?

Mercado: My Wisconsin accent really only rears its corn-fed head when I say certain words like “bagel” or “Minnesota” or “ope.” It sounds like a casserole dish kissing an overabundance of free parking.

Paste: The most frustrating part about reading your book is not being able to hang out with your family—Zoey, Riley, Frankie, Ana and Ava—in real life (if they’d have me). Which essays would you say you dedicate to each and why?

Mercado: ‘“Mind Your Manners” is for all of my siblings since it talks about how, growing up, the closest we ever really got to conflict was competing to be the first one to say “thank you.” The essay “How to Wife” is for my husband Riley because the first time I read it to him, he thought the title was “How to Wipe.” And while “She’s Friendly” is about my dog Ava, I’d dedicate “Bad Guy” to her, too. It’s a monologue from the perspective of a mysterious villain and Ava likes to cosplay as being this intimidating. (She weighs 10 lbs.)

Paste: As a fellow dog-mom, I appreciated your examination of the fur-motherhood experience. How has Ava and her little corn teeth changed the way you view being “friendly?”

Mercado: Having a dog who looks like a cotton ball with legs kind of forces you to be extroverted. She believes she is the most important person—she also identifies as human—wherever we go, and she is correct in that belief. Honestly, it’s increased the number of pleasant, friendly, benign interactions I’ve had with strangers, which is both a testament to how having a tiny dog makes you approachable and how Midwesterners act exactly how you think they do.

Paste: What is your writing process, from ideation to execution, as a Virgo, specifically?

Mercado: I start by spending one to four hours telling myself to start writing but watching TikToks of people organizing their fridge instead. I justify this by saying I am “gathering ideas”— the first of many lies I will tell myself throughout this process. When I eventually open a Google doc, I usually start by making a list of words, ideas, jokes, phrases, etc. related to whatever topic I’m going to write about. After this, I feel very proud of myself and take a big, embarrassing break where I drink three cans of sparkling water while doing every online word game I can find.

I am most productive when I have a deadline, which is to say I am most productive when I am motivated by the fear that I will inconvenience/disappoint someone else and they will hate me forever. I am most inspired by guilt. At this point, I will actually begin writing.

Paste: Which essay in She’s Nice Though hints at your next book? (Please say your short story “Women for Decoration.”) Is more fiction on the horizon?

Mercado: I really enjoyed writing the fictional pieces in this book and definitely want my next project to focus more on that. (This is me softly flirting with anyone who has the power to put me in the writing room for their TV/film project.)

She’s Nice Though is on sale now.


Megan Broussard is a writer and producer in New York City with work in The New Yorker, Marie Claire, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Slate, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Reductress and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @megsbroussard.