Do you ever hear men described as ‘hysterical’? Do people say they ‘whine’ or ‘nag’? Thought not. Here are eight sexist words we’d like to never hear from again
“Feisty? My least favourite word. Have you ever heard a man described as feisty,” said Daisy Lewis, who plays the schoolteacher Sarah Bunting in Downton Abbey, in an interview . “Have you heard a male character described as feisty? I think not.” Ah, feisty. It sounds like a compliment – for some reason, it always makes me think of those women in the second world war, wearing dungarees, lipstick and a new-found confidence in changing a wheel – when really it just puts down a whole gender. In their guide to improving the media coverage of female politicians, the Women’s Media Centre lists “feisty” as one of the words that should be avoided (it categorises it with “spunky”, which is surely a word that nobody should use, ever), describing it as “normally reserved for individuals and animals that are not inherently potent or powerful”. The guide goes on to quote Michael Geis, author of the Language of Politics: “One can call a pekinese dog spunky or feisty, but one would not, I think, call a great dane spunky or feisty.”
Another of those words that sounds good, but when you think a little harder you can see it’s problematic. A woman is only identified as “feisty” because she isn’t behaving in the way all women are expected to, and the same is true of “fierce”. This one is arguably worse, because it tends to be reserved for women of colour, and reinforces the “angry black woman” stereotype. “The sassy, loud, angry black woman stereotype isn’t just one dimensional; it strips us of our humanity,” Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote this week about a new US reality show in which a white woman is made over by a group of “fierce” and “sassy” black women (tagline: “Trapped inside every white girl is a strong black woman waiting to bust out!”). “It doesn’t allow us to be vulnerable. It doesn’t allow us to be weak, or scared, or worthy of protection.”
In a fantastic blogpost this February, Bridget Minamore wrote: “The synonyms of ‘fierce’ are violent, ferocious, brutal, severe, stern, angry, vicious, furious, intense and strong. If the world believed you had to be all of those things just because you have dark brown skin and like female pronouns, wouldn’t you be upset too? It’s simple: stop referring to the ‘fierce black woman’ inside of you. She doesn’t exist, and the more you want her to, the more you affect the black women – fierce or not – who do.”
As the Ban Bossy campaign puts it: “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader’. Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy’. Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up.” The campaign to make people think before using the word (and basically stop it), launched this year by Sheryl Sandberg, and supported by lots of high-profile women including Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, was predictably met with the charge that it was authoritarian and, well, “bossy”. Wrong. Often the simplest and most useful test is: would this word be applied to a straight, white man? In the case of bossy, almost certainly not (Margaret Thatcher was called “bossy”; it would be unthinkable to describe any other British prime minister as “bossy”). See also: “pushy”.
A word so feminine it conjures up lace petticoats. You cannot flounce out of a confrontation while wearing “manly” things such as a space suit or a pair of safety goggles. It requires frills, a swishy skirt, and a bouncy hairdo, even metaphorically, which is why it is only ever aimed at women. And sometimes gay men, revealing its user as a sexist homophobe.
Spotting the potential of the men-with-nagging-female-partners market high-street chain River Island started selling “nag gags” earlier this year – essentially, football-shaped gimp gags. The hilarity. But if women are doing the majority of nagging, surely it’s because women still do around 70% of the housework. It’s just maths. I can report, from the frontline of a household with a broadly equal chore distribution in which I am the member with an approach to housework bordering on the sluttish, that men can be “nags” too. By raising awareness and giving men equal rights to half the domestic workload, they too can be become nags. Perhaps then its gendered pejorative use will decline. There, solved.
Often used to describe dogs. Or toddlers. I like both (mainly dogs), but I don’t want to be compared to them. Similar to the use of “complain”. In her film Miss Representation, about the ways in which women are portrayed in the media, Jennifer Siebel Newsom highlighted how female politicians are often reported as “complaining” about a policy, whereas men are simply “stating” or “saying” their views.
Just one of a number of terms including emotional, irrational and shrill, all essentially meaning the same thing: “crazy lady” or one who may or may not be on her period. Hysteria was for centuries a handy way of describing a woman who was angry, outspoken or generally behaved in a way that wasn’t becoming. Hippocrates blamed it on a woman’s womb, which had the tendency, he believed, to go roaming about her body, wreaking havoc as it went (a migratory organ in the wrong place will do that, as anyone with basic first aid will know). As a mental disorder, it wasn’t dropped from the DSM, the standardised classification of mental health conditions, until 1980. Yes, 1980. Despite this, countless commentators are happy to continue to diagnose women in public life, if the treatment Hillary Clinton, among many others, gets is anything to go by. During her nomination campaign, CNN’s Glenn Beck noted: “After spending decades stripping away all trace of emotion, femininity, and humanity, Hillary Clinton broke down and actually cried.”
“The words that are most irritating are the ones that are used to subtly undermine a woman who is strong or successful,” says Laura Bates, who founded the Everyday Sexism Project, which catalogues both gross and insidious examples of sexism. “When a man makes a point with passion, he doesn’t risk being labelled ‘hysterical’ or ‘shrill’. When a man is successful in business, he’s unlikely to be labelled a ‘ballbreaker’, as if his success can only have come because he was aggressive and somehow emasculated his colleagues. These words subtly undermine powerful women and send the negative message to girls that there is something unattractive about achieving highly.”
‘Mother of …’
It’s remarkable how relevant one’s history of reproduction seems to be to one’s CV – if you’re a woman in the public eye, that is. And then, having been in possession of a womb that didn’t go wandering around your body and instead housed an actual human being will forever leave you answering questions about whether you can “have it all”. Just this weekend, one newspaper reported that Rona Fairhead – the former chair and CEO of the Financial Times group, and a non-executive director of HSBC and PepsiCo – could become the next BBC Trust chair. But instead of referencing her other credentials, it chose to headline the piece: “Mother of three poised to lead the BBC”. As Claire McCann, who tweeted the piece to the Everyday Sexism Project, put it: “Because this is the most important career info for a woman. Sigh.” The mother-of-three has since been confirmed as the BBC Trust’s new chair. Great. Now it’s just a matter of time before the corporation begins broadcasting wall-to-wall CBeebies.
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