Rooted in stereotype, and applied only to women

Even Time – never a radical, lefty, groundbreaking, nonconformist magazine – gets it that words do matter, because they say things and people pick up the things and believe them.

So, in an attempt to save you — writers, speakers, humans, journalists — from falling into the gender bias trap unintentionally, we’ve put together this handy guide:

Don’t Call Girls Bossy. Or Grown Women Aggressive.

Seriously, don’t do it. And while you’re at it, don’t call them pushy, angry, brusque, ballbusters, bitchy, careerist, cold, calculating — you get the point. Also: shrill and strident, both of which imply high-pitched and screechy women a la your mother, finger pointed, scolding you to clean your room. Bossy is the subject of the new Sandberg campaign, but it’s something linguists have written about for decades. The reality is that these words are rooted in stereotype, and they are only applied to women. Think about it: girls are bossy, boys have “leadership qualities.” Women are deemed aggressive, while men are simply decisive (or just, um, bosses). From Ruth Bader Ginsburg (called “a bitch” by her law school classmates) to the “ball-busting” Hillary Clinton, historians will tell you: women in power have long been punished for exhibiting qualities of assertiveness, because it veers from the “feminine” mold. And yet, isn’t it precisely those assertive qualities that will help women get ahead?

And aren’t they just a necessary part of many lines of work? Yes, they are, so if women are bullied for demonstrating them, that’s an obstacle that shouldn’t be there. It’s dancing backward in high heels with a pitcher of water on your head.

Please Avoid the ‘Crazy Woman’ Trope. And While We’re At It: She’s Not ‘Moody,’ ‘Hysterical,’ or ‘Emotional’ Either.

Female hysteria was once the catch-all diagnosis for a woman with problems, and it didn’t disappear entirely from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders until 1980. But the trope of the crazy, emotional, moody, hysterical, PMS-ing, crazy woman — or worse, the crazy, emotional, hysterical romantic stalker — remains in full force. Crazy is the catch-all putdown for any woman you don’t like/makes you uncomfortable/doesn’t fit the mold. (Or as Tina Fey said in her book Bossypants, “the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her any more.”) The problem with being a woman is that it’s impossible to avoid this label. So what even is crazy? A woman who expresses opinions? A woman who speaks too loud, or out of turn? Am I crazy if I yell? Am I crazy if I like a guy? Am I crazy if I act like a leader? Whatever it is, it usually doesn’t refer to any kind of real life mental illness. So keep the crazy label in check.

Except when singing the Patsy Cline song.

Leave Looks Out Of It.

That means Hillary Clinton’s cleavage, her cankles, her haircuts, pants suits, or the color of her blouse — all irrelevant to whether she’s going to make a good president! I also don’t need to know about Huma Abedin’s “rich, glowing hair,” Elena Kagan’s “drab D.C. clothes” or that Janet Yellin wore the same outfit twice (she’s the motherfucking head of the Fed). Here’s what the Washington Post’s internal stylebook says about references to personal appearance in print: that they “should generally be omitted unless clearly relevant to the story.” In case that wasn’t clear, a few specifics. TV hosts: Probably a bad idea to comment on how hot a woman is on air. Interviewers: Let’s avoid asking badass ladies in various fields about their looks, diets or favorite fashion designers. (And for more on this topic, check out Lindy West’s great piece over at Jezebel on how to write about female politicians.)

Ok, I’ll do that. Lindy West is going to be at Women in Secularism 3.

Others? Catfight. Shut up about catfights. Skip the stupid “can she have it all” trope.

When in doubt, read this column, from the public editor of the New York Times, published last month amid outrage over a magazine cover titled, “Can Wendy Davis Have It All?” “Despite its well-intentioned efforts,” the Times ombudsman wrote, “this piece managed to trip over a double standard with its detailed examination of Ms. Davis’s biography, including her role in raising her two daughters.” And while we’re at it, let’s stop asking how women manage to “do it all.” Tina Fey declared this “the rudest question you can ask a woman.” Because the answer is simple. She’s doing it the same way a dude would, except that he doesn’t have to answer questions about it.

Well actually no, she’s usually not, because she’s doing both the job and the bulk of the domestic duties. While feeling guilty. Backward and in high heels.





  1. says

    What about going out of my way to use words like “bossy” on genders equally? The problem is not that these words don’t have valid meanings, it that they are applied to one sex out of habit.

    To me bossy means “a person using authority badly” (usually they seem to be perceived as using authority to socially control instead of appropriately direct others), and “badly” get unpacked differently depending on the person. I have encountered men doing these things and it would not take much for me to make an effort to apply it to men in appropriate situations.

  2. Anthony K says

    What about going out of my way to use words like “bossy” on genders equally?

    When you use the term ‘bossy’ to describe a woman, do you then follow up with a caveat noting how many times in the past you’ve applied it to people of all genders so that the recipient (and all listening) know that your particular use of it isn’t sexist and is therefore not contributing to stereotypes? Otherwise, aren’t you depending on everyone with whom you speak to know your particular conversational history in order to correctly suss out your intent to rehabilitate the word?

    Consider your strategy with the other stereotypes described in the OP: is it really helpful if, rather than not focusing on the fashion choices of (for example) women scientists instead of their work, we start focusing on the fashion choices of men scientists instead of their work too? Is that really an end goal to work towards?

  3. shari says

    I have read two sides of this ‘don’t do it’ and ‘don’t make this about the word – from different female writers.

    Right now, I am more in favor of ‘stop labelling girls when they take charge’ than I am of ‘re-claim it’.

    For damn sure, I don’t have the energy to brainwash my 6yo daughter that “bossy” means Boss – every time she hears it. I build that kid up sensibly at home for her efforts, and she is still cautious about standing out with her assertiveness. No kindergartner should have to be afraid that ‘no one will like me if I am bossy’.

  4. iiii says

    This one time, I went with a friend to his family’s holiday thing. It was mostly adults, except for his one cousin’s three small children. The eldest was a girl, and the younger two were boys. For the whole time we were there, I listened to this little girl’s parents hold her responsible for her brothers’ behavior. And then after, I listened to my friend and his mother agree on how bossy that little girl was, and isn’t it a shame. “Really?” I said, “I thought that’s what her parents were going for.” They expressed confusion. “Well, they blamed her whenever the boys did anything wrong, and they got mad if she tried to physically stop the boys from doing bad stuff, so what else is she supposed to do besides try to boss them around? I mean, she’s eight.”

    It had obviously never occurred to them that “bossy” was the best response available to a child placed in an impossible situation.

    So when people talk about “bossy” – I think of that little girl, and all the eldest sisters out there whose parents put them in the same spot, and I hope that they end up running the world.

  5. GC says

    How about a guideline saying “Don’t apply that word to a woman unless you’d apply it to a man in the same situation”? Some of those words (e.g. aggressive, cold, calculating) are also applied to men, appropriately, and not always in approving ways.

  6. says

    @7: No one’s saying you must never disapprove of a woman’s actions. If someone is cold and calculating, by all means, say so. Just don’t express said disapproval in gendered ways.

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