“Girl” is not an insult!

July 29, 2011 at 8:33 pm (feminism, Writing/Language) (, , , , )

Thursday night I was watching Futurama on Comedy Central in real time and therefore actually watched commercials (for a change). I saw one for a convenience store called am pm in which a short dork is creating his own burger and it’s so cool and manly that he feels compelled to tell the two jockish type men with him, “thanks for playing, ladies.” I immediately tweeted my distaste. (Interestingly, they responded with an apology regarding a different commercial that I am not familiar with. Makes you wonder how many sexist commercials they run).

By now, we all know that calling someone or something “gay”  or “retarded” is an insult and is disparaging to human beings. Some people still do it (either out of continued disrespect or with a sense of irony) but I think most people understand  the power in language and the negativity perpetuated by words. This isn’t about political correctness; it’s about showing respect and common decency to other human beings.

So why is it still okay to use being female as an insult?

The worst thing a guy can be called is a woman. Have you noticed this? Want to piss off a guy? Easy! Just call him a pussy.

This am pm commercial (scroll down– it’s called “Towering Inferno”) is an example of how being referred to as female is an insult. How is that supposed to make actual females feel?

Guys frequently call each other “bitch,” “lady,” “girl,” “sweetheart,” “princess,” or girls names to insult each other. Perhaps only “faggot” is worse, and why is it bad? Well, because faggots have sex with men, and who else frequently has sex with men? — That’s right, women! And, clearly, being a woman or womanly is downright gross and stupid.

Even one of my all-time favorite shows, Scrubs, had a running joke with Dr. Cox calling J.D. various girls names (I like this clip in particular because Cox uses “Denise” twice). It was funny in its execution (like when he used the names of pop stars, also in the above clip) but still really, really sexist. In many sitcoms, it’s not uncommon to hear one character chide the other about his beauty products, his period, his panties that are in a twist, or his vagina.

Sometimes the dialogue is even spoken by female characters, which is more confusing than anything. Is it more damaging when spoken by a woman because we’ve accepted our inferiority to the point where we can joke about it, or is it supposed to take the power away from the sexism, similar to gays co-opting the word “queer”? I just can’t tell.

I may be guilty of sexist language myself. I have been known to refer to a certain HBO show as “Doucherage.” One time, I MIGHT have joked to my boyfriend that I’d be happy to take him bra shopping (he is very affectionate and says “I love you” a lot. Such a girl!) Was I being ironic? Yes. Would I do it in front of his 15-year-old son? Oh, hell no!

He’s flooded with enough conflicting messages from the media and his environment (the kid lives in Indiana, for the love of crumbcake! No sex ed but strip clubs off every freeway exit); I don’t need to contribute to his confusion by making him navigate his way through my sarcasm. Plus, I already feel challenged enough in being a strong female role model for him because I cook (but see, I like to cook), I nag about leaving wet towels on the floor (although I now delegate the nagging), and I’m not the major breadwinner even though I have a master’s and his father has a bachelor’s. I certainly don’t need my language to add to what the facts have already shown him: even with more education, I’m not worth as much as the man in my household.

Whenever being female or having female characteristics is used as an insult or a punchline, a message is sent to girls and women that, yes, indeed, we continue to be inferior. We continue to be weak, emotional, pathetic, and a walking, bleeding, bra-wearing joke. With our hysteria and our PMS, we can’t be expected to be strong or make sense.

If I ever see this sticker on a truck, I will throw a used tampon at it

And each time girls are used as a punchline, the message to guys is, “Hey, it’s okay to keep being sexist because it’s true! Women are hilarious weaklings! We’re pointless and lame, so it’s okay to not take us seriously when we apply for jobs, play music, or write books. And, yes, by all means, pick on us for all that time we spend putting on makeup and sweating on the treadmill so you’ll think we’re good-looking!”

(Because what’s worse than being female? Being an ugly one. English even has its own words for ugly/fat chicks: dog, heifer, hag, butterface, etc.)

Last weekend, I saw Captain America: The First Avenger. I could take issue with Peggy Carter’s appearance (played by Hayley Atwell) if I wanted. Her perfectly applied red lipstick throughout the whole film– even during action sequences while she’s blowing the enemy away with what I think is a bazooka– became downright silly at times. But I won’t go there because, hey, it was a period piece and, you know, fiction. But there was a scene early on where a subordinate is disrespectful to her because she’s a female officer, so she punches him in the face and no one messes with her after that. Woohoo! But any good that scene did in establishing a woman’s authority and strength was diminished just moments later when she is leading the new recruits in exercises and calls them girls. Why did they write that in? I mean, she’s female and she just clobbered one of them, and she kicks ass throughout the whole movie, so why is “girl” an insult?

I realize, of course, that in instances such as that it’s about breaking men down and playing to their insecurities (and what do men have to be more insecure about than their masculinity, right?) but using language this way has serious, perhaps unintended, consequences.

When a father tells his son to stop acting like a girl, it’s not just about what message it sends to his son (being a girl = bad, so don’t be girly), but also what it says to his daughter. It says that boys and masculinity are more desirable. That being a girl is simply not as good as being a boy. That no matter how much she tries to fit in and be cherished and admired by her dad, she will never be able to compete with her brother. Even if she does her damndest to not cry, to not be afraid of spiders, to learn how to shoot and fish, she will always have a strike against her through no choice of her own. And she (and her brother) also pick up on the fact that their mother, sister, aunt, and grandmother are inferior to their father and other men. They don’t have to listen to their mother or respect her. At least, not until she pulls out the big “just wait till your father gets home” guns. And they certainly don’t have to respect female teachers who aren’t even related to them.

(Maybe the daughter will accept and even embrace the idea of being “daddy’s little princess,” which then might lead her to join the disturbing phenomenon of a chastity balls and virginity pledges in which the father claims ownership over his daughter’s sexuality . . . a disturbing and super grody trend perfect for a future blog post).

I remember being jealous of my brothers when I was a child. Not because of my parents specifically; they never made me feel that I was less wanted than my brothers, but I understood the general tone of what was expected of girls and boys and what we could expect from our world. I knew that even if I did get good at ice skating, I wouldn’t be able to play hockey like my brother. When my cousin threw a June bug in my face to freak me out, I knew that girls and their skittishness were there for his amusement. (If I remember correctly, I punched him. If I didn’t, I wish I had).

When I was laid off from my job in 2009, I wondered if there was any rhyme or reason to who was let go from my department (we were named “Denise” and “Jennifer,” and the people making the decision hadn’t even spoken to us). Every time I get an email telling me a position I’ve applied for has been filled, I wonder who got it. I think maybe my “little sister” is on to something when she says if she has kids, they will have gender- and race-neutral names so they can’t be so easily judged on paper.

I don’t want future generations of men and women to wonder if their sex is the reason they got or didn’t get something. I don’t know any men who would feel good about getting a job, a raise, a book deal, or even a better table at a restaurant simply because they have a dick, do you?

Plus, girls and women are less likely to demand more from themselves if they feel that they can’t or shouldn’t try something. (Math, anyone?) See Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender for more on this topic.  The studies she cites about how girls habitually underestimate their math and science abilities is heartbreaking.

And as long as we tolerate sexist language, sexism has more grips to maintain its tenacious hold.

People: Stop using being female or feminine as an insult or a punchline. Being female isn’t a bad thing. And don’t allow such talk from others.

I know that rants like this aren’t exactly conducive to diminishing the whole “humorless feminist” stereotype. I assure you, though, I do have humor! (I laughed out loud while watching those Scrubs clips). I’m also not a manhater. It’s just that I hate that girls and boys continually hear that being a girl is a bad thing which, in turn, makes it a bad thing.

There are ways to call people out with humor. For example, when I’ve heard one guy chide another about being girly, I’ve said, “Hey, I’m right here!” Once, I got a quizzical look, so I continued, “Would you say someone is ‘as crazy as Tom Cruise’ right in front of Tom Cruise? Of course you wouldn’t! How is that different from using ME as an insult, right in front of ME?” (Sorry, Tom Cruise. People were still talking about the Oprah couch thing, and well, you know. I’m sure you’re a perfectly lovely person).

Once, a former student and Facebook friend of mine complained that all the guys he worked with were “whiny girls.” So I made some comment about how, if whining was a characteristic of all the guys he worked with, it seemed to me it should be considered a boy quality and he should leave girls out of it. Shoot, there weren’t any girls there–how did they even get dragged in? (This one actually got a nice little thread going about sexism in language and I’d like to think I got a guy or two at least thinking about it).

All I ask is that we think before we speak. At all times, we should imagine there’s a 6-year-old girl in the room with still plenty of growing to do and ideas to formulate. (If it helps, imagine she is your 6-year-old daughter). How her culture feels about her has an effect on how she feels about herself. Will she decide that she is an ornament, meant for guys’ pleasure and amusement? Or will she decide that she’s got a brain that’s equally awesome as the boy brains around her?

She won’t if she’s repeatedly reminded that she’s inferior.  So, am pm, would you please pull that gross, stupid, sexist piece of shit ad?


  1. Jake Barnett said,

    Honestly, I love this piece. I may have missed it if you mentioned it, but I didn’t see much about the lack of definition for what it means to be masculine as a root cause. Men seemed to be defined by what they are not (as in NOT feminine) and women are looked at for what they are (as IN feminine). It seems to me that “feminine” traits seem to be mostly those that are a handicap in battle and warfare (empathy,transparent feelings,etc.). With the role of the traits needed in warfare being less and less a necessity for surviving in day to day life, the traditional role of masculinity ceases to be relevant. It’s possible, since an alternative definition of manliness for modern times is lacking, that manliness is based on the lack of feminine traits that seem (some at least) to be quite useful in today’s society such as empathy and complex interpersonal communication styles. This, coupled with the inroads that females have made in “traditional” male occupations and roles, have left men with a severe identity crises. Men are losing everyday more and more of what defines them, while at the same time having nothing to replace it. When you don’t know who you are, you can only define yourself by what you are not. Finally, women reinforce these feelings and behaviors by choosing to raise “tough little boys” and choose to mate with those men who show overt masculine (NOT feminine) behavior.

    • Du said,

      Jake, I think you raise some interesting points.

      I have heard various mothers during my lifetime tell their sons that “boys don’t cry” and other ridiculous things. I hope this post didn’t imply that I feel that only men are to blame for sexist language, but I certainly don’t feel that’s the case.

      Also, in the case of identity, I find it interesting your point that especially young boys need ways to clearly identify with their gender and what it is to be masculine or they might feel lost. As a materialist feminist, my ideal is a place or time where traits belong to individuals and aren’t tied so strongly to femininity or masculinity. (You could say I’m a dreamer).

  2. Timothy Schmidgall said,

    Pretty good Denise! And too many examples to mention.
    But here’s a couple more. : P

    I think ol Arnold the Terminator once said something like “Don’t be a girly man, vote for Bush.” I have it on a bumper sticker. (No, not on my car!)
    -There’s the Aerosmith song “Dude looks like a lady.”

    And conversely, calling girls “Guys” isn’t bad at all. It’s normal and generic. “Hey! What are you guys doing over here?”
    -A group of people, whatever sex or orientation they may be, are often “guys.” And few people get hopping mad.

    …On the other hand, I think the whol nation needs to chill. I’m so sick of PC that I just want to bite my own head off. I remember a Christmas Commericail for the ACLU. They said “Remember, no matter how you’re celbrating your Holiday Season this year, you are in fact insulting someone somewhere.” !!!

    And I can’t see what I’m typing in this thing so please excuse any typos.

    • Du said,

      I understand your frustration with PC, Timothy, I really do. But I did my best to argue this point without focusing on PC. When I am bothered by sexist language, it’s not really that I’m offended so much as I am disturbed by the damaging consequences to kids especially.

      If you do ever decide to bite your own head off, call me. That’s something I’d like to see.

  3. rocktressa said,

    Ok heres a little factoid I like to dispense when I hear of someone calling someone else a p—y for what they consider girly behavior……I like to inform the name calling slug that the deragiratory name of being called a p—y is actally complimentary due to the fact that u can kick a vagina and it can still pop out a brand new alive healthy new born human being….now if u kick a ball sack ,chances are it will or could highly likely be damaged enough to not be able to produce a high enough semen count to produce babies….The way I see it weak behavior is more ballsack than p—y.

  4. KarenDian1 said,

    I really enjoyed your commentary, and agree with what you had to say.
    The other day, at work, I questioned a co-worker, on why she would insult a male co-worker, by calling him a girl. Unfortunately, since society has ingrained this behavior in both males and females alike, she did not understand why it was such a big deal.
    This is sad but true.
    But having thinking people like yourself, who are willing to step up, and question this behavior, we will, in time, get people to realize just how wrong this is.
    Keep up the good fight. :-)

  5. Football Fabulosa: A Personal Story of What It’s Like to Be a Woman Talking Sports | National GridIron Network said,

    […] of the worst insults  you can throw at men is to insinuate he is any shape, form or fashion somewhat like a girl. Somehow we are different, […]

  6. John Speargas said,

    I agree with most points here, except I don’t think it’s necessarily about men being superior and women inferior so much as that men and women are supposed to stick to their respective roles. Otherwise saying that a woman looks mannish or something like that would be a compliment, right? I think a lot of people are just stuck in this mode that women should be one way and men another, and any traits that are attributed to the opposite are to be ridiculed. Just a thought.

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