Disclaimer: I use the terms “women” and “female” interchangeably throughout this piece, although I recognise they are not synonymous. I also do not move beyond the binary in this analysis, because the English language is yet to catch on to the fact the world is not quite black and white.
Just like anyone with strong opinions, a love of language and a deep appreciation for the clever use of language, I love a good insult, and absolutely cannot hold my tongue when I am having an angry rant. I’ve come a long way from the cautious 14-year-old girl who used to tell her friends that swearing showed a lack of vocabulary; these days I say fuck and shit all the fucking time. For me, these two words roll off my tongue without hesitation, because I was raised to view other words as far more harmful. For example, the word “hate” was banned in my house, and the word “cunt” never uttered, I was also taught that “gay”, “retarded” and “pussy” were offensive to demographics that I was not intending to insult.
Language is complicated for its ability to inspire or insult within the space of a few syllables. The overuse of gendered insults in today’s society is something that I feel we should have moved beyond considering the acceptance and political correctness we preach in other facets of our lives. In an age where young people are increasingly knowledgeable and open-minded to the kaleidoscope of sexuality and gender, people are becoming more conscious of the words they use and what those words can do to other people. Yet, within our young, progressive friendship groups you are still likely to hear men throwing around the ‘c word’ and calling each other “pussies”, and women labelling men “dicks” and “fuckboys”.
To insult is to convey a particular opinion, often serving as a purely social act that belittles the other party. The problem with insults lies not in their purpose – they are human reactions to that which displeases, angers or irritates us – but in how this is achieved. Derogatory, sexist and stereotypical comments are so ingrained in our everyday language that we often forget they are gendered at all. We need to listen to the third-parties affected by our offensive words and get a bit more creative in our insults. Sexist insults go further than just invoking a particular meaning – they often relaying an emotional narrative and invoke a strong feeling of disempowerment. I want to break down the art of the insult so that we can tastefully insult people without it being at the expense of any particular gender.
“Bitch”, for example, while technically describing a female dog, is often used to describe women who are too demanding, authoritative and dominant. We also use “bitch” to describe women who are generally being undercutting and manipulative. Now, I’m not saying that women can’t exhibit these negative traits; they most certainly can – all people, regardless of gender identification, can be really shitty people. The use of “bitch” becomes a problem when it is used to describe women who are acting outside of a stereotypical, patriarchy-driven image of how a woman should behave. The term “resting bitch-face”, while initially laughed at and meme-ed excessively, actually carries with it a myriad of sexist connotations, and brings to light the ingrained expectations placed on females which are in no capacity shared by our male counterparts. This term, at face value, is meant to describe a person who looks perpetually displeased, however, is hardly ever used when referring to men. When I hear the term I instantly see Kristen Stewart’s face, rather than, for example, Justin Bieber’s or Kanye West’s, who often look intensely unamused with their lives and surroundings. Researcher Abbe Macbeth conducted a study into the unique elements comprised in this facial expression and found that it is not a strictly female phenomenon, and can be detected equally in both males and females. Macbeth concludes that classifying resting bitch face as a “female dominant expression of bitchiness is actually quite wrong, and probably a reflection of societal expectations on women.”
There are also a whole lot of words which are, by definition, gender neutral, but are used almost exclusively to insult women – and the male equivalents of these terms often simply do not exist either. “Airhead” or “ditsy” are often used to describe women who are seemingly stupid or idealistic, who get excited about romcoms, date nights and fashion shows, and who appear to care more about their appearance than what’s going on in the South China Sea. Interestingly, “airhead” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a “silly or foolish person”, and until 2016 the example sentence was: “She looks like a Barbie and acts like a dizzy airhead.” It seems even Oxford can’t avoid sexism when they contextualise these often-used phrases. “High maintenance” is another one that is informally used to describe a “person demanding a lot of attention”, with the current example sentence reading: “Caitlin is our only child and she’s very high-maintenance.”
It seems to always be the girlfriends, wives and daughters who are labelled as “high-maintenance”, so when males act in the same attention-needing, fragile, uptight or obsessive way, what do we label them as? “Pussies”? “On their man-period”? Rarely do we call them “hormonal” as women are often labelled when we experience mood swings – as if females are the only gender whose hormones can affect their moods? Women are “shrill” and “hysterical”, while men are “authoritative” and “angry”; women are “bossy” and “demanding”, while men are “uncompromising” and “know what they want”.
There are also words which were intended to be neutral and harmless, but that have shifted over time to become increasingly demeaning and pejorative. Vagabomb.com lists various examples of words which have all but lost their original meanings, now widely accepted and used as insults. Some of these include: “hussy”, which originally referred to “a female head of a household”, but now connotes a disreputable woman of improper behaviour; “governess”, originally meaning “a woman who holds or exercises authority over a place, institution or group of people” which now describes a women responsible for the care or supervision of children; and “spinster”, originally “someone, usually a woman, who spins yarn or thread”, but now a label for a woman still unmarried or beyond the usual age for marriage. It is clear that sexism has existed within language throughout history, but that this language has arguably evolved in an even more sexist direction.
But the spectrum of human emotion is just that: human, and available to be experienced to its full capacity by both genders. So long as we continue to label the emotions and actions of women in a different and negative way in comparison to a display of the same emotion or action by men, female-biased insults will continue to impede upon the progression of women in both personal and professional capacities.
Jessica Valenti, author of Full Frontal Feminism wrote: “What’s the worst possible thing you can call a woman? You’re probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt, skank. Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy, cunt.
Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult.” Now, while it is true that there are a few male-directed insults that have been left out in this analysis – “motherfucker”, “son of a bitch”, “dick”, “douche” and “grow some balls” – the message still stands: the female body and dignity is too often utilised and compromised in the insults we hurl at the opposite sex. There is no word for a man acting like a bitch, therefore, he must be the son of one? Don’t be a pussy is another one that just does not hold up. The fabulous Betty White once asked: “Why do people say grow ‘grow some balls?’ Balls are weak and sensitive. If you want to be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.”
Ultimately, we still have a hell of a long way to go before a cultural – and hopefully global – shift away from gendered insults takes place in the English speaking world. Humans need language that can insult others – whether it is in the context of some witty banter or you just really need to tell someone that they are, in fact, an absolute fuckwit. Don’t be afraid to insult others; but do be informed so your insults are rightly aimed, and be wise so they make multiple levels of sense and establish just how witty and clever you are. As I leave you to ponder, I will supply a list of my own personal favourite insults in the hope that your next argument will be colourful, cutthroat, and most importantly, free of words that equate feminine to inferior. From here on I hope you are attuned to insult just the particular asshole at which your words are intended, rather than half of the global population.
Asshole – we all have them, and as stated above, they are generally a bit shitty.
Absolute white crayon – seriously the most useless crayon out there.
A walking fart – that person that lingers irksomely like that phantom fart on the dance floor.
Plank with eyes – someone who needs to loosen up.
King Louis XVI of France – ostentatious, immature, indecisive and frivolous.
Saggy mushroom – the worst kind of mushroom.
Half-chewed pencil – annoying, soggy and unnecessary.
Stencil – because “you’re such a stencil” has a great ring to it.
Toi – pronounced like toy with emphasis on the ‘y’. Example: “What a bloody toi.” (Courtesy of my fabulous friend in Melbourne who is a pioneer of implementing made up slang vocabulary into everyday chats.)
Piece of shit
FNL (Friday night loner)
Human equivalent of a pimple