…like a girl.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, about the ways we use words that mean “female human” to insult each other.

There’s “scream like a little girl,” of course, which, you know — ok. Little girls are high-pitched. It’s meant as an insult, but there’s some grain of reality to be found in it. Perhaps I will someday “scream like a linebacker” or “like a South Pacific Islander.” Or something.

But once you get past “scream,” there’s:

  1. Throw like a girl.
  2. Run like a girl.
  3. Hit like a girl.

Not to mention:

  1. Pussy out.
  2. Be a pussy.
  3. Be a little bitch.
  4. Be X’s bitch.

And so on.

In the largest, broadest sense, I believe that these kinds of insults hurt us all, male and female alike. The recent bullying-related suicides of several gay-or-maybe-gay boys have their roots deeply buried in our fear of males behaving in anything but a society-approved-manly fashion. Witness the clear discomfort experienced by adults when five year old boys choose to wear girls’ clothing.

Witness that, and then think about women in pants suits, or girls in jeans. When women adopt and co-opt a traditionally male form of dress, we are empowering ourselves. When men adopt and co-opt a traditionally female form of dress — they get beat up. Because we do not value women as we value men, and we are frightened when men choose to give up the prerogatives of their gender. So, yes, everyone suffers when we continue to maintain and perpetuate misogyny.

But women and girls suffer more. Because we are the ones you shouldn’t be like.

I’ve known this for years, of course. I’m not new to noticing misogyny. I’m not new to feeling its sting and pushing at its edges. But it’s suddenly struck me how powerfully we telegraph our contempt for women merely by opening our mouths and starting to talk.

You throw like a girl. Don’t pussy out on me, bro! I’m gonna make that job my bitch! Close your eyes for a moment, and substitute any other person-naming noun/pejorative for the words “girl,” “pussy,” and “bitch.”

You throw like an Asian. Don’t Hymie out on me, bro! I’m gonna make that job my N-word!

Suddenly, the mind reels a bit.

Good lord, like most non-racist white people, I had a hard time just typing the n-word — but absolutely stand-up folks, men and women alike, without an otherwise bigoted bone in their bodies, will insult each other with words that describe me and my body, with nary a second thought. They will do it loudly, among friends, in print, on television, in movies. It’s just, you know: The way we talk.

But I cannot help but believe that we hear these things, we women and girls, we hear them, and we steep in them, and they go in and down and twist and burrow into us, and they damage us. They leave vapor trails in our thoughts and scars on our hearts. They tell us, day in and day out, that we are weak, we are not worthy, our bodies are the stuff of mockery.

When you’re someone’s bitch? You’re under their violently-wrested control. When you’re a pussy? You’re untrustworthy. When you’re a girl? You are just plain weak.

And who the fuck would want to be any of that?


  1. devin_mb

     /  November 5, 2010

    Yes this is wonderful. Thank you thank you thank you so much for posting this. It is fantastic and you are fantastic =)

  2. i wish that there was no reason to for you to write this post. since there is, i’m reposting. excellent as always.

  3. dmf

     /  November 5, 2010

    sadly yes, kristof and co. have declared women’s (in)equality to be the ethical challenge of our century, on a side note when did we adopt the recent horrible colloquial practice of referring to women/girls as “females”?


  4. Susan

     /  November 5, 2010

    Funny you should mention this, I was just thinking about it.

    In have good friends in India, and we did a little Skype last night (my time – there’s a 12 hour difference). Unlike China, which is doing mandatory population control (one child per family), India, in line with its generally democratic (English) heritage, is doing voluntary population control. With the result that the medical folks in India will not inform a pregnant woman of the gender of her fetus, because they know she’s likely to abort a girl and try again. (This is also true, now, in the UK because of the very large Indian and Pakistani communities there.) Of course a lot of people find out anyway, under the table, and perform selective abortions, to say nothing of infanticide and putting girl babies in orphanages.

    So, where is all this coming from? I mean, originally.

    When we had only recently differentiated from the great apes, and were roaming the plains in Africa in groups of 20+, it would seem to me that males and females would have been of about equal value to the group. The males hunt and protect; the females bear and rear the young. A group of all males would be in big trouble in the long run, huh. That idea would seem to die out on its on in roughly one generation.

    So, what’s this preference in traditional societies for boys?

    And what will be the result? There is now growing up, both in China and in India, a generation which is heavily imbalanced in favor of the boys. Many many more boys than girls. What happens now? No one knows, so far as I know this has never happened before on any kind of a large scale. The more common situation has been too many girls not enough boys, because of war and danger and the generally higher fragility of the male. When that happens, women share: one man, several wives.

    Men, however, do not share well, so I don’t foresee a parallel solution. So that means, a lot of men who cannot marry because there aren’t enough women go go around.

    Scarcity tends in all areas to drive up the price, so maybe this will mean an increased value placed on women (and perhaps more power – I heard an interview with a young professional woman from Beijing, and she sounded like she was being very very choosy, which she can now get away with).

    But I’m wondering in a larger sense, why the preference for and higher status of the male in the first place? Odd.

  5. thanks for this post. language like this, along with the positive phrases “man up,” “grow some balls,” etc, is discouraging. it’s dangerous to use these phrases even casually because it’s reinforcing. language is deeply intertwined in how people view the world. we may not be able to change attitudes toward gender just by changing the language, but certainly we won’t be able to change atttidues unless we change the language.

  6. I happen to be teaching on this very topic, so I’ll have to restrain myself from pouring out a semester’s worth of material in response. . . .

    @Susan: One reason boys are more highly prized than girls is that it is expected that sons (or, more honestly, the son’s wife) will look after the parents, while the daughters will be looking after the in-laws. That’s the easy answer; the hard answer is how and why property and value accrued to males in the first place.

    And, unfortunately, there’s little reason to expect that the scarcity of females will lead to greater opportunities for girls and women. That they become more highly valued as wives may in fact lead to a restriction of their movements—they are too valuable to lose to education or their own choices.

    Anyway, I’ve been waging my own rearguard action against the whole ‘. . . like a girl’ phenomenon, mainly by trying to turn it around and make it seem good; reclamation of the word ‘bitch’ is also ongoing, although the tough/take-no-shit image may be losing to the dog/under-my-thumb image. And I try to use female anatomical vulgarities in place of the male ones: tits forward, and all that.

    I don’t know that such subversions will work on a large scale, but I can try to create some breathing room in the immediate vicinity.

  7. I play women’s flat track roller derby and we’ve co-opted the phrase “hit like a girl.” I know it doesn’t eliminate all of the problematic language out there, but it sure does make me happy. One of the my favorite things is talking to girls who are fans after a game. We’ve just given them an example of what it means to “hit like a girl.”

  8. ms.cj

     /  November 5, 2010

    Thank you for this. I had to have this talk with my partner just a few days ago. He made a comment about someone “pussying out,” and when I asked him not to use that phrase he claimed it was OK because he didn’t have any sexist intent. We argued around in circles for awhile until I took a deep breath and explained that his intent didn’t really matter because when people heard him say those things it perpetuated the idea of women being less than. I think I got him to understand eventually, but it left me so discouraged. My partner is, I believe, truly feminist, and yet even he sometimes thoughtlessly says these kind of things.

    Sexism is so much easier to deal with when it’s coming from people you don’t like.

  9. hagdirt

     /  November 5, 2010


  10. Donna Rowsell

     /  November 5, 2010

    I literally just FB posted this, “watching Thursday nite comedies on TV yesterday, with kids. Flinched every time I heard the word ‘Bitch”. I looked like I had Tourettes. Has it really become that mainstream?”.
    Then I turn to your blog and voila, similar reaction to the world. No wonder I have a 12 and 9 yr old that have it as part of their vernacular. Sad.

  11. Ahem. This Asian used to throw a pretty mean softball before she destroyed her throwing arm shoulder (falling up a curb while reading, but I do not like to talk about such things). I agree that such language is problematic. I will use bitch to talk about myself as a way of reclaiming the word (because what strong woman hasn’t been called a bitch?). My Taiji teacher and I have a saying, “I’m a bitch, but I’m not a mean bitch.” This is said, however, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. In general, I try to keep this kind of joking between friends.

    And, I have been guilty of saying, “man up” or something similar. I will have to rethink that.

  12. Spiffy McBang

     /  November 8, 2010

    @dmf: I’ve seen someone else complain about that, on feministing, but it looked like she was stretching for examples. If it’s changed from never happening to happening at all, ok, but if there’s a perception that it’s happening a lot, I’m curious where- I can’t say I ever see it except in a scientific context. I’m also not sure, at least when referring to adults, that “female” is worse than “girl”.

    @janeriddle: A lot of people make statements like yours, that we have to change the language to get anywhere, but I think that’s incorrect almost to the point of being backwards. Language is nothing but a symbol. It means what we want it to mean. The use of words like “bitch” and “pussy” have, for better or worse, become so routine in America now that they’ve become partially de-gendered. That doesn’t mean I disagree with what Emily is saying, but rather that they’ve become words where how they’re said, and the context in which they’re said, need to be considered, whereas in the past the misogynist undertone was normal and unavoidable.

    If that seems like an argument designed to keep sexist language acceptable rather than an actual response to your comment, consider this from a racial context. For centuries the n-word was the worst insult you could lay at a person’s feet. Now? In some basic contexts, the word is perfectly acceptable. The last two places I’ve worked, white and Asian guys call each other “nigga” all the time. A huge gap has developed between its racist and non-racist uses. That’s been able to happen because of shifting attitudes towards black people and culture by mainstream America.

    Now let’s go back to the sexist words.

    -When Jon Stewart calls someone a pussy, how many people actually believe he’s trying to demean his target through comparison to a woman? You might say it’s ignorant, privileged behavior, and I won’t disagree. But part of the problem here is that- and this is absolutely a bad thing- our language has developed to the point where “pussy” is the sharpest, most succinct term we have for a person of extreme cowardice. “Wimp”, “wuss”, “spineless”, and “sissy” (which is itself not exactly a neutral term) just do not carry the same weight.

    -Likewise, if you’re at work and a manager says he had to bitch somebody out, it would be very odd if he was thinking about how the stereotype of a screaming woman was the basis for that description. Again, it’s not at all good that our language has developed to this point, but in this case the gendered concept behind it has been lost. “Bitching someone out” is just yelling at them; it means nothing different to the person than “chewing someone out” would. You could come up with a lot of examples like this.

    -When Kathleen Hanna wrote “SLUT” on her stomach back in the day, it was awesome because it was a powerful thing for her to do. “Slut” has no power except to the extent that we consider female sexuality to be a negative trait. I work with a lot of people younger than me; when I hear one of them call somebody a slut- and, interestingly, on 100% of those occasions it’s been a girl saying it- I question them on why they think of it as being so awful. And they’ve pretty much all relented upon such questioning; once they acknowledge they don’t actually think women liking sex is bad, they switch their rhetoric. If I just tried to get them to stop saying “slut”, even if it worked, that superficial tension of “women + sex = badbadbad” would remain.

    As attitudes change, language, and the use of language already in existence, will change with it. Getting people to stop calling each other “bitch” will not do much to affect, say, rates of sexual or domestic violence. But getting people to stop committing acts of sexual or domestic violence will make it much less relevant how we use those words.

    Final note: What I’m saying here does not mean I think it’s ok to say any of this stuff whenever, wherever, as long as your intent is not sexist. ms.cj should not have had to argue the point with her partner because he should have shut the hell up when she asked him to stop saying it and, if he has to use that language, stick to using it around people who don’t care one way or the other. It just seems like language is a pretty major concern currently in the feminist blogosphere, and although I’ve gone over the possible effect of privilege on my view of this time and again, I do not see this problem as being worth the attention being paid to it. The basic concerns are absolutely valid, and it’s good for people to publicly make these observations. But trying to change deep-seated language habits might be the single hardest thing to do in a society, and to actually focus on that as a way of creating change ignores the more direct ways of working on issues of greater immediacy, as well as making people who consider this language perfectly normal feel more disconnected from feminist dialogue. And that, frankly, is the last thing we need.

  13. @Spiffy McBang: Interesting nickname. Think it might give someone the wrong idea, or is it the problem of nuance? 🙂