• Wed, Apr 4 2012

Bullish: Tomboys, Career Women, Male Models and Other Words We Should Dismiss Forthwith

Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice weekly here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.

I got into a Facebook scuffle the other day, and – amazingly – left feeling that my time was well-spent!

Basically, in the comments below a post, a man called a woman “shrill.” She called him out for his “coded attack.” I agreed.

“Shrill” is like saying, “Your comments keep coming out in this high-pitched voice and therefore are invalid. You think you’re speaking out against sexism/racism/murder? You’re just nails on a chalkboard, you squeaky bitch.”

The man responded with a dictionary definition of the word “shrill,” pointing out that the dictionary doesn’t say anything offensive or gender-specific, and that men can be shrill. (Sure … sort of. I think men would just mostly be confused if you called them “shrill.”)

I replied that dictionaries are often poor guides to culture and context, and that nothing in the dictionary under “boy” explains quite how offensive it is for a white person to call an adult black man that. The woman who had been called “shrill” aptly likened it to “hysterical.”

Ultimately, the man acknowledged that he saw how the word could be offensive, and said he had been unaware of the sexist content of the word and that he wouldn’t use it again.

I said I thought that was reasonable, and thanked him! The man and woman then continued to argue and insult one another, but absent the pall of sexism! Yay, untainted marketplace of ideas!

The world can get better in small ways. And also, words mean things!

On that note, a letter I received:

I’m writing with a sort-of question, and I would love to hear your perspective: Is the term “tomboy” pejorative yet? Can we drop it now?

Seriously, I saw it in an article on The Gloss and thought, “that label needs to die.” I thought Billy Jean King and Serena Williams and the US women’s soccer world cup taught us something over the years. We are players! We like to play!

And yes, I was a “tomboy.”  I climbed trees and rode bikes and played four-square and street ball. I had to wear dresses to school every day unless it snowed, but snuck out with shorts underneath my skirt so I could play on the monkey bars. Today we call those “leggings.” And it’s OK!

I just wanted to play. And so do most of those other young girls out there.

Can we retire the tomboy-thing now?

Good question! (The writer, incidentally, is 52, and likes to both play sports and have exotic male lovers. FYI.)

I have never been a tomboy. I spent my childhood “flitting around,” as my mother would say, because no one ever signed me up for any classes and I was jealous of all the rich girls who got to take ballet and gymnastics. I tried to learn ballet from a book. In fact, I tried to organize a group of girls in my driveway to learn ballet from a book. Please enjoy that nerdy image (in this picture, I’m also wearing large plastic glasses from the discount section of Pearl Vision).

So, I asked Amanda, author of the “tomboy” article:

As someone who has been a tomboy her entire life, I don’t find it offensive at all. But I’ve also been called an anti-feminist by some commenters, so maybe I’m wrong in this thinking.

While I think statements like “You throw like a girl,” can be offensive (although I take it as a compliment, because fuck yeah, I do and I’m proud of it), I don’t find anything wrong with being “boyish” and using that word to describe someone who is. I think it’s time we reclaim it and those who find it offensive need to relax. Just because a term to describe a woman has the word “boy” in it, it doesn’t mean it should be kicked to the curb. I feel that those who might regard this as anti-feminist may have missed the whole point of feminism… in my humble opinion.

I would be severely confused, rather than insulted, if someone called me a tomboy today (I’ve jumped out of an airplane, but I’m sure I wore eyeliner), but if I had a daughter who just wanted to climb a damn tree without worrying about her underwear showing and someone called her a tomboy, I’d be pissed, especially if my daughter were also perturbed.

In fact, I’m reminded of a scene from Idiocracy (the best banned-by-corporations underground-cult-movie-even-though-it-stars-Luke-Wilson flick ever) in which a man says: “Why do you keep trying to read that word? You a fag?” (Watch the scene here.)

(See also Jennifer Wright’s Athletic is a Stupid Way to Describe Normal Female Body Types).

That said, “tomboy” will never be as offensive as “sissy.” Apparently because it’s normal for women to want to “be like men,” whereas the reverse is completely unimaginable by the sorts of people who murder other people with baseball bats.

What about “moxie”? I think “moxie” falls into the same category as “pluck.” In fact, I think I made the world a slightly better place when I explained the connotation of the word “pluck” on a GRE flashcard (one of a set of 500 available at Barnes and Noble – also, full disclosure, I happily work for this company but I don’t make any extra money if you buy the flashcards or anything; I just want to talk about “pluck”):

Here are some other words or phrases I think we can phase out:

“Gay” marriage: Of course, it’s fine to say “gay marriage” in the sense of, “I couldn’t possibly vote for you because you are against gay marriage,” but when it’s more like, “My friends Bob and Allen are getting gay-married,” it’s time to drop the “gay.” (Or else you could get them a gay present off their gay registry before enjoying their gay catering and all the gay dancing. Et cetera.)

“Male model”: I haven’t heard any male models being offended by this, but if we’ve said goodbye to “lady lawyer” (yikes!), maybe it’s time. Specifically:

OK: “I need a male model for this ad.”
Unnecessary: “My brother Thomas is a male model.” (Wow, really? A male model?)

I would use the same guidelines for when to mention a person’s race or many other qualities. For instance, “This role calls for a black actress” is a totally fine thing to say. But, “She graduated with a degree in drama and now she’s a black actress” sounds like something someone’s crazy, awful old white grandma would say.

Oh, and relatedly? This is hardly a justice issue, but “female-ejaculate” also sounds ridiculous as a verb when it’s totally clear that a woman is doing it. As in, “I’d love to meet a woman who can female-ejaculate.” (Why yes, it would be amazing if you could prompt that response through handy utilization of your male-penis!”)

Finally, and here’s my major, huge, enormous, hulking pet peeve:

“Career Women”: Let’s stop saying this. Now. WTF? It’s true that some women don’t have careers, but it is also true that some men don’t have careers, and no one ever says “career men.”

We also don’t say “taxpayer women” or “voting women” or anything else that describes the actions of most adults in a modern society.

“Career woman” is just a way to make the normal actions of working, making money, and spending it on stuff sound like the obsession of a hardened, unfuckable shrew. Whereas, in practice, if I were a man, I’d probably prefer to fuck women who have the ability to buy their own goods and services.

And while we’re talking about language, see Bullish: Run Your Career Like a Gentlewoman for the difference – in modern ladyblog parlance, I think – between a lady and a gentlewoman.

Of course, a gentlewoman can certainly choose to identify herself as a tomboy full of moxie.

But you should probably check with her before you call her that. Maybe she’d prefer to be called a gentlewoman of gravitas and valor.

Hey, it’s a goal.

Send in your questions to bullish@thegloss.com. See a Bullish archive here.

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  • Melanie the Constant Reader

    A guy friend of mine called me “the best kind of tomboy” the other day (after I lapped him repeatedly during our group run). I asked what he meant, and he said, “You know, you do boy things, but then you do girl things too.”
    So… I’m a human being, basically. His approval means so much.

    http://melanietheconstantreader.blogspot.com/

  • Bob V

    I hate to comment on the only bit of an article I otherwise like, but here goes.

    If you’ve never heard the term “career man”, you haven’t watched nearly as man mob movies as I have. I haven’t bothered to check a dictionary, but my understanding is that career man is someone who lives for his job and has sacrificed much of his personality for it.

  • James

    Yeah, “career man” is definitely used, and means the same thing as “career woman” (a man devoted to his career, or a man who’s in it for life), in addition to the Mafia meaning.

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&redir_esc=&client=ms-android-google&source=android-browser-type&v=133247963&qsubts=1333639334952&action=devloc&q=career+man&v=133247963

  • Kimmerly

    Delightful and insightful, as always. Thank you, Jen.

  • melissa

    also: co-ed to describe a female university student. I hear it used all the time in the news, usually to describe a woman in some sort of peril, like being missing or dead.

    • Eileen

      I HATE THIS ONE SO MUCH. (and consider it the equivalent of calling black university students “de-segs,” which is stupid and makes no sense and would be horribly offensive, so no one does it…but women are supposed to enjoy being called “cute little coeds”??? Yes, I’m looking at you, John Grisham.)

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