'Damaged goods', 'slut' and 'spinster': Sexist labels against women

Whether it's to infantalise, informalise or demote, sexist terms against women only act to demean them.

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Women, it seems, are particularly at risk of being labelled, pigeonholed and conveniently packed up into small, stereotypical boxes. From critical terms like ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ to irreversible indictments like ‘damaged goods’ or more generalised terms like ‘bird’ or ‘chick’, these labels put women firmly in their place and make them nice and easy to deal with.

Many such labels allow women’s opinions and arguments to be conveniently belittled and invalidated, from the labelling of a 63-year-old politician as ‘granny’ to the description of an argument between two female MPs as a ‘catfight’.

Of course labels are sometimes applied to men as well, but there are often stark contrasts between the type of term used for men and women in similar situations. Consider the contrast between ‘slut’, ‘tramp’ or ‘tart’ and ‘player’, ‘or stud’ - between ‘old maid’ or ‘spinster’ and ‘bachelor’.  Women and men who display the same qualities are frequently labelled in different ways, as many entries to the Everyday Sexism Project testify.

Women describe being given gender-specific labels with negative connotations when they work hard or perform well – where, they ask, are the male equivalents for phrases such as ‘ball-breaker’, ‘battleaxe’ or ‘harridan’? Meanwhile labels like ‘doll’, ‘baby’ and ‘sweetie’ infantilise women.

Labels like ‘doll’, ‘baby’ and ‘sweetie’ infantilise women

In the media, it is common to see the performance of a male politician, businessman or celebrity being judged on its own merits. Yet commentators often seem determined, when evaluating women, to impose restrictive labels on them, implying that their performance is somehow linked to this categorisation.

Articles about women in the professional sphere, for example, frequently refer to their parental status using phrases like ‘mother of two’. Though accurate and inoffensive, this subtly encourages the reader to think of the subject in non-professional terms. Articles about professional men extremely rarely refer to them as ‘father of…’ by contrast. Even the simple addition of the label ‘female’ or ‘woman’ to a title can have a huge impact on the lens through which we view the story.

This was starkly clear from the repeated use of the phrases ‘female police officers’ and ‘women cops’ in the media reporting of the tragic shooting incident this week. WPC was not the officers’ title – the prefix is obsolete – yet the unnecessary additional label allowed papers to make subtle sexist inferences about the capability of female officers with headlines like “Why? Unarmed women cops sent”.

The unnecessary addition of the label ‘female’ or ‘woman’ in this way to titles such as CEO, doctor or judge immediately reinforces stereotypical sexist expectations about the gender of people performing these roles and gives a damaging suggestion of ‘otherness’ about women in these jobs.

Many entries to our project website describe how the casual and normalised use of gendered labels allows women to be belittled and sidelined in the workplace, with one saying:

“at work, I am constantly patronized by men & called sweetie, love, darl and a 'good girl'. Women refer to me by name.”

Another wrote:

“I have been called “dear” in a patronizing tone by a fellow co-worker since day one of his employment…This man in no way outranks me”.

One student wrote to report:

“Being called a 'good girl' when I've completed a task correctly by a male lecturer. Would not mind it so much if he called the boys 'good boy' too.”

Another entry reads:

“I work in a pub and have been leered at, called wench, darling and babe”.

This last entry seems particularly significant, as it exposes how using these sexist, stereotypical labels to categorise women can also dehumanize and objectify them, smoothing the path towards sexual harassment and a sense of entitlement for harassers. It is easier to feel confident about groping a ‘darling’ or a ‘babe’ than Ms Scott from accounts.

Is there a male equivalent of the derogatory use of words like ‘blonde’ or ‘bimbo’?

Another way in which women are particularly likely to be unhelpfully labelled is according to their looks. Is there a male equivalent of the derogatory use of words like ‘blonde’ or ‘bimbo’? Why are women frequently described as ‘the redhead’ or ‘the brunette’, when men are rarely reduced to being identified by their hair colour?

One entry on our site describes a woman’s distress at “being called tetas calientes” (“sexy tits”) on my first day of work”.  Another reads, “I am an IT professional and have been told I am too pretty to be a programmer while bring patted on the head like a puppy.”

The sexist labels used to describe women are often utterly irrelevant to the area in which they are working or the topic they are discussing, but are used as a means of forcing them into a category by which they can be easily dismissed. As one entry explains for example: “I tweet political views…I’m called “whore”…despite advanced degrees and long career in politics”.

This is an area in which the small, niggling instances of everyday sexism truly add up. Any complaint about one of these labels alone would likely be dismissed as overreacting or oversensitive. But their combined effect is powerful and their subtlety is surprisingly pervasive. When the Prime Minister tells a female MP to “calm down dear” in the House of Commons, the label carries a host of insidious sexist assumptions. We must challenge these apparently minor labels if we are to challenge the harmful gender prejudice that underlies them.

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