'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.

Share

 

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Senior SAP MM Consultant, £50,000 - £60,000, Birmingham

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP MM C...

SAP BW BO

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW BO - 6 MONTHS - LONDON London (Gr...

HSE Manger - Solar

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: HSE Mana...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Let's make Eid a bank holiday

Grace Dent
Tulisa Contostavlos arrives to face drug charges at Southwark Crown Court on July 14, 2014  

Tulisa might have been attacked for being working class, but she still has to take some responsibility

Chloe Hamilton
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried