The useless bit of flesh around a vagina

[Image credit: Cincinnati Institute for Reproductive Health]

I think every feminist has a least favourite term for “women”. And they’re all teeth-grindingly offensive in different ways: “girls”, “broads”, “chicks”, “babes”, “coeds”, “fillies”, “skirts”.

Meredith Clark offers an article on the “f-word” on “No, not that one! It’s ‘female’ “. (She is talking specifically of “female” as a noun meaning “woman”, not as an adjective.) While Clark brackets the article with irritating INAFB[1] apologetics, the meat of it resonates with me. “Females” has been getting under my skin for decades. In my experience, men use “females” when they’re thinking of women as non-human objects for display or sex, or as strange incomprehensible non-men creatures:

“Let’s go to the pub tonight and find us some females!”
“There sure are a lot of hot females here tonight, eh?” *grunts of agreement*
“I just don’t understand females.”

One of my first hits, idly plugging this into google? “How to Argue With Females”: a huh-huh list of how women are illogical, unintelligent, easily-frazzled, jealous, overemotional, and menstrually-incapacitated. (The comments get all the way to three before someone suggests rape.)

Why is “female”, used as a synonym for “woman”, so irritating? I think because it designates women as marked by our sex, and only by our sex. Just as “skirts” reduces us to a piece of clothing, and “fillies” as sleek wild young things to be tamed, and “coeds” to rather novel but ultimately unimportant college accessories, “females” shoves us firmly into the sex category. Nothing else is important – not, as Clark says, our talents; not our passions or hates or history or humanity; just our reproductive organs. We’re reduced to a support system for a uterus and vagina, discussed in a detached manner as if we were animals on a wildlife show.

[1] “I’m not a feminist, but…”

[Hat tip to tigtog.]

Categories: gender & feminism, language


11 replies

  1. I’ve been lurking a while (as a long time femininist working in academia, I’ve been fascinated by the growth of feminist blogs) I think I came to your site from a bloglist on another site, know that I saw Emma Peel and went WHOA! Yes!–I loved her when I was a kid.
    I was drawn out of lurking because I tend to use female more and more often (usually to refer to myself, but also in some of my writing as a more general term) because “woman” grates on me for the same reasons “female” grates on you. Of course, everybody will have vastly different connotations/associations with a word, depending on hir experiences (that’s why it’s futile to use dictionary definitions as the sole argument anywhere, esp. very brief dictionary defs). I think the word “woman” bothers me because as a child growing up in rural Idaho during the fifties, and as an adolescent during the sixties (so clearly my age has much to do with it), the admonitions to be a woman (and more irksome still, be a lady–somehow to be a lady meant all the crummy things about being a woman only one always had to wear white gloves and a nice hat) were so tied up with restrictions: one grew up to be a woman to get married, to have children, to be all the depressing grown-up things that I didn’t want to do (and didn’t). So for me, female has less, umm, social baggage? Yet I completely see your point about reducing us to a vagina: I cannot disagree with a single point of what you say. The word “female” can and does function that way.
    And both are dependent upon the default root man/male: wo/man, fe/male.
    I remember an excellent article by Muriel Schwartz on “Semantic Derogation of Women” (I hope I’m remembering correctly!) about how all sorts of terms referring to women including “tart” came into the language as positive/complimentary or neutral terms, but derogated into insults (usually sexual). Her point, and I think it applies here, is that in a patriarchal system, any term associated with “not men” will become derogatory, insulting, limiting, etc. at some point because of oppression. The ideology is carried in the language, but as long as the ideology is so wide-spread, it’s hard to opposte through new/other coinages.
    There’s a spectrum of course–with some terms more openly reductive and crudely sexual–but I’m wracking my brain to think of any term that doesn’t act to reduce us….

  2. I hadn’t thought about “females” that way before — for me, it’s “woman!” and diminutive slurs like “sweetheart” and “chick” and “girl” that set me off. But I think any reference to women can sound disgusting and objectifying coming from a misogynist’s mouth. Even “she” can be twisted into an oppressive, silencing weapon without a lot of effort. Really, any name/label that is intentionally different from what a woman wants to be called (if anything at all) is derogatory for the reasons you listed in the last paragraph and because name-calling holds such intense power over the name-called.
    But, you know, it’s all “just words”. Silly feminists and their focus on silly tools of the patriarchy like language. (/sarcasm)

  3. I can also relate to robins’ comments about woman having lots of baggage. Mine was more of the “wombyn, wimmin” ilk, in the 90’s when I associated woman in cultural & lesbian feminism niches with essentialism. So then alternatives like female and grrls were appealing.
    Now I’m in my 30’s though I noticed that men and younger women will call me “one of the girls/grrls” as though it’s a compliment, while calling my peers with kids woman, while sort of ignoring them.
    It’s unintentional I’m sure, but I’m pretty adamant about using woman to reject the implied ageism and essentialism of that distinction now. I think it reflects the consumer cultures fear of aging really. As though, woman is just a plain adult word, but Girl and Mum leave the age fearful something to try and be “cute” about.

  4. I seriously hate it when men call women “girls” and “chicks” (which are both used very commonly, surprise surprise, in porn) – it’s so infantilizing.
    I admit that I’ve used “males” instead of men, but now that I think about it, it’s usually in a negative context, like “that stupid male” or “sexist males”, etc. I think that “females” and “males” just sound less civilized? (Of course, yes, yes and yes on everything said in the post.)

  5. There’s always the great Aussie word “Sheilas”. It doesn’t imply stereotypes like “skirt”, no comparison to animals like “filly”, or “chick”, it’s not infantilising like “girls” or “babes”, it’s just a name.

  6. I am so with you on this on Lauredhel.

    ”Let’s go to the pub tonight and find us some females!”

    I always want to ask such guys if they are using the tmer “females” because they are really on the prowl for girls as well as women.
    It also annoys me when people say things “woman doctor.” As if it wasn’t bad enough that people rarely feel the need to let you know the doctor in question is male – “woman” is a noun, not an adjective. Unlike “females” it doesn’t work as both. Which is why you will sometimes hear people say “male doctor” but never “man doctor.”

  7. I was drawn out of lurking because I tend to use female more and more often (usually to refer to myself, but also in some of my writing as a more general term) because “woman” grates on me for the same reasons “female” grates on you. Of course, everybody will have vastly different connotations/associations with a word, depending on hir experiences…
    Coming from Idaho, perhaps your male compatriots don’t use the word “females” like they do in Australia. It’s been irritating me for a decade or so, too; they make you sound like a meerkat in a wildlife documentary, or something. “The females and their young etc…”

  8. I think a part of this kind of usage is in reference to concepts of popular ‘biology’, and specifically ‘animal’ sexuality – two out of three of the phrases mentioned seem to bear this out. I say own your animality and start biting back when they come looking for ‘females’.

  9. This has always *really* irked me, too, and for the same reasons you describe – I feel dehumanised by the use of the word as a noun. It’s not a universal objection, but it does seem to me to be often used in the context of “female as weak or less than”. People often look at me like I’m unhinged when I raise it, though.

  10. I agree that there may be regional and individual-experience differences here, and thanks for all you contributions.

    I always want to ask such guys if they are using the tmer “females” because they are really on the prowl for girls as well as women.
    It also annoys me when people say things “woman doctor.”

    Gack, I hadn’t even thought about them prowling for girls! I assumed it was mostly a wildlife type reference, part of the faux-mating macho posturing dance of barely post-adolescent men.
    On doctors – “lady doctor” is the one most in use around here. “Female doctor” doesn’t bother me – it’s the adjectival use, which carries less baggage, and so long as it’s used for a reason and in context I think it’s ok: “I’d like to make an appointment with a female doctor please”, not “Dr Smith, a female doctor, said blahdiblah to our reporter”.
    When this conversation came up independently elsewhere, some people objected to “woman” because of its vocative use in dominating and ordering women around: “Woman! Get me a beer!” I think the vocative use is very different to the nominative. Used vocatively, it is explicitly dehumanising – the choice is to use a generic term instead of a person’s name. Used nominatively for someone whose name you don’t know – “It was that woman in the blue hat” – doesn’t have the same effects, for me. But I can see how some of the negativity could rub off for some people if they’ve had very negative experiences with the vocative use.
    I was just writing up the Keiko Fukuda post, and remembered my judo team falling about laughing when a male announcer at competitions would start talking about “Ladies’ Judo!” I pictured us tiptoeing around in our gis with white button-up gloves and parasols.

  11. “Gack, I hadn’t even thought about them prowling for girls!”
    Well, I don’t really think they are.
    (Ok, well, actually that deserves a post by itself – because of things like the overuse of “girls” to mean women and the way girls are depicted sexually in media – I rather think they aren’t on the prowl for what they would term children, but I also think I’d draw that line differently than many such boasters would. The point is, they aren’t using the term to mean “girls and women.”)
    Even though “female” and “woman” can both be a noun, depending on the context for the former, “women” is often the more accurate term to use. So why use “females”? I think it’s for the reasons you describe – it’s a way of making us not quite people. Which gives me the urge to get all snarky and pretend to take them literally when I hear people use “females” when “women” would make more sense.
    And I concur with everyone about using “woman” instead of a name – or even non gender specific terms for people, like “you” or “person”
    The latest co=worker to drive me nuts asked me and another co-worker to today: “are you girls working tomorrow night?”* Which pissed me off because he just couldn’t bring himself to say just “you” instead of “you girls” – why add “girls” after “you”? Plus, I’m pissed that he called me a girl in the first place. If I must have the gray hairs to go with my advanced age, I’m going to be addressed as an adult damnit. So I was all passive=aggressive and didn’t answer the question – because, not being a girl, he obviously wasn’t addressing me. It didn’t help that I’m about five years older than he is, at least. So it’s not like he had the different generation/several decades older excuse either.
    It’s even worse when they use it instead of “you” or your name – because then it’s not just considering your girlness odd enough to have to remark upon it, it’s reducing you to just a girl/woman, and not an individual. And it’s usually used in place of an insult – making it an insult. It’ not like people go around saying “Man! Take out the garbage!” (Unless they are surfer dudes and “man” is used as an exclamation not a noun.) But there are all kinds of other words that people use instead.
    *he was asking bc tomorrow is HP night, which has consumed all normal conversations at work, not because he was trying to hit on us, learn our schedules, etc.

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