The gendered language of snark: help a Hoyden out

“Drama queen”.

“Attention whore”.

“Pearl clutching”.



These are all insults based on the assigned femininity of the target (or on campness, a flavour of femininity). And that femininity is assumed to be an inherently negative characteristic. Our language is so gendered, so biased against women and against femaleness, that I can’t come up with a series of non-gendered or masculine equivalents that carry similar connotations (and aren’t ableist or otherwise offensive), and it’s bugging me.

So I’m throwing it out to the Hoydentariat. Anyone?

Categories: gender & feminism, language

25 replies

  1. Oh and don’t forget:
    Girl’s blouse, girly swot, and of course, bitch.
    Male or neutral equivilant….


  2. I imagine to be perfectly valid it has to be a phrase that is applied to either sex in ‘normal’ conversation, but carries the feminine and hence commonly assumed negative connotation. (Please don’t misinterpret what I was trying to say there.)
    Does “dickhead” qualify? “Knuckledragger”?

  3. Interestingly, Lauredhel and I were IMing about how Middle English “girle”, referring to a young person of either sex, came to be feminised by the time of the Renaissance to mean only females.
    It is a defendable hypothesis that any word that is perceived to deal with immaturity and/or dependency will eventually come to be perceived as gendered, referring to females only.

  4. I imagine to be perfectly valid it has to be a phrase that is applied to either sex in ‘normal’ conversation, but carries the feminine and hence commonly assumed negative connotation. (Please don’t misinterpret what I was trying to say there.)

    I read you, phil.

    Does “dickhead” qualify? “Knuckledragger”?

    Dickhead is probably the best example I could come up with, with “wanker” and “tosser” as runners-up. All can be used in friendly matesy manners, though “dickhead” probably least so. And though all are pejoratives, none have the same connotations as “attention whore” and “drama queen”, which have quite specific meanings.
    “Knuckledragger” is an interesting one. You’d think it might be more animalistic than gendered, but it is quite specifically masculine in usage. An interesting exercise to compare “knuckledragger” as well as “dog”, “bull” and “pig” with the feminine animalistic insults “bitch”, “cow” and “sow”.

  5. This is something that has bothered me since childhood. And I spent a good bit of my hysterectomy angst just being pissed off about the word “hysterectomy.” Yup, remove those female organs, and then that person will be much more rational and reasonable. UGH.
    Over here, “whore” is quickly losing ground as gender-specific, oddly. It’s come into wide use as a way to indicate brand loyalty, for one thing: “I had to have the new iPhone the day it came out. I am such an Apple-whore.” Or to express a deep appreciation of anything: “I hope they have cinnamon rolls. I’m a total pastry-whore.” I’m hearing it used in this and similar contexts much more often by men lately.

  6. Drama Pawn? Attention Stud? Chest Puffing?
    The trouble I find seeking masculine equivalents for chauvanist snark is that any which catch on develop usages restoring a sense of being a ‘bad boy’ rather than a horrible man. The social cache given to the figure of rebellious men gives more scope for turning male insults into a defiance/superiority stance more easily than feminine terms.
    Like bastard; he’s a clever bastard, oh you sleazy bastard, nudge, wink.
    Giving Howard a slap & declaring “Calm down man you’re hysterical!!” still sounds fitting.

  7. As right as you are about this, I refuse to relinquish “pearl clutcher”. I only discovered it recently, and I adore it. So I will rack my brains for some masculine slurs to compensate.
    I’m prepared to accept that “whore” is being used in gender-neutral fashion these days.

  8. Asshat? Pillock?

  9. I like “Pearl clutcher” because, in my mind, it refers to an extreme right, sexist woman who not only is unaware of her own oppression withing the patriarchy, but actually asks for more of it and encourages other women to embrace it as well.
    And of course there is no male couterpart because men are rarely aware of their own position as oppressors.

  10. Sadly, this is all too true, terms like (x)-whore or hysterical, while loosely able to apply to either men or women, have a definite feminine bent to them. However, the impression here tends to be that our language is restricting our cultural values towards the social construction of gender, which I don’t altogether disagree with, but the opposite still needs to be considered, that our grossly inegalitarian values regarding gender have, over centuries, focused these sorts of pejorative terms towards female referents.
    By way of an aside, hysterical, as Belinda alluded above, comes from the Greek word for womb, as with hysterectomy. When I say ‘comes from’ I mean, was borrowed quite recently for medicine jargon; it didn’t go through the normal trajectory from Greek into Latin, slowly into Old French then via the Normans into Middle English, we took it directly some 200 years ago.
    The original Greek medical condition hysteria became all the rage as a diagnosis in the mid-to-late 1800s, it was thought by the Greeks to be caused by the womb ‘moving about’ inside the body and causing trouble everywhere. The 19th century medical profession used the same name to refer to a condition whereby women became depressed and overwhelmed by ‘societal’ pressures. Naturally, since men don’t have wombs, they weren’t often diagnosed with hysteria.
    There was, however, a very similar illness (and hysteria was a specific, if not very well defined, complaint) that affected young middle and upper class men who had cushy jobs and nothing much to be except be ‘social’ (real Dorian Gray stuff), called neuræsthenia, or ‘disease of the nerve-senses’. However, neuræsthenia wasn’t restricted to men, it was originally described as the male equivalent to hysteria, but as the diagnosis of hysteria became less popular among the fashionable psychiatrists and physicians (this is well-to-do Continental and American high-society, after all), neuræsthenia became more widely diagnosed for both sexes.

  11. I’m a fan of ‘cad’. ‘Bounder’ as well, old-fashioned as it is.
    BK – the scientific whore (I’ll do anything for papers, even crystallography).

  12. How about ‘chest beater’ for ‘Drama queen’?
    Black Knight wrote:
    “I’m a fan of “cad’. “Bounder’ as well, old-fashioned as it is.”
    I like the golden oldies too. I’m still fond of my gran’s favourites ‘mongrel’ and ‘cur’.

  13. I cannot believe that “bunched undies” haven’t been added to the list.
    I. Am. Outraged.

  14. They’re not so common in Oz, but “pantywaist” and “milquetoast” seem to still have some currency in the States.
    Of course, both of them are still gendered insults in that they imply over-protective helicopter mothering to result in such unmanly specimens.

  15. I’ve been forced to call attention whores drama llamas and attention solicitors. attention beggers?

  16. I actually get a kick out of pearl clutching because it suggests that whatever is going on is offending someone of a faux 1950’s sensibility. I can deal with the fact that it’s gendered because it feels suitable somehow.
    In terms of non-gendered insults, I am partial to calling people petulant children or self-involved twits. Sounds a little pretentious, but it works.
    Also, I think my least favorite gendered insult is “don’t get your panties in a twist.” Hate, hate, hate it. I have no idea why we need to keep talking about our big girl undies either.

  17. C’mon. Everyone wears undies, and bunched ones *are* pretty annoying.
    How about “urge-merchant”? We must, after all, for peace in the middle east, bomb Iran…

  18. Thanks for all your replies! Responding all at once:
    Pantywaist and milquetoast, I think, definitely rely on assertions of femininity and/or limp-wristedness on the part of the male recipient.
    Asshat, pillock, cad, bounder, mongrel, and cur, while all splendidly useful words, don’t carry quite the same implications of pathetic look-at-meism.
    Grandstander and chest-beater are interesting ones. Chest-beater, in particular, is less “Look at meeee” and more “Pay attention to me, because I could hurt you”. The difference between chest-beater and chest-puffer is worth a close look. Chest-beater, with its gorillaish overtones, implies someone being overtly threatening, if in an unnecessarily ostentatious manner. Chest-puffer is different, and is getting very close to the connotations I’m looking for. Which male animals could chest-puffer be referring to? Fish? Frogs? Some birds? None particularly threatening creatures to we humans.
    Drama llama I {heart} (drama pawn goes in the same group), and I had forgotten about drama llama when I wrote this post. Thanks for that. Attention-beggar could work, but it’s a bit dullly literal. (Could it be interpreted as classist? I’m not sure.) Ditto petulant children and self-involved twits: super terms, just not quite as much fun.
    I respect those who wish to retain pearl-clutcher, and your reasons; it just makes me personally a little uncomfortable to use, and I’m looking for a greater variety of descriptive snark.
    Panties in a twist sets my teeth on edge too. Bunched undies is at least non-gendered.
    I disagree, at this stage, that “whore” has lost its gendered implications. That’s like claiming that the new generic pejorative “gay” has nothing to do with male homosexuals anymore, and people should stop getting offended already. “Whore” is now used to sledge men, but its origins in the disparagement of female prostitutes read loud and clear in the context of those insults. Claims of reclamatory use fail unless you’re a member of the oppressed class in question – it’s not your term to reclaim.
    And many thanks for the explanation on the origins of “hysterical” and “hysterectomy” – I was starting to draft one, but hadn’t got around to finishing it. I think it’s notable that the disparaging use, hysterical, is now the most common use of the hyster- root, to the point that its etymology and its connection to other “hyster-” words has perhaps been almost lost; “hysterical” being considered the primary meaning. This hadn’t occurred to me, being in the medical world where we talk about hysterectomies, hysteroscopies, and so on all the time. Maybe we would do well to get away from those words altogether, and move towards the Lating uter(o) root instead.

  19. F*ckknuckle is one I’ve heard male siblings use to one another, which doesn’t seem to have any feminine overtones.

  20. Can someone explain more about “”don’t get your panties in a twist” and why it “sets [my] teeth on edge” – although from the context i guess it’s the fact that it’s sex-specific. I have heard the “don’t get your undies into a twist” version quite a bit which doesn’t look at sex (as both wear underwear).
    While I’m at it, why is “gender” (which means masculine and feminine) used in place of “sex” (which means male and female) – it seems like something the Christian Right would do and is the kind of thing which doesn’t suit a liberal, progressive society.

  21. Gender is a social construct and sex is a biological reality, and the two don’t always map easily onto each other. There are many aspects of gender roles which are irrelevant to biological sex, they are just traditionally associated with one sex rather than the other, but there is no inherent biological reason for only one sex to be fulfilling certain social roles.
    There’s been quite a lot of literature written about this if you care to look, Paul W. Some of the strongest aggression from conservatives is directed towards individuals of either sex who transgress normative gender roles. Making the distinction between sex and gender is the progressive stance, not refusing to make such distinctions.

  22. “I respect those who wish to retain pearl-clutcher, and your reasons; it just makes me personally a little uncomfortable to use, and I’m looking for a greater variety of descriptive snark.”
    But doesn’t whatsisname, metrosexual swimming dude, Ian Thorpe wear pearls now? I think this could become non-gendered.
    My mother, when insulting men, always used the two following interchangably:
    (a) he is not a gentleman or
    (b) he is a spiv.
    For some reason, both were correlated with (c) wearing navy-blue suits and (d) being a bank manager. But I digress.
    Let’s not forget the gendered insult Prima donna, either.
    I personally think we could replace with the following:
    “Drama queen” – Wannabe soapie star
    “Attention whore” – Narcissist
    “Pearl clutching” – Thorpedo clutching
    “Flounce” – Storm
    “Hysterical” – Zonkers. According to my dictionary this means highly-strung, and I reckon it’s hilarious.

  23. Can someone explain more about “don’t get your panties in a twist” and why it “sets [my] teeth on edge” – although from the context i guess it’s the fact that it’s sex-specific.

    That, and I can’t stand the word “panties”. “Don’t get your panties in a twist” is a straight sledge at women and their “hysterical” ways – a way of dismissing women’s anger, whether righteous or not, as trivial and obviously related to some issue with their genitalia.
    “Don’t get your undies in a twist” may or may not be problematic. Is it mainly used with the idea in mind that a male recipient is acting “feminine”? I don’t know. Any others care to comment with their intuitions?

    While I’m at it, why is “gender” (which means masculine and feminine) used in place of “sex” (which means male and female)

    “Gender” doesn’t quite mean masculine/feminine. I see “gender” as more atomic – not necessarily binary, but something involving perceptual _and_ personal identification categories that people are sorted into into. So your average bloke on the street might sort the people around him as “man, woman, man, woman, transexual, huh?” Various people have come up with a whole lot of different gender identity categories, sometimes also involving different sexualities, physical intersex characteristics, and so on. There are always grey areas and people who consider themselves to fit into none of the categories (or who change over time).
    “Masculine” and “feminine” I see as a continuous spectrum, a whole series of behaviours (not identity, but behaviours), not readily sorted into categories. (Others might see this differently, and that’s cool too). For example, I am a woman who is obviously identified as a woman by anyone I encounter, and I identify 100% as “woman”, (and “het woman” at that), but that doesn’t mean I’m particularly feminine, or that I engage in lots of Western femininity behaviours. And I know women who engage in far less femininity behaviours than I, but who are very clearly identifiable as “woman”. Put more succintly, though losing nuance in the translation: gender is more pass/fail, femininity/masculinity is graded on a curve.

  24. “Panties” is (or was meant to be) short for just “pantyhose” wasn’t it? (It’s also an Americanism that’s been imported)
    I’ve seen it used as a catch-all term for all female underwear (if i could count the times I’ve seen “…in just her bra and panties” in so-called literature I’d be wealthy) and i gather that’s why you hate the word – the sexualisation of it.

  25. ”Panties” is (or was meant to be) short for just “pantyhose” wasn’t it?

    No. Pantyhose came way later. “Panties” is the diminutive of “pants”. In American English,men wear “underpants”, women wear “panties”. The term for men’s clothing is descriptive, the term for women’s clothing is cutesy and diminutive. From the online etymology dic:

    panties: 1845, “drawers for men” (derogatory), dim. of pants; meaning “underpants for women or children” first recorded 1908. Pantyhose first recorded 1963. Pantywaist “weak or effeminate male” is 1936, from a type of child’s garment with short pants that buttoned to the waist of a shirt. Panty raid first attested 1952.

    “Panties”, for me, carries connotations somewhere in a blend between little-girliness and college-movie/soft-porn.

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