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Banning sexist monikers only perpetuates the myth that we women are fragile flowers

Being called bird, babe or doll is annoying, writes Fionola Meredith, but let's not let the language police get out of control

Published 07/10/2016

Is it too much for women to hear patronising names and wolf-whistles in the street?
Is it too much for women to hear patronising names and wolf-whistles in the street?

Highly strung, drama queen, ball-breaker bitchy diva. No, that's not me on a bad day. That's me on a really good day. Only kidding. In fact, these are words that large numbers of women would like to see banned. They also resent being described as hormonal, hysterical, high-maintenance or mumsy. And don't even dream of calling them bird, doll, chick or babe. Pet names like this are seen as patronising, belittling and derogatory, and must henceforth be considered forbidden.

The survey of 2000 women was carried out by Special K as part of its new campaign to encourage us to celebrate our "inner strength". In this, it is supported by Girls Aloud star Nicola Roberts. "It is a strange thing that in a modern society we still have room for language that holds strong women back," she mused.

Egregious guff, of course. If women have to rely on 'inspirational' quotes from a doe-eyed pop-star - who's no doubt being handsomely paid to sell a diet cereal brand - in order to get in touch with our inner fortitude and self-worth, then we really are screwed.

Of course it's irritating when some ignorant fool of a bloke, infinitely less intelligent than you, tries to put you down by treating you like you've got fluff for brains, purely because you happen to be female. "Sorry, love/pet/babe, you just don't understand." There are plenty of these bone-headed Neanderthals stumbling about our own dear country. We haven't quite bred them out yet, so you're sure to run into one of them sooner or later.

And it's frustrating to be told that you're hormonal or hysterical or highly strung. Reducing women to our reproductive functions is a classic way for our authority to be undermined, and it has been going on for millennia. We're not making a forceful argument or an impassioned point, we're just caught up in a welter of hormonally-induced confusion. Therefore we can safely be ignored.

Like I say, it's a pain at times. But let's not blow the whole thing out of proportion.

Fuelled by the feminist language police, we've got our knickers in far too much of a twist about these epithets. After all, so much depends on context. Being called babe or doll does not in itself constitute a sexist insult if it's an affectionate greeting between partners, while it would be entirely out of place in a formal professional context.

These words and phrases do not sap our strength or shatter our self-confidence, as Nicola and the Special K gang suggest, unless we allow them to.

We are not perpetual victims, in need of protection. We are not fragile little flowers that shrivel up and die because some random man said something silly or nasty to us. Or at least I hope we're not.

There's a growing tendency for society as a whole, and women in particular, to define themselves in terms of how they feel, rather than what they think.

Self-esteem becomes almost entirely predicated on the current state of our emotional wellbeing, which is continually scrutinised for signs of disturbance.

We see this in the obsessive focus on the mental health of young women, who are apparently being felled by anxiety and depression in record numbers. Undoubtedly there are serious issues at work here, from social media pressures to troubled family backgrounds, but this trend must also be exacerbated by the relentless focus on feelings.

Equally unhelpful is the prevailing idea - beloved of mainstream feminists - that low-level incidents of sexist behaviour are part of a continuum which starts with wolf-whistling and ends with rape.

"Yes, wolf-whistles are the thin end of this wedge - the 'harmless' reminder that a woman's role in public is to be judged and commented on by men," said Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism project. "But the whole picture is much bigger than that. The toleration of minor sexist incidents sets up a power imbalance, leading to normalised attitudes and behaviours towards women that make some of the more serious abuses seem more socially acceptable."

This is faulty logic. There is no causal or evidential connection between a throwaway comment or whistle on the street - whether wanted or unwanted - and a full-blown assault. And who thinks serious abuse against women is socially acceptable?

The answer to everyday sexism isn't in trying to 'ban' offensive words - a fruitless task if ever there was one. The answer is to challenge and subvert them, maybe even laugh at them, but certainly not to run away shrieking.

Alright, pet?

Belfast Telegraph

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