WRITING: Gender-Specific Adjectives

In a recent essay at Tiger Beatdown on why Doctor Who‘s Amy Pond is frustrating, Lindsay Miller offered this succint point: “Can we all take a moment here to agree, unequivocally, that “feisty” is the single most condescending adjective in the English language [...]?” At that same site, s.e. smith asked what we mean when we talk about “strong female characters”. Both got me thinking about gender-specificity in adjectives, and what that means…

(Author’s note: This post treats language as applying to two binary genders, male and female. This is not to discount trans/genderqueer/agendered folks, but because pop culture is overwhelmingly binary-gendered, and so, thus, are my experiences with it.)

Feisty is a word I’ve never heard appended to a male character. Men can be handsome (these days, more typically sexy or hot which are generally unisex), but rarely beautiful unless they are feminine/feminized/seen through a female perspective, and never vivacious or pretty. A preadolescent or adolescent can be cute, but a grown man can’t unless, again, viewed through a female perspective.  People are familiar with a call for strong female characters, but not strong male characters. Meanwhile, I’m having trouble landing on any descriptors that are specifically, uniquely male.

Women (and gay men) can be bitchy or catty, they’re more typically described as whining. Also, describing someone as fake is almost exclusively a descriptor of women. Women are sluts or sexually empowered, while men are players, if anyone bothers describing their promiscuity at all. Usually, it’s just taken at face value than men value sleeping around. We’ve moved into a zone where women can be badass, but that’s a recent phenomenon. Men are assholes or dicks when they’re behaving badly, while women are bitches or crazy.

For more, look at this article where the same words mean different things for men and women. It’s intended to be comedic, but there are a few familiar gendered elements to adjectives there. Even words that are applied to both genders mean something different for each. Look at, for example, how ‘nasty’ is treated: similar to dirty, for women its a sexualised adjective and for men it’s a (sometimes sexualised) pejorative. (Note the fact that this article plays into gender roles with its discussion of male/female sexuality and relationships.)

Why can’t a man be feisty, or a slut, or pretty – and not gay? Why do we have specific words, usually for women, and consider men applied with them to have been insulted? Why is ‘virgin’ a sign of religiosity in women and weakness in men? I’m not a fan of these kinds of gendered words, as they are built on both restrictive gender roles and on oppressive attitudes about gender expression. Why do we use them? What does it mean when we use them? Why are women-only adjectives reserved for women… and gay men? And what does it say about how we see women when we call a woman feisty? And what does it mean when we call for a “strong female character”, and is there a male equivalent?

I don’t know. Language fascinates me, and I haven’t thought long and hard enough about this particular issue to come to any rock-solid conclusions. I believe that pop culture shames men for ‘femininity’, and that the words we reserve for each gender says something about how culture sees the members of each. But I don’t have all the answers, jus a couple of inklings.

What about you? What do you think? Sound off below.

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