Now we’re not getting ahead of ourselves, but you may have noticed the lovely typographic Mona Lisa we’ve crafted for our upcoming All About Women festival. The words making up the ‘black’ part of the image are around 250 examples of words a woman might be called or characterised as being. In the interests of celebrating the wonders of the English language and the wonders of women generally, today we’re taking some time to talk through just a few.
Included in the list are arguably the two most contentious things you can call a woman in the contemporary English-speaking world: ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’. In terms of the way we use the word ‘bitch’ , Andi Zeisler, a founder of Bitch Magazine, offers this analysis: “Is it a bad word? Of course it is. As a culture, we’ve done everything possible to make sure of that.” Her argument is that the word has been reclaimed, in some senses – though not all – and that the qualities of the bitch, including being outspoken and commanding, should be valorised.
There’s simply no room to get into the debates over the word ‘slut’, although we do encourage you to take a look at the video for “All Women Are Sluts.” However, ‘wench’, ‘whore’ ‘strumpet’, ‘harlot’ and ‘trollop’ were all used in a similar fashion in early modern England, ie Shakespearean England – Othello, by way of example, calls Desdemona both an “impudent strumpet and a “whore of Venice” shortly before he kills her for what can modestly be termed a misunderstanding of epic proportions.
In fact defamation cases soared in England around that time, with three quarters brought by women. The cases were generally about aspersions cast on a woman’s moral or sexual conduct, with this offending fragment between Edith Parsons and Sicilia Thornton a prime example: “Thou art a whore, an arrant bitche, yea worse than a bitche. Thou goest sawghting up and downe the towne after knaves and art such a whott-tayled whore that neither one, nor two, nor ten, nor twenty knaves will scarce serve thee.” Sicilia sued Edith for damaging her good name, initiating a long line of ‘oh no you didn’t’ defamation cases between angry and aggrieved ladies.
In the same spirit is the word ‘Jezebel’, a Biblical princess whose name became a catch-all term for fallen women, paganism, promiscuity and manipulation. Evangelical Christian groups will often refer to the ‘Jezebel Spirit’ and offer advice on how to identify and remove her.
Turning to ‘imported’ words, our list also includes ‘chola’ and ‘grisette’. A chola is generally to be found on the West Coast of the US, typically Latina, sporting ‘sharpied’ eyebrows and dark brown lip liner. A grisette was a kind of bohemian free spirit in nineteenth century France, frequently serving as muses to poets or employed as artist’s models. And while neither of these words is offensive at first glance, people find ways to make them so (see what Mark Twain had to say about grisettes).
Then there is the ‘manic pixie dream girl’, famously coined by Nathin Rabin in 2007 to describe a trend in female film characters – think Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, Natalie Portman in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel in everything – who “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” They are whimsical and kooky and have almost no substance.
If you can think of more words and the conversations around them we’d love to hear about them.