Why is the worst way to insult someone to compare them to a woman? Terms like “bitch” and “pussy” have almost taken on meanings unto themselves but their origins are rooted in their reference to the female sex.
Humans make sense of their environment by assigning words to objects. Words are symbols that represent the meanings and qualities we assign them. “Male” and “female” might suggest secondary sex characteristics but also suggest a specific appearance, demeanor and interests.
There is nothing that determines how we will look except out biology, namely, our hormones which affect not only secondary sex characteristics but body hair and sex drive. While hormones have an impact on our behavior, it is we who decide on the value of that behavior. In our culture, strength is valued over weakness, independence over interdependence, head over heart, adults over children.
Thus, while “female” denotes beauty and gentility, it has also become synonymous with weakness, frivolity, instability and stupidity. Conversely, to be “manly” is to be strong, powerful, solid and important. Hence, if you really want to insult someone, man or woman, you compare them to a woman.
I made the mistake of reading the comments for a video of a conversation with Paul Feig, director of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot. The comment section was a torrent of misogyny, full of references to Feig being a “bitch,” a “pussy,” and having a “mangina.” When I asked the Mangina Commenter what he had against vaginas, he was quick to come to their defense, saying he loved them! When I prodded him further about why, if he loved vaginas so much, he would use them to insult someone, he then called Feig a “fruit.”
As I’ve said before, homophobia is based on misogyny. The insult lies in comparing a man to a woman–someone who is vulnerable, weaker and less valuable in our culture. This reinforces my point that the worst way to insult someone is to compare them to a woman. If you want to make fun of the way someone speaks–talk in a high voice, the way someone walks–swish your hips. Even so-called “playful” remarks are often attempts to discredit and devalue women’s work, speech and thoughts. Referring to what a woman does as “sweet” or “nice” definitely has a different tone than an act that is “great” or “cool.” Behavior that is “cute” or “flirty” does not have the same gravity as behavior that is “assertive.”Girls and women are also described as “silly” or “sassy,” which, let’s put it this way, are NOT qualities to emphasize on a job resume.
So what can we do about this? Well, big change starts with you and changing your behavior has a ripple effect on the world around you. If you absolutely MUST make fun of or insult somebody, don’t compare them to a woman. That means, not using terms like “bitch” or “hysterical.” It also might mean holding back from insulting behaviors that are typically ascribed to women like displaying emotion or concern. And finally, should you be the receiver of an insult that is qualified by a reference to women–DON’T take it as an insult. If someone calls you a bitch, a homo or a fruit, just say, “Thank you.”