Amandla Stenberg, Malala Yousafzai, Hillary Clinton – There is no shortage of impressive women that are providing copious amounts of inspiration. Everywhere I look there seems to be another strong and smart woman that is paving the way for other aspirational youngsters. How would I describe such influential women who have sought to equalise the world’s gender asymmetry? Perhaps as luminaries, or visionaries, or even heroines.
Or how about babes?
A trend has arisen in popular feminist discourse where people have opted for the terms ‘babes’ and ‘badasses’ (and even the combined ‘badass babes’) when describing female change-makers. These terms have been popularised in feminist dialogue over the past few years and have been used in countless articles over and over again, articles that aim to celebrate women.
Both slang words have evolved to take on different meanings than what they originally conveyed. The word badass originated in the 1950s and was used as an insult for a bully, but has now evolved to mean an effortlessly cool trailblazer – typically male; someone who “radiates confidence” with “understated” style. Babe originated from the word baby in the 14th Century. Similar to the word badass, babe now takes on a gendered form, usually denoting a sexually attractive young woman.
So I wonder why the mainstream feminist movement has chosen to adopt these frivolous labels to dub women that they admire? I came across one writer who praises the phenomenon of badassery as a feminist reclamation of a male term and a step in the right direction. Others have condemned the word badass, arguing that it rewards women for acting like men and showing masculine traits.
I understand, of course, that these labels are given affectionately. People’s intentions are to praise these women and commend them for their unbelievable efforts. But what these people fail to realise is that these labels have an insidious effect on how we view our feminist leaders. These words subconsciously disparage these respectable women through the irreverent connotations of the words. It feels disrespectful to call the suffragettes, the very women who earned us the right to vote, ‘babes’. Similarly, it doesn’t feel fitting that civil rights activist and previous chairwoman of the NAACP Myrlie Louise Evers-Williams was dubbed a badass. To me, this doesn’t – and shouldn’t – cut it when there are so many other fitting terms that elevate these women and praise them with the glory that they deserve.
It is widely acknowledged that the way we treat female leaders is different to the way we treat male leaders. Even those of us who are the fiercest campaigners for gender equality often harbor implicit biases against women in leadership positions, perceiving them as less competent or qualified. This possibly explains why the feminist community has adopted these affectionate, yet demeaning terms – because our implicit biases get in the way and allow us to use subtly denigrating words for women that would never feel right for men. By calling these women babes and badasses, we continue to perpetuate the trend of not taking these female leaders seriously and subtly belittling them.
I recently came across an adult and children’s picture book, ‘Amazing Babes’ that aims “to celebrate inspirational women from around the globe and across generations”. Featured ‘babes’ include Gloria Steinem and Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s hard to imagine that these women’s male counterparts would also be subjected to being included in a book called ‘Amazing Babes’. Imagine calling Martin Luther King Jr. a babe, or labeling Gandhi a badass. It doesn’t happen.
These women – living, breathing examples of female empowerment and achievement – deserve legitimate acknowledgement and a better vocabulary from all of us. So lets call it how it is and give them the respect that they deserve.