The Casual Misogyny Behind Common Phrases That Women Hate Hearing

Think twice before telling women to smile more.

“That outfit she’s wearing is asking for it.” If you flew into a fit of rage reading this statement, you’d be completely justified. It’s a blatantly victim-blaming phrase all too familiar to women since pretty much forever, one in an endless string of misogynistic statements that need to get retired ASAP.

But unfortunately, an informal poll on Twitter shows that casual misogyny is still alive and well.

Fully grown women love being referred to as children. Right? It’s definitely not a tactic to delegitimize someone’s credibility. Nope.

And those beyond the gender binary are totally (not) happy with constant misgendering.

The New York Times notes the devastating accusation of misogyny was formerly reserved for the most egregious examples of sexism. Once referred to as a hatred of women, the definition of misogyny has broadened to include “deeply entrenched prejudice,” as the Guardian puts it. Meaning, all the casual ways cis women, trans women and transfeminine folks get demeaned in conversation are just symptoms of a society that places womanhood at the bottom of the gender hierarchy. And of course, this gets compounded for women who hold multiple identities, like Black women and disabled women. Thanks, I hate it!

Don't you just love when your personhood and autonomy are challenged because of your gender? Fun stuff!!!!!!!!
Don't you just love when your personhood and autonomy are challenged because of your gender? Fun stuff!!!!!!!!

So why do people tell women these hurtful comments? Dr. Fiona MacDonald is an associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley. She says remarks that set women back are usually made by those who have a fixed worldview, as opposed to a fluid worldview. Looking at society with rigid ideas of how people work is something that’s gained traction thanks to the current polarizing political climate that’s been inflamed by U.S. politics in particular.

“In terms of the political reality, when we see these statements they reinforce a certain understanding of the world. We are dehumanizing other people in our society and that’s dangerous,” MacDonald told HuffPost Canada. “When we see these statements, it’s useful to reflect on the larger stakes on why we need to challenge our dominant ideas about gender.”

While these phrases are often uttered by men, women are just as capable of spewing internalized garbage. Here’s what’s wrong with several common phrases women hate and how to shut them down.

(Of course, the latter is optional and depends on how safe you feel in the moment. As McDonald says, there are different levels of risk for different people. “For some, just walking down the street is a political act.”)

“You look prettier when you smile!”

In the same family of “women look ugly with short hair,” the demand to smile is one strangers have no qualms sharing with anyone who appears feminine. This desire to control how a woman looks can stem from “aggrieved entitlement,” a term coined by sociologist Michael Kimmel.

Believing you are entitled to certain rights over other people because of your identity, which are then “taken away” when they fail to adhere to your preferences, can make people feel insecure, MacDonald said. Having women cater to a certain aesthetic is a benefit men may feel entitled to.

How to shut it down:

While the personal outrage can sting, refusing to meet the demand to change your appearance, such as by keeping your unsmiling face on, can speak volumes.

Alternatively, giving them exactly what they ask for can be rewarding. The “Broad City” response is always a classic.

“You’re not like other girls”

Also known as “you’re one of the boys,” hearing this may sound like a compliment at first. But the phrase often belies stereotypes about gender roles and what women are capable of, Everyday Feminism says. If the speaker insinuates someone isn’t like other women because of an interest or hobby they have, they’re really reinforcing the idea that only men can enjoy those things. (On the flip side, statements suggesting women can’t have particular interests because of their gender are just as dismissive.)

For women who buy into this statement, they may fall victim to throwing others under the bus. Sometimes called “pick me” behaviour, it holds other women to ridiculous standards in order to elevate one’s social standing among men.

If you’re trans, you need to ‘act like a woman’

Trans women and transfeminine individuals may hear insults about their appearance that cisgender women don’t get. These statements are rooted in transmisogyny, a term that HuffPost contributor Madison Foster defines as “where transphobia and misogyny meet, each intensifying the other.”

Watch: Cassandra James discusses misogyny for cis and trans women. Story continues below.

Writer Niko Stratis notes that she’s heard statements from people who believe she’d be performing womanhood properly if she presented more femme. When she’s told to look a certain way, she feels self-conscious and like trans women aren’t allowed to present as butch.

“It’s frustrating to hear this. I hate hearing the double standard of both ‘we should abolish gender roles’ and also ‘you need to perform femininity to an acceptable degree,’” she told HuffPost Canada.

How to shut it down: For Stratis, it’s helped to remind herself that gender identity and gender expression aren’t the same thing.

“I try to remember that women look, dress and act in such a wide variety of ways that I can’t let the critics get in the way of my true self expression,” she said.

“You’re too emotional”

Hysterical, moody, PMSing, crazy: These words have all been used to suggest a woman’s emotions are disproportionate to the circumstances she’s in or that she can’t control how she feels. They can be used to demonize a woman’s behaviour; who hasn’t heard of the so-called “crazy ex-girlfriend” who turned out to be a person in a bad relationship?

“When we see this kind of criticism about women being controlled by their emotions or their bodily functions ... there’s a reinforcement of the proper order,” MacDonald says, calling back to those operating with fixed worldviews.

She notes that a lot of these worldviews see people as binaries that limit men as well.

“There’s this idea of feminists on one side and bedraggled white men on the other, when it’s much more complex. Men are a heterogeneous group,” she notes.

When women are seen as more prone to emotional outbursts, how men may struggle with mood regulation can fall by the wayside. As a result, men going through marginalizing experiences — such as the high rates of Canadian men considering suicide, battling substance use issues, or the men of colour with unmet mental health needs — aren’t taken as seriously as they should be.

How to shut it down: By whose standards can one have too much emotion? It may be helpful to point out the rational reasons behind your behaviour and question why they chose to frame your reaction as irrational.

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