- Rachel Slater
‘Birds’ of a feather … are revolting
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Birds are little, fragile, and inconsequential. They flutter, they nest, they squawk and they don’t do a whole lot more than that. They certainly do not lead international conferences, win the Nobel peace prize, or chair board meetings. So, forgive me for being confused at the association we invent between these ineffectual creatures and modern women.
Bird, doll, chick, sweetheart, pet, duck, babe, love. These terms are all cute, but nevertheless demeaning. Most importantly, they are all objects that possess no thought complex and the inability to speak. Hence, it may be unsurprising that ‘bird’ topped the list of words that women would most like to eradicate from the English language in 2016. ‘Doll’ and ‘chick’ followed closely behind alongside a succession of female-coded adjectives, like ‘hysterical’ or ‘drama queen’. Perhaps the similarity lies in the social desire to clip women’s wings and keep them caged too.
Although pet names are commonplace to some regional dialects, there still remains a disparity in their application to women, over men. Only last year, a UK judge ruled that calling women ‘birds’ is ‘plainly sexist’ and tells us that we clearly haven’t come very far since 2016. Misogyny is alive and thriving— above all in the workplace. The injunction came about after a Barclays investment banker persisted in using the term, even after a female colleague made her discomfort known. Whilst he defended his use of the expression as ‘light-hearted’, it still fuels the long-standing stereotype of woman as always the butt of the joke. The sweet sense of justice was, however, short lived as the claimant was made redundant some months later. Still, women are speaking up in a world that does not want to listen to them chirp on.
Stop your henpecking, I hear you say! No good will come from flapping about! This seemed to be the typical and tiring media response amongst the manosphere, muttering about so-called ‘feminazis’. Men who are offended by being told ‘what they can and can’t say’ have failed to recognise the nuance of the issue. What’s more, some women’s complicity in this issue speaks of our society as a whole. Whilst my blood boils every time a stranger calls me ‘love’ in passing, the fact that some women do not even bat an eyelid is testament to the indoctrination of sexist language in our everyday.
The neologism ‘girlboss’, that was coined in 2014 and has entered into the social lexicon through the filter of Tiktok, is itself a diminutive. Although it ignites connotations of women stomping on the patriarchy and shattering the glass ceiling, the word itself paradoxically condescends the role of a female boss. Undoubtedly, we are no stranger to feminising entire industries by slapping feminine prefixes onto words, naming ‘girl-gaming’ or ‘chick lit’ to quote a few. Somehow, these infantilising labels are inescapable and the subtle undertones of terms like ‘missy’ or ‘girl’ signal that grown women do not belong in these professional spaces.
To this epidemic of endearments, context is key. Stop presuming familiarity with women that you do not know and, if you’re using this vocabulary, probably don’t like you. The ability to avoid potential gender discrimination requires far more emotional intelligence, empathy, and endeavour than a singular list of dos and don’ts could ever provide. The terms ‘love’ or ‘doll’ are often used as direct replacements for names by people who have not properly become acquainted with their female counterparts. It is for this reason that Nicola Thorp writes ‘nicknames are earned and not presumed’. It is the power imbalance implicit in workplace relationships that makes these patronising denominations so harmful; 30% of women admitted that this degrading language negatively impacted their confidence later in life.
These ‘birds’ will still flock together, as the saying goes, but it will not be to complacently accept the infantilising diminutives with which women have been branded. Whilst this language may have once been acceptable in a 70s sitcom, it has no place in our modern vocabulary. Just note, comparing women to animals – birds, pigs, chicks, ducks – is never a good look and will certainly reward you with some ruffled feathers.