The NEW S-Word Men Use To Insult Women

The_S_word_1Designed by Ly Ngo.
Recently, I met up with an ex who happened to be in New York on business. We dated three years ago, but things ended rather abruptly when he got a job in London. Still, we meet up whenever either of us are in the same city, cultivating the occasional-friends-with-benefits relationship. Deep down, I had always wondered whether a relationship would be possible if we lived in the same city.
That is, until the last time I saw him. Everything I told him — about my recent articles, the YA novel I’d written, the trip I’d been on — was met with an eye roll.

“I feel like you don’t take me seriously,” I finally said.
“I don’t,” he said. “I think you’re silly. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t like you — or think you’re sexy.”
He reached out to pull me closer to him, but I pulled away.
“Silly? How?” I was fixated on the word. It sounded so small and insignificant.
He shrugged.
“Name one thing,” I pressed.
“Where do I begin?” He gave me a condescending smirk. “Well, what about the time you decided to go on a trip to hunt for fairies? That was silly.”
“I didn’t go hunting for fairies,” I retorted.

The truth: I’d gone to the Isle of Man, a tiny island in the middle of the Irish Sea, because it’s known for legends and stories about fairies. I’d gone because I’d been thinking about a fairy plotline for a YA novel, and thought I might find inspiration. I started to explain this to him as he gave me an indulgent smile.
“Whatever you say,” he shrugged.
The_S_word_3Designed by Ly Ngo.
I let it drop, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much his use of the word "silly" had bothered me. I asked a few friends, and they agreed — even when used in an endearing manner, it’s a word that gets under our skins.

“It’s just dismissive,” says Kacie, 30. “I feel like it’s the type of thing where I can say it about my behavior, but when someone else does, it turns into an insult.” She’s still peeved about how much the guy she dates mocks her Instagram obsession. “If it makes me happy, that’s all that should matter.”
Jen, 26, agrees: “I know some things I do are silly. Like, I sometimes turn out the lights so I can spy on the people who live across the courtyard. I know it’s ridiculous. But, if it’s so silly, then why can’t he resist spying with me?”

Are we being sensitive? Maybe. But, there's no such thing as a "wrong" feeling — and this is something that strikes a very real emotional cord with a lot of women.
That said, Marni Battista, a dating coach and founder of Dating With Dignity, offers a counterpoint. “He likely didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. If the word really bothers you, then it makes sense to let him know,” she explains. She also adds that it’s worth it to check in with yourself to see why it’s making you so upset. She continues, “It’s likely hit a nerve, and knowing why that causes you to react the way you do can help you understand yourself a little bit more." Rachel deAlto, a New York-based relationship expert concurs. “The word can be a sign of disrespect, but it all depends on context. Don’t dump a person over one misstep, but if he or she continues to use the word even after you’ve told them how you feel — or they show other signs of disrespect — then move on.”
The_S_word_2altDesigned by Ly Ngo.
That's all sage dating advice, but it didn’t get to the root of why the word drove me so crazy. And, the more I kept hearing the echo of it in my head, the more I noticed it popping up in my daily life. In this past week's New Yorker, a profile about writer Jennifer Weiner includes mention of an 1856 essay written by the British novelist George Eliot (herself a woman named Marian Evans) titled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Predictably, Eliot disparaged the contemporary writers of her day who were penning their work under female names. As New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead notes, the essay “identifies a larger problem: When women publish cliché-ridden novels, they encourage men to maintain condescending views of women.” But, isn’t it also true that generalizing a collection of books (the kind that tend to sell well and become huge — and often shrewd — commercial successes) as silly is also pretty condescending? In the case of Eliot, there is no denying that the word is pejorative.
And, that is my problem with the word. It's one used as a catchall to dismiss women’s ideas, voices, and experiences, and it has been for centuries. I think "silly" itself is a cliché, one in the same family as "adorkable." Antics that can fit the arc of a half-hour sitcom are silly precisely because they have no real-world consequences: Mindy Lahiri is a board-certified doctor who can wear a bra filled with wine to a holiday party and not have to worry about professional fallout; Hannah Horvath gets a Q-Tip stuck in her ear, goes to the ER, and is no worse for the wear. Occasionally, we can call these fictional women silly — because their medium demands it. But, when the word is applied our real-life actions, it’s harder to swallow. It's also harder to know where the line is drawn between commenting on an amusing quirk and dismissing a person — and all of her very real needs — flat-out.
Case in point: As I was thinking about writing this piece and wondering, why, exactly, my friends and I got so angry about such a, well, silly word, I had a conversation with a stranger that brought my concerns into focus.
It was a snowy night, and I was sitting at a neighborhood bar waiting for a friend when I began talking to the guy sitting next to me. He was also waiting for a friend, and somehow, in that odd way that conversations between strangers at a bar progress, the topic went from, "Do you live nearby?" to a heated debate about politics — specifically, in this case, the Affordable Care Act, and why women cared so much about birth control.
“It’s not that expensive,” he shrugged. “It’s just silly to get so worked up about it.”
I blinked. Seriously? This was a sitcom moment transposing itself onto my very real life. Regardless of where you stand on the Affordable Care Act, neither it, nor the issues around reproductive health and birth control, are trivial ones.
I ended the conversation with the stranger on the spot, and from now on, I’m going to push back if a guy — any guy — uses the S-word to describe my life choices. And, if he keeps using the word, even after I explain why I don’t like it? That's going to be a dealbreaker.
Silly? Maybe. But, that’s the whole point.

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