Lizzie Skurnick on the Language Used Against Women
What women are doing to reclaim their power
It seems like there is a whole arsenal of words that attempt to undermine women – but what if some of those very words could liberate us? Writer and critic Lizzie Skurnick does a deep dive into this topic in her book, Pretty Bitches: On Being Called Crazy, Angry, Bossy, Frumpy, Feisty, and All the Other Words That Are Used to Undermine Women. In this anthology of essays written by women from different walks of life, each tackles a word, its meaning, and its impact on them. Skurnick told the Chronicle how the 2016 presidential election – and specifically the language directed at women over the course of the election – inspired her to write this book.
"After Hillary lost the presidency, I started to think about all the words women had invented to describe our experiences: mansplaining, #MeToo, revenge porn, toxic masculinity, and others," Skurnick explained. "But then I also started thinking about the seemingly neutral, everyday words women are called that can have huge influences on our lives, from 'lucky' to 'pretty' to 'small.' Once I began to ask writers to contribute and realized each woman had her word,' I knew this was a larger story we all had to tell. I was amazed to find out the words women had – we have everything from outright insults to words you're supposed to take as a compliment."
Skurnick said the women writers who contributed to the book chose words like "nurturing," "sweet," "ambitious," and "mature" that have been used against them, rather than writing about more transparently aggressive words like "bitch," "slut," or "cunt." Out of all the essays featured in the book, Adaora Udoji's "Too" struck Skurnick the most, so she used Udoji's essay to launch the book.
"[Udoji's essay] seemed to encapsulate the entire problem so much: 'Too' is barely a word on its own, and yet it has this outsized influence on major choices when we are called 'too' something," Skurnick said.
Selecting a wide range of women with a variety of backgrounds, identities, and experiences was also important for telling the stories in the book, because words across cultures have different meanings, Skurnick said.
"For instance, in 'Small,' Beth Bich Minh Nguyen talks about how being called 'small' was another way for the predominantly white community she lived in to call her foreign, Vietnamese," Skurnick said. "But she was also surprised when she went to college and so many women called her small as a compliment – being 'small,' there, was desirable. You can't tell the story of how language affects women unless you can hear from a diverse range of women.
"After I read each essay, I felt inspired and also relieved – with each word, it was like this burden I could put down," Skurnick said. "It was so marvelous to join with all these women and get rid of a weight I didn't even realize I was carrying. I hope [readers] can find their word, and then realize they can junk it, too."