In 'Pretty Bitches,' Female Writers Examine The Words That Undermine Women Pretty Bitches, a new essay collection edited by Lizzie Skurnick, explores how words that sound complimentary can actually be loaded with sexism. "These words are code," Skurnick says.
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Feisty. Ambitious. Lucky. Female Writers On The Words That Undermine Women

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Feisty. Ambitious. Lucky. Female Writers On The Words That Undermine Women

Feisty. Ambitious. Lucky. Female Writers On The Words That Undermine Women

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What does it mean to call a woman ambitious or mature? Or how about feisty? These are all words that may sound like compliments, but a new collection of essays argues they're loaded with sexist ideas that undermine the very women these adjectives supposedly praise. The book is called "Pretty B******: On Being Called Crazy, Angry, Bossy, Frumpy, Feisty, And All The Other Words That Are Used To Undermine Women."

LIZZIE SKURNICK: People always say, you know, oh, you know, it's not an insult. You know, put on your big girl pants. And when I was sort of starting to create the book, I was like, oh, that's not really the problem. It's that these words are code for actions people are going to take. So when someone calls you shrill, it means they're not going to give you the job. If somebody, you know, calls you mature when you're a young girl...

CHANG: Yeah.

SKURNICK: ...That means they're hitting on you in a really slimy way. That means they're being incredibly inappropriate. I felt like if we can't talk about these words we're not going to be able to understand the power they're having in the world and that they're having over our lives.

CHANG: Well, that was what was so illuminating reading your book because there are a lot of words that these essays focus on that I didn't realize until I was reading the actual essay how much power these words wield over me. I mean, don't even get me started on the word professional. This...

SKURNICK: Yeah (laughter).

CHANG: ...Essay was by Afua Hirsch, who's a broadcast journalist, and she talks about how persistently people police the sound of women's voices. I experience this firsthand all the time, you know, because there's a voice many people associate with professional. And surprise, surprise, it is the voice of a white man.

SKURNICK: Right.

CHANG: It's lower pitched. It's stripped of femininity. God forbid if there's an ethnic accent. To sound authoritative is to sound like a man.

SKURNICK: Right. So immediately, you cannot get hired if you do not have that voice. So there's a funny story about Elizabeth Holmes, you know, the con artist who ran Theranos, which is that she actually spoke in a voice - she pitched her voice as low as a man's, and that it was almost shocking when she did it, but that she did it in order to sort of get over the hurdle of being a woman in Silicon Valley.

CHANG: Oh, I get coached now as a broadcast journalist to aim my voice lower because that sounds more authoritative on air.

SKURNICK: You know, and what they mean is that the voice of authority comes from men. So if you do not sound more like a man, we do not accept that you have any authority. We already don't accept that you have any authority. But, you know, you've got to fake it at least.

CHANG: But the problem is - this is the Catch-22. The problem is when women go too far for an assertive, authoritative tone, they can get dangerously close to the label shrill. And then no one wants to listen, right? Let's talk about shrill. This was an essay by Dahlia Lithwick. She argues that we women can't come off as too combative because that will make men stop listening. She writes - I love this line - she writes, to make our arguments heard in debate and in public discourse, our voices must first and foremost give comfort to men. I mean, I think she nailed it right there.

SKURNICK: Oh, yeah. It's like we have to bow and scrape our way into saying anything. You know, we have to apologize for talking. What I love and that's so brilliant about Dahlia's essay and what was the breakthrough for me is that she says that the ability to not be able to hear our voices, it has nothing to do with how our voices sound. It has to do with what ideas we are saying, what the actual matter that we want people to listen to. And it's a way of saying not that you sound shrill to me, but you don't have the right to have ideas.

CHANG: You're not agreeing with me.

SKURNICK: And we don't - you're not agreeing with me. And what you're saying is not of interest to me, not how you are saying it.

CHANG: I want to talk about the word lucky. I had so many thoughts about this essay, which was by Glynnis MacNicol. Lucky, she writes, is a word used to describe a lot of women, like myself, who are in their 40s and are not encumbered with either children or marriage. It's just easier for someone like me to say I'm just lucky rather than for me to say, hey, I rejected the things that women are supposed to want, like being a mother. That totally resonated with me.

SKURNICK: Yeah. I had my child at 40. So I really went up to the age Glynnis did being a single woman. And now I'm a single mom, and I really like it. And what Glynnis talks about is how dangerous that is to the status quo. You know, if we like having our bank accounts, if we like working in jobs where we're authoritative, if we like going out to dinner alone, then what the hell is going to happen to the patriarchy? So what we have to say is that when a woman has worked hard that this just happened to her.

CHANG: Right. That's less threatening then to say...

SKURNICK: It's less threatening. Exactly.

CHANG: ...I didn't want the things that women are expected to want.

SKURNICK: Right (laughter). I did this on purpose. And I love the examples she gives. You know, at one point, she gets two book deals, I think, within 13 months or something. And, you know, she's able to go on these trips because she doesn't have children, and she budgets, and she works hard to be able to do it. But all that happens on Facebook is everybody says, oh, you're so lucky. I'm jealous. And, you know, she thinks, would they really say that to a man? You know, they would say something like, nice to see all your hard work paying off.

CHANG: Yeah, you get to go on these expensive trips.

SKURNICK: Yeah. And I have actually watched myself on that one from now because I think I was sometimes guilty of saying, oh, lucky. Ah, to be you. And now I very specifically - this happens to be my favorite phrase now - I say nice to see all your hard work paying off.

CHANG: I like that. I was just going to ask you how you would engage men with this book because, you know, all these essays are by women, the audience ostensibly feels like it should be for women. You and I are both women. But you see this book actually being an invitation to men to open up about their stories.

SKURNICK: Oh, absolutely. You know, not to mansplain them, not to speak over us (laughter)...

CHANG: (Laughter).

SKURNICK: ...You know, which isn't to say to forgive them. You know, I don't forgive the boss that fired me 'cause I asked him politely to stop feeling me up. I'm not saying we have to cede the ground of what has been done to us. And the only way I can think about this, and I think this goes for race as well, is that if people can think of us as peers and not these foreign things that they get to judge, if we can tell each other our actual stories, I do think men can start to understand and perhaps change their behavior.

CHANG: Lizzie Skurnick is the editor of the new essay collection, "Pretty B******: On Being Called Crazy, Angry, Bossy, Frumpy, Feisty, And All The Other Words That Are Used To Undermine Women."

Thank you very, very much for joining us. I really enjoyed this conversation.

SKURNICK: Oh, I did, too. Thank you.

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