I get it. Using words like “cutie” and “sweetie” and “baby” when you’re in a relationship or with loved ones feels warm and fuzzy and totally normal. And that’s because it kind of is — or at least it’s been normalized to the point where it’s not something we think twice about. It’s important to note however, just how powerful these words can be. Although they may seem small and seemingly innocent, they matter to the feminist agenda in a big way.
Recently, my friend received a text message from a seemingly platonic encounter. The message read simply, “Hey cutie” when she hadn’t been acting “cute” at all, nor did she have any interest in being a “cutie.”
The last time I went to pick up a prescription from CVS, the well-intentioned pharmacist called me “sweetie” to indicate it was my turn. Yet, every man in line had been addressed by a neutral “sir.”
And don’t even get me started on how often women are called “baby” or “baby girl” in everyday pop culture… a baby is a child, specifically, a young helpless infant.
The lyric, ‘I’m a queen, so why do you call me baby?’ from the Sofi Tukker album Treehouse, frames perfectly what I can’t help but wonder when I think of these situations. In a world where women are smart and strong why are we still being called “cutie,” “sweetie,” and “baby?”
It seems that, if ever these kinds of words had a place in society, it would have been before the suffrage movement where women weren’t given much opportunity beyond being a housewife who was most prized if she talked “sweet” and dressed “cute.” Contrarily, women today are more educated than men and are admirably inching their ways towards equal rights, with such feminist heroes like Cindy Gallop and Beyonce to rally around.
Times may have changed for women — and are still changing — but language hasn’t kept up. Feminist nomenclature is way overdue for the verbal equivalent of a software update.
Sure, feminists took back a few words like “bitch” and “nasty woman,” however, working on a more feminist vocabulary is the big little fight that was set to the wayside to give priority to braving gender inequality in big and brave ways — from gathering at the Women’s March, to protesting the right abortion, to demanding equal pay.
While editing non-feminist language out of everyday conversations may sound like a small feat, it’s an undeniably important way for women and men to move the needle.
It is something everyone can advance because everyone is armed with words, and words are something we use daily. Actions may speak louder than words, but when everyone uses words every day, words matter a whole damn lot.
We’ve already started to pay attention to the words we use in specific places like the workplace and schools. Whether out of fear of being sued or out of a genuine care, companies left and right are holding workshops on workplace appropriate language.
Movements like Sheryl Sandberg’s, BanBossy which targets young girls in schools, is a reaction to just how powerful words can be in a learning setting; Sandberg highlighted that, by the time they get to middle school, “more boys than girls want to lead.” When asked why, one of the reasons young girls bring up is that they don’t want to be called “bossy.” Words should not get in the way of young girls becoming leading ladies.
Outside of work and school, when we are on our own with friends and loved ones, words and phrases like “it takes balls” and “motherfucker” seem to thrive. These words are at least flawed in such an obvious way that they make the conscientious amongst us do a double take and challenge their speaker. The breed of words that are more worrisome are the ones that spread harm and do so completely unnoticed. These words may look innocent and can even sound like compliments — but they are not.
When we allow ourselves to be called “cutie” we are endorsing the message that to be “cute” is a compliment. Cute is defined as endearing, as being “attractive or pretty in a childish youthful or delicate way.”
But women are not pretty or endearing, but rather beautiful and powerful — we are so much more than what you can merely see. When a stranger calls a woman “sweetie,” they are letting her know she is un-intimidating and, well, “sweet.”
I’m not advocating that we start replacing the word “bossy” with “executive leadership skills,” but I do think we can notice the words that so often describe us, and then ask for better, more feminist ones. The day we stop taking these cutesy pet names as compliments, is the day we’ll have made a big stride for feminism and what it means to be a woman in today’s modern world.
Alexandra Mathieu is a freelance marketing strategist who likes to read, write, and draw. Visit her on Instagram at @justmissalex, or on her website.
Illustration also by Alexandra Mathieu.