Friday, May 16, 2008

Hey Barack, Sweetie...

I guess it won’t have passed you all by that US presidential hopeful Barack Obama took the unwise PR decision to fob off a female reporter with the phrase “Hold on one second, sweetie”. The reaction has been unsurprising - he has apologised and described it as a “bad habit”, insisting he “meant no disrespect”, she responded saying she “had been called worse”.

I’m the last person who wants a big fuss made about one teeny little unscripted word. And a part of my head is warning me not to say anything on the subject in case I hear myself being quoted on Fox News in a special “International Reaction To Obama’s Career-Ending Insult”. First of all remember Mr Obama is likely to be standing for election against John McCain - a man whose election would undoubtedly see US gender equality sent packing back to the dark ages. This is a man who voted AGAINST the equal pay act. This is a man who has openly said he thinks Roe vs Wade should be overturned. Obama is undoubtedly the more woman-friendly candidate.

However it does really annoy me when guys I’m dealing with professionally call me sweetie or darling or love or pet or other patronising terms of endearment? Of course I don’t mind, in fact I quite like some cute nick-names from my boyfriend or really close friends. But I often stop people and ask them not to use the term.

Of course I only make a fuss when it’s not going to affect my career - it would be professional suicide not to be a bit thick-skinned from time to time. But I do object to it regularly from shop-keepers, tradesmen, taxi drivers, those kinds of people. And the reaction varies - of course every individual is different:

1) Some (very few, mostly shop-keepers while the money is still in my hand!) apologise. One even said “sorry darling”!?

2) Some try to engage with me in a discussion about feminism, usually with an opening gambit like “oh, so you’re one of them are you”. And usually end up going on about Heather Mills and women receiving large divorce payouts resulting in giving the rest of us “a bad name”, and things having “gone too far”, or potentially about how there’s a “girl in our office who doesn’t mind it at all”.

3) Some argue it. I’ve been told - less politely than this - that I should put up with it because it’s either (a) a traditional local term, (b) a traditional working class term. To which I can only respond that if we insisted on sticking to traditions at the expense of all else we’d have to bring back witch-dunking and burning heathens at the stake.

4) Some really make a fuss. I’ve been spat at, called “lesbian” and “dyke” (not of course insults in my world, but clearly intended as such) and “bitch”, etc. One guy went out in to the street and loudly told his colleague that I was “one of those uptight cows”.

On the other hand I was on a train the other day and they guy in front of me called the woman behind the buffet car counter “sweetheart” - she asked him not to to which he responded that women like being called sweetheart. So I unexpectedly chipped in and said “No they don’t” and he skulked off looking miserable and she and I had a good laugh about it.

I consider correcting people who address women with these patronising terms a cumulative act of feminism. Each individual time makes very little difference but if we all do it whenever we reasonably can, we will make a difference. Please add a comment if you’ve corrected someone recently and let me know what happened!

(Reposted from the F-Word)

1 comment:

Anna said...

A couple of years ago I encountered a man in a "professional capacity" who referred to me in a terribly condescending way as "honey." I hotly informed him that he had better not ever call me or any other woman he did not know that again. His face fell, he looked cowed & then he said - "But I thought it was ok because on Will & Grace everyone calls women honey." He was dead serious. I have never seen the show BUT I thought to my self - Hollywood & its dumbed down version of the gendered universe strikes again!

Great post. Especially like the bit about the girl in the office who doesn't mind. The GIRL - not woman - in the office. 'nuff said.