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The "Girlie Men" Slur and Similar Insults:
How They Show the Persistence of Sex-role Stereotypes


Tuesday, Sep. 21, 2004

During the recent Republican National Convention, Schwarzenegger brought the cheering crowd to its feet when he declared: "And to those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don't be economic girlie men."

The term "girlie man" came from a Saturday Night Live skit. There, two Schwarzenegger-imitating weightlifters used the term to mock those they considered their physical inferiors - those with less disproportionately huge biceps.

Schwarzenegger first used the "girlie men" term to attack his political opponents back in July. Then, he used it to characterize those California legislators with whom he was stalemated over the state's budget.

Some of those who were offended asked for an apology - on the ground, for example, that the term was often used to derogate gay men. But no apology was forthcoming. Indeed, a spokesperson for Schwarzenegger described the comment as an "an effective way to convey wimpiness." And later, Schwarzegger argued that people should just lighten up about his remarks, for he had merely meant the term as "a joke."

Even Democrats have started using the term. Maureen Dowd, in her column in the New York Times, quoted a Democratic insider who had complained that Senator John Kerry had "turned into a girlie-man." And some of the very same California legislators targeted by Schwarzenegger's earlier invective proudly attended fellow legislator Rico Oller's fundraising event, "Rico's Road Kill Rally -- No Girlie Men Allowed."

In this column, we will argue that the increasing use of the term "girlie men" is no joke - it's an example of offensive, yet powerful sex stereotyping. The term wrongly assumes that women and girls are weak and ineffective - men's physical inferiors and (by implication) simply their inferiors.

These stereotypes continue to wreak havoc not only in the political arena, but also in our courtrooms - when, for example, women lose discrimination cases because they do not conform to gender stereotypes - and our workplaces.

Vice President Cheney's "Softer Side" Remark: Another Implicit Slur on Women

With women serving effectively in the military, and young women - indeed, even girls - excelling in the Olympics, America is flooded with proof that to being a girl or a woman is not to be equated with being weak or ineffective. Indeed, the U.S. women's teams brought home more gold medals from Athens than the men's teams - showing their strength, speed, courage, and stamina in the process. Yet this stereotype continues.

And sadly, the use of the "girlie men" term isn't the only time that this very message - the message of women's supposed inferiority and weakness - has been sent during this campaign season. Consider Vice President Cheney's convention speech - mocking John Kerry's call for "a more sensitive war on terror."

Cheney barbed sarcastically: "As though Al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side." Cheney's comment implied, of course, that Kerry's war on terror would be too womanly - and in his mind, too weak and tentative. When a man has a "soft side," after all, it's typically deemed his feminine side.

A "Girlie Man" Supposedly Lacks Not Only Physical Strength, But Nerve and Guts

Putting Schwarzenegger's "girlie men" remarks in context helps to illuminate the stereotypes they further.

First, consider his attack on the California legislators. Schwarzenegger argued, "They cannot have the guts to come out there in front of you and say, 'I don't want to represent you. I want to represent those special interests: the unions, the trial lawyers'. . . I call them girlie men. They should get back to the table, and they should finish this budget."

A "girlie man," in this view, lacks "guts" because he is beholden to special interests. His "girlieness" is a kind of "wimpiness" -- a lack of guts, a lack of strength, and an inability to speak with an independent mind, and get things accomplished.

Conversely - the phrase implies -- "real" men have guts, courage, strength, and the capacity for strong leadership that serves the People directly. So given the choice, the phrase implies, we should prefer "real men" over "girlie men" as our political leaders.

That's not the only choice we have, of course: We could also elect actual women, as Schwarzenegger and others who have used the term seem to forget.

It's damaging for America to continue to identify maleness with the qualities we hope for in political leaders - and indeed, in business leaders. We will continue to see women in disproportionately small numbers in leadership positions in government and in business as long as this stereotype reigns.

And even when - and if -- more women are among the ranks of elected officials, and women legislators simply cannot be ignored, it's doubtful that the stereotyping will stop. Instead, it's likely that a persistent, equally offensive distinction will emerge.

The distinction could, for instance, contrast "girlie women" - who are seen as being weak, indecisive, and typical of their sex - with "manly women" - who are seen as departing from their gender to mimic the way men think and act. The former would be seen as weaklings; the latter, as pretenders. Walking the line would be difficult, if not impossible - and women shouldn't be expected it to walk it, in any case.

Playing Into Exceptionally Damaging Historical Stereotypes

The same equation of femaleness with weakness and dependence that Schwarzenegger and Cheney so casually adopt has tainted our history since the early days of the Republic.

For example, one repeatedly offered rationale for limiting the right to vote to propertied white men -- and thus excluding free women, enslaved men and women, and men without property -- was that only propertied men were capable of the independence prerequisite for citizenship. Ignored was the fact that women's and enslaved persons' dependence was legally enforced. Legally, both were economically dependent upon their husbands and subject to their authority.

Historically, notions of physical and intellectual differences between the sexes meant that women were confined to the domestic sphere, while men operated in the commercial and public spheres. Decades of civil rights laws and constitutional equality litigation have worked at limiting the law's tolerance of such stereotypes. But if a juror still clings to a stereotype - perhaps because society itself does, and its leaders do - then the legal system cannot effectively correct for that bias. The jury, after all, is still often a "black box" characterized by secret decisionmaking.

Not Just a Joke: How the "Girlie Men" Slur Has Become an Ugly Political Tactic

But aren't we taking this all too seriously? After all, Schwarzenegger's term was borrowed from a Saturday Night Live sketch.

True, but it wasn't repeated by him in an SNL sketch. Instead, it was used in a political speech, calculated to serve a particular goal crucial to the California Governor's ability to push his agenda through. Then it was used again - and this time, the use clearly was calculated, not off the cuff -- in a political speech at the Republican Convention. That speech was crucial to Governor Schwarzenegger's political future; whether he got a strong reception, he knew, would help decide what his prospects might be. Under pressure, the Governor resorted to stereotypes.

If there were any doubt Schwarzenegger meant to stereotype - not just to joke --- with this term, it was eliminated at the Convention - when he contrasted these "girlie men" with President Bush, whom he described as "a leader who doesn't flinch, who doesn't waver, and does not back down." (The choreography of the Republican convention, meanwhile, brought to mind for many commentators the images of President-as-cowboy or President-as-Western gunslinger. No images of a Marlboro Woman were invoked.)

The message is clear: Women equal weakness. (Notwithstanding the strong, powerful female bodybuilders Schwarzenegger doubtless has known in his career; notwithstanding Linda Hamilton, the actress who survived punishing physical training to work with him in The Terminator; and notwithstanding the strong, powerful women politicians who represent the people of his home state.)

Another Damaging Stereotype: Military Service is a Proxy for Leadership Ability

Meanwhile, on both sides of the aisle, another pernicious equivalence is being put forward. On this view, masculinity - which itself is equal to strength and honor - is shaped by military service, and both are prerequisites for effective political leadership.

Senator Kerry, for instance, opened his acceptance speech by stating that he was "reporting for duty." In so doing, Kerry placed first among his qualifications for leadership the one that he no doubt thought would give him a decided edge over President Bush: his record of military service and his status as a decorated war hero. In drawing on his Vietnam experiences with his "band of brothers," Kerry relied on a qualification that was totally unavailable to women of his generation: active combat duty during wartime.

Meanwhile, President Bush continues to trumpet - and rely on - his war on terror as a strong "plus" in his campaign. A view like this sees those who dwell on Iraq's thousand dead U.S. soldiers and thousands of Iraqi casualties as weak and self-indulgent - in a word, womanly.

Decades ago, Georgetown professor Wendy Williams observed that among our deepest cultural myths about men and women is that of man as the aggressor in war and sex, and woman as mother and nurturer. This myth, too, has reared its ugly head this campaign season, as a battle over each candidate's war credentials - and hence, really, over each's manliness -- has been waged.

Worse, the term "girlie men" and the mockery of "sensitivity" as a dangerous form of softness implies that those who are anti-war are weak. Masculinity, these days, seems to require acting forcefully and relentlessly, heedless of the consequences: Shoot first, ask questions later, and never look back. Thus, to question whether military action is necessary -- or whether it is being conducted in a justifiable manner - is unmanly. The man who argues for peace is not a statesman, but a "girlie man." The woman who argues for peace is simply illustrating the weaknesses of her gender.

Businesses and Universities, At Least, Have Begun to Value "Female" Work Styles

Ironically, even as these stereotypes about leadership hold sway in political rhetoric, businesses and universities have come to appreciate models of leadership associated with more supposedly "feminine" styles -- such as consensus building, cooperation, careful listening, and the like.

In addition, works such as Anne Crittenden's recent book, If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything, argue the case that the skills involved in parenting, such as developing patience and a sense of empathy, translate effectively into the world of work and management.

Nevertheless, old stereotypes die hard: A woman's years of child-raising are still typically seen as a resume gap, not an extra qualification.

Schwarzenegger's Hypocrisy: Americans Are Equal, As Long As They're Not "Girlie"

Schwarzenegger's "girlie men" remarks aren't just offensive in themselves - they also undermine his other promises to his electorate.

Elsewhere in his Convention speech, Schwarzenegger characterized America as a nation where difference doesn't matter and which brings out the best in people, "no matter the nationality, no matter the religion, no matter the ethnic background." In this America, he contended, everyone should have the same chances and the same opportunities. By contrast, he said, terrorists hate democracy, hate religious freedom, and "hate the progress of women."

Let's take Schwarzenegger at his word: He suggested that difference, presumably including sex difference, truly should not affect one's chances and opportunities in a free and equal America. He also suggested that "the progress of women" is a quintessentially American ideal.

But if the Governor wants women to truly be equal - and to truly progress - he must stop equating being a woman with being weak.

Linda McClain is the Rivkin Radler Distinguished Professor of Law at Hofstra University School of Law, where she teaches feminist legal theory and family law, among other subjects. Joanna Grossman, a FindLaw columnist, is a professor of law at Hofstra University. Her other columns on discrimination, including sex discrimination and sexual harassment, may be found in the archive of her columns on this site.

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