Last weekend, I was hanging out with a male friend who I’ll call Stan. Over the course of our convo, he brought up a mutual friend who writes a rather detailed blog about her sex life. Stan was obviously disturbed by the amount of sex she appeared to be having, and the circumstances under which she’s having it. He was so perturbed that, well, the term “slut” may have been thrown around once or twice.
I, of course, objected and a fight ensued. “Look, Chloe,” Stan said. “You’re a very opinionated woman …”
I couldn’t help but notice that the tone he used for the words “slut” and “opinionated” sounded exactly the same.Sometimes when a man calls a woman opinionated, he’s not just observing that she has a lot of opinions. If that had been all Stan meant, I would have had no problem with his choice of words: I do have a lot of opinions, which is lucky, because having opinions is part of my job. But “opinionated,” when applied to a woman, is often code for “uppity,” and “unladylike,” and most of all, for “threatening because you don’t seem to be agreeing with me like you’re supposed to.” Whether or not Stan meant to say any of those things, I really can’t say — I’m opinionated, not psychic. But if he did mean to use “opinionated” as short hand for “shut the hell up, woman,” he certainly wouldn’t be alone.
It’s true that the term can be an insult when applied to anyone, male or female. But when it’s applied to women, “opinionated” carries a special sting, because for a long time, women in our culture have been discouraged from expressing their opinions. Think about those women writers who had to publish their work under male pseudonyms because no one would print their work with a female name attached. Think about women who, until the early twentieth century, weren’t legally allowed to vote and who were incarcerated and beaten for trying. Think about how we insult and criticize women politicians, who don’t just have opinions, but the ability to make those opinions law. Having an opinion, for the greater part of our cultural history, has been discouraged. And apparently, expressing it still makes you a shrew.
Note that Stan didn’t just call me opinionated. He called me an opinionated woman, as if to suggest that I was somehow unique or unusual for having both XX chromosomes and ideas. Again, I don’t think his choice of words was deliberately sexist, but it certainly wasn’t a coincidence. “Opinionated woman” carries with it cultural and historical baggage similar to that carried by “articulate black person”: Stan, whether he realized it or not, was calling me an exception to the very insulting rule.
For the most part, we’re perfectly comfortable with men having opinions. The nation’s op-ed pages and Sunday morning political shows are cluttered with men, while women are noticeably and depressingly scarce. Men are allowed to be opinionated, in both their personal and professional lives. Women, on the other hand, are only allowed to be professionally and publicly opinionated if they’re talking about fashion or celebrity, or if they’re arguing about family values with Elisabeth Hasselbeck on “The View.” In public, that’s all we get. And in our personal lives, well, I’m quite certain that I’m not the first woman to have a man—a man I like and respect and get along with—try to shut me down by calling me “opinionated” or “outspoken” or “stubborn.”
That’s all “opinionated” really is when applied to a woman: A way to shut her down. It’s like calling her “ugly” and hoping that she’ll be so upset by your slight that she’ll shut up and stop disagreeing with you. Sometimes, it works, because no one likes to be told they’re bad at being a woman. But I’ve been called opinionated before; I’ve been called ugly and angry and emotional and outspoken in the hope that it would make me stop arguing. I haven’t shut up yet, and I don’t plan on doing so any time soon. And, in my opinion, neither should you.