The Soapbox: “Smug” Is Just A More Polite Way To Say “Bitch”

Gwyneth Paltrow, who loves juice cleanses and is responsible for bringing the term “conscious uncoupling” to the mainstream, is no stranger to insults. The skinny, rich, blonde Hollywood star gets plenty of flak for her lifestyle brand GOOP, where she sells eco-friendly nail polish and monogrammable reclaimed-wood skateboards while sharing stories from her fabulous life and namedropping her celebrity pals.

Paltrow’s tone deafness at trying to come across “accessible” to her largely female fanbase is ripe for criticism, and it has become a touchstone of the way that many stars fail at appearing relatable to us regular folks. But there’s one word in particular that keeps coming up in criticisms of Paltrow and others like her that deserves a closer look: “smug.”

Paltrow has also been called a “snob” or an “ice queen,” but there’s something more delicately sinister about the word “smug,” which carries class and gender implications. Those implications become clearer when you see which other famous women have also been branded with the word. Take, for example, the online commenters who claim that actresses like Natalie Portman, Kristen Bell, and Anne Hathaway “look smug” or “have smug faces.” (Let us not forget 2013’s rash of Hathahaters, people proudly proclaiming their hatred of the actress.)

What do all of these women have in common? They are white, rich, conventionally beautiful, over 30, married, and often talk about politics and social issues. All but Bell are Oscar winners. Hathaway attended Vassar, while Portman is a Harvard alum. Bell, the mother of a young daughter, has publicly lobbied media organizations to ban paparazzi photographs of celebrities’ kids. Hathaway has been extremely supportive of LGBT equality and same-sex marriage. Israeli-born Portman publicly criticized Dior, whose campaigns she appears in, when the couture house’s former head designer, John Galliano, made insensitive comments about Jews.

In other words, these are not women who are content to sit quietly by and look pretty. Instead, they speak in public about things that matter to them – thus making them the kind of women our society hates the most. And since it may not be acceptable (or accurate) to call them vapid or dumb, “smug” acts as a convenient euphemism to convey that what she has to say is not important. In this way, “smug” has replaced the more obviously gendered insults as the slightly more subtle way to call a woman a bitch. (Male celebrities rarely have “smug” lobbed in their direction — even when, as is the case with Kanye West or Justin Bieber, we collectively agree they are insufferable individuals.)

The phenomenon of slinging “smug” as an insult at women began in 1996 with Helen Fielding’s best-selling novel Bridget Jones’ Diary. The unhappily-single Bridget complains about “smug marrieds,” her couple friends who have to refer to themselves as an individual unit of “we.” And although Bridget is talking about both men and women here, the book placed emphasis on the female half of the couple, because the married woman was the one who had what Bridget wanted – a husband. Though some of the married men say boneheaded things to Bridget, most of the vitriol is reserved for a character known as “Woney,” who makes sure to rub her belly – her pregnant belly – while asking Bridget yet again why she’s single. Smug Married clearly struck a collective nerve, and the term is still used now to describe a particular “type” of coupled-up person, usually female. It’s found everywhere from Tumblr (the My Friends Are Married blog nails this personality type particularly well) to The Daily Mail, where criticizing women no matter which choices they make is de rigeur.

“Smug” as an adjective of choice for women who “lord” their “privileged” married and/or pregnant status over other women is a thread that continues on. In 2009, actress/comics Kate Micucci and Riki Lindholme, who perform as Garfunkel & Oates, uploaded their song “Pregnant Women Are Smug” to YouTube. The catchy, hilarious tune captured the way that many people feel having to listen to expectant women go on and on about every minor detail of their pregnancy. “Pregnant women are smug/everyone knows it, but nobody says it, because they’re pregnant” goes the chorus. The video was posted everywhere from Jezebel to the Huffington Post and at present has more than 2.6 million views.

Inherent in the idea of smugness is a measure of self-satisfaction, the knowledge that one is winning at life with money in the bank, an attractive husband, a small brood of adorable children, and perhaps most coveted of all, conventional beauty. But why, I wonder, should these women not be satisfied? Why are we more comfortable when a woman who supposedly “has it all” instead apologizes and points out all her own flaws? We enjoy successful women being knocked down a peg so badly that we are angry when she won’t do it herself. Instead, we do it for her and because “smug” is ostensibly a gender-neutral adjective, it’s not seen as explicitly misogynist like “bitch” is. That’s why “smug” is more insidious.

Lilit Marcus is the author of Save The Assistants. Follow her on Twitter.