Is it just me, or does anyone else have a serious problem with that phrase? I didn’t even realize how much it bugged me until Dom and I were talking about it in the car. We were discussing how much I hate Lori “Get Back in the Kitchen” Grimes from The Walking Dead, the word feisty came up, and my little femme heart was immediately broiling over with rage.
“What’s so bad about the word ‘feisty’?” Dom asked. I thought about it for a moment before replying, “It’s not the word, it’s how it’s used. It’s always used to refer to a woman who possesses characteristics that are somehow seen as unfeminine – like strength or assertiveness – while preserving her cute, harmless, docile image.”
Think about it. When was the last time you heard of someone referred to as “feisty”? I’ll bet you anything it was used to refer to:
A) a woman
B) a woman doing something that would normally be described by another word if she was male.
For example, imagine the following scenario: A woman walks into a coffee shop to order a tall mocha loca chatta latte or what have you. Said woman proceeds to wait her turn when the next customer in line butts in front of her and starts placing their own order. The woman says, “Excuse me? I don’t think you were first.”
Ooh, snap. She’s so feisty, standing up for herself and asserting her rights like that. Now, imagine the same exact scenario, only replace the woman with a man. Still feisty? No. In fact, there is nothing out of the ordinary or noteworthy about the situation at all. In fact, the most someone might say is, “Good for that fine gentleman, asserting himself like a sir. Quite right, quite right.” I’m not sure why that someone is from 1900’s England, but you get my point.
Let’s take a moment to examine the actual meaning of the word, shall we? According to Merriam-Webster, the most common definition of feisty is “having or showing a lively aggressiveness : spunky.” Ah, spunky. Another word I have an issue with for many of the same reasons. The example the dictionary entry gives is, and I quote, “the movie’s feisty heroine.”
Notice there is nothing feminine within the meaning of the word itself, and yet it’s used almost exclusively to describe females. Now, let’s look at the root of the word. Feisty apparently made Merriam’s Word of the Day 11/27/2011, so let’s see what they have to say about its origin:
“In certain parts of the United States, most notably the South, the noun “feist” (pronounced to rhyme with “heist”) refers to a small dog used in hunting small game animals (such as squirrels). Also spelled “fice” or “fyce,” it comes from an obsolete term, “fisting hound,” that derived from another obsolete term, “fist,” a verb that once meant “to break wind.” The term “feisty” has come a long way from its flatulent origin, but its small-dog association still seems relevant: the term conveys the spunk and determination that one may associate with a dog that manages to make its presence known (either through its bark or its bite) despite its small size.”
So, essentially, feisty is yet another word intended for dogs that has become associated with women. “Compared that bitch to a dog. Bitches love being compared to dogs!” And so we must, because I hear just as many women using the term to refer to other women, even themselves, as men. What was once meant as a diminutive description for the tenacity of a small, yappy, nippy house pet is now proudly coopted as a description for characteristics that are, apparently, so unnecessary and uncommon in women that they deserve special notation – characteristics like strength, boldness, assertiveness, standing up for yourself, calling out injustice, etc..
You know, man’s work. Silly women, taking breaks from sandwich-making to do things like playing professional sports, solving mysteries, chasing bad guys, and saving lives. So FEISTY.
This is the internet, so I’m sure some people are going to accuse me of overreacting. After all, “It’s not meant in an insulting way, it’s just how we describe a woman who’s being cute.” Well, you see, I take issue with that most of all. It’s not the way the word is used in a sentence; it’s the psychology that underpins its use in the first place. Don’t even try to deny that there isn’t some gender psychology going on behind the use of this term, either, because what was once a gender-neutral term used to refer to animals has become a ubiquitous description for female heroines, sleuths, whistleblowers and, generally, any female who deigns to set foot outside the kitchen.
It may seem harmless, but it’s not. It’s symptomatic of a general trend to “other” women and, in this woman’s opinion, that trend is toxic. If you still think I’m overreacting, just think about it for a moment. People are supposed to be forthright. People are supposed to be bold. People are supposed to stand up for their rights and the rights of others who can’t stand up for themselves. These characteristics are the basic ingredients for human decency that I think we can all agree we’d like to see in society at large and especially in ourselves. So why is it that, when a woman exhibits one of these basic characteristics, we feel the need to ascribe some special label to her as if she’s doing something unexpected?
Does being a female make one so hopelessly deficient that a woman exhibiting even the most basic symptoms of a healthy self-esteem calls for its own adjective?
Feisty is, at the very least, a double-edged sword. Even when intended as a compliment, it comes with the inherent assumption that something unexpected has been done. Kind of like a Trojan horse of patronization, or the friend who has one too many wine coolers and funkifies your face with her alcohol-powered “compliment” of, “You know, yer real purdy fer a lesbian.”
Yeah, thanks for that. Good to know my display of a modicum of human decency and capability is newsworthy.
Let’s not forget the other side of the feisty coin. Sometimes it’s used to diminish good behavior, but just as often it’s used to excuse abysmal behavior that no one would put up with from a child beyond the age of three. However, grown women get a pass for behaving in a manner that would be considered socially inappropriate if they were male. It’s like feisty is an all-access pass to being rude without the social repercussions.
Another example scenario: A woman is hanging out with her girlfriends at a restaurant, and the handsome waiter (or hot waitress) wanders over. He asks if he can take the table’s order, and the woman replies, “I know for sure I want a piece of that, but you can come back for our food later.” All her girlfriends proceed to laugh. “Girl, you are so FEISTY!”
Imagine the same scenario with a man, only it’s not called feisty so much as sexual harassment. Ever notice that double standard?
So, essentially, feisty is used both to indicate that a woman exhibiting positive character traits is out of place, alien, and the ever-diminutive “cute,” and that a loud-mouthed, lecherous, cantankerous woman is not only acceptable but downright adorable. Seems legit.
Let’s return to the other dog-word-turned-female-descriptor for a second, shall we? Bitch is a word laden with controversy for many reasons. Anyone who defends the use of the word in a defamatory sense can, in my experience, be quite easily shut up by challenging them as to why they don’t use the same word to refer to men.
Consider the following scenarios:
1. When a man fires someone, he’s “taking responsibility” and “making the hard decisions”. When a woman fires someone, she’s a bitch.
2. When a man cheats on his wife, he’s a player, a philanderer, an adulterer. When a woman cheats on her husband, she’s a bitch.
3. When a man climbs his way to the top of the career ladder, it’s “survival of the fittest” in all its Malthusian glory. When a woman climbs her way to the top, she “probably slept with the higher-ups” and, let’s not forget, she’s a bitch.
The list goes on, but I’ll leave it at those. Bitch and feisty share more in common than their Germanic roots that were used to describe small, yappy, submissive creatures intended to serve man and be put in their place. They also share the very useful ability to create a separate standard for female character. A bitch isn’t tough, she’s “tough for a woman.” A feisty heroine isn’t brave, she’s “woman brave.” Thanks to the combined powers of bitch and feisty, self-esteem now comes in original (man) and fuschia for the ladies.
(Note: If you’ve ever used the phrase “That bitch is so feisty!” … I have no hope for you and you should probably just stop reading now.)
How about we just stop with ascribing unnecessary labels to things that already have perfectly accurate words to describe them? The next time you see a woman railing at a cashier because her coupons for baconnaise are expired, just call her for what she is: a jerk. That brave woman who saved 1000 kittens from a burning tree in the newspaper? Brave will suffice. Even kittentastic, if you must, but leave feisty where it belongs: 18th century Germany.
How about we all try to reserve feisty for things like:
1. This kitten standing up to a Rottweiler. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNeaZz9Vt6Q
2. Small, yappy dogs hunting badgers.
3. Young children who talk like sassy adults. “Oh no she didn’t! *SNAPSNAP*”
4. Canadian singer/songwriter Feist.
So there you have it, the reason why I recoil every time I hear of a “feisty heroine” who would otherwise be described as simply “heroic” if she weren’t so woefully burdened with ovaries. The worst part is I know that, even after reading all that, someone out there is chuckling behind their Cheeto-dust covered keyboard and thinking, “She’s so feisty.” To that I say, good sir and/or madam, go feist yourself.