Sunday, January 18, 2015

Is ‘Chick’ Chic or Retrograde?



In the Swinging Sixties, that magic era of Carnaby Street, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, free love and the Pill, horny young chaps in stovepipes and mop tops flitted around getting it on with as many cool chicks as they could manage to lure back to their groovy pads. Things got so bad that the chicks went out and created Second Wave Feminism.
 
Of course, everything’s changed now, right? In some twenty-something inner city circles the chick is now the female equivalent of the hipster. She’s easygoing yet focused, joining her brothers in her preference for flannelette shirts featuring obscure band names, fixed-gear bicycles and Pabst beer. She’s got tats, is constantly instagramming and probably spends most of her work day in a coffee roastery, hunched over her laptop.

A distinct yet overlapping demographic – savvy professional women heading micro and small businesses – have embraced ‘chick’ as a marketing tool. The internet is littered with SEO chicks, PR and marketing chicks, legal chicks (as opposed to legal eagles I guess) – even a chicken chick.

And now that older women are claiming their goddess-given right to flaunt their booty at any age, they’re refusing to relinquish the word once the first flush of youth fades. If a chick is hip, contemporary and down-to-earth, who says you can’t be a chick at fifty? At sixty? Why stop there?

Yet whole groups of people would rather guzzle toilet paper than use the word. My seventeen-year-old nephew, when quizzed, mumbled that if one of his male friends used it he sounded – this is my translation of what he actually said – fake, pretentious and trying too hard. My forty-something sister, an English coordinator at a secondary girls’ school, simply shook her head and shuddered when I mentioned the word.

Perhaps this is because the nasty version of chick is always lurking around the interwebs, like the class bully who crashes your birthday party, hits on your boyfriend then trashes your house. The ‘hot chick’ is a woman’s body with the humanity sucked out like air from a balloon. She’s the bad girl in the madonna/whore dynamic of patriarchy, the pin-up girl of retrosexism, a twenty-first century version of the compliant, vacantly smiling sixties chick – just add porn and stir.

You can be repurposed into a ‘hot chick’ online whether or not your pose was deliberately sexy. Type ‘hot chicks’ into Google and you’ll get everything from everyday situations that have been lovingly pornified, eg ‘hot chicks picking up dog shit’ and ‘hot chicks in nerd panties’ to mainstream porn. There are even ‘hot chicks’ next to fixie bikes, which is truly depressing.

The gender politics of ‘chick’ echo in the continuing feminist rage against the term ‘chick lit’ for the way it denigrates women’s literary contribution. The idea of Wuthering Heights being labelled chick lit is horrifying, and there were howls of derision across the internet when Sylvia Plath’s acidic novel The Bell Jar got a disastrous ‘chick lit’ makeover for the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. ‘Chick flick’ is just as suspect, according to Gloria Steinem.

If ‘chick’ somehow survived the feminist revolution, ‘bird’ is one of its casualties. It’s now redolent of sad late middle-aged men with comb-overs who never got the memo that the era of sideburns and sleazy feel-ups at the photocopier was over for good, or the acres of female flesh that romped through Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.

Other terms for women derived from the animal world hang on for dear life despite themselves. In 2012 Grahame Morris was forced to apologise to Leigh Sales for calling her a cow after she interviewed him on radio.

What about ‘bitch’? How did this word not only get through to the keeper, but manage to widen its remit? Used to be a bitch was spiteful and overly competitive; now thanks to rap culture you can be someone’s bitch even if you’re mild as a lamb, or just hanging around trying to look cool, as in (’cos you know, I’m so up with these things) ‘Yo! wassup bitches?’ A male friend once congratulated me on being his ‘publicity bitch’ at an event where he was selling his books. He was just trying to express how great I was but I felt deflated.

Even ‘girl’ has the power to offend in some contexts, particularly when male sports commentators use it to describe female athletes who would slaughter them in seconds in any competition. In March 2014, the BBC edited out the word girl in some footage where the male reporter said he couldn’t believe he’d been beaten at judo by a nineteen-year-old girl – who happened to be a Commonwealth Games judo champion.

Maybe words like chick are the same as the derogatory terms for any oppressed group – the group itself can use the word, but woe betide anyone else who does?

Or perhaps our nearest and dearest can fondly call us bitch, cow, girl or even Hornytits to their hearts’ content, yet the random in the street who yells it out at us cops a torrent of abuse.

But I can’t help thinking – why does the word woman sound so odd, so exotic, even sexualised? Is a woman still a mysterious, ethereal being who is unpredictable and perhaps a tiny bit evil?

And is ‘chick’ a sexist term, or should we embrace its changing uses – what do you think?

14 comments:

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