Is it time we finally said ‘au revoir’ to the Mademoiselle?
It’s hard to keep track of what’s offensive as language evolves, writes Deirdre Reynolds
Slapper, tart, floozy — there are any number of derogatory words for women that could earn someone a stinging jaw. Until now, though, ‘Mademoiselle’ was unlikely to be one of them.
Coming from a Frenchman, the retro term is likely to leave Irish women wobbly at the knees — suggesting that she’s young and attractive. Back home in France, however, old-fashioned attempts to charm could soon be met with the opposite reaction after feminists there have called for the word to be banned.
Two separate women’s groups, Osez le Feminisme (Dare Feminism) and Les Chiennes de Garde (Guard Bitches), want the Gallic word for ‘Miss’ guillotined from the official French dictionary on the grounds that it’s sexist — as it stems from the old word for ‘virgin’.
While French men are known simply as ‘Monsieur’ (Mister) throughout their lives, women there are traditionally referred to as ‘Mademoiselle’ (Miss) or ‘Madame’ (Mrs) depending on whether they’re single or hitched. “
It is very symbolic of inequalities,” argues Julie Muret of Osez le Feminisme. “It forces the woman to expose her personal and family situation . . . Would you ever ask whether a young man was a Mister or a Squire?”
So should Irish women be getting their French knickers in a twist too? “I wouldn’t be offended by the word ‘Mademoiselle’ — but then I’m not French,” says Susan McKay, CEO of the National Women’s Council of Ireland.
“I remember when Irish women fought to introduce ‘Ms’ rather than ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ — and people saying it would never work.”
“Anyway, with more and more couples choosing not to get married and married women keeping their own name, it’s no longer accurate to define a woman’s relationship status by ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’.”
As French women are trying to get rid of one word, thousands of women of all nationalities are trying to get another back: slut. And instead of burning their bras, this time they’re marching in them.
‘Slut Walks’ sprang up in cities around the world this year — including Galway — in reaction to the comments of a Canadian policeman who urged women to “avoid dressing like sluts” in order to prevent rape.
Meanwhile, pop star Rihanna took the modern feminist movement a couple of consonants further — after she was snapped with the word ‘c***’ on a necklace last month.
As the porn culture swallows every sexual swear word in its path, though, is some female slang beyond salvation?
“Women need to take to the streets — but not for the right to be called ‘slut’,” argues antiporn activist Gail Dines.
“The term ‘slut’ is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal ‘madonna/whore’ view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption . . . trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.”
“It’s difficult to get away from the implied violence of words like ‘c***’ and ‘slut’,” adds the NWCI’s Susan McKay.
“Languages evolves all the time — so I wouldn’t be jumping up and down saying certain words should be banned. But it’s important that the language we use doesn’t end up reinforcing gender sterotypes.”
By comparison, words like ‘sweetie’ and ‘babe’ may seem positively complimentary — but they too have landed the user in hot water.
In 2008, US president Barack Obama was forced to backtrack after calling a female reporter “sweetie” while on the campaign trail in Detroit. And here at home, Apprentice hopeful Barry Caesar Hunt was last year booted off the reality TV show after boss Bill Cullen learned he had repeatedly called his female colleagues “babes” and “angel face”.
Pregnant Xposé presenter Aisling O’Loughlin might be expecting one, but don’t call her baby. “I certainly don’t want to reclaim the word ‘slut’ or the c-word,” says Aisling (32). “I remember going to The Vagina Monologues and part of the show tries to get the audience to reclaim the c-word by shouting it out loud over and over again — but I just wasn’t feeling the love.
“That said, women do themselves no favours by bristling at every dodgy term that’s thrown their way. Words like ‘love’ or ‘dear’ don’t bother me at all because I don’t feel there’s any malice in them.” Ironically, though, could ‘feminist’ be the dirtiest word of all for today’s twentysomethings?
“‘Feminist’ can be an unfashionable word,” admits Susan McKay. “But while the word ‘feminist’ itself can be problematic, more and more young women are realising there’s still a struggle for equality.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s ‘slut walking’ or challenging the word ‘Mademoiselle’,” she adds, “women are now demanding the right to define themselves differently.”