No, really. Stay with me here.
The “Shit Girls Say” video, inspired by Twitter and recently gone viral, is a compilation of supposedly common “girl” vernacular. In it, a woman, played by a man, is seemingly incapable of speaking in anything but rejected dialouge snippets from Mean Girls. My Facebook feed ate it up this week, as men and women reposted the video. “So. True.” “Best thing ever.” “So, so funny.”
These types of viral vids are meant to be subversive and cheeky; to be parody; to impress viewers with the creators’ uncanny ability to point out “funny ’cause it’s true” bon mots that have gone previously unrecognized by pop culture.
But on the contrary, they’re merely mining gender stereotypes that have been with us for decades, long before the first “Take my wife, please” punchline was ever uttered in a dank comedy club and repeated every time a new romantic comedy hits theaters. Aspiring comedians, take note: “Girls” is not a genre. It’s neither parody nor subversive when you’re simply regurgitating stereotypes and parroting the status quo.
But beyond the exhausted portrayal of women as helpless, whiny, incoherent, flaky, screechy, clueless, insecure girls (Juliette Lewis, who appears in the clip, is nearly 40 years old), there’s something actually interesting happening here. It’s the string of “Could you’s”: Could you do me a huge favor? Could you not do that, please? Could you pass me that blanket? Could you turn it up a bit? Sorry, could you just turn it down? Could you go into my purse?
How can politely asking for a favor be a gendered behavior?
It’s a well-documented truth that women’s tendency to use deferential language is one of the reasons we lag behind in both leadership roles in the workplace as well as salary. We ask for favors, instead of giving direction. We ask for permission and ask for forgiveness. Rather than exhibit confidence in our plan of action, we act as though our every request is a great intrusion on someone else’s more important agenda.
When you stop and count all of those little words you use that steadily chip away at your message — “I’m sorry,” “Could you,” “Can you,” “Would you,” “I just,” “I think,” “A bit,” “I don’t know for sure, but” — you’ll be shocked at how often you use minimizing language when it’s completely unnecessary.
Bonnie Marcus addressed this phenomenon of women sabotaging themselves with weak language recently on Forbes.com. “I’m convinced that even if we take one small step and eliminate the word ‘just’ from our communication, we would see a huge difference in the way we are perceived in the workplace,” she says. “I am amazed how much I use this word unnecessarily and unconsciously.” She goes on to quote Victoria Simon, PhD, and Holly Pedersen, PhD:
“Women have a tendency to use ‘weak’ language that serves to water down their message. One example of weak language is using tag lines at the end of sentences…’This is a great angle, don’t you think?’ and ‘Our department is doing well, isn’t it?’ A tag line at the end of a sentence weakens the statement being made as well as the authority of the speaker. It communicates that the speaker is not completely confident so must ask for reassurance.”
This need to use deferential language is a characteristic largely held by women, and socialized into us by traditional expectations of gender traits: men = assertive, women = submissive. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recalls a story in her now famous TED Talk about “sitting at the table.” When an important government official came to visit Facebook, the tech team gathered around the conference table; two of the male government official’s female senior staff members chose to sit, instead, in chairs on the sidelines. Ms. Sandberg noted in a commencement address at Barnard last May:
“Studies also show that compared to men, women underestimate their performance. If you ask men and women questions about completely objective criteria such as GPAs or sales goals, men get it wrong slightly high; women get it wrong slightly low. More importantly, if you ask men why they succeeded, men attribute that success to themselves; and women, they attribute it to other factors like working harder, help from others. Ask a woman why she did well on something, and she’ll say, ‘I got lucky. All of these great people helped me. I worked really hard.’ Ask a man and he’ll say or think, ‘What a dumb question. I’m awesome.’”
The impact is pervasive. Women aren’t socialized to negotiate; 57 percent of men entering the workplace negotiate their first salary, while only 7 percent of women do the same. When women do negotiate, they are penalized for it by both male and female superiors, whereas men are rewarded for it. The Chicago Network’s most recent census revealed that among Chicago’s top 50 public companies, only about 9.1 percent of the women at those firms were top earners, while the majority of companies had no female top earners at all.
This deferential language extends beyond the officesphere. Author Sara Benincasa recently wrote a post on Jezebel.com, “I Am So Not Sorry About My Vagina and Other Apologies We Should Retract,” cataloging an increasingly ridiculous list of things real women apologized for before, or even as, they realized the insanity of their mea culpa. “We’re smart, we’re ambitious, we’re hardworking, we’re determined, we’re badass, we’re brilliant — and we’re still so very, very sorry,” Ms. Benincasa wrote. “I wonder when we’ll stop apologizing for existing.”
So back to that “Shit Girls Say” video. There’s something especially twisted about a societal standard that requires women to act in certain way, and then mocks them for fitting into that prefabricated box. The clip reemphasizes the many contradictory expectations for female behaviors that remain tightly embedded in our communal psyche, how difficult it can be to walk that thin line, and the consequences for women who don’t conform.
Women who act like girly-girls are disrespected here, but women who break out of traditional gendered behaviors are shunned just as often. As Ms. Sandberg noted in that Barnard address:
“[S]uccess and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. This means that as men get more successful and powerful, both men and women like them better. As women get more powerful and successful, everyone, including women, likes them less.”
At the end of the “Shit Girls Say” clip, the girlfriend snacks loudly on a bowl of potato chips, oblivious to the annoyance it’s creating; her faceless boyfriend, without a word, uses the remote control he’s holding to turn up the volume on the TV. He wants something, he acts on it, he gets it.
Women, if you find yourself watching that video and thinking, “So funny, because it’s so true,” you might want to check your language. And grab the damn remote.
Oh, and if you want a real take down of stereotypical “dumb girl” behavior? Check out Alison Brie on Community, ripping through the sexy-little-girl-lost trope in under two minutes. This, viewers, is an actual parody, in that it mocks a genre of performance, not the person or gender performing it.