words

The Case Against “Feisty” Girls

I was editing a book that introduced the characters on a popular television show the other day when I noticed both of the show’s lead females characters had been described as “feisty.” My first thought? “Well, they are both feisty, so it’s redundant but not wrong.” Then I had a second thought: “Wait a minute. Were any of the male characters described as ‘feisty’?” I did a search: Nope. The male characters were “rebellious,” “strong-willed,” “aggressive,” “antagonistic,” “cunning,” “caustic,” “combative,” “quick to anger,” and a number of other descriptive terms and phrases. But they were never “feisty.”

Merriam-Webster’s defines “feisty” this way:

M-W "Feisty"

Both examples for the first definition relate to a woman—a “feisty heroine,” and a “feisty widow lady.” So it’s possible, then, that the word is only intended for use with females. Why?

The more I think about it, the more I feel like “feisty” is a crutch used to describe any girl that doesn’t adhere to the calm, demure ideal society has had for girls for centuries; she’s only “feisty” because she’s different from the others, and from what’s expected. It’s also a belittling term; it’s patronizing, in that look-how-feisty-and-adorable-you-are way. She’s not strong—she’s feisty. Like a puppy. Or a ferret.

I’m not the first to have this thought, I’ve discovered. The Guardian published this article in September 2014, listing “feisty” a word to avoid; in it, Daisy Lewis of Downton Abbey is quoted as having said, “Feisty? My least favorite word. …Have you heard a male character described as feisty? I think not.” Dame Helen Mirren’s on the bandwagon, too; she’s quoted in a Huffington Post article as having said, “Only women are feisty. It just makes me gag. …We need new words for female power and funniness and smartness.” I agree.

I did a bit more digging and found that actually, no, the word isn’t only used to described women. It’s also used to describe men—when the intention is either to belittle them (“womanize” them) or to call attention to them overcoming frailty. For example, this article on Politico calls Bill Clinton “feisty” in the headline because he is “pushing back against the idea that he’s become frail and will play a more limited role” in Hilary Clinton’s expected 2016 presidential campaign; we expect him to be frail and quiet, but no—Bill’s feisty instead. That fits perfectly with my first point: Girls are silently believed to be frail and quiet until proven otherwise, at which point they’ve beaten the odds to become feisty.

(Is it just me, or is the word “feisty” starting to look really odd at this point? Am I still spelling it right? Feisty, feisty, feisty.)

I’m guilty of having used this word as a crutch. But I’m not going to any longer. The book I’m working on? Those female characters are now described as “strong-willed” and “argumentative”—because that’s what they are.