“A size 2 White lady with a pony tail and a leather jacket,” Hysteria podcast, Oct. 21, 2021, “Dames” (with Rep. Rosa DeLauro)

How do you feel about being called a “badass?” This week, the ladies at Hysteria discussed female-exclusive compliments and in particular, whether or not we see the term badass as positive or problematic. About 40 minutes into the podcast, the hosts Erin Ryan and Alyssa Mastromonaco are joined by Julissa Arce and Dana Schwartz to discuss how they feel about the term.

If you haven’t heard it before, Hysteria is not about fitness; it is a news and politics podcast with interviews and conversations from a feminist perspective. The conversation this week gives a lot of the thoughtful nuance and humor that brings me back to listen week after week, and this time around it crosses over with the usual content I cover here; I hope that you will give it a listen!

Early in the conversation, Julissa and Erin discuss how badass can be inherently masculinizing, rewarding women for stereotypically masculine behaviors. In this way, it can contribute to the paradigm of men’s traits being celebrated more than women’s. Julissa is concerned that the term “flattens” women into one-dimensional traits, especially when we use it to describe historic women of importance. Erin connects this with what she calls “the Helen Kellerization of women in history”–minimizing them to a single accomplishment instead of celebrating or exploring them with the full nuance we would use for important men in history.

Later in the conversation, they reference the likability trap that many successful women fall into–where it can be ok for men to have certain traits but those same traits are seen seen as a negative when women have them. Alyssa notes that the times she can think back to men calling her badass, it was when she showed her ability to be assertive and display bravado, traits that are not traditionally viewed as feminine. They raise the question, if this is the case, can we reclaim this word and celebrate women who have these traits–when they are aggressive, strong, and warrior-like?

The tension they tease out then is how do we celebrate and reward each other for having these traits without it becoming diminutive or minimizing of women’s accomplishments? How do we make sure it isn’t only about being startled by the achievement rather than acknowledging that a woman is inherently already worthy of sharing the table?

The women of Hysteria seem to land in a compromise position that it matters who is using the term. In general, they are more comfortable with other women referring to each other as badass than they are of most men. Several of them specifically discuss the discomfort they have of older men in positions of power using the term badass in ways they consider problematic. As with a lot of language, who uses it matters, and I think this compromise makes a lot of sense.

My only critique of this conversation is that I feel they miss the opportunity to discuss the differences in perception of calling someone badass (and other more masculine-leaning compliments) when gender expression is less feminine. I can see how a more feminine-identifying woman would feel that it is problematic for her to be complimented for more masculine traits, especially if they feel that their more feminine traits are less celebrated or rewarded. But as a woman who identifies as queer and often expresses my identity in a less traditional way, being labeled as more masculine can feel like being seen. A student of mine referred to me as “a bull teacher” last week, and I heard that as “wow, she’s really alpha,” and I took it as a compliment!

It is common in the lifting world for women to refer to themselves as badasses. I used the term for myself here just a few weeks ago. But I know that women experience the masculinization of lifting and building muscle differently depending upon their own gender identity and expression. Some women clearly find it to be unappealing, as demonstrated by the endless reassurances from coaches that lifting won’t make women “bulky.” However, the less-explored possibility, the one that I live, is that for some of us, lifting gives us a way to show up in the world and express some of the nuances of our identities. I have mixed feelings about bigger muscles being perceived as inherently masculine, and I plan on writing more about that sometime down the road, but for now, I acknowledge that is the general perception of others, and it works for me. Similarly, if the term badass implies celebrating something perceived as positive and more masculine about my actions or personality, I welcome the compliment!

There’s no question the term badass is gendered, and I suspect to what degree that is problematic will vary a lot on who is using the word and who is receiving the compliment. For now, I plan on continuing to use it, to celebrate my own badassness and that of other women. However, I am open to accepting it will not be received with the same enthusiasm by everyone, and welcome the boundary, should it feel problematic.

What about you? Are you ok being called a badass or does it feel diminutive of your other strengths? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below, or find and follow Progressive Strength on Facebook and join the conversation over there!

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