In case you haven't noticed, we have some terms to describe women that we do not use to describe men — and they're not doing us any favors. Among the words we need to stop using to describe women are those that define them by their appearances or relationships to others, those that flatten women with certain roles or professions into stereotypes, and those that filter women through a lens that considers them "feminine" no matter what they do. In short, descriptions based more on our projections of women than anything a woman actually does are pretty likely to come up short when referring to real people.
The words we use can have a huge impact on how we view people. When we call a woman a slut, we are saying that it is bad for women to be sexual. When we call a woman "shrill," we are suggesting it is wrong to speak up in ways that men don't get any flack for. And when we call a girl "bossy" for wanting to be in charge, we're perpetuating a system in which leadership is considered a masculine trait.
Here are a few terms that are less obviously offensive to women — and how they diminish our ability to view women as people.
"I don’t meet any married women who refer to themselves as housewives," Michelle Zunter points out to the Huffington Post. "I think most women consider being called a housewife insulting. ... The term implies that this is all you do, and you can’t step outside your box beyond the label of housewife." Even women who are stay-at-home moms are much more than wives and homemakers, and the term implies that everything these women do centers around their husbands.
2. "Femme Fatale"
A "femme fatale" is not a person; it's an archetype in fictional stories that demonizes women who have hurt men as if they're just being evil for its own sake and don't have any relatable motives behind their actions. And yet, I've heard women in real life described this way. According to the Urban Dictionary, a femme fatale is "a woman with both intelligence and sex appeal that uses these skills to manipulate poor helpless men into doing what she wants. May cause death." Calling a woman a "femme fatale" is a way to avoid empathizing with her.
This word is so awful on so many levels. First of all, to be clear, feminists do not share an agenda with the Nazi party, and neither group makes for a particularly good joke. Rush Limbaugh coined the term on the grounds that certain feminists "are obsessed with perpetuating a modern-day Holocaust: abortion." It's offensive to both Jews and people who have had abortions to even compare these things. A fetus is not a human being, an abortion is not an act of hate, and there is nothing about feminism that is Nazi-like.
4. "Female Artist/CEO/Scientist/Anything"
Unless someone is specifically talking about the experience of being a woman in their industry, there is no need to call attention to their gender. For example, it's common for journalists to describe a woman comedian as "one of the funniest women," when they're really one of the funniest people. In general, the word "female" should be avoided anyway because it refers to a female body, which not all women have.
Calling a woman "trashy" is just a thinly veiled method of slut-shaming. And when it's not a way of implying that a woman is less classy for wearing revealing clothes or being too sexual, it's often a way of policing other "unfeminine" behavior, like swearing or making crude jokes. On the rare occasion that this word isn't sexist, it's usually classist, as in the term "trailer trash" to denote someone who is worthless because they're poor.
This word is usually describing something positive, but it should tell us something that it's rarely used to describe men. When a man speaks his mind or goes after what he wants, he's just being a normal person. When a woman does, she's a "firecracker" or a "strong, independent woman." This word is also frequently used to sexualize women who are energetic or adventurous. Literally the only time I've ever been described this way has been in flirtatious messages on dating apps.
Similar to "firecracker," "feisty" is a word that depicts women as out of the ordinary for saying what they want or having opinions. It is also sometimes used to dismiss their reasonable concerns as the result of just being a bit cranky. When was the last time you heard someone describe a "feisty" man? "Feisty" and "frisky" also play into the stereotype that women are like cats: impulsive, irritable, and like "sex kittens" if they behave in a playful manner.
The assumption that a woman is being a "tease" hinges on the belief that she is withholding something — usually something sexual. But you can't withhold something you don't owe anyone, and you never owe anyone sex. Even when used in a positive way — "it's fun to be flirtatious and tease" — this word encourages rape culture by implying that one action, like wearing a short skirt or flirting with someone, "invites" someone to perform another action, like touching you. But no action is ever permission to carry out a different one.
The flip side of the "tease" is the "coy" woman who refrains from acting flirtatious or pursuing sex... but supposedly secretly wants it. Considering it sexy or flirtatious to be "coy" encourages rape culture by eroticizing lack of consent. Encouraging women to "be coy" and "play hard to get" instead of saying what they want also discourages healthy relationships with clear communication. Besides, classifying a woman as "coy" hinges on the premise that a "no" is just a "yes" waiting to be coaxed out of someone. In reality, nothing but a "yes" is a "yes," and a woman who does not say "yes" is not a challenge but a person with boundaries to be respected.
Men have different hair colors just like women, but these traits are usually described with adjectives, not nouns. If we want to help someone identify a man from a crowd, we might say, "he has dark hair"; we don't say, "he's the brunette." Describing a woman by a word that only describes her hair color makes her sound like a walking head of hair — in short, like an object. It also perpetuates some pretty ridiculous stereotypes about "dumb blondes" and "feisty" redheads (see item seven).
The pigeonholing of women starts during childhood, when girls who have interests outside their gender role are labeled "tomboys." There's nothing wrong with being into sports or action figures, of course, but it doesn't make you any kind of "boy" (unless that's how you choose to identify). It just makes you a girl interested in sports or action figures, and there's nothing inherently unfeminine about that.