‘Mum, it is offensive when you call me unladylike’

by On Becoming Anna

On Facetime to my Mum last night, whilst describing my day, I dropped a jar of easy cut ginger on my foot and swore. Now, swearing isn’t something that is hugely encouraged in my family, but it is has become more common in our discourse since my sister and I have got older. I know that to the older generations, and to some of our own, swearing is not polite or necessary, and in most polite conversation it is something that I attempt to refrain from doing.

My Mum however, chose to retort by saying, ‘Anna, I do wish you would act more ladylike!’


And this is something she says to me quite often now that I live with three boys. I know that manners are important, and I know that burping in public isn’t something most people want to see or hear, but as soon as it becomes something that is associated with men, and not acceptable for women, then we have a problem.

I am someone who was born and identifies as a woman, and as gender identity has never really been something of a problem for me, I know that I am somewhat incapable of talking about the real struggles of coming to terms with ones gender, and what it really is like to experience existing in the space between these rigid boundaries.

However, I enjoy wearing makeup, following fashion and Bridget Jones; I also like excessively drinking, watching football and days when I don’t brush my hair. These facts in themselves would suggest I exist between the gender binaries. I have a few close ‘girl’ friends, but a lot more close ‘boy’ friends, and this has never been something to force me to call into question my gender or my sexuality. Or at least I’d never noticed that it had until I moved into this house and my mum started linking my unfavourable habits to the influence of my male friends.

‘Since you’ve moved into that house you’ve become such a boy Anna.’

What does that even mean?

What my Mum is basically saying, although she doesn’t realise it, is that there is coded behaviour for what it means to act as a woman, and the same for a man. And that if I chose to identify as a woman, and appropriate these ‘masculine’ behaviours simultaneously, I open myself up to being insulted. I am not sticking to the rules of my gender. 

I proceeded last night to tell my mum that what she was doing was encoding these gender binaries that so many people at the moment are trying to dissolve. In the same way as calling something you don’t like ‘gay’, or using the word ‘pussy’ as an insult, you are reinforcing the stereotype of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ behaviour. You are suggesting that there are only two genders, and that there is only one way to act for each one, and no space to exist in between.

It is not okay to call your unmanly friend a vagina, because it labels the presence of one as weak. It is not okay to use dick as a way to describe someone who has wronged you, because that reinforces the stigma of men as less likely to be faithful or kind.

I know my mum has experienced the negative effects of gender in the workplace and the expectations of women as lower than men. Before she went to university, my grandad told her that she would ‘make someone a great little secretary one day.’ When she graduated, she changed her name to Chris instead of Christine so that people would take her work seriously before meeting her. She is the mother of two daughters who expect to receive exactly the same treatment as any person of any other gender as we move through life. She would be mortified to realise how detrimental her branding me as behaving masculine could be, and how problematic it is that she’s using this to insult me. It is not okay.

These gendered insults are so embedded within our discourse that most of the time, we don’t even realise we’re using them, and don’t know who we could be offending when we do. I believe it is important for everyone to think about the way in which they use words, as ultimately it is through language that we experience our world. I know that my friends and I are culprits of this as much as my mum is, and I am sure I have said some things that have been insensitive to people because I have been naive to the repercussions of my words.

The most important thing to realise is that every time we use ‘pussy’ and ‘dick’ as insults, we contribute to the widening of the binaries which constitute the patriarchal understanding of gender. And that this is ultimately as much of a problem for those with a penis, as it is for those with a vagina, and for everyone else in between.