Is Harry Potter ‘feisty?’

It starts when we’re little.

I’m making a list of words that are mostly used only to apply to girls and women. I’m starting this list because when I point out the lack of female characters in kids’ films, “feisty” is a term that always comes up in response. People name a token strong female who has a supporting role in a male dominated kids’ film and say: “You’d like her, she’s feisty.” Film critics also commonly use “feisty” to describe female characters.

I started to wonder: What if, for example, Astrid in “How to Train Your Dragon” was described as “strong” instead of “feisty?” “Feisty” is a cute word, it’s said with a smile. “Feisty” ends the conversation. Whereas “strong” is a serious word. It takes the issue seriously and implies concern. “Strong” begins the conversation.

Of course, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to use “strong” either. No one would say: “Harry Potter is a strong character.” It’s obvious, redundant. “Heroic” would be better.

In the list below, I put the “male” equivalent in parentheses. Please send me your words for this list and also your idea of the “male” word that corresponds.

I’m especially interested in the gendered terms we use for kids and for artists. It is this intersection that affects how we talk about kids’ media. Try practicing using the gender switch in real life.

Feisty (strong, heroic) Another male equivalent could be “jaunty” but no one uses “jaunty.” Word origin: a commenter writes that “feist” mean “mutt-bitch.” I just Googled it and got “small dog” and “breaking wind.” I will continue my research. Fascinating.

Sassy What do you think this means? My 8 year old uses it to describe other girls, she learned at school, but I can’t tell the meaning.

Plucky (brave)

Bossy (assertive) Common use: “Those girls are so bossy.” Not sure people use assertive to describe male children. Ideas? “Dominating?”

(I’m starting to wonder: do people even use “assertive” for men anymore is it just a given? Along with “brave” and “strong” for male characters?)

Strident (passionate, driven) “Bossy” girls grow up to be “strident” women i.e. “Hillary Clinton is so strident.” Try it out for a male: “Mitt Romney is strident.” “Chris Mathews is strident.” If people dislike Romney or Mathews, and wish to communicate that in a word, maybe they use “tenacious?” “Arrogant?” What do you think?

Promiscuous (Player?) I’m not going to put “whore, slut” etc on this list because they’re so obvious, but “promiscuous” is a word I frequently hear used to describe females or gay men and I don’t think people realize they’re being sexist when they use it. It’s the nice way to say “slut.”  People rarely, if ever, call straight men promiscuous. Ideas for male equivalent?

Nag (controlling?)

Catfight (duel? brawl? feud? debate?)

Hysterical (Angry? Upset?) If “hysterical” is used to mean funny, it is gender neutral but of course, men are funnier than women. Word origin: hyster mean “womb;” the implication being women are crazy because they have wombs.

Cougar (man) Cut and pasted from commeter: “cougar: older woman dating younger man. Reference to a clawed, hunting animal that I believe disembowels its prey. Male equivalent for an older man dating younger woman would be “man”.

Homewrecker (?)

Homemaker (stay at home dad?)

Words used to describe artists who are women and the work they create:

Confessional (first person, autbiographical fiction)

Chick lit (literature)

Chick flick (movie, film)

Chick rock (rock)

9 thoughts on “Is Harry Potter ‘feisty?’

  1. This is a really good list. Regarding “Hysterical,” the ancients thought that the womb actually migrated around the body, thereby causing mental illness, hence, ‘hysteria.’

    Other suggestions:
    Catty (mean). I have never heard a boy called catty.
    B*tch (jerk?)
    “Teacher’s Pet” (smart) – are boys ever called teacher’s pet?

  2. I’m female. As a teen, I once saved a life with emergency first aid and was described in the local paper as “plucky.” Check any article where a teenage boy saves a life and he’ll be described as “brave” and “quick thinking.”

    • I don’t have the article; it was years ago and it’s buried in my boxes of paper in my parents’ garage. What happened was that a woman got into a serious car accident in which the vehicle flipped over, leaving her severely bleeding and concussed. I was nearby, so I performed direct pressure, held her head, and made her lie down so she wouldn’t collapse, hit her head again, and kill herself. It’s a good thing I was athletic and strong. For calming a disoriented and thrashing person who was bleeding on me, I was labeled “plucky” by the Palo Alto Times.

      • In fairness, the article otherwise praised my merits, and I’m sure the author thought it was a compliment, but I remember thinking, “Um, there was a little more than pluck involved.”

  3. I’m disagreeing with the pattern you’ve detected (although it seems we agree on most of the observations). But I’m squarely in your corner as far as this larger battle and I’m hoping you rain down with an unusually thick and dense column of napalm upon this f-word “feisty.” In fact, I’m glad we see eye-to-eye on the realization that it takes a lot more thought and talent to succeed in life than what the protagonist shows just by being a smart-aleck.

    Not that I object to a lady speaking up and saying her piece when she can tell something’s happening that isn’t quite right. Motherhood itself, it could be argued, is mostly about exactly that. But I’m feeling pangs of over-consumption and over-indulgence with this overused trope of “look at [blank], isn’t she feisty.” Parting with seventy bucks for matinee tickets plus soda and popcorn doesn’t help take the sting out of things.

    As far as bossy males: The first test case that comes to mind is Eric Cartman, who certainly cannot be viewed as a role model and may even be a sociopath. There certainly is a gender-difference issue, especially in history, with men who are barking out orders all the time just because it’s accepted that they should be in charge; but I notice much of that is happening in movies built for grown-ups. Boys in kids movies, the ones I can recall, are wide-eyed idealists taking in the new world of adventure, and if they know some other male figure barking out orders serially then that other character is due for some character-evolving experience, such as Han Solo as opposed to Luke Skywalker. The obvious exceptions are the kids’ shows coming out lately, post-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles, which I find absolutely despicable, in which one “power ranger” takes the lead and barks orders to the others to head the evil robot off at the pass, or whatever…but again, that’s just expected. So there isn’t much provision for an adjective to describe a masculine figure, simply because there hasn’t been any need.

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