Best of 2013: Politicising the bimbo


Woman with blue hair blowing bubblesSometimes people hurl insults at your face. And unless they are hurled from a moving vehicle or are accompanied by a flying bar stool, they are usually embedded in some sort of insult sandwich, buffered with slices of wisdom and self-criticism to soften the blow of having an insult hurled at your face. But it never softens the blow.

One insult sandwich that has been consistently hurled at me is that the insulter thought I was dumb until they discovered I wasn't. Whatever that's supposed to mean. I used to think you were a bimbo and then you surprised me by actually being intelligent. Crazy, that you thought a young woman was a stupid idiot and then she turned out to be a human being!

There is something so off about this particular comment that I've never really forgiven those insulters. For me, the use of 'bimbo' and its associative terms is an unpardonably sexist way of interpreting certain female traits. Traits like giggling, using fun language, and dressing up to reference cultural tropes that have been consistently undermined as being about silly women. Because there's nothing worse than a silly woman.

For me, the silly woman, the bimbo, is an important space for feminist interrogation. It's a cultural space that contains the history of how working-class women have historically fashioned themselves to fit, unthreateningly, within masculine culture, yet have been consistently rejected by it any way. It's time to politicise the bimbo.

One time, one of my brothers counted the number of times I hedged the word 'like' in a description I foggily recounted over dinner. He was playing the role of brother-menace, and in the process insinuated that I was lesser, intellectually inadequate, a bimbo. It's fine — siblings are cruel players in this game of life, and I dish it out just as bad. But what this gesture was really about, was the idea that the means through which identity is fashioned or expressed equates to a differentiated human capacity, and an implied sliding scale of human value.

As if to say that when I utter 'like' as a hedge instead of 'um' or 'ah', as is the fashion among older males (and which are equally arbitrary speech hedges), it's because I don't possess the intellectual capacity to speak like an older male. Socially speaking, this idea classes most young female and queer people (those who are most likely to employ these speech patterns) as intellectually incapable.

The category of bimbo is largely indescribable. It can't simply be a category of stupidity, because there are stupid people at all facets of society. It can't be a fixation on appearances, either, because most ambitious and respected type-A people (who would never be labelled bimbos) are also the most body-obsessed. Is it a fixation on consumer goods? If it is, that would mean the majority of people who live under a capitalist economy are bimbos, because this is a culture that exists to serve the majority's consumerist fixation.

The category of bimbo is about demeaning women who are required to alter themselves to fit somewhere within a male-dominated culture, and possibly don't have access to the kinds of cultural resources to do it in a 'classy' way. What I find most compelling about the bimbo category, and why I reference it in my own cultural identity, is that within it is embedded a culture of ridiculing the social norms that exclude a large chunk of women because of their gender and class. And it does so with a sense of humour.

There are female modes of speech in most languages I'm familiar with, even where they're not formally taught. Women speak less than men do, and use fewer authoritative phrases. Power dynamics between genders play out in normal conversations all the time. But bimbo-speak (whose origins come from the Valley-speak sociolect) claims its own norms, which possesses huge scope for self-ridicule and comic social criticism.

It is this cultural autonomy of the bimbo that poses a threat to dominant masculine authority. Knowingly acting dumb to call out the stupidity of one's superiors is hugely threatening. If there's an in-joke that doesn't include the dominant folks, how will they know if they're getting laughed at?

One of my favourite words to use is 'literally', to comically modify a statement. The use of 'literally' to emphasise a point is derided as improper usage because it is an inversion of the standard, or older, definition. 'I literally died!' or 'My head literally exploded!' are examples of the word being used as comic hyperbole, and this usage is a prominent feature of young, female vernacular. Most major dictionaries have updated their definitions to include this vernacular usage, much to the dismay of the self-fashioned vanguard of the reification of class barriers.

By the way, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Jane Austin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce, the English language's most blighted bimbos, all used 'literally' in this way. What morons.

The pleasure of using a mode of speech, or rather, not affecting one's native mode of speech to appease a kind of person who means to privilege the privileged, is unparalleled. Test it out some time: speak in a natural-feeling, playful kind of way to someone who's scared of bimbos, and then watch their brains literally explode.

Because when a listener struggles to understand that when I say I 'literally died' and yet clearly am still alive, that I am using language in a playful and maybe even ironic way, it's not their fault. They are probably just suffering from some kind of intellectual incapacity. Which I won't judge them for. Because I am a silly woman.

Ellena Savage headshotEllena Savage has written about literature, feminism, and political culture for publications including Overland, Australian Book Review, Right Now, The Lifted Brow, and Farrago, which she co-edited in 2010. She tweets as @RarrSavage. This article was originally published on 26 September 2013.

Image of woman blowing bubbles from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, bimbo



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Existing comments

When we drive from our house to Sydney we pass by a place called Bombo Beach. Whether I'm driving or gracing the passenger seat, I always sing "Hey Bombo, Bombo Italiano." This makes my husband smile. Every time. I hope this makes me a bomb-shell!

Pam | 10 January 2014  

Ellena, your wit, intelligence, and well-crafted articles show what a wonderful young woman you are, and your criticism of various social injustice issues make you a worthwhile person. So good to see you giving publicity-craving lesser beings like Andrew Bolt the put -down they deserve.

Annabel | 22 March 2014  

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