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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

Image of woman blowing bubbles from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, bimbo



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Existing comments

So , Ellena, would you then define "bimbo" as " being seen as physically attractive in a totally non-threatening way with a personality to match"? Visual and verbal impressions are, as you say, sometimes incredibly deceptive. You, like many intelligent people, are probably cheesed off when some people don't get the irony in your humour. Sadly, some people are too inane to see when they are being sent up. A pity, because it might encourage some humility in them. Necessary humility. As a man, somewhere at the back of my head lies the concept that the men (I presume it was men) who invented the concept of the bimbo were/are men who are terrified with the idea that women are as much real people as they are, with all that entails. Could/can they cope with real women? I would suggest probably not. Is this malady particularly strong in certain segments of the male population in this country? Sadly, I'd say yes. I think we have come some way since the 1950s and 1960s but I think we have some way to go yet.

Edward F | 26 September 2013  

Ellena, like, um, ah, bimbo rhymes with limbo and akimbo. Pure poetry. And, like, I cannot resist a Jane Austen quote - "I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress." Way to go, Jane.

Pam | 26 September 2013  

An interesting article, I’ve never personally been one of those men that have exhibited anger or disgust at the intelligent ‘bimbo’ phenomenon, I’ve always found it kind of sexy, which is perhaps an equally problematic response. But if the category of the Bimbo is really about woman having to ‘alter themselves’, becoming non-threatening in order to find a place in a male dominated society, isn’t it time you grew out of it and spoke like an adult? Isn’t ‘referencing’ a social trope that is associated with stupidity and crass materialism being deliberately deceptive? And isn’t it reasonable for people to become annoyed when they are being deceived? I suppose the interesting thing is that you also experience it as natural. I sometimes find myself falling naturally back into the language of yobbo enthusiasm, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m including it as a reference to my cultural identity, or using it too mock the pretensions of the educated classes in which I don’t quite fit, rather, I just can’t think of anything particularly clever to say at that time.

Josh | 27 September 2013  

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.So well stated and so true. Lesley

Lesley | 28 September 2013  

Ellena, you have made my day! A certain male progenitor of mine will not engage with any opinion I communicate except in two ways: a) To call me arrogant when I back up my arguments with anything I have read in a book or in an article, or heard in a lecture or podcast (because it is arrogant for a woman to mention she reads or studies), and b) To question the veracity of my opinion because I have not used words in the manner in which he thinks they should be used, particularly me using 'literally' (because individual and imaginative use of language immediately discounts intelligence). And so, it is with boundless delight that I read your article. Because next time he decides to sideline me because I actually have a referenced opinion, or a colloquially expressed opinion, I shall revel in his fear.

Claire | 30 September 2013  

My problem with the bimbo is not that such a space is created but the determination for some to not enlarge that space. The wider world is not just male, privileged ,etc

robyn lewis | 30 October 2013  

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