I did not fully understand how offensive certain sexist terms can be. That was until I stayed up till 4 am one night after an interpersonal conflict with a family member, where they told me to stop “bickering” when I suggested something that clearly made them frustrated in an already stressful situation. I felt insulted and had to wonder why a word as common in arguments as “bickering” triggered me so much. It bothered me so much that it called for some self-reflection, after which I realised I was angry because I felt wronged and dehumanised by a gendered stereotype. It didn’t take too long to become aware of the fact that words like “nagging,” “bickering,” and “quarrelsome” are often reserved for women specifically.
We have all seen women speaking up for themselves who were silenced by a combination of similar words attributed to them. We’ve seen women who were gaslighted into silence because men disapproved of their expression of outrage over being wronged. We’ve seen wives shut out for voicing their concerns, or called annoying for not being direct. I began to think: Why is it that when men express themselves they decide, announce, and command but when women do the same they are found nagging, bickering, and repeating themselves?
When these questions popped up in my mind, I did an internet dive to find some answers and came upon a history far more sinister than I could’ve ever imagined. How could we not be enraged by words such as these when history is tainted with the blood of our female ancestors subjected to torture and humiliation for the very same reasons? Scold’s bridle, Shrew’s fiddle, ducking stool, and thewe are just some of the known medieval torture devices used to punish women for bickering, nagging, annoying their husband or neighbours, and gossiping.
You associate their entire being with certain exaggerated gestures and actions--in this case, a mental image of a middle-aged woman with unkempt hair wagging a finger in your face and stomping her feet. This makes it difficult for you to take them seriously, listen to them or empathize with them, leading to the dehumanization of women using sexist tropes.
Why do women “nag?” It’s because, for most of history, women were second class citizens, half a person, cattle, or less. When women couldn’t vote, own property, get a divorce, provide for themselves, and had to socially depend on men, the patriarchy penalised them for the one thing they could do to have some semblance of power: talk. All it takes to become a nag is asking your boyfriend to spend time with his children after work, asking a man to do a chore and him ignoring you so that you have to repeat it until it becomes annoying, and then doing it yourself while feeling guilty about your own unpleasant nagging behaviour.
“As old as Sibyl and as curst and shrewd as Socrates’ Xanthippe, or worse.”
Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew
Literature and pop culture is chock full of examples of the nagging wife stereotype. From Socrates’ insufferable wife Xanthippe (who is infamous for being a nag and making him miserable) to “Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew” to Mrs. Bennet (the unnamed wife, the one Jane Austen character we all love to hate), examples of the nagging wife are everywhere. Many shows and films also employ this sexist stereotype, such as the “Breaking Bad” character Skylar White (who had a Facebook page calling for her death because of how annoying her character was), “Dexter’s” Rita, and “Mad Men’s” Betty Draper, to name a few.
In film, theatre, and stand-up comedy, the nagging woman caricature is often used for comedic relief and slapstick. Many vintage posters, films (like “A Girl In A Million”), ad billboards today, and stickers have made money perpetuating this nagging wife stereotype. When you google “nagging wife,” you come across article upon article on renowned platforms all reading along the lines of “5 Ways to Stop Her Nagging,”, “Why Do Women Nag so Much?,” etc. Like this momjunction article titled "5 Signs Of A Nagging Wife And How To Stop Being One," this WikiHow on "How To Deal With A Nagging Wife," the one thing shared by most of these articles is that they're either directed towards women to correct them or towards men telling them why these nagging women are ruining their lives. Rarely if ever do they explore the possibility that perhaps if you listened to her and respected her she wouldn't have to repeat herself a bajillion times.
“So what?” a man might say. “Isn’t making a joke out of it the right way to go about it? It’s not like we’re still torturing women for nagging.” Time and time again, studies like "Sexist humor and beliefs that justify societal sexism" published in CRISP at University of Iowa and "A Framework For Thinking about the (not-so-funny) Effects of Sexist Humor" published in Europe's Journal of Psychology have revealed that sexist humour and stereotypes are not unharmful, that they aid in the establishment of gender imbalances, and that they justify a system that already disadvantages women. But if that isn’t convincing, the search results for “nagging woman murdered” are grim enough to show us the ugly side of this humorous stereotype.
used the word 'bickering' for me, we sat down to have this conversation one night before bed. I told them to listen while I talk because it was really important to me that they understood before reacting. I shared with them how prevalent this stereotype is in pop culture, media, and our society in general. I pointed out a few examples of women around us who are victims of this stereotype on a daily basis: friends, housewives, and aunts, and how it gaslights them, ruins their self esteem, and hurts the ability to express themselves. They agreed that they fell prey to using a common sexist stereotype and promised never to use terms like “bickering” and “nagging” again in regards to women. They then said, "Thank you for making me aware of this issue I had no knowledge of, and thank you for taking the time to correct me"
To all my sisters, we see these patterns and caricatures of womanhood, disturbing us all. Most of us had some older loudmouthed woman in our life who used her words to get her way, she was criticised and made fun of for that, and we promised ourselves we’d never be annoying like that--until we were. I hope that you don’t beat yourself up or wonder what’s wrong with you the next time a man subjects you to this sexist stereotype. For the transgenerational trauma we shoulder, our collective rage is righteous.