As a writer, I think about words a lot. You know that. I try to pay attention to words in common use, how they’re used, what they imply, if their meaning or connotation is changing. I think too, about how their use relates to gender, and what it reveals about gender dynamics. And one word that’s been bugging me a lot lately is “shrill.”
I first noticed it in a now-memed tweet to Brianna Wu, a game designer and vocal advocate for women in gaming. Someone tweeted at her that “Respects is earn, not shrilly demanded.”
Hilarious grammar aside, the use of the word shrill stuck with me. The writer did not just critique that Wu was asking for respect, but how she was doing it. The “shrill” here was used as a way to belittle and insult Wu.
A quick search of Twitter reveals the word is used in predominantly three ways:
- To describe wildlife (often birds, often in poetry).
- To express extreme excitement (often shrill screams).
- To insult someone (almost always a woman).
This word is just one example of how women are criticized and ridiculed not for their views or actions, but for simply being female. As a word that is largely associated with a woman’s often higher-pitched voice, it is used to critique how women speak, not what we’re saying. Lose your cool a little and you’re labeled shrill, aggressive, bitchy, and unworthy of respect.
The original tweet didn’t have anything to say about Wu’s views, game design or advocacy. All that mattered was that she “shrilly demanded” respect, and that meant that she was unworthy of it. It’s a tactic meant to make women self-conscious about speaking out, and ultimately silence them.
There was one thing that I found that made me happy, when searching the interwebs on shrillness, Dad. Badass, loudmouth writer Lindy West just announced that she’s publishing her first book, a memoir called “Shrill.” West, an outspoken and unapologetic woman, has throughout her career claimed the insults slung at her and proudly thrust them back at her haters. As a fat woman, for instance, she embraces her body and refuses to let trolls calling her fat chase her off the Internet. I deeply look forward to reading her memoir when released, and seeing West throw the word “shrill” back at all the misogynists who would try to cut women down with it.