The Politics of “Chick”
I’ve often been labeled a word-nerd, an identity that I happily embrace. I enjoy playing with polysyllabic words like mellifluous and synchronicity, and find few things more deliciously delightful than alliteration (this, I discovered, I inherited from my mother whose personal ad in a mid-‘70s edition of the Village Voice included “attractive, alluring, alliterative” as part of her self-description which, as it turns out, charmed the Bronx boy who would become my father). Fortunately, I am in good word-nerd company at JWA. Last week a bunch of us started talking about words and their politics. The word of contention was “chick,” a word that seemed to amplify a generational divide among our staff. Several of my wise elders find “chick” offensive and demeaning, while many—but not all—of those in my cohort enjoy its spunk and playfulness (along with its staccato mono-syllabic charm). It’s a word that I use quite comfortably to describe and/or address my friends in social settings. It’s a word that I’m comfortable using to identify myself: a Jewish chick.
In the midst of JWA’s discussion, I curiously realized that “chick” only fell into my vernacular after spending four years in college with “Wellesley women.” Women was the only appropriate word to tack on to Wellesley (if not for empowerment, then certainly for alliteration) but many of my friends and I threw around “hey, chick” in ways that felt friendly, respectful, politically neutral, and not at all expressive of an anti- or post-feminist orientation that would undermine Wellesley's celebration of self-defined womanhood. There are, of course, the Dixie Chicks and Harriet Chick, the British protein scientist and nutritionist, whose “chickness” is, for many, more than just neutral; it’s refreshingly liberating. Furthermore, the blogosphere has more than a smattering of “chick” blogs including Eco-Chick, Downtown Chick Chat, and ChickChat Radio which may or may not be feminist in character. You be the judge. But the point is, “chick” has been reclaimed and, for my generation, seems to have shed the veiled—or not so veiled—misogyny it once wore.
Chick is not alone in this surge of reclamation. “Ladies” and “Dykes” have also made a come-back. Women’s-only events at Boston-area clubs are known as Ladies’ nights, while lesbian evening festivities have become tight-and-trendy Dyke Nights.
There are, of course, other words—more provocative ones, I’d argue— including “Queer” and “Jewess” that conjure up a similar kind of discomfort for some generations, but have been, in our office circle and in the greater world, reclaimed as empowering identities. After all, we’ve called our blog Jewesses With Attitude and devoted our entire first blog entry to the consideration of this choice. Ultimately, so much of our comfort and discomfort with words is grounded in context and personal experience. If you didn’t grow up in a time when being labeled a queer Jewess was painfully derogatory, I suppose there is nothing politically or personally off-putting about the shidduch of these words, though I’m curious what Lillian Wald or Rose Schneiderman would think if they knew people today were using queer Jewess as an out-and-proud, self-ascribed celebration of identity.
So I wonder: how do these words—Chick, Queer, Jewess, and so many others—swing in and out of political fashion? How do we decide what's savory enough to reclaim, and what's antiquated or offensive enough to discard? In twenty years, might a new generation be partying the night away at “Semitic Dame” night?