Redefining “badass”

The success of women is often judged on sexist terms

I’ve had the privilege of being called “badass” a few times. Usually coming with an eyebrow raise or a nod of approval, it’s an expression of someone impressed, a compliment. And it’s sexist.

Ubiquitously used to describe women who succeed, “badass” concentrates all the stupidity of the “girls can be just like boys” brand of feminism into a word. “Badass” praises women for being tough, unemotional do-ers — in short, for acting traditionally masculine — and its ubiquity reveals how uncomfortable we really are with femininity, how much the measuring stick for success as a woman is aligned with masculinity.

As someone who a) really loves outdoor sports and b) cries a lot, I have a complicated personal relationship with the word badass. “Badass” is applied to women in sports like climbing, skiing and rafting with even more zeal and frequency than most realms, I think because of both the nature of what we’re doing and the way that outdoor people tend to talk in dialect. It’s become not only the catch-all word for female success but an aspiration, a bar toward which a woman should reach. In sports that center around facing fear, being strong and (at least historically) presenting macho-ness, it makes sense that a word that so succinctly acknowledges these qualities would become high praise.

But it’s a word I’ve never heard used to describe a man, and more often than not it’s doled out like a gold star to women who impress dudes aspiring to the same things. That’s not to say that women don’t call each other badass all the time — we do. But it’s inherently praise for succeeding on traditionally masculine terms and for a kind of unemotional, deal-with-it attitude.

Like I said, I cry a lot. I’m really good at crying and multi-tasking: I cry through the hard parts of climbs, I cry through writing papers I’m stressed about, I cry when I’m angry with someone and talking it out. It doesn’t stop me from doing hard things or make me any less capable of doing them well — it’s just how I express emotion. And it’s not particularly badass, because it doesn’t fit into the “kicking ass and taking names” kind of cool that “badass” implies.  

Culturally, we freak out about crying. It makes people uncomfortable, even when tears make sense and are simply an expression of feelings deeply felt. We are, generally, uncomfortable both with feelings and with vulnerability, and tears seem to express both. We call crying feminine and use that designation to dismiss it.

I hate to imply that crying is feminine, or that emotion is feminine, because everyone with two brain cells knows (at least intellectually) that both are just inescapable parts of being human. But it’s worth asking what it means to succeed not just as a woman, but in a feminine way. For me, part of that is accepting expression of emotion far more than we currently do in traditionally masculine fields.

Recently, I cried my way through a rock climbing route that was challenging for me. I literally sobbed, shaking hard enough that my belay partner could feel it on the other end of the rope. When I made it back down, I got a high five and a “hell yeah, that was awesome.” My partner, a guy I’ve known since I was a little kid, was nothing but kind and positive, rejecting my apologies for taking too long, for crying. His acceptance made me realize how unusual it is for me to feel okay expressing what I feel in any situation where I have to prove myself. It’s so easy to just be unfazed by expressions of feelings, give the same enthusiasm you’d give if they weren’t expressing emotion or even offer to talk if you’re worried about someone. It’s not a scary thing to feel emotion, and, for someone like me who cries at everything, it’s incredibly helpful to not feel judged or “lesser” because of a couple tears.

Written by: Anna Kristina Moseidjord — akmoseid@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Iodized Salt

    A new edition of “Feminists Have Run out of Things to Complain About,” my favorite!

    “But it’s a word I’ve never heard used to describe a man…”

    I just facepalmed a dent in my forehead.

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