Political Correctness Update: Regarding the Meaning of “Broad”

In the thread following my post regarding Bill Maher calling Sarah Palin a “dumb twat,” I was asked about where “broad” and “babe” fall on the spectrum of misogynistic insults. I replied..

“Babe” and “broad,”: unlike “twat” are almost always intended as a compliment. I would never use either of the first two in direct address of a woman until I was certain that she would take it the right way. In fact, compliments are determined by reasonable intent—some women are insulted, or claim to be, if you say they look nice. In sexual harassment law, it is indeed the object/victim/ accuser who gets to define the dispute (if she likes “broad,” there’s no complaint…if she doesn’t, you better apologize quickly.) That’s the law—that doesn’t mean that a comment reasonably intended as a compliment suddenly becomes uncivil because of a hairtrigger offense.”

This prompted indignant replies from several, reaching a crescendo that indicated that I was hopelessly archaic, and that “broad’ was now officially an insult, an offensive insult, and nothing but an insult. I gave up to the onslaught, and agreed that “broad” was, in fact, now an insult.

In the Sunday’s New York Times,a profile of Kathleen Turner (the headline? “Need a Broad? Call Turner”) quoted the author of the new play Turner is about to star in on Broadway as saying this: “What made Kathleen Turner right for the part? In a word, I needed a broad, and when you think of a broad, you think of Kathleen Turner.”

The writer of the article, the Times editors, the playwright and presumably Turner apparently regard the complimentary meaning of broad sufficiently clear that it did not require further explanation. This indicates to me that I capitulated to my critics on this point prematurely, and should have stuck to my ethical guns. Directed to a woman who understands the term, there is nothing uncivil, rude or unethical in referring to her as “a broad.”

By the way, I love Kathleen Turner.

And she is definitely a broad.

16 thoughts on “Political Correctness Update: Regarding the Meaning of “Broad”

  1. The late Elizabet Taylor sometimes referred to herself as a “broad”.

    Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyric from “Honey Bun” in his and Richard Rodgers’ “South Pacific” describes her thus: “…and she’s broad where a broad should be broad.”

    There’s also a controversy saying it’s no longer PC (if it ever was) to refer to a Native American woman as a “squaw” – that in some Algonqian dialects it means “female genitals” or even the C-Word.

    Let the professional linguists and semanticists argue that one.

  2. I believe this falls into the category of “cannot please all the people all the time.”

    There will always be someone willing to be offended by a compliment. Besides, who do we turn to to decide what is misogynistic? NOW cannot be trusted as the organization is misogynistic itself.

    I believe you were right the first time. It all depends on the person.

  3. According to most of the English language dictionaries, “broad” is a vulgar term for a woman. I happen to have a 1980 dictionary and even there it states: [slang] a woman; a vulgar term of contempt.
    I think going back to the 1920s-60s it was more acceptable in certain groups.

    • Liane is definitely correct—in show biz, for example (and that is my orientation), both “broad’ and “babe” are descriptive and considered compliments: Broads—Turner, Elizabeth Ashley, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Rivers, Candace Bergen, Wendy Williams, Raquel Welch, Dolly Parton, Kathy Bates, Shirley MacLaine…etc.

      Dictionaries are not always accurate about how words are used in reality—this seems to be one of those times.

  4. I think it’s a dialectical thing. “Broad” is more common in other areas — NY being one of them — and so is more accepted. In Virginia, I rarely hear it, and as the unusual it gets more attention. Personally, unless said with a sneer or paired with a undebatably unpleasant adjective, I generally let it all go and give the speaker the benefit of the doubt. Can’t we all just get along?

  5. In addition, a sex-based insult is not automatically misogynistic (misandristic)—and I find it highly disturbing that some people jump to this mis-conclusion. There is a differnt between making a sex-appropriate insult (e.g. “bitch” vs. “son of a bitch”, c**t vs d**k) and expressing negative feelings about the opposite sex. If nothing else, women are the ones who, in my experience, use the most sex-appropriate insults towards other women.

    For that matter, I read a blog discussion sometime last year where “bitch” was discussed on a tangent: One of the participants noted that to him, as a dog breeder, “bitch” was an everyday word and attempts to censor it absurd.

    On a tangent of my own: I find it very wrong that the alleged victim is allowed to define what constitutes harassment. To guarantee proper rights before the law, it must be the alleged perpetrators intentions that count, unless we discuss one of those any-sane-human-would-realize-that-X things.

  6. I’m late on this issue, but excuse me and good God! You all are arguing about words like “broad” and “babe” when Maher called Sarah Palin a TWAT???! Why not just call her a cunt? There are no uglier words in the English language that refer to women than those two.

    Maher is a hateful man who dislikes and disrespects Sarah Palin and this is the worst insult he can come up with? There are dozens of ways to insult Palin should one desire to do so (and I’m sure he has). Instead, to underscore his disrespect he uses this totally offensive descriptor for shock value and, probably, more for his own amusement than anything else. I would like to think that he has such a limited vocabulary that he couldn’t come up with a more creative, descriptive insult. But no. He’s just an ugly-minded egotist with nothing to share except, in this case, smut.

    I don’t care one whit about his misguided political beliefs, or the fact that he is neither amusing nor informative, but I do take issue with the fact that he would use a word like “twat” to describe ANY woman. The fact that he doesn’t respect or like Sarah Palin gives him no quarter to make that kind of insult.

    I can’t believe he got away with it. He is lazy, hurtful, totally without human kindness, just plain hateful, and clearly a misogynist. No man who has respect for ANY woman would use such a word to describe one… no matter what he may think of her personally.

  7. @Elizabeth

    “No man who has respect for ANY woman would use such a word to describe one… no matter what he may think of her personally.”

    Exactly the type of fallacy that I point to in the previous comment…

    To imagine that use of a word like “twat”, (“dick”, “cunt”, “bitch”, “son of a bitch”, …) says anything about the speakers general feelings towards the sex in question is both narrow-minded and unfair. (I stress that I know next to nothing about Maher and make no statement about specifically his opinions.)

    Also note that this post appears to be a digression of a post that did deal with the use of “twat”.

    • I don’t understand your point at all, Michael, especially in relation to a comment like “dumb twat.” “Dumb” is derisive, abd “twat” is pared with it as a disrespectful and insulting gender-antagonistic word. Words have meanings. Finding obscure meanings for words clearly being used to mean something else is pedantry, nothing more. One who has respect for women and believes that they deserve civil treatment will not call any woman a “cunt,’ for example. I’ll concede the versatility of “bitch”, but your general assertion is as wrong as it could be.

      And completely irrelevant in Maher’s case, who believes women are for sex, period, and who derides any serious relationship with women, which itself is a measure of disrespect.

      • “Twat” is not inherently gender-antagonistic, merely gender-specific. (To phrase it differently, “twat” is a sex-specific insult, but not a sexist insult.) The same applies to “cunt’. Understanding this difference is crucial to understanding the issue I address.

        Your assertions merely show how you, personally, may tick with regard to insults. Many others tick differently and it is wrong for you to generalize about others in this regard. It is very, very possible to use worlds like those above without having any implication outside of the individual it is used about—even if you, personally, are not able to do so. As already stated, women appear to use words like “cunt” more frequently than men; men, in turn, have been known to refer to other men by e.g. “dick” or “prick”.

        Words have meanings—and the meaning of “twat” (in this context) is “a woman who is an idiot” (or evil, mean, incompetent, …, depending on the speaker and situation). There is no justification whatsoever in concluding that the speaker has negative feelings about women in general. Indeed, doing so would not merely be illogical, but also cause for an ethical alarm…

        (As stated, I have no knowledge about Maher. His language and opinions do not alter the principle, however. The existence of a black sheep that goes “baah” does not make all sheep that go “baah” black.)

        • It’s an interesting hypothesis. Personally, I think it is utter, UTTER, nonsense, but you are welcome to it.

          I would be deeply suspicious of any male who refers to women as “cunts’ or “twats” in any context, as, I believe, would most women. The words are violent language, and have hateful implications. I have no doubt that the population of men who use these terms contain a far, far higher percentage of abusers, sexists, misogynists and harassers than the group of men who, like myself, would never use the terms without washing my mouth out with soap afterwards.

          • Again your personal feelings merely describe you, and as is your statement is politically correct nonsense of a kind I really did not expect from you.

            Note that there is a major difference between not understanding a point and understanding it but disagreeing. From your statements above it is manifestly clear that you belong in the first category on this particular issue.

            • This is not political correctness. A man using “cunt” or “twat” is exactly like a white man using “nigger.” the nature of the dehumanizing sentiments expressed is exactly the same. Requiring respect and civility is not political correctness. People are welcome to use whatever hateful terms they please, and I will not presume bigotry based on extrapolation or innuendo. These words are direct and general denigrations based on group disrespect. If one respects women, there is no such thing as a “twat.”

              Unless your usual communication skills have failed you spectacularly, I understand your point. I think it is a lousy one, that’s all.

              • (Resubmit due to connection failure.)

                Claims like “dehumanizing sentiments” and “direct and general denigrations based on group disrespect”” are wide off the mark: The point is that there is nothing about these statements that extend to the group and that there is no reason to expecta large difference of opinion when compared to those who do not use it—exactly the opposite of what you seem to believe. (And even if there was such a difference, it would not generalize to an overwhelming majority of the users—as is proved by how widely some of these words are used.)

                The comparison with “nigger” is not correct, because any adult white person who uses that word today will know that it will be taken as a marker of a particular direction of opinion—and anyone whose opinions are not in that direction will avoid the word for that reason (unless trying to deliberately create the wrong impression, for whatever reason). This marker effect, and the crucial difference it makes, is not present for the words discussed above. (Even if some individuals, it seems, take the marker to be present.) Further, “nigger” does refer to all individuals of the group; the words above refer only to a subset of the group, namely those who are idiots, evil, mean, whatnot. “Nigger” is a synonym (no matter how ill advised) for “black”; “twat” is not a synonym for woman.

                Spinning the last thought further, I would contrast two hypothetical scenarios:

                In the first, a random man of streets walks by Palin, gives her a despising look and says, with equally despising voice, “Twat!”.

                In the second, the same events play out with the phrase “Woman!”.

                Here the difference is rather clear: In the first case, Palin is insulted as an individual who is incidentally a woman. In the second, her womanness is the core of the insult and deficits in women as a group are implied. Consider also altering the scenarios to use “Dick!” and “Man!”: In the first case, womanness being incidental, the insult still works and brings over roughly the same meaning. In the second, womanness being central, there is a complete disconnect and the statement becomes meaningless. (Assuming the same intentions: “Man!” could still be a conceivable insult with a different meaning, e.g. that Palin would not be a “real” woman. Note, however, that the group implications would disappear.) The man using the harmless word “woman” is actually, in this particular case, far more likely to think poorly of women than the one using the word “twat” …

                (Seeing that I have no great hopes of convincing you, should the above fail, I will probably let this be my last comment.)

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