We Need a Word Besides ‘Badass’ for Our Heroines

What was once patronizing and gendered is now maddeningly vague and borderline inscrutable. It’s a collection of AI-generated slay queen, #girlboss memes gathered into a single word.

We Need a Word Besides ‘Badass’ for Our Heroines
This woman can’t stop cringing because the internet keeps telling her that every woman who ever existed is a badass. Photo: Shutterstock

I am finished with the b-word. It’s been applied to every woman who has ever been publicly competent at anything. It’s been worked to death and rendered meaningless. Everyone from Courtney Love to Martha Stewart to Rosa Parks has been described as one and, at this point, it’s so overused that to call a woman this is a form of dada performance art. 

In short: We simply have to stop using the word “badass” to describe any/every woman on earth who has entered the cultural dialogue for something other than a federal crime. And, I’m not a language cop but just know that if you use “badass” and think it conveys anything at all, you simply must think again.

What was once patronizing and gendered is now maddeningly vague and borderline inscrutable. It’s a collection of AI-generated slay queen, #girlboss memes gathered into a single word. Don’t believe me? Here’s a list of women the Internet has described as “badass”:

Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Zendaya, Moana, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Princess Diana, Harriet Tubman, 11 from Stranger Things, Eve from the Bible, Queen Elizabeth II, Meghan Markle, Michelle, Malia AND Sasha Obama, Amelia Earhart, Malala, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana’s character from Avatar) and the mother of any baby wearing this onesie from Etsy.

I beg someone, anyone to explain to me what Harriett Tubman, the telepath child from Netflix, and biblical Eve all have in common? Yes, I know they are badasses, for the internet has told me as much. That’s about as far as we can stretch the connective tissue linking these women. A badass is a badass because a badass is a badass.

I reached this rebellious state against the b-word in January, while watching Jenna Bush Hager interview Sarah J. Maas, the insanely bestselling author of A Court of Thorns and Roses. Jenna was chatting with her about the third installment of her Crescent City series, which is anchored by finely drawn, complicated, usually magical heroines like Feyre Archeron and Bryce Quinlan.

JBH, in an attempt to (I think) compliment Maas’s heroines, seemed to choke on the word “badass”ultimately, she was gagging because you can’t use a word as scandalous as “badass” on morning TV. But for a moment, for just a moment, I thought she was searching for a more apt, meaningful descriptor than “badass.” She wasn’t.

The heroines in Maas’s books have so many distinctive, exciting qualities, all of which are very important to me. They are intelligent, sometimes brilliant tacticians, powerful, frequently relatable, and sometimes even funny. To hear them reduced to “badass” drove me over the edge. I then realized that, at some point, calling a woman “badass” had become just that: reductive. I wondered when this happened–when had “badass” jumped the shark?

The word badass first originated in the 1950s and was used to describe cool dudes and bad boys. (You know, leather jacket, pompadour, authority issues, etc.) The connotation was slightly negative and generally only applied to men. At some point, badass became a term used for women who liked video games or could wield a sword. Sure you could call Luke Skywalker a badass but it felt way more applicable to Leia. Fast-forward several decades to 2015 when Google Trends reported that searches of “badass women” were at an all-time high. That year was also when the discourse around women-as-badasses seemed to begin in earnest. 

Some folks were like, “Awesome! Women are badasses too! This, indeed, is feminism.” Others felt differently. Being called a badass felt like being called “ballsy” or told to lean in, all nods to the idea that the main problem with women is that they aren’t men.

Then in 2019, Meghan Trainor released a song called “Badass Woman” that seems to have kicked up the badass discourse once more. In the song, Meghan sings alternately about being “the boss,” “smarter than you think,” a person who never says “sorry,” and finally a person who “doesn’t need a body to prove I’m worth your time.”

(And here, I must digress. Meghan, you don’t need…a body? Maybe in a few years, when we finally experience the singularity, the anti-corporealist movement will come for me but I’ll say it: I actually do think you need a body of some kind to be alive. But that’s me and my baggage!)

Anyway, in 2019 there was another spate of articles about “badass women”–mostly about how the term felt patronizing, like a verbal pat on the head. Like a man with a #GirlDad t-shirt thumping you on the back and calling you a girlboss for getting your flu shot. The intention might be good but boy oh boy are you missing the mark, Mr. Girl Dad. 

And I do feel like the last bastion of badass as a description is speculative fiction and the media that surrounds it. Violet Sorrengail, Feyre Archeron, Chani, Wonder Woman, all are first and foremost badass. These women are at turns cunning, physically strong, courageous, and compelling. Those words mean something to me, I can wrap my head around them and start to form a mental picture. But label them badass and the picture morphs into a gun with breasts.

We have other words that translate to actual, distinctive characteristics for our heroines both fictional and flesh (whether or not they NEED that body, who can say). So I think we have to use those words. We need a one-year moratorium on using the word badass anywhere in print. (My one-year moratorium starts tomorrow.) I cannot live in a world where we’re content to accept that Margaret Thatcher and Moana have literally a single thing in common other than, I guess, their pronouns. 

But what if in the Moana sequel, Disney writes Moana to identify as genderfluid or non-binary. You might ask. That would be so badass revolutionary. Or radical. Or even just INTERESTING. Take your pick.

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