To The FemmeMobile! Away!

{April 14, 2010}   Gorgeous, and whether or not it’s gender neutral

There’s a discussion over on Genderfork about compliments and what ones are genderneutral.

It’s kind of making me twitch. I’m thinking some things that are possibly at odds with the rest of society, if the comments there are any indication, and making assumptions I probably shouldn’t be making.

The assumption I shouldn’t be making: I think most of these commenters grew up feminine.

The discussion being had is whether or not ‘gorgeous’ is gender neutral, and okay to use on anyone. The argument is that Brad Pitt and various other male actors are gorgeous. I agree with that argument, in fact, but I don’t think that makes ‘gorgeous’ a gender neutral compliment. I hear that word, and I instantly think feminine. However, if those comments are to be believed, I am part of a very small minority.

It’s still kind of making me twitch. Those people I hear using the word ‘gorgeous’ to describe multiple things, and sometimes men, are always women. I never hear guys use that word except on women. I definitely never hear them use those words on themselves. (It’s also being said over there that ‘pretty’ is another gender-neutral compliment which, again… no.) This is where that assumption-I-shouldn’t-be-making comes from — I’m wondering how many of the people commenting are feminine, or of a faggy persuasion.

Now, the funny thing is, I’d use gorgeous on Johnny Depp. But I do think he’s slightly feminine. I would say Brad Pitt or Robert Downey Jr have gorgeous bodies, but I wouldn’t say they were gorgeous. And part of the reason I’d feel comfortable using gorgeous on JD is simply because he comes across as so damn sure of himself, I don’t think it would be a threat to his masculinity.

I’d seriously hesitate before using it on a butch or transman. I would imagine that someone who’s grown up being shoved into a girl-role that doesn’t fit wouldn’t hear ‘gorgeous’ and think, “Ah! I am fucking sexy today! I am gorgeous in that male way that JD and Brad Pitt are!” I would imagine that instead they’d hear, “I am once again being shoved into a female role! Damn it! Stop that!” I imagine this because if someone told me I was handsome, I have to say, I’d be annoyed. I’d be slightly hurt. Handsome is masculine, and that’s not my thing. Even when I’m wearing men’s clothes I don’t think I look masculine — I look like a girl wearing men’s clothes, and the look I’m going for is pretty or delicate or cute or fiesty or tomboyish — but it isn’t masculine. I can think of women I would describe as handsome — Julia Roberts springs to mind, and she is also gorgeous — but that doesn’t mean it’s a gender neutral term: it just means some people straddle gender boundaries enough that it can apply.

BUT, I’m not butch. Maybe I’m completely off base here. Maybe ‘gorgeous’ has changed more than I think it has and has become gender neutral.

I had a conversation with DK once about compliments, and she mentioned she didn’t feel comfortable with ‘gorgeous’ or ‘pretty,’ but would rather hear ‘handsome.’ (She, along with Julia Roberts, fits that term — in a more masculine way. ;-D) I use ‘hot’ or ‘sexy’ as gender neutral terms, but maybe other people see those as having a feminine or masculine energy — I don’t know.

The whole conversation over there reminds me of conversations about people of color by white people. (That was a confusing sentence, I know. I’ll wait while you figure it out. ;)) It’s like listening to white people go on and on about race and racism and the terms they’ve figured out to use that aren’t racist — and then a PoC comes in and goes, “CHRIST, you people! YES, that’s offensive, and here’s why!” And all the white people stand around going, “…oh. We hadn’t thought of it that way. No, no, are you sure you’re not being over-sensitive? This is totally neutral.” I guess what I’m saying is, it reeks of privilege. These are people who can afford to see feminine terms as gender-neutral, because it isn’t their gender being threatened and diminished. (Constantly.)

*sighs* Or I’m way, way, waaaaay off base. There are so many agreements over there that it makes me think I could be way off base. I hate it when my use of language is turned around. 😉 Comments? Opinions? I’m not masculine, so maybe I’m wrong. In which case, someone explain it to me. Please. 😦


Nezu says:

From my perspective, you are so on base you’ve hit a home run. Gorgeous is slightly less gendered than “pretty” but it’s still mighty damn feminine. In fact, my dictionary defines it as “beautiful, very attractive”, and beautiful is definitely a feminine term.

A friend I happened to mention this issue to in passing (because she called while I was in the middle of writing this) said something along the lines of “If you can call a Ferrari gorgeous, the word’s gender-neutral,” but I think that’s not really the case. Women and inanimate objects* can be described as pretty, gorgeous, beautiful, stunning, exquisite, and so forth. Men, though, get only handsome and the very informal “hunky” as gender-specific superlatives. The rest of the terms for a highly attractive man are truly gender-neutral: sexy, hot, good-looking, cute, etc.

Men do occasionally get called gorgeous, but it’s almost always by a woman or a gay man. One thing that I think is important here is that applying the term gorgeous (or beautiful or pretty, for that matter) to a man in the third person is not the same as saying so to him directly. Additionally, the noun makes it clear that the term is being applied to a man. To say, “Brad Pitt is gorgeous,” is a rather feminine way of speaking. It borders on campy, in some ways; I can’t really imagine any straight man describing another man as gorgeous, but women and gay men do. There’s also a certain ironic quality to using a feminine adjective to describe a man, as if the man being described is so attractive that the masculine superlatives are simply inadequate. This also gets at the issue of the dearth of strongly masculine superlatives.

However, if you had a dinner date with Brad Pitt, and you said to him, “Hey, gorgeous,” or “You look gorgeous in that lilac shirt,” he’d probably be taken aback. (OK, I shouldn’t speak for Brad Pitt, but let’s pretend for the moment.) Unless you were a close friend, you’d be crossing a line. In fact I’d venture to say it’s unlikely you’d be comfortable using such language with him, because it would be a social transgression. It would be feminizing. It’s the mirror to your discomfort with being called “handsome”, which is masculinizing.

When my hair was still long I was always slightly uncomfortable when I got called pretty, but could never put my finger on why. Now that my hair is short and I’m dressing even more butch, it kind of gives me an inner flinch. The other day my friend Manny (a gay man) said something like, “Aww, you’re so pretty,” and I actually looked around to see who he was talking to. He laughed and said, “No, you, silly,” and I laughed and it was mostly okay, but a little not. It was just so dissonant with my self-concept, and my concept of what Manny might call me, that I seriously couldn’t even conceive that he’d meant me. But of course Manny is allowed to call me pretty, just as someone who was a close friend of Brad Pitt’s could probably get away with calling Brad gorgeous. Actually Manny and I sometimes call each other “gorgeous” but it’s with a strong sense of irony that comes from a close friendship between a femme fag and a butch dyke.

So anyway, yes, I think you’re right on target. Call me handsome to my face, not gorgeous. You can say “I’m seeing this gorgeous butch” to your friends, and that’d be okay, but it needs the noun to set the context. Otherwise it’s feminizing.


*The issue of women and inanimate objects sharing adjectives that don’t belong to men is an interesting one that I’m gonna leave aside for now, because I sense a huge seething can of linguistic worms there that I’m not even half-qualified to address.

JB says:

*nodsnods* Yes, exactly. Though not everyone seems to agree, so it’s something I’ll have to keep in mind. But this sort of summarizes how I feel about it. Thank you. 😀


yondergen says:

I’ve been watching that thread, and I find it graceless and ungentlemanly not to accept a complement, whether you agree with its potential to gender you or not.
That said, “gorgeous” is maybe gender-neutral in the same way “handsome” can be (“Diana” from Anne of Green Gables was, I remember specifically, ‘handsome’ and it was a good thing), “pretty” definitely is not. However, my favourite complements never mention how I look in the first place!

JB says:

While I agree it’s graceless not to accept a compliment, I think it’s equally graceless not to at least try to use a compliment the other person would be comfortable with. 😉

That said, I think “handsome” has become more masculine over the years — though looking at comments, I think perhaps “gorgeous” is… well, becoming more gender-neutral, if not exactly masculine. 😉 Once upon a time handsome was a good thing for women — such as in the time when Anne of Green Gables is placed — but not as much these days.

*grins* I think my favorite comments depend entirely on my mood, but I’ll try and remember that about you. 😉


Ki says:

OK, just to make sure I understand where you’re coming from: you think “gorgeous” tends to be used by women more than by men, and women tend to apply it pretty indiscriminately, but you’re uncomfortable when it’s used to describe masculine-presenting people, correct?

If so, I don’t think that’s off-base. I think you’re pretty accurate in your summaries: “gorgeous” is used by men (and perhaps masculine-presenting people) for (feminine) women, and there it works perfectly well. It’s also used by (femine) women for just about anyone, but sometimes it doesn’t work quite so well there. I might use “gorgeous” to describe an intensely attractive man in talking to my girlfriends, but I wouldn’t use it to his face. I’d rather hear him use it for me. I do think it’s a word with feminine connotations, which is why women can use it among themselves to talk about men, and men can use it to talk about women, but (straight) men wouldn’t use it for each other, and a masculine-presenting woman could easily be ruffled by hearing it used to describe her, because she’s used to hearing it in a feminine context.

On the other hand, I think “handsome” is an insult for a feminine woman, because I’ve only heard it used to describe women who are not conventionally beautiful but you need to say something nice about them. (This may also come from the types of books I read.) Even when used for a man, it means something different than “hot” or “gorgeous” to me. It’s shaped by my own experiences, though, as I think almost all words are for everyone–which is why you’re triggered by some things, and other people don’t see them as a problem at all. It’s less an issue of privilege, I think, and more of linguistic upbringing.

JB says:

Yes, exactly! I love that you can sum up my entire post in two and a half lines. ;-D

I think you’ve sort of nailed it for me in a nice, concise way. Thank you. *grins* I also think your comment about it having feminine connotations, and therefore used in the contexts you outlined is spot on — at least in my experiences. *grins* As you point out, and from the comments here, not everyone agrees and some people — even those of a masculine persuasion — see no problem with it. (Even Quin said she wouldn’t have a problem with it, which interested me. But she also said she’d assume the person meant her body was gorgeous, or that she’d take it as it was meant, which was another spin on things.)

And NOW I’m getting tangental, so I’ll wrap up. *grins* Thanks. 😀


Ki says:

Body as distinct from face, I presume? Which is kind of a weird line to draw–why is it okay for someone’s body to be gorgeous, but not their face?

Also, may I put a quiet vote in for maybe unmoderating comments? I can see why you imposed moderation in the first place, because that last thread got kind of out of whack, but it really inhibits further discussion >.> *has been wondering for a few days what other people thought about this topic*

Bond says:

I totally agree with you about “gorgeous.” There are true neutral compliments — anyone can look nice, stylish, smart, classy, fashionable, or great. I definitely don’t count gorgeous in that group. And anyway, in my experience, most butches take special delight in masculine compliments.

JB says:

*grins* In my limited experience, I’d have to agree — though Quin did mention she’d take the compliment as it was meant, or assume they were talking about her body, which was a twist I hadn’t thought of.

Thank you!


Freyr says:

one of my favorites besides handsome is when someone calls me “fine”… love getting the “ooh you look fine” or “you’re so fine.” I can see how this would be seen as not being gender neutral but it works for me as a transmasculine person…

JB says:

*laughs!* I think ‘fine’ might be one of those borderline ones — I think of it as pretty neutral, until I realize I wouldn’t say it to most men! One of those times when experience really sways you, maybe? 😀


JB says:

Ki – It won’t let me respond directly to you. 😛

Body vs face — I’m not sure, but at the same time I understand it on a gut-level. If I stop and think about it, though, if I say a man is gorgeous I probably mean his body, not his face, as his face is too masculine to be gorgeous (as I use the word). So maybe, since it’s used on men and conceivably for their bodies, she’d assume the same? I don’t know. I’m not sure that makes sense, but I have a feeling it’s something like that.

Modding comments — I probably will shortly, but I’m not quite ready, yet. I can’t just moderate certain discussions, sadly. 😦 However, in the interest of meeting halfway I will make sure to tune in at least once, and preferably twice, a day if only to click ‘okay’ on comments. 🙂


Ki says:

WordPress is weird, yo!

Hmm. I’m still not sure I can understand that distinction, because male bodies are, to me, much more masculine than male faces. What with all the different anatomy and all. XD And when I speak of a gorgeous guy, I think I tend to use it more for a guy who is very masculine–square jaw, rugged bone structure, strong brow ridge, etc., all of which are more in accordance with my ideal of masculine beauty. I’d be more likely to use “beautiful” for a more androgynous or feminine guy. Compare David Boreanaz to, say, Chace Crawford. (Of course, maybe it’s something about the alliteration: “gorgeous guy,” “beautiful boy”?)

I’m still not sure I’d use it to his face, but I can’t really imagine complimenting a guy’s looks to his face, either.

JB says:

Seriously! And each ‘style’ is different — some of them let you respond to specific comments forever, seemingly! But this one doesn’t. 😦

Hmmm. I think I’m more likely to use ‘gorgeous’ on either a guy who has a masculine, outstanding body (maybe that has to do with Nezu’s remark about there being a dearth of really great masculine compliments?), or a guy who sort of… is so attractive he transcends simply ‘handsome.’ I feel that way, for instance, about Johnny Depp. He’s not traditionally handsome, though he has all the handsome markers. I would call him gorgeous, though, and mean both body and face. And yet, mostly, if I say a guy is gorgeous I probably do mean their body is gorgeous, and their face is stunning but likely masculine. Hmm. I’m not sure! This is interesting to think about. 😀

*laughs* You should try! It’s fun, and they preen. You can even do it to your dad, if you start small. “You look very handsome!” or “That’s a nice suit.” They get all puffy and flustered at the same time. ;-D


G says:

I just got around to reading the other post and comments (even though I read yours days ago). I have a few thoughts, so hopefully they’ll be at least somewhat cohesive!

I don’t believe “gorgeous” – the word itself – is necessarily gendered; however, my first reaction to it is that the context in which I almost always hear it feels feminine, either due to the subject matter or in relation to the person speaking.

To me, the difference between most of those words isn’t the gender – it’s the intensity or context. Hot or sexy mean something entirely different to me than beautiful or dashing, which then in turn mean something entirely different to me than pretty or handsome. I would use them in completely different scenarios, which have nothing to do with gender.

But coming back to gorgeous … while it doesn’t feel like it necessarily fits, it doesn’t bother me to hear it, either. I like handsome better, but I try to judge people on intent; while the complimenter may not have the savviness to understand that I feel more masculine than that word does (and I feel it’s my responsibility to educate them about this), at the end of the day I feel most people are just trying to pass along some praise.

Sidebar: I couldn’t believe how many commenters on that other blog were upset at how effusive the word gorgeous is and used that as a reason to not like it. Maybe I’M way off-base in this, but I think the world could use MORE effusive comments to one another.

JB says:

I can’t decide what I think about the observation that ‘gorgeous’ as a word isn’t gendered, that it’s the context. On the one hand, I think you’re right, but on the other, you could say the same about almost any word. Or maybe not. I have to think about it more. ;-D

Since posting this, I think I’ve shifted my beliefs a little. Maybe gorgeous isn’t as feminine as I initially thought — though I do think I hear it more often in feminine contexts. So maybe you’re right after all, and it’s not the word, it’s the usage. *laughs*

Effusive — I felt the same way you do! But I know a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with big comments, who feel like it’s too over-the-top. How sad. I like them. 😉


Rebeca says:

Well that proves it gorgeous is really only used on women

Phallocentric keylogger in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. It’s not a control mechanism, it’s essentially and ad mechanism, to try and target donations and volunteer projects to those who are using your computer. Another type of Keylogger, information gathering, suspicious activities or anything that looks out of place. You have the choice to either place the cameras in your video security system is entirely set up, if not decades.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

et cetera
%d bloggers like this: