Chicks, broads, and sluts in context: Yo, people, lighten up

 jaciblog jaci-smith

Jaci Smith, managing editor of the Northfield News, has been getting hammered by citizens who were offended by her Broadening the Field front-page headline in the Nov. 5 edition of the paper, announcing the results of the city council elections.

See the letters to the editor in this week’s paper. Her column in last Saturday’s paper was titled, Defining a ‘broad,’ and a race in which she wrote:

In my e-mail to the councilors- and mayor-elect, I wrote that I think of a “broad” as a woman who is smart, savvy, tough and confident; a woman who can balance work, family and business and still find a way to be involved in the community. A leader. I can’t think of anything we need more for our city. So, in my eagerness to impart that message in three words or less on Tuesday night, “Broadening the field” seemed appropriate.

I am profoundly relieved that our new female leadership took the headline in the spirit that it was intended. But by choosing the headline I did, I managed to sidetrack the momentum and the conversation from all the exciting possibilities before us onto something much less interesting and noteworthy. And that’s what I regret most of all.

We joked about ‘broads’ vs. ‘chicks’ on this week’s Locally Grown podcast… a show where Ross and I regularly turn to Tracy and say, “Tracy, you ignorant slut!” ala Dan Akroyd-to-Jane Curtin in SNL’s Counterpoint.

I thought Jaci’s headline was clever.  If the term once was offensive, it no longer is, just like the phrase “that sucks” used be offensive but no longer is. Even old timers from Frank Sinatra’s day might remember that he used ‘broad’ as an affectionate term for a girl or woman with sex appeal.

Jaci should not have (weakly) apologized, but rather should have defended herself by citing none other than Eve Webster, president of the League of Women Voters Northfield-Cannon Falls, who was quoted by Suzi Rook in the Northfield News in October:

Having women and men at the table when determining the city’s course is important, said Thurston, who served two terms on the council. “I think it’s good to have a woman’s voice and a man’s,” she said. Webster, with the LWV, agrees. Decisions about public policy are more wisely made when a variety of perspectives are available,” she said. “It’s a matter of broadening the field.”


  1. Barb Kuhlman said:

    Sorry, Griff, but you are wrong. No, wait, I am not sorry to say you are wrong to say the word “broad” to define a woman in no longer offensive. People were offended; therefore you are indeed wrong. You went to a website that purports to know what Frank Sinatra meant by the word “broad.” Only if Frank were around to ask could we actually know that. Given the era and the lifestyle he lived, I think it would go a bit further than “a woman with sex appeal,” and be more demeaning. And even if he meant that, what does that have to do with a newpaper article about women being elected to mayor/council positions? Imagine an article titled, for example, “Stud Kris Vohs beats Dana Graham based on his sex appeal.” Perhaps you should have done some more research on the origin of the term “broad.” It’s not complimentary.

    I am sure you thought it was clever to quote Eve Webster out of context. Eve of course was using the word “broadening” in the context of expanding the depth and breadth of talent and opinions. I wonder how Eve feels about that.

    You are right that some words have lost their power to offend, based on increasing use in our culture. Tracy may be OK with you calling her an ignorant slut in your camaraderie. However if I were to overhear someone calling a woman a slut in a different context, I would take it as a pejorative with the tradtional meaning. People fling four-letter words around today in a manner which would have shocked our parents and grandparents. Still, I’ve never seen a headline saying “ECONOMY SUCKS.” And I don’t expect to see the infamous “F word” in the newspaper, regardless of the increase of its use in everyday language.

    Jaci’s apology was no “mea culpa.” It was of the “I’m-sorry-if-anyone-was-offended-but-I-didn’t-do- anything-wrong” variety. She also tried to say the word “broad” had lost it’s power to offend. People, both men and women, were offended, so obviously she was wrong. I personally thought the play on words was weak, not funny, and demeaning. Do I think Jaci intended that? No, I just think she used poor judgment, then tried to justify it.

    Griff you just don’t have the authority to tell people what they shouldn’t be offended by. You may be God on LGN, but not anywhere else.

    November 16, 2008
  2. Jane Moline said:

    I agree with Barb. There is no reason for the News to be vulgar, and then claim it is OK to be vulgar because some people are not offended by vulgarity.

    There is no excuse for bad taste, and I guess you can’t teach some people how to have good taste. Jaci should try to fake it.

    It is funny how it is always women who are suppose to “lighten up.”

    Also, referring to a woman as “a broad” and then claiming that it is some kind of back-handed compliment–well, it just doesn’t work.

    November 16, 2008
  3. Anne Bretts said:

    This is so interesting, because I saw the headline and thought how old-fashioned it was. I was more concerned that the story lumped the candidates together because they were women, when gender had almost nothing to do with this election. In fact, coming from a backwater Indiana town that has had women mayors and councilors for more than 20 years, I found it odd that Northfield, which considers itself so progressive, is so far behind the times in getting women to step up to the plate.
    As for the word broad, I empathize with the women who are offended, even though I disagree with them.
    I think Jaci is a great broad, one of many who have used the term — much as they used dame — as one of strength and power. Writer Molly Ivins probably was one of the best known broads of our generation. Mary Martin was one of many to note that Ethel Merman was a great broad. On the women’s site WOWOWOW, a birthday tribute to Lauren Bacall featured many powerful women using the term in their greetings to her. There is even an environmental group called Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
    I realize that the word once had a bad connotation, but I know that even back in the 40s and 50s, women used the term to liberate themselves from the restrictions that came with the word lady.
    I don’t like sucks, or the f-word either, and I wouldn’t expect them in the News. But Jaci is a breath of fresh air in Northfield, and broad is something I see as more of a cultural issue, a reflection that there are people in Northfield with different backgrounds and sensibilities. And it was just a single headline, done with the best of intentions and not offensive to any of the women in the story.
    I think this is an interesting lesson in diversity and a failed attempt at humor. Indeed Jaci should be sorry that people were offended, but not sorry for her interpretation of the word or her willingness to try something new.

    November 16, 2008
  4. Griff Wigley said:

    Barb/Jane, I’m not arguing for vulgarity in a headline. I’m arguing that the word ‘broad’ is no longer vulgar for most of the population of Northfield.

    I understand that it is vulgar for you and the others who wrote letters objecting. But that doesn’t mean a newspaper should avoid it. It’s a judgment call.

    The Star Tribune, NY Times, Time mag, etc all regularly run photos of women with low-cut necklines and men in low-cut underwear. Many readers find that vulgar/offensive yet the publications are making judgment calls on what’s culturally acceptable for their overall readership and how ‘edgy’ they want their publications to be.

    I think Jaci assessed the Northfield News readership correctly, even though some were offended.

    If there are men out there offended by my Save the Penis blog post, I’d say the same: lighten up!

    November 17, 2008
  5. Tracy Davis said:

    The issue isn’t just the words, but who’s saying them. Context matters.

    I doubt I’d have any objection if another woman referred to me as a “broad” or a “chick”. However, if a man used those terms, especially a man I don’t know, it could be offensive.

    Sorta like the way African-Americans can sometimes use the “n” word amongst themselves, but it would be extremely offensive if a white person did so.

    I give Griff a pass for the Not Ready For Prime Time reference, but I’m starting to get tired of having to explain to people why it’s not an insult (or at least, why I don’t take it that way).

    November 17, 2008
  6. Jane Moline said:

    Griff: Just because a word has a more common usage does not make it less vulgar. People have become accustomed to women being referred to in a demeaning way. Just because that does not bother you or Jaci is more a sign of your lack of understanding of language and lack of sensitivity to the current backlash against women in our society.

    November 17, 2008
  7. Anne Bretts said:

    Wait a second, Jane, you don’t speak for all women, either. Please don’t tell me I should be offended by a word I find quite wonderful and empowering. I acknowledge your right to be offended, so we need to respect our differences on this one.
    I’m fine with you being a lady, but quite happy to continue being a tough old broad myself.

    November 17, 2008
  8. Griff Wigley said:

    Jane and Peter,

    I’ve moderated both your most recent comments for violating our guidelines on sarcasm and nastiness.

    Can you try again?

    November 18, 2008
  9. Anne Bretts said:

    Griff, I think you need to delete my comment, which was a response to Jane’s comment, which you deleted.

    November 18, 2008
  10. Peter Millin said:

    I can’t read Jaci’s mind but I am pretty sure that her headline was not meant derogatory.

    It never ever crossed my mind as being demeaning until some here mentioned it.

    People are getting more and more uptight on just about everything.

    This type of hyper sensitivity destroys our society and makes people defensive, which is not a good starting point for any discussion.

    November 18, 2008
  11. kiffi summa said:

    Interesting to note on this thread that is basically discussing the editorial intent of a headline by the NFNews that another NF news ‘problem’ … the anonymity they allow on their website comments, has proved to be a BIG problem for the Mankato Free Press, which has shut down anonymous comments.
    “Trolls” generally prevail in these anonymous situations, and exist to pick fights and make accusations which cannot be proven, whereas using your real name insures higher credibility, or at least accountability.
    Having said that , the old tiresome argument of some people being “afraid to voice their opinion because of fear of criticism” will certainly arise, but that holds little water, and covers many leaks, and floods, of irresponsible behavior.
    Google Mankato Free Press and anonymous, and you can read some of the articles on this subject.
    It is said that eliminating that comment space will lose the Mankato paper some sidebar advertising space; knowing how important advertising dollars are to small newspapers, it’s good to see that they chose the more journalistically principled position.

    November 18, 2008
  12. Jane Moline said:

    Anne: I agree with you–you have a right not to be offended, nor do I speak for all women.

    What I am trying to communicate is that telling someone to lighten up is in itself insulting–it is a claim to know when a person should or should not take offense.

    Personally, if Griff had not blogged about this topic I would not have had any comment on the headline–I really have a thicker skin, and see parochial vulgarities in everyday life–it is really too much to expect to react to each. But Griff’s blog that deigned to interpret the reaction to the poor choice in a headline appears to endorse what I think is a societal denigration of women that is socially acceptable. I, however, find it unacceptable. We are constantly letting our language and behavior deteriorate–the equivalent of wearing baggy falling-down gangsta pants to church.

    November 18, 2008
  13. john george said:

    I’ve lost more good comments (or at least I think so) because of this blasted pagination format! Well, here goes again.

    Jane- I appreciate your comment,

    “…What I am trying to communicate is that telling someone to lighten up is in itself insulting–it is a claim to know when a person should or should not take offense…”

    I believe that many offenses are subjective, and therefore not “right” or “wrong.” Part of maturity is being able to recognize what is offensive to a person and adjusting our behavior accordingly out of respect for that person. I can gaurantee you that if I had not recognized my own behaviors that were offensive to my wife and adjusted my behavior accordingly, she would have left me long ago, and rightfully so. I have an opinion that many of our social ills are due to the concept of “zero tolerance”. I’m not naive enough to believe that we can live in a city this size and not offend someone some time, try as we might. When the offense arises, it is an opportunity to communicate, attain understanding, ask forgiveness and be reconciled. But to be obstinant about what we have said or done and refuse to listen or adjust our behavior/speech leads only to discord and division.

    November 18, 2008
  14. Paul Fried said:

    The more public (the broader? literally, no pun intended) the context, the more one risks offending; hence Jaci at the News might have gotten by in a group of women, using the term, and the other women might have rolled their eyes but let it pass (inflection and facial expressions in a personal context might communicate more, including an awareness that the term might be considered derogatory).

    If it was a subscription email-newsletter from the “Throw another log on the fire” society, you’d hardly hear a protest.

    But at NNews and LoGroNo, I think you’re taking risks; for example, even “Tracy, you ignorant slut” on a podcast seems to assume (by Griff’s reckoning) that it’s a kind of inside joke understood by the trio and listeners… well, and if you are expanding your listener-ship at all, you are also assuming that new listeners better get with it regarding all your inside jokes. Seems “context is everything” assumes too much even about your own audience.

    November 19, 2008
  15. kiffi summa said:

    Paul, you’re right … “context is everything” and on an issue like this, everyone has a right to decide what the context for their evaluation of the remark is …rather than have someone else decide whether or not there should be offense given, or taken.

    This is why, IMO, the News is getting into such deep murky waters, journalistically, when they allow their anonymous comments to become primarily an electronic chat room for misinformation and character defamation… possibly even more than that.

    November 20, 2008
  16. Barb Kuhlman said:

    Jane, Tracy and Paul: I appreciated your comments.

    Griff: I have been thinking about your presumption to tell people to lighten up as well as your use of “you ignorant slut.” You pass it off as an inside joke, but it still illustrates the denigration of women. Here’s why. Because there is no male equivalent for the word, just as there is no male equivalent for words like bitch, whore, (or broad), at least none that carry the same derogatory connotation or emotional weight. And who says it about whom? Do you have a pet insulting name for Ross? Does Ross call you names? Does Traci get to call you names (for example, how about an inside joke about the name Brad is called during the Rocky Horror show)? She wouldn’t do that, not only because it is tasteless (and maybe not allowable on the air) but also because it’s been mostly men who have called women derogatory names and, until a few decades ago, got away with it.

    Peter: You called being offended by the word “broad” used to describe our new civil servants, “hypersensitive.” Many Americans used to call African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups words which we came to see were demeaning. Most thoughtful, intelligent people also no longer use cruel and hurtful nicknames and labels for the mentally and physically disabled. Is that being hypersensitive? Or is it just because the word “broad” is a word used to describe women that it is “hypersensitive?” It would seem to me that insensitivity, rather than hypersensitivity, would be a larger barrier to communication.

    November 20, 2008
  17. Anne Bretts said:

    Barb, you make some really good points and I appreciate your effective way of describing the impact of some words. I agree, there are words, such as whore and slut, that I find insulting and not funny at all. I think you raise a very good point that there are no equivalent terms for men.
    I do think we have to be sensitive to each other’s feelings. And I respect your concern over the word broad.
    I do think broad falls into a different category, however. I’m in my 50s and I grew up watching World War II movies where broads were tough, strong women who could hold their own in a man’s world. My whole life I have heard that word used by women as a term of empowerment. Molly Ivins, Ethel Merman, Elizabeth Taylor and more all found the term a compliment. And the word was used in mainstream publications, without wimping out by using br***d.
    Shelley Winters thought herself a broad, saying, “I have bursts of being a lady, but it doesn’t last long.”
    On the other hand, an item from the Random House Word of the Day describes the word as offensive.
    I think this is a word where there are legitimate differences in perspective, background and usage.
    Thanks for making this such an interesting conversation.

    November 20, 2008
  18. Nathan E. Kuhlman said:

    You can’t swing a dead cat in Northfield without offending somebody. Without too much discussion about the present offensive capacity of various slang, I would have to say I find alarming the increasing ‘colloquialization’ of the news media as exemplified by this headline.

    There is language that is relatively inoffensive in the locker room that would be highly inappropriate, say, in a court room or a class room. Since the print media exist in part to be a semiofficial record of public affairs, I find it troublesome when their tone drifts into such a casual level.

    Sorry to respond to this ancient thread.

    November 21, 2008
  19. Griff Wigley said:

    There’s a feminist bookstore in Milwaukee named Broad Vocabulary:

    We specialize in feminist books and magazines, including feminist theory, subculture studies, progressive politics, cultural movements, and anti-sexist/anti-racist young adult and children’s books.

    And now this: Help Save Broad Vocabulary

    The owners of Broad Vocabulary announced earlier this month that the feminist bookstore would be closing its doors for good by December — that is, unless someone stepped in to take the struggling shop off their hands. Enter A Broader Vocabulary, a newly formed cooperative that is working to purchase the store, with what they hope will be an outpouring of support from the community.

    December 7, 2008
  20. martha cashman said:

    Like Barb, I have been a ;lurker’ on this thread. I am really happy to say that I waited (moderated myself) before I commented. I TOTALLY agree with the points Barb (post #16) made about the sexism that exists in our vocabulary. She is RIGHT!!!

    On the other hand, I describe myself as a “broad”. Why? Because is sexist and, initially, meant as demeaning. This is why I like it — I have defied expectations and sexual boundaries. No man, no woman, no culture, no word defines me. I define me.

    December 7, 2008
  21. Lynn Vincent said:

    Hey, Griff, and all others who have posted,
    Do you find it as interesting as I that most of those claiming to be offended are women, and most of thise claiming that we should not be offended are men? Just a thought. Lynn

    December 7, 2008

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