When I joined the Guardian, many years ago, one of the first notes I received was about the use of “feisty”: it was banned by the style guide in relation to women. Feisty, I was told, was fundamentally patronising: one of those words, like spirited or special, that in certain circumstances seems euphemistically to undermine its own meaning. I used it once in print and never again.
No one says feisty any more. But its modern iterations – “badass” and “kick-ass” – are as prevalent as ever, and seem ripe if not for retirement then at least for revision. Badass, in its original form, was 1950s American slang for tough guy. Now it is often used to evoke a woman’s uncompromising stance, irrespective of context. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a badass, as is Wonder Woman. Beyoncé is a badass, of course, as I guess was Margaret Thatcher. There are no criteria other than a sort of mouthy prominence, so that, while it might be weird to call a man at the top of certain professions a “tough guy” (unless you’re Donald Trump addressing the Turkish president), for women badass is a near-universal term of praise.
I’m probably being too sour about this. I’ve used badass myself, and it always gives me a buzz, slightly below the level of swearing but above the neutrality of a more formal description. It’s performative, with a cartoonish energy that is a natural side-effect of vanquishing opposition. It remains true that women in most fields of public life have probably overcome some form of discrimination to get there. Why shouldn’t that determination be celebrated?
And yet, for some reason, when I hear badass and its synonyms, my heart sinks. I get the same mild squeamishness when I read about Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s anthology, The Book of Gutsy Women. It’s partly that descriptors like “gutsy” seem to protest too much, partly that they feel slightly infantilising, and mainly, I think, that they have become disembodied marketing terms used to launder self-promotion as somehow socially useful.
It’s in this regard I’ve come to associate badass with the women’s conference circuit – the most demented example of which was Caroline Calloway’s Instagram-driven workshops for women – and those big lifestyle gatherings that promise to teach “ordinary” women how to get on in life. Many of these events – and the awards shows that go with them – seem fundamentally premised on grift: selling vague statements with no discernible content by people with no discernible authority to young women at vast expense. It can be hard, in these contexts, to see a distinction between badass and asshole, between mannerism and conviction, between what it means to be a badass in the service of some demonstrable end and to be a badass as an end in itself.
Would I read Gutsy Women to my daughters? I guess so. And I guess I am, in the broadest sense, raising them to be badass. But the whole thing leaves me cold. At best, badass celebrates outspoken women. At worst, it is a cute, empty performance of power; a verbal karate kick that shades into kitsch.
• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist