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Calling women “quirky” is a sneaky attempt to demean their intelligence

Alexis Bledel and Lauren Graham arrive at the premiere of “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Making it as an artist isn’t easy. It’s even harder when you’re a woman. In Hollywood, women are outnumbered by men both onscreen and behind the camera. In the world of visual arts, just 30% of artists represented by commercial galleries in the US are women—despite the fact that women make up half of MFA graduates. Women in the literary arts are consistently underrepresented in interviews, bylines, and book reviews. 

But if you’re a woman who manages to carve out success for yourself, creating work that reflects your own unique perspective, you’re bound to be minimized in other ways—most likely, through the language that’s used to describe you. There’s one particular word that seems innocent, but is often used to demean and disregard women. It’s a word that pats us on the head and tells us good job; a word that tells us our alternative point of view is just all too adorable.

I’m speaking, of course, about the word “quirky”—an adjective that’s often used to discourage audiences from engaging with, or seriously appreciating, women’s viewpoints and world views. It’s a word I’d love to see us retire.

What does it mean to be quirky? It’s not a term that lends itself to one hard and fast definition, which may be part of its problem. Zooey “Adorkable” Deschanel is quirky because she plays jazz standards on a ukelele; so is Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus, with her epic enthusiasm for science and theme-print dresses. Bespectacled, zombie-obsessed Tina from Bob’s Burgers is quirky, as is blue-haired, intensely emotional Clementine from The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A quirky girl can be an adorable fashion plate or a lovably awkward nerd. The main thing quirky women seem to have in common is that they refuse to follow the rules – but their rebellion is perceived as cheerful or appealingly child-like, accompanied by a smile.

When the word “quirky” is applied to women or the work they produce, it’s often to suggest a fundamental lack of seriousness. In the recently released film Mr. Roosevelt, writer/director/star Noël Wells takes a moment to rant against the term, arguing that it’s largely used to undermine women. “Quirky” erases women’s labor and effort from the work that we produce. If we’re funny, it’s not on purpose; if we’re offering a unique perspective, it’s not because we have keen observations, but because we’re naive about how the world works.

Wells elaborates further on that point in an interview with New York Magazine, offering some thoughts on why it’s frustrating to have her work dismissed as quirky or cute. “It’s just strange to have someone be like, Aw, isn’t that cute, you made a movie,” Wells tells New York. “The content is ignored, as is the sheer force of what has to happen to make a movie, the power you have to wield to make that come together.”

It’s not just women in film who get branded with the Q-word. A 2015 Guardian piece by Eva Wiseman examines the way “quirky” is used to silo and segregate women writers, noting that it’s a term used in ways similar to “chick lit” and “confessional memoir.” If women are making art, the logic goes, the art must not be serious or thoughtful – so it gets labeled with a cutesy term that demeans and denigrates its worth.

Even more exhausting is the way that “quirky” is often applied, not just to women’s work, but to the women themselves. Miranda July, namechecked in the Guardian piece as a woman routinely dismissed as quirky, is frequently conflated with her characters, as though the only way a woman could pen a fictional narrative is by living through it herself. Not surprisingly, July isn’t a fan of the term, telling The Irish Times, “I would rather you say you don’t like [my work] for very solid reasons, because to just call it quirky is to say I’m a little girl.” For July, the term strips out any intention from her work: if it feels offbeat, it’s because she just can’t help it, not because of the care she’s put into crafting a different perspective.

It’s worth noting here that there are times when men get called quirky – but the term tends to be applied to their artistic sensibility rather than who they are as people. And men who master the art of quirk are more likely to be treated as true artistes than their female peers. Wes Anderson, who never met a twee aesthetic he didn’t commit to film, may be the king of male quirksters. Anderson films overflow with pastel colors and a wide-eyed, child-like aesthetic. The everyday is imbued with magical realism that renders seahorses in a Crayola-colored palette. But that offbeat aspect of his work is generally put forth as a part of what makes his movies special, rather than a reason to dismiss it.

Why do we write women off as quirky? Perhaps because we’re convinced that if we defang and cutesy up women’s attempts at rebellion, we won’t have to confront the reality of women who subvert expectations. If women who misbehave, who step out of line, who go their own way, are easily dismissed as little more than rebellious children, we can pretend their viewpoints and creative work as offbeat ideas with no real merit. If we call women quirky, in other words, we can rob them of their power: the power to question, the power to rebel, the power to make change.

So let’s toss quirky on the trash pile and start trying to do better. Women who pour their hearts and souls into creating work that challenges our preconceived assumptions deserve better than that six-letter word. Let’s call them innovative. Artistic. Intelligent. Ground-breaking. Thought-provoking. Unique. Inspired. There’s a world of words out there that describe women’s creativity; all we have to do is start using them.

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