It may, in the final accounting, be Kellyanne Conway who ends the tyranny of “badass.”
Hers wasn’t the first CNN profile under the “Badass Women of Washington” banner; the series, hosted by anchor Dana Bash, has run since 2017 and featured women ranging from Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) to Republican Party chair Ronna Romney McDaniel.
But it was Conway’s soft-focus glamour reel, tweeted out by CNN on Wednesday, that drew a critical backlash. In it, Conway ― who was for briefly passed over for CNN appearances because she used the time to spread misinformation ― gives Bash a tour of her crucifix-bedecked childhood home in a working-class New Jersey town and fields questions about her teenage honors: fastest blueberry packer and local beauty queen. The two acknowledge how unfair it is that women, but not men, are asked about the challenges of parenting while holding a high-profile job. Then they chat about how challenging it is for Conway to mother her four children anyway.
“What a badass,” viewers are presumably supposed to think, as they watch these two successful blondes laugh about the power of TV to advance a scrappy conservative pundit’s rise to power in a “man’s world.”
What does “Badass Women of Washington” mean? What is a “badass,” and in what sense does Conway qualify? “Badass” functions in CNN’s packaging to candy-coat a series that could just as well be called “Women of Washington,” or maybe “Powerful Political Figures Who Are Women.” Kellyanne Conway, whose primary symptoms of badassery are evinced in her continuing employment by, and willingness to lie for, President Donald Trump, firmly pulls the rug out from underneath the illusion that deeming a woman “a badass” really means anything anymore.
There was a time, of course, when “badass” really did mean something. According to a 2015 Daily Beast article by lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower ― astutely headlined “We’ve Reached Peak Badass. It’s Gotta Stop.” ― “badass” entered the language in the mid-20th century. Like much of American slang today, it was popularized and likely created by black Americans. “The earliest known example, from 1954, already introduces the figure of the ‘badass nigger,’ the black man who refuses to meekly submit to white society,” Sheidlower writes. “Badass” had an admiring cast from the beginning, describing someone tough and rebellious.
In our efforts as writers and editors to find that incisive, striking, but also positively connoted word to use of strong women, we latched onto ‘badass.’
lexicographer Kory Stamper
While the term had once primarily applied to men, particularly tough outsiders, that began to shift rapidly in the last decade. “Since about 2012, ‘badass’ is being applied to women more and more and more,” lexicographer Kory Stamper told HuffPost. In 2016, she found in a search of the Newspapers on the Web corpus, “‘badass’ was used almost twice as often of women as it was of men,” though the numbers have since evened out.
That women were being described with a word that connoted strength and rebelliousness registered as a feminist victory of sorts, and writers took notice. In 2015, Megan Garber celebrated its empowering implications for The Atlantic: “It’s a term of acclamation and aspiration, both for women and for a culture that is finally giving them their due. It’s a recognition that women can ’radiate confidence in everything they do’ just as readily as men can.”
“Since the word has typically been associated with men exhibiting toughness, claiming ‘badass’ as a term for tough women can be seen as a transgressive act, upsetting the expected gender norms,” linguist and Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer told HuffPost in an email.
That word likely caught on to such a nauseating degree because of the paucity of satisfying alternatives. “‘Badass’ is one of the few words that historically hasn’t had an overly negative meaning, like ‘aggressive’ or ‘tough,’ that becomes positive when applied to men and stays negative when applied to women,” Stamper told HuffPost. “‘Badass’ has always been a word that implies respect, and I think that, in our efforts as writers and editors to find that incisive, striking, but also positively connoted word to use of strong women, we latched onto ‘badass.’”
By 2015, though, it had already become clear that too much was going on with “badass.” Like most young writers in digital media at the time, I came to brainstorms with fistfuls of Post-It pitches for vacuous listicles: “TK Badass Women Writers”; “TK Badass Women Characters Who Should Be Your New Role Model”; “TK Badass Witches From Literary History.” The word had become an all-purpose descriptor for newsworthy ― or at least notice-worthy ― women, the thin thematic gloss that painted over what would otherwise be, transparently, the result of a Wikipedia search for “female inventors” or “fictional heroines.”
Even as Garber cautiously celebrated the gritty empowerment of the word, Sheidlower was calling for a cooling-down period on the word and cultural critic Hermione Hoby was musing, in the Guardian, about the possible ill effects of valorizing female badassery. “Badass” was already on the ropes by then. “We seem to hit peak ‘badass’ in the first half of 2016,” pointed out Stamper, “but then there’s a sharp dropoff in 2018” ― thanks perhaps to the rising cynicism about you-go-girl empowerment that followed Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election, or even to its sheer overuse.
In 2013, Jen Sincero published the unexpected bestseller You Are a Badass, the first in an eventual series of fairly bland, edgily titled self-help books. By turning “badass” into a self-help trope, Sincero casts it as something quite different from the strapping renegade of yore: “You do not have to love everyone or even like everyone, but badasses do have to rise above, grasshopper,” she writes. “Finding compassion is one of the most effective ways to earn your flowy spiritual robes.” Sincero isn’t alone in this fuzzy repackaging ― Stamper points to the incursion of “badass” into corporate boardrooms and other less outsider spaces as a force for softening the term’s previous hard edges ― but it’s illustrative of how quickly the word was becoming sapped of its previous specificity.
“Badass” is a placeholder for more complicated, holistic evaluations. It’s an emptied-out husk. People often say “badass” because we are trying so very hard not to unfairly judge women who are abrasive or bossy; people say “badass” because we don’t know how to reconcile women’s messier qualities with the fact that we still admire them; people say “badass” because we still, on some level, feel like a woman needs to be really tough and exceptional to deserve our attention.
Hoby and Ann Friedman, in a 2015 “badass” assessment for The Cut, focused on Mac McClelland, a human rights journalist who had openly discussed having mixed feelings about being termed a “badass” because of her skilled reporting from war-torn regions. Though McClelland, who recently came out as trans, worried that the term didn’t leave space for less tough traits ― emotional vulnerabilities, for example ― the reporter is also a badass in the fairly classic sense: physically courageous, skilled, determined, unrestrained by societal norms. It’s not that McClelland’s softer qualities, or anyone’s softer qualities, can’t also be admirable; it’s that collapsing them all under the label “badass” strips the term of meaning.
And when a once-potent term becomes a husk, it’s a perfect vessel for branding and puffery. When “badass” no longer describes a gritty rebelliousness, a refusal to be corralled by society’s oppressive norms, but rather success at gaining power, money, and admiration in that society, it has become a PR buzzword. Thankfully, CNN’s series may be the nadir, the clearest signal yet that feminist subversion has rapidly been evolved into a simple fetishization of power. “Badass Women of Washington” is the culmination of the insidious idea that sexism should be remedied by promoting uncritical, flattened portrayals of even the most privileged and problematic women ― women who are working actively to further the subjugation of other women and marginalized people.
And so we watch a CNN journalist fawn over Conway’s working-class childhood home and cable TV chops ― her capacity for telegenic mendacity that, again, got Conway informally banned from CNN ― rather than pressing her on any of the atrocities in the Trump administration she’s been instrumental in furthering. We watch as Bash practically sighs “that makes me sad!” after Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao reveals that she never went to her senior prom. (Even Chao ― now well into her 60s, the head of a government agency, and the wife of the Senate Majority Leader ― looks startled at the idea that her teenage dating woes might constitute evidence of her courage.) Chao’s episode is as dizzying as Conway’s, a puff package on that dwells on her immigrant roots but glosses quickly over the fact that she’s the heiress to a shipping fortune, and that applauds her as part of a “power couple,” not mentioning that her husband’s power has been deployed to essentially blow the fuse of the American Senate.
It’s good that women are in government, and there should be more of them. But that is not the end goal, let alone the only goal, of feminism. If our counterweight to centuries of oppression is to treat female political figures as celebrities rather than to rigorously hold all politicians to account for how they shape policy, we have failed catastrophically. “Badass” isn’t to blame; it’s just a symptom. But maybe it’s time to give it a rest.