September 6, 2016

Nobody says "handsome woman" anymore.

Yesterday on this blog, we were talking about Milo Yiannopoulos. If you listen to the video over there, you'll see that he's pressured inordinately about all the fun that was made of the "Ghostbusters" star Leslie Jones, but the main thing he said about her was just that she looks like a man. I got to wondering: What's wrong with a woman looking like a man?

It occurred to me that no one uses the expression "handsome woman" anymore, and if my long observation of American culture can be trusted, the sequence was:

1. "Handsome woman" was once a standard expression, used as a genuine compliment for a particular kind of woman. Ah, here's something from 1783, "The Distinction Between Words Esteemed Synonymous in the English Language":
"By a handsome woman, we understand one that is tall, graceful, and well-shaped, with a regular disposition of features; by a pretty, we mean one that is delicately made, and whole features are so formed as to please; by a beautiful, a union of both."
2. Because "handsome" was the standard word to refer to a man's appearance — you wouldn't call him "pretty" or "beautiful" — calling a woman "handsome," it was too easy to sound as though you were saying that the woman looked like a man, and nice people started to feel inhibited about saying it.

3. Only not-so-nice people were left saying it. We laughed watching "Seinfeld," when Elaine said — about George's girlfriend who looked like Jerry — "she's quite a handsome woman." And here's Captain Kirk in 1966:


4. The joke/insult use died off because the original, serious usage no longer existed. You have to have the reference point to make it funny, and the envious deployment of an incomplete compliment doesn't leave you unscathed if you use a word that nobody nice ever uses.

5. Here we are in the present, where the word "handsome" could be revived. And why not? There should be no stigma in a woman looking good in a way that tends toward the masculine. And it shouldn't be bad for a woman to look good in a way that doesn't highlight sexual accessibility. That's the look many woman like and might seek to enhance rather than to overcome.

47 comments:

rhhardin said...

Sexual accessiblity needs a word. Looks good is available.

It assumes a normal taste in these matters, probably offensively.

There's a reason that it almost always matters whether you're a man or a woman, if for no reason other than grudges and suspicions.

Birkel said...

Are we then allowed to call effeminate men some older expression too? What is it?

sane_voter said...

Leslie Jones is not Handsome either. She looks like the type to destroy a Burger King if they took too long to serve her Whopper at 2am.

David Begley said...

Let's just leave Leslie Jones alone.

Brando said...

The less publicity we give the Ghostbusters reboot the better. Unfortunately the big studios will keep putting out their usual tripe even if Americans won't watch it, because the foreign audiences are big enough to make us irrelevant.

The real future is going to lie in independent smaller studios, who don't have the mass marketing budgets and pull and will have to actually pull in viewers with stories and presentation. They can't afford to buy some established property and destroy our childhoods by packaging it for China.

Sebastian said...

"I got to wondering: What's wrong with a woman looking like a man?" Faux wonderment, right? Prog linguistics is situational. If a phrase is used by a mean con against a prog favorite, it's bad; otherwise, good.

EDH said...

Leslie Jones was cast by SNL to play the role of the angry black woman, and I always found her pretty funny in that role.

Meet Your Second Wife

Meade said...

"Let's just leave Leslie Jones alone."

Okay but I do think "Les" is a handsome name.

rhhardin said...

Men and women don't occupy the same space, which is one reason that they can live together without crowding.

So the mental attitude taken depends on which the other guy is.

SJ said...

I seem to remember that in the novel Pride and Prejudice, the women are handsome and the men are beautiful.

But I may be mis-remembering.

I do think that "handsome" and "pretty" are used in that book to refer to women.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Here we are in the present, where the word "handsome" could be revived.

Nobody is accusing Leslie Jones of looking like a handsome man.

Rob said...

You're a handsome woman, Ann, in the original meaning of the phrase. There, I've revived it.

Brando said...

"Leslie Jones was cast by SNL to play the role of the angry black woman, and I always found her pretty funny in that role."

Yeah, I thought that was her whole schtick--more "big scary woman" than anything else. Still, it's sort of nasty to take pot shots at her looks when they're irrelevant.

Laslo Spatula said...

The phrase "Handsome woman" brought Hillary Swank to mind.

pdug said...

" And it shouldn't be bad for a woman to look good in a way that doesn't highlight sexual accessibility."

Are there ways that DO highlight sexual accessibility? And if there are, is that "rape culture"?

I've been informed by feminists that walking down the street in slut wear in NO WAY highlights sexual accessibility.

William said...

I think handsome woman describes Rachel Maddow. She has symmetrical features and a slender body without ever giving off a sexual vibe. In a woman good looks without sex appeal equals handsome........When he was younger, I thought Hugh Grant was kind of pretty, and that it worked against him. Apparently he's some kind of deranged horn dog on a Bill Clinton order of magnitude so you can't judge these things by looks alone.......

traditionalguy said...

Looks are first impressions from a distance that sees a female figure, stylish clothes, accepting body language and well done hair style.

Personality that shows love and responds intelligently come from a mutual romantic meeting, after which Looks are overlooked.
.

Fritz said...

So MIlo's problem with Leslie is that he momentarily confused her with a man?

Kate said...

In the traditional usage, Cate Blanchett would be called a handsome woman. She is absolutely striking, but much too strong-featured for "pretty".

However, now that the transgendered are allowed by society to call themselves women, "handsome woman" is forever off the table.

My name goes here. said...

Michelle Obama is handsome.
Melania Trump is pretty.
Laura Bush is both.
Hillary Clinton is neither.

Birkel said...

Brando:

I take it you prefer the method of fighting in which one side unilaterally disarms.

Has that strategy ever been effective, to your knowledge?

My name goes here. said...

Barack Obama is pretty.
Mitt Romney is handsome.
Corey Booker is both.
Donald Trump is neither.

rhhardin said...

Male looking woman would refer to neck and shoulder. Men are much broader than women.

PBandJ_LeDouanier said...

I've always noticed that Jessica Simpson has a masculine face. Is it something about a strong brow structure? I dunno.

I once ran into her when she was grabbing breakfast w/o makeup.

LCB said...

"Your the handsomest woman I ever did see!" Charlie to Doctor's sister in the movie Open Range.

rehajm said...

Can we just have more young Shatner, please? The cadence!

Ron Winkleheimer said...

I've never thought of the phrase "handsome woman" as referring to a woman who looks like a man. And in that clip Kirk wasn't being disparaging. The woman referred to was actually an alien that could look any way it wanted to people simultaneously and had killed a woman that McCoy had known years ago and taken her place. To McCoy she seemed to be the same age as when he first met her, 25. To Kirk she seemed to be about the age she would be inferred from McCoy's age. In her 40s. McCoy mentions that she looks the same as when she was 25. Kirk's comment is meant to suggest that while she is still quite attractive, perhaps McCoy is seeing her through love's lens. Eventually they find out that "she" is actually a hideous monster that kills people by sucking all of the salt out of their bodies.

A picture of the actress.

http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=star+trek+salt+monster&view=detailv2&qpvt=star+trek+salt+monster&id=458881AC2A54633FBB159319A9D1BC12CB17B3B1&selectedindex=38&ccid=hhbxH0tZ&simid=608033556254689414&thid=OIP.M8616f11f4b59cae16c0032d9074b127co0&mode=overlay&first=1

and the hideous salt vampire.
http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=star+trek+salt+monster&view=detailv2&qpvt=star+trek+salt+monster&id=2098723FD408759046E5DD6604341DD24D4DAB29&selectedIndex=0&ccid=hJoYD306&simid=608006914573405726&thid=OIP.M849a180f7d3a27d444ba59cc62869b4fH0&ajaxhist=0

Ron Winkleheimer said...

I should have gotten out of the house and played more when I was a kid.

jacksonjay said...

In alt-house, men, and only men, are held to a traditional standard appearance. I should say normal heterosexual men must look like Mr. Althouse looked in the 1950's. If a man wears short pants and looks boyish, what's wrong with that?

Ann Althouse said...

"Are there ways that DO highlight sexual accessibility? And if there are, is that "rape culture"?"

Good question.

I would say the important point is that everyone owns his or her own body and no matter how vividly the or she forefonts sexuality, he or she always has an absolute right to say no to having sex with somebody. People often deliberately seek to inspire lust in others, but the others always have to obtain permission before acting.

If that's a struggle, too bad. You have to control yourself, just like you can't punch someone in the face when they say something that makes you terribly angry.

Expression, yes. Acting out on other people's bodies, no.

Isn't that clear?

Ron Winkleheimer said...

June Lockhart is a good example of a "handsome woman."

http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=lost+in+space+mom&view=detailv2&&id=A134DC62737F93E504F73F99A7016D315A74E02A&selectedIndex=2&ccid=0txEI4Pp&simid=607992221493299377&thid=OIP.Md2dc442383e9608655450057f96be5afo0&ajaxhist=0

Ann Althouse said...

"In alt-house, men, and only men, are held to a traditional standard appearance. I should say normal heterosexual men must look like Mr. Althouse looked in the 1950's. If a man wears short pants and looks boyish, what's wrong with that?"

I have a very broad standard in letting other people choose to dress however they want.

I also have opinions about what I find attractive. You don't have to want to be attractive to me. That's part of the broad choice I acknowledge belongs to you.

The shape of a highly enlarged toddler is not an attractive look for a man. It's not just shorts, but big saggy shorts under a big boxy short-sleeved shirt. Look at other men and think about it. Then decide for yourself.

rhhardin said...

Absolute rights are the best.

Scott M said...

I think Glen Close was the last woman to get away with handsome and it not be pejorative. That yummy exo-skeleton, Maria Shriver, also comes to mind.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

@Scott M

Yes, Glen Close is a handsome woman.

http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=Glenn+Close+Fatal+Attraction&view=detailv2&&id=487F752AF2EF273B784C423885563686EEF72EBD&selectedIndex=7&ccid=IC8veCI8&simid=608048747547526214&thid=OIP.M202f2f78223cb4f1f802803a16e92be4H0&ajaxhist=0

Birkel said...

Althouse, above:
"...just like you can't punch someone in the face when they say something that makes you terribly angry.

Purposefully confusing "cannot" with "should not" is an annoying habit of most scolds.

Robert said...

The only person I've ever heard use "handsome" for women in the genuine compliment sort of way is David Letterman on his talk show. He did it more than once, many years back. I remember because it seemed strange to me.

My vague recollection is that he was using it in a nice, sincere way. Though perhaps he was purposely trying to make the audience see him as this odd guy from Indiana who is old fashioned with his language while surrounded by entertainment business types he doesn't really fit in with. Letterman also used to pronounce "Los Angeles" with a hard-g like you'll find in some old movies. Never knew if that's the way he grew up pronouncing it or if it was an affectation for the talk show.

Darrell said...

When I was a kid, long ago, I was told handsome initially had more to do with size--akin to measuring horses in "hands." Thus, it was appropriate to refer to a big man as handsome, but less so for a woman.

jacksonjay said...

Look at women, dressed as men and think about it. Then decide for yourself.

Biff said...

Interesting. I've usually perceived "handsome woman" to be a reference to age, or perhaps to "matronliness," rather than to a masculine appearance.

whitney said...

I was called a handsome woman recently. By a UPS driver. And it was totally involuntary on his part. He was so embarrassed after he said it. But I was flattered and acted flattered so he quit being embarrassed band was pleased. And I was pleased too. It's a nice compliment

Matt said...

I just watched an episode of Cheers the other night in which Diane complimented Frasier's mother as "the most handsome woman" she'd ever seen. It originally aired in November 1984.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0539729/

grimson said...

Looking for a more contemporary definition (although they, too, concede the phrase is rarely used), Urban Dictionary has. . .

A woman with the kind of refined beauty and attractiveness that requires poise, dignity, and strength of mind and character, things that often come with age; not merely sex-appeal. Usually applied to a woman who is also very well-groomed and from an upper class background.

Kristin Scott Thomas comes to mind (as well as Glenn Close, as noted by Scott M).

openidname said...

Maybe nobody *you* know says "handsome woman" anymore. But according to Google Ngram, while usage peaked around 1900, it was more or less constant from 1960 through 2000 and actually trended sharply up between 2000 and 2008 (the latest date available).

See: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=handsome+woman&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3

ZZMike said...

A beautiful young woman may grow into a handsome older woman.

loudogblog said...

The first Star Trek reference that I thought of was in an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation titled, "Tapestry." Q sends Picard back in time to when he was an ensign at Star Fleet Academy, but Picard still has all his life experience intact. The young Picard had made a date with an older woman and when Picard (in the body of his younger self) meets up with her in the bar, he refers to her as a "handsome woman." She gets very insulted and pours a drink over his head.

ken in tx said...

An older term for a flamboyant, effeminate man, along the lines of Liberace, is Macaroni. It was current in the mid 1700s London. It could be revived and thought to be patriotic.