Ladyness: Is "Pearl Clutching" the New "Hysterical?"

Coco Chanel in pearls

I’ve been pondering that two of the big putdowns in online feminist (and non-feminist) circles are to accuse someone of “pearl-clutching” or “flouncing” and I’m thinking about how those are very gendered putdowns, very nicely targeted to situate the accuser as modern and with-it, and the pearl-clutching flouncer as outdated, feminine.

I get that the imagery of pearl-clutching works in some (very necessary) discussions of racism and privilege, that a white lady grasping her jewels, so to speak, is a pretty direct representation of white feminists clinging to their privilege, but it’s not always being used that way, and even when it is, it pinches a little. It’s probably meant to. However, it still directly links to a hatred of women and is that really worth a clever turn of phrase?

I do want to note, and Marisa and I will discuss this later, that one of the most hilarious and ridiculous things about the (Rich White) American Woman show at the Met was that they actually had fake pearls for sale in the gift shop—which you were forced to walk through at the end of the exhibit. They also had sparkle tshirts and other things, including some already-marked-down “Give Women the Vote” mugs. I got one for my white feminist mom.

I dunno. It’s early. It’s Sunday morning. I’m obviously on deadline.

Addendum: I want to be clear I’m not calling out Renee, and I think her post is amazing and right on. I know there was some discussion of “pearl clutching” in the comments there, at that point in time, and in that context, discussing the term meant missing the point and message of Renee’s writing, i.e. derailing.
Posting about it here, in the context of my personal blog, gives me and anyone who chooses to join in a space to talk about the term and its implications. I also know that I’m obviously not the first person to be thinking about these things, for example this post from lauredhel. The end.

11 Comments to “Ladyness: Is "Pearl Clutching" the New "Hysterical?"”

  1. it is interesting, isn’t it, that often even feminist spaces play host to this idea that things gendered feminine are BAD and that Feminist Empowerment comes from shedding those things. “Pearl clutching” comes with race, class, age AND gender implications, of course, but still it does fall in that collection of words with “shrill” and “hysterical” that set my teeth on edge because REALLY, we haven’t let go of that shit yet?

  2. It’s so evocative and instantly conjures such a vivid image that it’s very tempting to use, but as you note, “pearl clutching,” as well as “flounce,” are very loaded and we should talk about how they are being used.

    I’m still trying so hard to stop saying “dick.” It doesn’t help that world is (literally!) full of dicks.

  3. I thought “flounce” was used to describe someone leaving a message board in a dramatic manner. I don’t think that’s gendered, although pearl-clutching is.

  4. Flounce is definitely gendered. It’s diva-esque behavior, it’s an emotional female overreaction.

  5. Hi Mikki,

    I wanted to say a little about the point made in your second paragraph and, in particular, address this question:

    “However, it still directly links to a hatred of women and is that really worth a clever turn of phrase?”

    As you noted in reference to Renee’s piece, the term “pearl clutching” is used (mostly) in a different way by women of color than it is by white women/feminists. It does not imply a hatred of women in general or white women in particular (the term applied to a woc would have an entirely different meaning), any more than any other device or method of addressing racial issues does.

    Renee could have gone a bit further in her piece, if she wanted to, and have written about how pearl clutching is not only relative to white women’s privilege and sitting on a pedestal, but how it is also sort of shorthand for a call to white solidarity and to the protection of white womanhood.

    Have you ever watched some of the old movies from, say, the 1940s or 50s? I couldn’t name one, but I used to sit up and watch the Late, Late Show and they had many of those. Anyway, whenever a white woman was in any way discomforted by a person of color, woman or man – or by a “rough” white man – she either fainted (“fainting couch”), flounced out, or her hand made a slow, suspenseful journey up to her neck to clutch her pearls, jewels, or just her bare neck, while her face reflected her dignity and gentleness in spite of her fear of the vile creatures disturbing her (in these scenarios non-white women being positioned alongside men in terms of threat and roughness), and so on and blah blah.

    In all cases the white woman is positioned as the innocent one who has to endure this injustice put upon her, and both the audience and whatever actors are in the scene with her are expected to sympathize her – no matter what the circumstances of whatever the conflict was.

    So, yeah, these were movies. However – I don’t know what came first, the movies or the reality, but it is for sure that both exist and have existed for a long time. And that the scenario often plays out the same, with women of color being positioned as rough, violent, attacking, and in general upsetting innocent white woman, at which time the pearls are clutched or the couch is fainted upon or the flouncing begins.

    Is this a conscious reaction among some white women? I don’t know but I suspect, in some – definitely not all, some are for sure purposeful – cases it is ingrained and instinctive – not because they are *women*, specifically, but because they are white and supposedly in a certain position (even if they are unaware of it or attempt to reject the position – that stuff is taught to white people from birth, by society if not by parents) and, sometimes, calling attention to it helps to break the pattern. This is also why many women of color will ignore or resist repeated bleats about being “triggered” and so on when in a thread about stuff that is apparently controversial or offensive to some white women (like mai’a’s recent threads on feministe) because that is also (SOMETIMES) used as a form of pearl clutching or call to white solidarity. Especially when it serves to, yet again, position pro-women women of color as being as dangerous to white women’s psyche as men of any color.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to write a book, but I wanted to just add a bit to what should be an ongoing conversation. And, as a note, this light green print is very difficult to see (old eyes, mine are).

  6. Hi–yes I know, about the green type. I have to figure out how to fix it, sorry.

    Thanks for iterating all of that. I completely understand (or think I do, tell me if I don’t!) that for PoC it’s a useful term to describe certain strategies white women use when challenged. I think it’s problematic and wish there should be a better, less gendered and charged term. Why, for example, is there no term for what white men do to escape privilege? Do they ball clutch?

    I remember back on UseNet (I’m old!) we used to call certain boastful behaviors “dicksizing.” It was a way to both name the behavior and also make fun of it. And it was funny. But it was sexist, and I think pearl clutching is too. I’m sounding more aggressive than I want to, and I want to keep the conversation going, but I do think it is problematic and pretty equivalent to the dismissive and sexist “hysteria.”

    Also I’d like to note than women in the movies != women in real life. 🙂

    When white women use it, I think they do it more in a way to distance themselves from older, less cool feminists. Which is a whole different issue.

  7. Oh gross the program made it into a real smiley. ugh

  8. I know, my program makes them into real smilies, too. Annoying, sometimes! Thanks for replying.

    Anyway, I don’t know of a term offhand for white men when they are trying to escape privilege – not to say that there isn’t one (or two or three). But… well, let’s see.

    The pearl clutching, etc, terms are definitely – and deliberately, I imagine, gendered when they are used by nonwhite women in relation to white women. That’s sort of the whole point, I think. I am not sure if I can explain it, but for many nonwhite people the racism (unintentional, intentional, patronizing, paternal, so on) of allies is often considered far more damaging than that of, say, right wingers or whatever.

    Just so is the behavior of white women/feminist purported allies more damaging to women of color than (in some ways! I don’t want to go overboard here) white men who are holding fast to their privilege. Both are damaging – only the white woman’s actions (in pearl clutching, so on) serve to, in a sense, align themselves with white males, or at least whitehood, if that is even a fake word, and separate nonwhite women out from “womanhood” and place them as males, or rude beasts, or whatever. It serves to, even if sometimes in tiny ways, set the white woman apart from, for lack of a better phrase, the sisterhood – or, rather, I guess present her AS the sisterhood to be rallied around – and perpetuate the same themes of woc as less than women, or as mean beasts attacking Innocent White Woman. This scenario has occurred with distressing frequency over the years, which is one reason many nonwhite women simply avoid white feminist spaces now (the larger ones.)

    I am explaining badly, but anyway – the gendered nature of the term is deliberate, as is the imagery – in these instances – because it is, in a sense, a means of calling out (though I dislike that term) what is essentially (even if not in intent) a separation of women from women. Or an attempted one, anyway. Nothing at all to do with hysteria, though.

    Personally, I use the terms sparingly and only with intent. And, I’m afraid, I only use them when dealing with white feminists/purported allies and only in their relations with nonwhite women. I don’t know about anyone else, but I suspect that if you were to look at when and where it is used by most other women of color, womanists, radical women of color, nonwhite women, so on, in most instances it will be clear why it was used.

    Also, I know movies aren’t real life! It was just the easiest way to explain what I meant – but believe me, the behavior (real, not symbolic on a blog) definitely happens/happened in real life. I agree that when white women use it it may have that intent – I’ve also seen it used on political blogs to describe the behavior of males, and I definitely think *that* use is gendered and dismissive.

  9. To be clear, I am not defending the behavior that pearl clutching is used to describe. I just think it’s a problematic term. You don’t have to keep explaining to me how and why it’s used, although I appreciate it. I still think it is kinda sexist, no matter who says it. I’m not looking to change anyone’s mind here.

  10. Okay, Mikki, thanks. And, I know, I know – brevity is not one of my strong points!

    Take care and thanks for the conversation.

  11. Oh gosh, no I didn’t mean you were saying too much, I just wanted to say that I’m hearing you, and yes, totally (or as much as I can) understand and empathize. And I’m def not saying I think the ppl who are saying it are sexist, but I find the term sexist. I’m not planning on going around complaining about it in every comment section or anything. Cheers, Nanette! (I totally love that name btw.)

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