The Bewitching Power of ‘Miss’

On age and who we call what

Arielle Bernstein
Apr 3, 2020 · 7 min read
Illustration by Christina Yoseph

My first memory of being called “ma’am” was when I was a girl and a man with a thick Southern accent asked to speak to my mom.

“One second,” I told him.

“Thank you very much, ma’am,” he replied.

This first ma’am was oddly thrilling. To a child raised in the Northeast, being called ma’am felt like an intense compliment. Here was this person who was treating me like an adult, someone who trusted my competency in handing the phone over to my mother so completely that he felt it was appropriate, nay important, to thank me with the adult woman honorific.

I think about this whenever someone now calls me ma’am, how a term that once filled me with such joy now feels like a small shock. For so many years in my adult life I have been called “miss.” To have made the transition to ma’am should feel powerful, since it indicates that I am now seen as an adult woman, rather than a child. I want to celebrate this transition, but, if I am honest with myself, the word itself also captures a particular kind of loss.

There are innumerable articles, essays, and internet forums devoted to untangling the question of whether “ma’am” is actually polite since it seems that so many women find the term irksome. True, in some places, especially in the South and in the Midwest, ma’am is less fraught since the word is often used for women of any age. How you feel about the word is also deeply shaped by race, culture, and class. For many in the South, and African American communities in particular, being called ma’am is an important formal marker of respect. Likewise, in the culture of the military, ma’am is often seen as having no difference at all from the male honorific sir.

There are innumerable articles, essays, and internet forums devoted to untangling the question of whether “ma’am” is actually polite since it seems that so many women find the term irksome.

Still, perhaps because of ageism, one of the main reasons that ma’am feels particularly fraught for many women has to do with our culture’s lack of respect for older women in general. I posed the question of how folks felt about ma’am on social media and noted that the various complaints were incredibly consistent — that ma’am often feels like a subtle jab at a woman’s age, rather than an indication of respect and that ma’am can also be incredibly frustrating for non-binary individuals who are constantly being mis-gendered. For many ma’am resisters, ma’am also feels sexist precisely because it feels sexless. While miss still carries a ring of flirtation, ma’am seems to be a full-throated one-word declaration that you are no longer seen as an object of desire. To some women, this is a relief. To others, it’s an existential crisis.

What does it mean to try and embrace the word, “ma’am” when we live in a world where female power is so often enmeshed with youth and beauty rather than age and wisdom?

To many women, ma’am feels like you are suddenly stripped of that small sliver of power, one that many women never really understood we had until it was gone.

I find it impossible to talk about my feelings about the word ma’am without thinking about my experience of being tiny, since being petite has often led people to believe that I am younger than I actually am. Being a miss comes with perks, as well as frustrations. I’m used to people holding doors open for me and asking me if I need help reaching things or helping me lift up a piece of luggage when I travel. I’m also accustomed to people in general finding my size cute. “You’re so little!” strangers will exclaim when meeting me in person for the first time. “Your clothes are like doll clothes!” a college friend told me when seeing some laundry that I left out. One of my greatest frustrations has been the not uncommon occurrence of someone going in for a hug and then gleefully picking me up in the air. “So tiny and cute!” they will tell me as though I am some sort of pet, while I desperately ask if the lifter could please put me down. Since starting my teaching career, a common refrain has been whether it’s possible that my students find it possible to respect me since I don’t really look like a professor.

Other times, I’m acutely aware of the privileges that come with being tiny. In the world of pop culture, there are innumerable petite women who prove their strength and competence, from superheroes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the upcoming Thor starring Natalie Portman to businesswomen like Marie Kondo who has created an incredibly successful empire. In our cultural imagination, youthful, feminine, tiny women are often presented as a kind of feminist hope, while “older woman” are still often perceived as already “over-the-hill.” I may find “miss” patronizing, but I also have also deeply benefitted from the privilege of being a miss, which is probably why the changeover to ma’am feels like a kind of loss for me.

In many ways, youth is still presented as the ultimate indicator of female power. The idea that women older than 35 are past their prime is reiterated just about everywhere, from newspapers to magazines to books to TV shows to just about every time we get a new meme asking us to express amazement that a woman of 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 still looks good. Even projects that attempt to humanize the stereotypes that we often project on “older women” often focus on women in their youth. Take Edan Lepucki’s, moving “Mothers Before” Instagram account, where readers submit images of their mothers before they became mothers. Each picture features a beautiful young woman traveling or modeling or reading or doing other things in the world, with daughters writing in how much they admire and love them. It’s the reminder of their youth that is meant to humanize these mothers, to help viewers see them as full people. Likewise, when Carrie Fisher died, various tributes all featured the same image shared over and over again: the youthful Princess Leia, rather than the older and wiser General Leia, who I would argue should be seen as just as much of an icon.

In many ways, youth is still presented as the ultimate indicator of female power. The idea that women older than 35 are past their prime is reiterated just about everywhere

It’s possible that this culture is slowly starting to change. More than ever before we see women in their 40s, 50s and beyond having marked successes onscreen and in the political realm and women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg have now reached the status of outright icons later in life. Still, the fact remains that the amount of sexism that women receive doesn’t seem to diminish with age at all; in fact, it often seems to get worse, especially at a time when the internet makes it so much easier to bully someone in the public eye.

In her video for “The Dirty Word,” linguist Amanda Montell discusses how ma’am and miss are both somewhat fraught, since, despite the various cultural dimensions embedded in the discussion, the word miss can feel belittling, and the word ma’am can make many women feel over-the-hill. For Montell, the problem can be helped with some linguistic shifts — after a cogent cultural analysis, she suggests that we can perhaps move towards various playful and fun non-gendered honorifics as a helpful way to move past sexism.

Certainly, gender neutral and non-binary honorific options seem like a good practical way to deal with the “ma’am” and “miss” conundrum. And yet, I’m skeptical that changing the word is enough to deal with the real problem associated with it. We need a non-binary option, but I also am hesitant to replace ma’am with “neutral” world that has historically been seen as masculine. I don’t want to be a “sir.” I want, instead, for our culture to value a female power that isn’t attached to youth. I want a “ma’am” that sizzles, a “ma’am” that indicates possibility, a “ma’am” that tells it like it is. In other words, I want a world where adult womanhood is seen as something that young women should look forward to, rather than something to be afraid of.

This will, of course, require a kind of radical reimagining of the way we conceive of female power in general, as well as a willingness to confront the ways that negative stereotypes about women of all ages seem to persist, often pitting different generations against each other in the process. Today, many people still scoff at a young woman who encounters her first ma’am and expresses sadness or anger about it. But rather than dismissing these concerns as mere vanity, we should instead be taking them seriously. After all, the real issue at stake in this discussion isn’t superficial at all. It’s about how so many women report not feeling as though they are being treated with the care, honor, and respect they genuinely deserve.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Arielle Bernstein

Written by

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Arielle Bernstein

Written by

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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