To whine is to “utter a high-pitched plaintive or distressed cry,” or so says my Merriam-Webster dictionary (unabridged, of course. I don’t mess around). To whine is to complain, to express discontent. To whine is….to be female? Calling women whiny is a ubiquitous, widely accepted stereotype. And yes, sassy bystander, I would like some cheese with my whine because this stale and offensive assertion is giving me something to complain about.
Images of women whining are everywhere. The ladies of Sex and the City whine about aging. Their younger counterparts whine about Gossip Girl’s omnipotence. In commercials, women whine about inadequate products. Women whine in “real life” too. During her campaign, Hillary Clinton was constantly criticized for her supposedly shrill and whiny voice. Women are admonished for whining about pain (cramps, childbirth, blah blah blah). We are urged to quit whining about men and just settle. Teenage girls are told to stop whining about school, friends, family and their millions of extracurricular activities.
How is that so many women are habitually whiny? Is it really possible that women, on TV and in life, just can’t seem to see the glass half full? I find it hard to believe that there is an overpopulation of female whiners. Instead, I believe society is far too eager to label women as whiners.
Considering a statement a whine instead of an expression of distress or concern gives the listener permission to walk away. In other words, deeming a young woman a whiner is a convenient way to disregard her concerns. I believe we are so quick to say a woman is whiny because often the complaints young women have are messy. They deal with the gray area of relationships, the complications of being overcommitted and vague yet powerful societal pressures.
It is far too acceptable to treat young women’s anxieties as silly or insignificant. I once had a male friend who giggled whenever I got upset and went as far to say I’m cute when I’m upset. Needless to say, he is no longer the person I confide in.
I hope I am not the only one concerned that we consistently write off and trivialize girls’ expression of distress as silly and irksome. Whether a girl cries to her mother about her lack of friends or simply complains at the dinner table about her lonely weekends is irrelevant; the underlying message (I need help navigating friendships!) is the same. Yet it seems as though unless a young woman has a complete breakdown, we are uninterested. We ignore the hints of distress in her voice, admonish her for being whiny, then later scratch our heads when she is seriously upset and troubled. Daily declarations of upset, worry and pain are never acknowledged as anything more than a nuisance.
Young women try to make sense of the things that trouble them by expressing their worries to others. But these worries are considered whines, evidence of PMS and are labeled unimportant. Ignored complaints are cast aside requests of ‘I want to be happy’ and ‘I need to be heard.’ Because it is acceptable to label a distressed girl as whiny, and subsequently stop listening to her, girls have learned that it is not enough to verbally express their needs. They must do something dramatic in order to be heard.
When I was little sometimes my parents were less than completely and immediately responsive (from what I’ve heard, that happens when you have four kids) to my needs. Sometimes they even asked me to, for the love of God, stop whining. My reaction to their requests included epic, marathon cries. I would cry so hard and for so long my face would turn a purplish red and I would spend the rest of the day hiccupping.
While I don’t know many teenagers with such a commitment to the fine art of throwing a temper tantrum, the point remains. Sometimes, the stakes are raised in an unfortunate way when initial displays of emotion are brushed aside as silly complaints. Imagine the profound message that could be sent to girls if, instead of relying on old equations (girl+ worry=whine=ignorable), adults and peers listened to concerns with open ears. No matter how messy this problem may be, I’m listening. Loved ones always say, ‘I’m here for you.’ But until we pledge to take girls’ distresses seriously this promise is incomplete. There is no ‘I’m here for you” without a commitment to ‘hearing you.’