Cookiegate 2016

Yesterday in passing conversation, I heard two senior colleagues discussing the recent promotion of an equally senior female peer (“equally senior” is what peer means, right? Just want to make that part clear). One of them said, “Well, she’s a smart cookie.” This was said with admiration and something akin to professional affection–clearly not intended to cut or criticize–and yet it really freaking bugged me for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on. So I turned to Facebook, asking:

Am I right in thinking that no man has ever been called a “smart cookie”?

Immediately, women near my age and/or in my profession started liking (or “angry facing” the post).

Just as immediately, an investigation was launched into the history of the phrase “smart cookie,” calling upon online dictionaries, historical newspaper databases, etc., which suggested no gender bias in the history of the phrase–indeed, “smart cookie” (and “tough cookie,” for that matter) seems to have emerged out of military culture, which is nothing if not male-oriented.

Of course, throwing out a claim of “never ever” invites exactly this kind of research, because you never ever find that something never ever happened. I knew when I posted it that I’d be inviting this kind of digging. So now, we have proof! “Smart cookie,” in a vacuum, is not a blatantly sexist phrase. Not in the way that “women are inferior” is.

But then again, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Here’s what’s different now: younger me would probably have thought, “Huh, I guess the facts show that I’m wrong about ‘smart cookie’ and need to just chill out.” Cranky Ann, however, knows that two adjacent things can be true at once. It can be true that the origin of the phrase has nothing to do with sexism, and also true that hearing it yesterday made me uncomfortable, so it is worth investigating why. “The facts” (such as they are), do not overturn or replace my experience. They illuminate it: they tell us that etymology is not the problem here. But that doesn’t mean there is no problem here. The phrase itself is not the problem -> but I was still troubled, and got the impression that many of my peers felt the same way -> so something else must be going on.

A key turning point occurred when the second man mentioned that they didn’t think the phrase was patronizing, but they did think it was dated/archaic, and were puzzled by its being used at all. “I would be surprised to hear anyone say ‘smart cookie,'” he said. This was a lightbulb moment for me. Because I feel like I hear it All. The. Time. And I’m going to take the liberty of assuming that the 20+ women who acknowledged the post have heard it as well.

This helped me make sense of the etymology/history issue. OK, yes, granted: the roots of “smart cookie” are not female oriented. But the (highly limited and unscientific) anecdotal evidence suggests that men in the workplace don’t hear this phrase (though “some men” must, because they are largely the ones saying it…), and women do. Is this the “Ashley” of epithets? (That is to say, a masculine or gender neutral label that has now shifted irrevocably to feminine?)

What I hear when I hear this phrase–and finally here it is, I’m honing in on what bugs me–is a qualifier. It’s a special justification signaling approval and special status of the “smart cookie.” Though it’s disguised as a compliment, I hear it being used to explain, justify, or approve someone’s success or presence at the table when apparently their name, position, experience, or the simple fact of their presence is insufficient to convince everyone else. And it’s not, as far as I can tell, applied to men in the same way.

It is hard for me to imagine someone saying, “I’ve asked Bill to join us, he’s a smart cookie.” or “Harold will be leading this project–he’s a smart cookie.” No: it’s “Harold will be leading this project because he is the Director of Leading Projects.” Or just “Harold will be leading this project.” And that is enough. But I have heard myself and my colleagues introduced this way countless times. As with almost every language question, it’s less about these specific two words than it is about the context, of course. But this is (as has been noted) a kind of strange, slightly uncommon phrase that today, I *only* hear used in circumstances like this, where it is basically code for “don’t worry, she’s all right.” Of course, there *are* instances where a very junior person is being brought into a higher level conversation, and a boss or colleague is sort of paving the way. But the more senior the person to whom the label is applied, the more strange and troubling it feels to me.

Said of an absent female peer’s promotion, it suggests not “Well done!” or “Good move!” or “Wow, they’re lucky to get her,” or even, “I want that job,” but something more like “I approve because according to me, she is smart and therefore deserving.” Hm. Who asked you, anyway?

And that, my friends, is how the cookie crumbles.


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