As the term ‘Essex Girl’ has been removed from the dictionary, Life&Style Editor Frankie Rhodes outlines what still needs to be done to combat localised misogyny
For most of us, the term ‘Essex Girl’ evokes imagery of young women with blonde hair, high heels and short skirts, perhaps resembling the cast of The Only Way is Essex. For people like myself who were born in Essex and have spent most of their life in the county, the term still sparks these connotations, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them. However, even I was shocked to read the Oxford Dictionary definition that has existed since the 90s and only recently been removed, describing us as ‘a type of young woman who is not intelligent, dresses badly, talks in a loud and ugly way and is very willing to have sex.’
Back in 2016, several activists attempted to remove the term, but were unsuccessful until the recent effort from the Essex Girls’ Liberation Front. TOWIE star Gemma Collins also showed support for the campaign, describing the definition as ‘derogatory’. In fact, the definition stems from the views of Conservative commentator Simon Heffner (ironically an Essex man himself), who described the region as ‘young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren.’ The news of the definition’s removal comes at a convenient time for local author Sarah Perry, whose book Essex Girls: For Profane and Opinionated Women Everywhere was published at the beginning of this year, aiming to redeem and celebrate the ‘very particular kind of female agency’ depicted within women from Essex. While the removal of the definition, and release of this book, are certainly a step in the right direction for feminism, evidence suggests that we have a long way to go before the stereotype is completely eradicated.
In an overview of her book for the Guardian, Perry notes various negative conclusions drawn from the Essex Girl stereotype, referring to ‘vapid women in leopard print and heels’, binge-drinking and promiscuity, all of which leads to ‘misogynist scapegoating.’ Perry is right to recognise the specifically anti-female nature of this stereotype, where women (especially young women), are sexualised, scrutinised for their appearances and belittled in a manner that is not applied to men from Essex. Some stereotyping of the “Essex Lad” certainly does exist, a prominent example being the appearance of Joey Essex on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2013, where he was mocked for being unintelligent (one site even compiled the 13 most ridiculous Joey Essex moments from his first night on the show). Although, this stereotyping does not hold equivalent weight: the dumb Essex lad is cute and charming, the dumb Essex girl is pathetic and vulgar.
Perry also considers how the Essex Girl trope ignores the presence of black, Asian and ethnic minority women within the county. She mentions the work of Southend-based artist Elsa James, who points out that BAME women were ‘part of the country’s fabric long before the Windrush docked at Tilbury’, and therefore the inherent “whiteness” of the Essex Girl stereotype is excluding as well as derogatory. It’s not a club that any of us want to be in, but even if it was- it wouldn’t reflect countless members of the Essex community, anyway.
However, while Sarah Perry’s book offers some compelling arguments, it fails to eradicate the harmful nature of the stereotype. Her approach to redeeming the Essex Girl stems from suggesting that we have an inherently sacred worth- stemming from political figures from the past who were born in Essex. Her book includes an overview of these historical women, such as Madeleine and Dorothea Rock of Ingatestone, who vandalised Mansion House in the name of women’s suffrage, and strongly opposed the ‘tools of tyranny.’ While these examples are certainly honourable, and relevant to an extent, they risk distracting from the task in hand. Essex Girls do not need to be politically active, well-known or even virtuous to deserve respect.
Beyond this, Perry’s argument involves creating a ‘type’ of Essex female- as she writes, ‘I have in mind some archetypal Essex girl, whose silk dress reeks of roses; she is warlike, superior, wiping the notched blade of her seam on the hem of a skirt that is far too short.’ This re-installs the notion that there is a crucial nobility associated with Essex-ness, and we must be driven towards aggression and activism. An archetype can be just as bad as a stereotype. And beyond that, the reference to the short skirt is cheap, even if it might be self-reflexive.
The fact is, that the stereotype of the Essex Girl is one that is harmful to both women who conform to the (unfair and inaccurate) characteristics, and women who don’t. While young women from Essex certainly do not regard themselves as cheap and unintelligent, there is a certain internalisation of this stereotype that excludes anyone who might be different. It’s an internalisation that advocates for binge-drinking culture, extroverted personalities, going out clubbing at least twice a week, and having your own car by the time that you’re sixteen. It is, sadly, one of the reasons I’ve become increasingly alienated from my hometown as I’ve entered my twenties, as someone who never has (and probably never will) feel like an “Essex Girl” in the traditional sense.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I’m not the only one who has felt alienated by the Essex Girl stereotype, just as I’m not the only one who has felt scrutinised by it. When Perry speaks about ‘embracing the stereotype’, she forgets that this is not a term that we asked for, or that we want to ‘embrace.’ There is a difference between being proud of where you come from, and perpetuating harmful, unrealistic binaries.
The battle on the behalf of the Essex Girl will not be truly won until we recognise the diversity of who we are. Some progress has definitely been made, but we’re ready for more inclusive, intersectional conversations to take place surrounding the Essex Girl. Oh, and stop calling us ‘girls’, too, for that matter.
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