A group of women in Essex is campaigning to have the term "Essex girl" removed from the dictionary in an effort to reclaim the word. The current OED definition is as follows:
A contemptuous term applied (usu. joc.) to a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterised as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic.
Now, at this point, let’s put to one side that the dictionary is not social commentary but a catalogue of words commonly used in the English language. I understand the fight, but I’m not sure the OED is the enemy.
My gut is that this is not really about geography or fake tan, though – this is about class and gender and where misogyny meets snobbery
But the bigger point is clear: the phrase "Essex girl" has come to mean something derogatory, undermining and offensive. And Essex “girls” – and, presumably, women – have had enough. A hashtag #IamanEssexgirl on Instagram shows women defying the stereotype and a petition has been set up.
I am an Essex girl, partially. My mum is from Essex; her family is still there. I was there just the other night for my cousin’s birthday, chatting to Essex girls – and women. I didn’t grow up there, but the county, the connotations and everything that comes with it has always been there, from my grandmother to my cousin’s small children.
Let’s be honest: that definition “unintelligent, promiscuous and materialistic” – or, in more colloquial terms, “stupid, easy and after his money” – is a triple-whammy of misogyny; a trilogy of insults that are saved for women. Stupid: women are too incompetent to have big jobs, to be trusted with difficult decisions; women constantly endure mansplaining. Easy: the woman who accused Ched Evans of rape had her sexual history considered at her trial and was seemingly deemed “easy” by the jurors. Money-grabbing: Amber Heard was just after Johnny Depp’s money when she accused him of beating her up. These are just a few examples of the possibly millions of times women are accused of being these things.
And so, of course, Essex women should be appalled by this definition, but why they have come to represent the holy trinity of women-hating? What is it about Essex?
I’ve always been proud my family is from Essex – they’re hardworking people who prioritise family. They are fun and funny, caring and generous. If I’m being honest, I’d say I’ve observed more traditional gender roles in Essex than I feel comfortable with. Some men, typically, work in the city and women look after children. This might be – as is the case with my family – because a lot people in Essex were once the working classes of the East End and these are social norms they grew up with.
But do enforced gender roles promote a degrading attitude to women? Do traditional ideas of femininity and a women’s role lead directly to hate and degradation? This is a huge question and, in some ways, yes, but the Essex women in my family are matriarchs – so this can’t be the only explanation. Of course, we’ve all seen TOWIE – the fake eyelashes, the fake tan, the hair extensions – but is this really exclusive to this corner of the world?
My gut is that this is not really about geography or fake tan, though – this is about class and gender and where misogyny meets snobbery; we love nothing more than to gloat over the idea of an Essex girl in too much make-up, not enough clothes, chasing after a footballer. And that’s because a moneyed county with working-class heritage is problematic for those who like people to stay in their boxes. And, like always, our grievances and bitterness are directed at women first. I can’t always defend some of the more traditional gender roles, but I will defend the Essex girl, because there is the Essex girl I know – my mum, my aunt, my cousin – and then there’s one society likes to imagine, who conjures all of our fears about change and how women – and working-class women – should or shouldn’t behave.
So, even if I’m not one technically, I will proudly call myself an Essex girl as long as it makes those around me feel uncomfortable or challenge their assumptions or highlight their own ingrained snobbish sexism. Because an Essex girl isn’t for me, you or anyone other than an Essex girl to define.