The Sexist

On Airlines, “Ugly Girls,” and the Politics of Personal Butthurt


Besides, airlines are obviously boys.

Insider airline misogyny! On Monday, Continental Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek announced the company's merger with United by leveling the following burn against United Airlines: "Smisek told analysts and reporters Continental began a whirlwind courtship with United after learning it was in merger talks with Tempe-based US Airways because it didn't want United to end up with 'the ugly girl.' He called Continental the pretty one."

United U.S. Airways shot back by claiming the "ugly girl" comment was offensive to women—but more importantly, it was offensive to U.S. Airways:

CEO Doug Parker addressed the slam, which he called inappropriate, in a memo to employees Tuesday afternoon, and said Smisek has apologized for the remarks.

"Like me, many of you found his comment both chauvinistic and offensive to the hard-working people of US Airways," Parker said.

. . . He said one employee asked, "Why are we the ugly girl?"

So which is it? Either you denounce the comment as being legitimately offensive to women, or you act all butthurt that your male-run airline has been compared to the most worthless form of woman (the un-pretty kind!).

Listen: I'm a heterosexual cisgender thin able-bodied atheist white lady. If someone attempts to insult me by using a slur that's offensive to gays, or trans people, or a racial group,  or the disabled, or fat people, or a religious group, it's unhelpful for me to respond by saying, for example, "That's offensive to gays, and also, I'm personally offended that you would ever compare me to a gay person."

Also unhelpful: How U.S. Airways chose to resolve the flap:

[Doug Parker] said Smisek sent him an apology in which he said he "got carried away in the moment" and "really felt badly."

"I believe Jeff was sincere in his apology, have accepted it on behalf of all of us and am ready to move past it," Parker's memo said.

In conclusion, some guy has decided that he's ready to move past some other guy's sexism.

Photo via chrisny2, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • Kit-Kat

    I'm not sure it's such a contradiction. The comment was sexist. It was also an insult to US Airways, suggesting that it was an inferior airline and merger partner. Presumably, a non-chauvinist insult to the same effect would still be insulting. You can denounce the insult as sexist, and still be upset that someone is insulting your airline.

    It would be more as if someone tried to insult me by using a slur relating to a group that I do not actually belong to, and me responding that (1) it was offensive to that group and (2) in any case, I didn't really like being insulted.

  • Chris

    "United shot back by claiming the 'ugly girl' comment was offensive to women..."

    should be:

    "US Airways shot back by claiming the 'ugly girl' comment was offensive to women..."

    Doug Parker is the CEO of US Airways. Glenn Tilton is the CEO of United.

  • Beth

    "In conclusion, some guy has decided that he’s ready to move past some other guy’s sexism."

    True story: a white, hetero, able-bodied, cisgender, wealthy male with a successful law career once told my mother, in complete earnestness, that he felt he had "overcome sexism". I was about ten at the time but I remember my mom laughing later that he felt so relieved to have overcome the burden of his privilege. It's like respecting other people isn't really an end in itself, it's just some kind of special character-building exercise that you get a cookie if you complete.

  • kza

    What a cisgendered jerk.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    Thanks Chris, I've fixed the post.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    Kit-Kat, why are we the ugly girl?

  • kza

    Who said any non-airline related person was ugly?

  • Keith B

    No one wants to be the ugly anything. It's not quite the same thing as calling Amanda gay as an insult. It would be like calling you a stupid dyke. You're not a lesbian, and in any case you prob don't like people calling you stupid.

    I mean, unless you're comfortable with that.

  • Dorothy

    Okay, I'm not sure, if I can word this correctly.

    Of course, ugly in itself is an insult (although in itself influenced through the kyriarchy and its beauty-ideal).

    But there's a whole history behind the expression "ugly girl" (and that's because the first and most important quality of a "girl" is/has been to be "pretty"), think "wallflower" for example.
    So, try to substitute "girl": "... because it didn't want to end up with the ugly boy". This phrase doesn't make any sense, which shows that we don't have two insults, but one expression (consisting of two words) that make one insult. And this insult is sexist.

  • Kit-Kat

    Amanda, if the insult was different, the employee might have said, "Why are we the red-headed stepchild?" or "Why are we the runt of the litter?" or "Why are we the poor relative?" or "Why are we the consolation prize?" or whatever the inferior half of the insulting comparison was. It just means "Why are we the target of this insult?"

    The insult is sexist, but I'm not sure that makes being upset at being insulted also sexist. You can read it that way, sure, but it's not the only reading.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    I'm a redhead.

  • Kristina

    I'm a redheaded stepchild.

    And the comment is sexist because nobody would dare say the "ugly boy". It doesn't carry the same effect, even when it should. Ugly boys still get stuff handed to them and make the big corporate deals. Ugly girls, however...

  • TJ

    @Amanda, and I think you mean US AIRWAYS, not Airlines.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    Thank you, TJ. I am typo-ing all over the place today.

  • Kit-Kat

    I'm not disputing that the comment was sexist. Of course it was. Is anyone here seriously arguing that it wasn't?

  • http://toysoldier.wordpress.com Toysoldier

    And the comment is sexist because nobody would dare say the “ugly boy”.

    No, the comment is sexist because it specifically refers to females in a derogatory manner. We use unoffensive, nonsexist words like prick, schmuck, jerk or some comparison to other primates or fantasy creatures to describe unattractive males. No one would say "ugly boy" because it does not evoke the proper connotation. And I am fairly sure ugly boys get as little play as ugly girls.

  • Kit-Kat

    Actually, "prick" is a gender-specific insult, just as "bitch" is a gender-specific insult.

    All this discussion of ugly boys has got the song "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" stuck in my head, in which Joe Jackson complains about "pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street."

  • Kristina

    @Toysoldier If you'd read the rest of my comment, you'd see I said "It doesn't carry the same effect, even when it should." Meaning that it doesn't work for males like females. Meaning it's sexist.

  • Kristina

    Because I don't feel like re-defending my commentary over and over, I should further clarify (lest I be quoted and questioned again because of my possibly too-pity explanation). It's sexist because of the differential, in that it makes no sense to say "ugly boy" because there's not as much anti-ugly stereotyping done for men. Ugly boys don't get as little "play" because even if they're ugly they still have the advantage of the Y chromosome in today's society. For a more eloquently-stated version of what I was going for, see Dorothy's comment.

  • b-bop

    No no no, US Airways is the grenade. Someone needs catch up on their Jersey Shore

  • Kit-Kat

    Can I just note that at this stage of the discussion we are now in agreement that the insult was sexist and are arguing over *why* it was sexist?

    Also, although I used the example of "redheaded stepchild," I'm really not sure what the hell it means/where it comes from. Any explanation from the redheads/stepchildren/other knowledgeable people here?

  • Mrs. D

    The insults lobbed most frequently at males (the aforementioned "prick, jerk," etc.) are about what they do, not what nose or hair or teeth they were born with. You wouldn't call a boy a prick because of a nasty overbite or frizzy locks.

    While these insults are akin to SOME uses of "bitch" to describe women, women are assigned that gender-specific derogatory name rather frequently for simply not doing what men want them to (like smiling, engaging in conversation, going out with them, or hopping into bed with them), while men would be much less likely to be assigned the moniker of jerk or prick for failing to live up to a woman's demands of them (a boy who politely declined a date with a woman he wasn't interested in may be bashed briefly, but it typically takes a much more brash approach, such as "not in a million years, fattie" to achieve the moniker; whereas women who simply say "sorry, I'm in a hurry" to a man who would like to speak to them are frequently immediately labeled a "bitch").

    Therefore, the ugly girl comment remains sexist as it reiterates the fact that a woman is valued for her looks first (there is an implication that the "ugly girl" US Air is worthless here), where a boy's looks (while occasionally the subject of mockery, esp. among youngsters) do not automatically determine their worth.

  • Kripa

    Why is everyone ganging up on Kit Kat? She (he?) isn't denying that it's sexist to begin with, so to explain to her why it was sexist seems like a strawman (strawfeminist?) to me.
    In fact, we're all on the same damn page here!

  • rebekah

    anytime the airlines come up in any context anymore all I can think about is the guy who wrote the song about united airlines losing his luggage.

  • rebekah

    and breaking his guitar

  • Ex

    This really is par for the course for Continental. Do some digging on their former CEO's colorful remarks.

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