THE British magazine New Woman has just learned a costly lesson about name-calling. A high court ordered the publication to pay nearly $190,000 in libel damages to a woman who claimed an article wrongly portrayed her as a "kiss-and-tell bimbo" because she wrote a book about her 11-year affair with a government official. Editors denied the charges.
The woman's legal victory could serve as fair warning to American journalists and entertainers, for whom "bimbo" is rapidly becoming the favorite all-purpose pejorative. Need a spicy word to describe a woman caught in a public scandal, from Donna Rice and Tai Collins to Jessica Hahn and Gennifer Flowers? Try "bimbo." If you can turn it into a catchy phrase, such as "smoking bimbo," so much the better.
On a recent TV special, comedian Mark Russell joined the crowd in referring to Gennifer Flowers as a "bimbo." And in the high-minded pages of the latest New York Review of Books, Garry Wills began his review of the scholarly papers of Hillary Clinton by writing that when she and her husband, Gov. Bill Clinton, appeared on "60 Minutes" last month, "He was there to deny any liaison with a currently specified bimbo, though he conceded (indirectly) bimberies unspecified."
"Bimberies"? Can we now expect a whole group of spinoff words, such as "bimbettes" and "bimbinos"? Anything for a laugh, apparently.
Bimbo serves as the latest in a long line of belittling code terms - among them broad, skirt, babe, and doll - that reduce the identity of a woman to a sexual object. It is a catchy word, short and staccato, with all those b's popping off the lips. But in trading on stereotypes of leggy femmes fatales - preferably blondes with dark roots - it perpetuates images of women as weak, dumb, sexy.
No equivalent word exists to describe the men who allegedly constitute the other half of these relationships. And any public examination of the "bimbo factor" usually focuses only on questions of damage control: How will this affect a politician's career?
But another question begs to be considered: What subtle effect do these references to bimbos have on public images of women?
Oddly, it has become an equal-opportunity word, used by women as well as men. A computer database search last week turned up nearly 400 media references to the word since September, by male and female writers alike. In recent weeks I've also overheard high school and college women use "bimbo" as a casual put-down of an acquaintance. It would be ironic if some of the same women who object to blonde jokes, and who get prickly about being called a chairman rather than a chairwoman or a housewife instead of a homemaker, are among those who find humor in reducing other women to bimbo status.
The popularity of "bimboism" comes just as Gloria Steinem is crisscrossing the country to promote her bestseller, "Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem." Although the book itself is a strange hodgepodge of quotes and remedies ranging from deep breathing to self-hypnosis, its popularity among women suggests that their perception of themselves still needs bolstering. Socially sanctioned denigrations hardly help.
Nor do images of women in popular entertainment. A new study by the American Psychological Association finds that the "model female" on commercial television is "beautiful, dependent, helpless" and "valued for her appearance more than for her capabilities and competencies." Bimbos on parade - all the more reason to avoid perpetuating stereotypes in print.
On certain subjects, sensitivity to language grows sharper by the day. The Portland Oregonian refuses to print the names of sports teams such as Redskins and Braves, which it considers derogatory. Books like "The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing" have come under criticism for insisting on gender-free terms to the point of the ridiculous. Certainly most women do not feel excluded by the common example of "manhole." But "bimbo" is not a borderline case of sexism-in-language. It is a term so broad in innuendo
that it affects the dignity of all women. The fact that it is used by intelligent writers who are generally careful of their style only measures the need to raise the question: Why do sophisticates whose fingers would freeze before tapping out "Sambo" still deal freely with "bimbo"?