Casual and harmless – or deeply sexist? A phrase for women who routinely socialise falls under fresh scrutiny
It’s a throwaway label that has been used to denote everyone from Jackie Kennedy to designer Olivia Palermo.
But, while it may seem innocuous at first glance, the term “socialite” is subtly damaging for women.
Throwing a spotlight on it this weekend, documentary maker Jemima Khan – who has often had her identity reduced to “socialite” over the years – suggests that it’s more of thoughtless slur than a factual description.
“It’s just so lazy,” Khan tells The Times in a new interview.
“[…] It’s used pejoratively to label women even if they have jobs. It’s hardly ever used to describe men – even jobless, party-loving men.
“I’ve worked voluntarily for Unicef for 20 years,” she continues. “They all joke about it in the office, how nobody’s been there as long as I have – and in the past three months I’ve produced ten hours of TV both in the UK and the US. I don’t know … I wonder, at what point does the label unstick?”
The term “socialite” was first coined in the late 1920s, as a byword for party-hard New Yorkers who satisfied the two R’s: Rich and Racy.
“Anyone with an extravagant, fabulous lifestyle qualified,” according to the Houston Chronicle.
Nowadays, the Collins English Dictionary defines it as “a person who attends many fashionable upper-class social events and who is well known because of this”.
Inevitably, it’s a female-centric term, and Khan isn’t the only woman to object to the characterisation. For singer Sky Ferreira, “socialite”, like its sister phrase “It girl”, is not only inaccurate – it also takes away her agency.
“It implies that you’re part of a moment and that you don’t have any talent,” she says.
“I hate when people call me a socialite because you have to have money to be a socialite, which I don’t have.”
Comic writer Jill Kargman, who satirises her life on the Upper East Side of New York for TV, agrees that “socialite” instantly devalues the work that women of any and all backgrounds do.
“To me, the term ‘socialite’ negates actual work as the social part eclipses any career,” she says.
For her, the word is outdated; redolent of “a different time when perhaps women didn’t have as many opportunities”.
Beyond being sexist and reductive, it’s also deeply judgemental.
How women choose to spend their lives is so often subject to censure, even in a modern age. And “socialite” is a prime example of this.
“Because I go to parties and I’ve been out I’m suddenly a party girl?” says Ferreira. “There are people who party way harder than me. Also, it’s not anyone’s business, I’m 20 years old! Am I meant to be staying at home popping out children? Are we in the 1800s?”
Amen to that.