I did not expect that a little recreational reading while visiting Mom would spur me to blog. But the term “wife-beater” has appeared twice already in the first third of this detective story (published in 2007) by a prolific and popular author, reminding me that I had also run across it in a really recent magazine article somewhere. I considered it an unfortunate aberration at the time, and my intent to write to the editor immediately got side-railed by a big, pressing pile of work. (If I was reading a magazine, I was likely in a waiting room and not at my desk.) “Wife-beater” refers to a garment, specifically a sleeveless undershirt, originally worn only by men.
On the surface, since it is not used to describe a person of a particular race, it lacks the offense quotient of the “N-word” and other racial slurs. (Words that insult women never seem to rise to that level.) But think about it: “wife-beater” is an insult to both genders. And it has racial connotations. The same garment was once referred to as a “guinea-tee” – the “guinea” being a slur for Italian by suggesting a darker-skinned (and poorer? and more aggressive?) breed than the average European. To those like me who remember when that phrase was in common usage, the association of “guinea-tee” and “wife-beater” makes for a triply offensive message, and I cannot imagine why any clothing manufacturer, culture commentator or publisher would want to print, post, or be associated with such a term.
I see that there are a number of items online devoted to this subject, so if you’re interested in reading more you can surf around for them. I’m going to go back to the novel, which I am otherwise enjoying, and when I finish perhaps I will dash off a note to the author and her publisher. Yes, the author is a woman, and the character wearing the damn thing is also a woman, which makes the use of the phrase even more stupid. The fact is, from the perspective of descriptive writing, “sleeveless-tee” serves just fine.