Team Harpy

There are a lot of negative words used for women, particularly those who do things as audacious and unseemly as ‘disagree’ or ‘have opinions’ or ‘exist’. I’m not going to list them here, because you can find them pretty much anywhere else on the Internet (or in newspapers, or on TV, or yelled at you by random douchebags on the street – sorry, I mean, in “banter”). Suffice to say, there are many – even more if you happen to be a woman of colour, or trans, or queer, or disabled, because that opens up a whole lovely new vocab book of slurs.

I’m not going to list them, but I am going to pick on one in particular, because the more I think about it, the more out-of-place it seems. That word is “harpy”.


Harpy seems to be the word of the moment. It turns up in the Twilight series – Jacob calls Leah a ‘bitter harpy’ because she commits the heinous crime of being heartbroken about her former boyfriend abandoning her for her cousin. (Women, right? She should have been instantly happy for him and squashed down her own feelings, the selfish cow. Only Jacob gets to be upset that his beloved likes someone else). I’ve also seen it used a lot today, with reference to women who are protesting against the potential return of convicted rapist Ched Evans to professional football. Here’s one particularly empassioned example from James Delingpole (hat tip to Alex Andreou)



Obviously, Delingpole has a slight lack of comprehension of the meanings of the words he uses (condemning rapists isn’t really a ‘warped, knee-jerk politically correct prejudice’, now, is it?), and I think ‘harpy’ is one of the words he’s drastically misinterpreted. Like ‘social justice warrior’, it doesn’t really work as an insult. Let’s take a brief look at harpies:



Look at that lady. Half bird, half woman, all stone-cold badass. Look at that expression of withering disdain. She looks completely awesome, and she knows it. According to their Wikipedia page, they were ‘lovely-haired creatures’, something that makes me, with my terminally flat and unexciting barnet, feel rather unworthy of the title.

Getting away from looks – what did harpies do? Well, they stole food, that’s true. And personally, I would never do such a thing. Especially not chips. Especially not from my brother’s plate. I am just not that much of a monster.

Harpies did something else, though. They carried evildoers to the Furies.

Evildoers. Not poor, innocent victims. Not the wrongfully accused. Evildoers.

Essentially, harpies were the creatures who saw that justice was done. Which I guess might make them scary to anyone who would rather excuse a violent, horrific crime on the basis that…um…well, on no basis at all, really, except that it’s rather inconvenient to think about, and makes people feel uncomfortable, and we’d all rather pretend it never happened, thank you very much.

So, sign me up for Team Harpy. Because apparently, the alternative is Team Ostrich.



About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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