On ‘Stunning’

Why do I have such strong feelings feelings about this word? Well, I suppose my strong feelings are about its relentless use in everyday parlance. And a usage, which seems ignorant of the word’s origins and its inherent power dynamic. I’m pretty sure that’s why it grates for me, let me expand more on that …

Unsurprisingly, the word ‘stunning’ comes from the word ‘to stun’ and to stun someone or something is quite a harsh action. It is to take away someone’s awareness of the current moment, the present actions. The sound of shots in the air momentarily stunned the deer, before it hastily sprung away. The electric charge stunned the cow before the abattoir machinery took away its life. I came from somewhere dark, into somewhere brightly lit, so brightly lit it stunned me .. ie. momentarily took away my comprehension of my surroundings. The fugitive was stunned when the police flood lights fell on them, and the game was up.

The verb ‘to stun’ generally seems to involve one party taking away the awareness, the faculties of another party, for the former’s advantage. It often seems to be a prelude to death or capture, involve a lot of light, or energy, in the form of electric charge. It’s not something we tend to associate with sound or smell or touch or taste. It’s a visual phenomena and I suppose with the advent of modern technology also a ‘physical phenomena’ – what with the use of electric charge guns – stun guns and tasers. Which brings me to its use as an adjective.

The word ‘stunning’ is often used to describe women, and sometimes men, often at special occasions. For example, a bride on her wedding day, a film star at a premiere etc. It’s not, for example, used to describe children. That would I think feel inappropriate, which suggests there’s a sexual charge running through the usage of the word. One that at a base level is being employed in a way that is analgous to the charge of a stun gun – to momentarily knock the life from someone. And I think that’s where my objection to its current excessive usage as an adjective comes from.

I object to women endlessly being described as ‘stunning’ – the Daily Mail’s go-to-adjective for its ‘complimentary’ articles about women. I object not because I dislike the idea of beautiful women, dressed elegantly at special occasions. I object because it is as if ‘stunning’ is the most venerated status a woman can achieve. It elevates a woman’s looks above all else. She is celebrated for her appearance, she momentarily renders the observers faculties non-functional – all they can do is admire her physical form and appearance. And there lies the problem. Any other admirable qualities are relegated, unobserved, forgotten, subsequent. Looks have trumped all.

And perhaps this sounds like a super-power. In other contexts, the party doing the stunning, is the party with power. The hunter with the shotgun, the police-agent with a taser, the abbatoir operative with the electric charge. And perhaps the film-star, bride, woman walking down the street / into court / into a board meeting has momentarily been victorious. In our distracted society dominated by social media, with friends, family and followers competing for our attention, all attention is on her. Compliments are given, awe expressed. Yet it feels like a pyrrhic victory – any other achievements are obliterated in that moment. All that is celebrated, recorded, and communicated to readers is that of the women’s appearance.

The writer’s senses have been rendered non-functional. They have been stunned by this woman, all else has melted away. She could be a statue of aphrodite, she is no more than her appearance. And in that act of writing, celebrating the woman’s ‘stunning appearance’, it becomes clear that this is no super-power that the woman holds. For the writer has imbued her with as much life and thought, and faculties as a marble statue.

So please, next time you read about someone or something being described as ‘stunning’, ask yourself if it is really the compliment it seems. It’s probably not.

SIDE NOTES – On other common usage

‘a stunning dress’, slightly less objectionable. The ‘stunning’ properties are attributed to the dress, and there is some hope that the wearer may be allowed some thoughts, achievements and agency in their life. If however you simply mean it is covered in so many sequins, or shiny, sparkly things – try ‘dazzling’. Less aggressive and has nice alliteration, a dazzling dress.

a stunning photo’ – if a person, see entire post above! If a landscape, you are probably looking for the word ‘breathtaking’ – again slightly more gentle, or ‘glorious’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘splendid’. All vastly preferable and not tainted with the tawdry tones of lazy Daily-Mailification I hear in the word ‘stunning’.