Why having a “sweetheart” complex isn’t as pleasant as it sounds

At five-foot-two I stand barely tall enough to reach the overhead cabinets or close the microwave door. “I’m tiny, but fierce,” I say, to justify myself when I receive yet another “I didn’t know you were so short” comment. My wardrobe is full of dresses, full of pink, full of skirts, dainty jewelry – girlishness in its entirety. Best of all, I have a baby face and the voice of a violin. Nothing about me screams “intimidating,” and I don’t necessarily want it to, but there is something about this particular demeanor that fascinates me, so much so that I have decided to colloquially refer to it as “the sweetheart complex.”

Extensions on papers, discounts at supermarkets, evading driving tickets- such are the perks of the “sweetheart complex.” I have received all of the above and have attributed it to luck in order to avoid coming face-to-face with what it really is: the fact that my seemingly innocent nature is often mistaken for fragility, delicacy, even deficiency. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” “Just for you, sweetheart” “Don’t worry about it sweetheart.” I am given the benefit of the doubt more often than not, and while this seems like a rather trivial notion, there truly is an underlying fixation that I cannot seem to neglect. The reality is that while I receive the perks of the sweetheart complex, I miss out on the accountability that comes with being a functioning adult. My femininity is often inaccurately depicted as incompetency and as subtle or inadvertent as it is, this so called “sweetheart” complex is a reoccurring theme in my life, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.SW1

I feel as though being a young, feminine girl pursuing life in the working world automatically labels me with an inferiority complex that I know I do not have. People assume I underestimate myself, so they feel it is appropriate to underestimate me. Suddenly I am expected demean myself for the ego of others, to talk in a subordinate and tone make sure I don’t speak too loud or allow my shoulders to be uncovered- as if my professionalism and competency are correlated to whether or not you can see my bra strap instead of whether or not I produce meaningful work.

I am “sweetheart” rather than boss, “sweetheart” rather than prodigy, “sweetheart” rather than woman. I am sweetheart to the point that I no longer want to be “sweetheart,” the term of endearment invokes a desire to defend myself, not bat my eyelashes or share a bashful grin.

The saddest part of all is the reality that while I want to defend myself, while I want to point out the fallacies of the innocuously condescending way I’m called “sweetheart,” I don’t. Because the power of the sweetheart complex is in its brand. When you are branded as “sweetheart,” or branded with any label at all, it sticks. Regardless of your efforts to mask it, or change it, it sticks. While I reap the rewards and face the challenges of the sweetheart complex, truth be told, I don’t have any desire to change who I am or break out of the innocent naivety that I am branded with. I feel comfortable enough within myself to proudly be feminine, be young, and perhaps even be naïve. Despite the struggles that I’m faced with by appearing too young, too girlish, too this, too that, I believe facing adversity is the only way to push yourself into accomplishing what even you yourself thought was unattainable. So yes, I’m young, female, feminine, and perfectly capable of exceeding the expectation. I’m capable of being so much more than just “sweetheart”- I can be an innovator, a savvy, suitable, sophisticated member of the society who may look like a “sweetheart” but act like a siren.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. demiannee says:

    This is brilliant, perfect idea on how a society judges a book by a cover.

  2. Korsgaard says:

    The other reason you might get called sweetheart is because you live in the South. Everyone gets called that around here.

    Seriously though, I know what you mean, and I’m sorry you have to deal with such treatment. Still, look on the upside – being short, girlish and cheerful is awesome. The fact you also work hard and take charge in your life compounds the awesome. If people want to think less of you for one or the other, feel free to educate them.

    Also, make use that you have a better shot at getting out of a speeding ticket than I do with my ugly mug.

  3. cct says:

    Hey Hannah, great blog! I must say that there is a male analog to the female “sweetheart”. Having lived in the South for many years and being male, I also have been addressed as “babe”, “sweetheart”, “hoss” and my favorite, “honey” or “hon”. I think overall “sweetheart” or ” darlin’ ” is mostly a positive compliment in the South. It does mean you are attractive, have a nice personality and are non-threatening. People in the South and in general have a soft spot in their heart for people like yourself. Also, Humphrey Bogart liked to use it!

    1. hannahkhan says:

      I definitely get where you’re coming from. I think its a little different in each scenario. While I definitely think the intent (case by case) is not malicious and rather innocuous, regardless, it really does pull a trigger. While I am technically from the south, I think Northern Virginia and even Richmond tend to disregard Southern customs. My fixation with this idea is not so much the word itself, but how I’m viewed by others. I feel like the “sweetheart” complex can come from someone who doesn’t necessarily call me sweetheart, but fails to acknowledge me in a professional or adult manner – that is what is irksome about it. Hope this clears up what I am trying to say! Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment!

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