A Plague of Pearl Clutching

How clutch the pearls became a lady blogosphere cliché.

Is it time to retire the phrase clutch the pearls?

Photograph by Inga Ivanova.

Unless you’re former First Lady Barbara Bush, pearls may not be in style. But accusing people of clutching them is.

The phrase pearl clutching, which means being shocked by something once-salacious that should now be seen as commonplace, like sex, is ubiquitous on blog posts, especially in media geared towards women. For instance, a recent post on Jezebel called Girl Land author Caitlin Flanagan a “professional pearl clutcher.” Less than two hours later, another Jezebel writer called a sexy Calvin Klein ad “sure to inspire pearl-clutch-y local news stories across the nation.” The feminist website Feministe used the phrase in a blog post about privilege and oppression; another feminist website, Tiger Beatdown, used it to deride a Wall Street Journal writer who was panicking about the subject matter of YA novels. But the phrase isn’t just used in the lady blogosophere: A Washington Post columnist wrote dismissively last week about the “pearl-clutching that hippies’ parents did in the 1960s.” Basically, a writer who discusses pearl-clutching is saying, “I’m too blasé and worldly to be shocked by this.”

“Clutch the pearls” first appeared on In Living Color in the show’s 1990 debut season in an April 15 “Men on Films” sketch. After Blaine Edwards (played by Damon Wayans) waxes about how “daring” producers were to cast a male actor as the “female” lead in Dangerous Liaisons, his sidekick Antoine Merriweather tells him that Glenn Close is actually a woman, prompting Blaine to gasp, “Clutch the pearls!” The sarcastic phrase and its many permutations existed prior to In Living Color, of course; for instance, “she clutches her pearls” appeared in a 1987 article in an Australian newspaper about ladies who lunch. But it was the “Men on …” sketches that brought the phrase into widespread, albeit sometimes too literal, use in the early ‘90s, appearing, for example, in a couple of Billboard album reviews as well as a Newsday piece about—who else?—Barbara Bush’s jewelry in 1993.

Judging from the instances of “clutch the pearls” and “pearl clutching” that I found in a Nexis search, the expression showed up only periodically through about 2004, almost always as a pun about wealthy women and literal pearls. Take a 2000 episode of World News Tonight in which co-anchor Alison Stewart said there was “a lot of pearl-clutching going on” in the high-end auction business following accusations of criminal price-fixing. The expression then went largely dormant. There are only 16 Google results for “pearl clutching” between Jan. 1, 2000, and Jan. 1, 2004, though it did appear in a 2003 academic work called Speaking in Queer Tongues: Globalization and Gay Language.

In 2004, the phrase resurfaced, initially receiving just the occasional airing. The New York Times invoked it in a piece about African-American chick-lit writers. Straight Dope commenters began wondering about it its provenance in 2005. In 2006, Canada’s National Post used it in a story about Brokeback Mountain. One of my favorite uses of the phrase from that year, presented without context: “Amusingly, upon the various perfume boards there’s been a little bit of pearl-clutching going on about the concept of a marijuana perfume.” Then the use exploded. From Jan. 1, 2004, to Jan. 1, 2007, the “pearl clutching” brings up 130 hits on Google. From Jan. 1, 2007, to Aug. 19, 2011, there are nearly 61,000 results.

2007 was the year “pearl clutching” went blockbuster, showing up in the Salt Lake Tribune, Gawker, the American Teacher, the American Conservative (in a piece by Slate’s David Weigel). XX Factor’s own Amanda Marcotte used the phrase in a Salon piece about her exodus from the John Edwards campaign. That was also the year that the phrase entered the vernacular of gay men in Maryland—at least that’s what Urban Dictionary claims.

Though the phrase is most often used by liberal and/or feminist and/or race-discussion sites to dismiss someone as being prudish, uptight, or otherwise too conservative in their thinking. But it has been flung around by conservatives, too: Common Sense Political Thought, a decidedly right-wing blog, said that liberals were “pearl clutching” in their response to Ann Coulter calling John Edwards a “faggot.” While use may have dropped slightly from its 2007-2008 heyday, “pearl clutching” is still popular, appearing recently on NPR, Jezebel (repeatedly!), Slate’s XX Factor blog, and Canada’s Globe and Mail.

But now that In Living Color is returning to the airwaves later this year, perhaps it’s time to retire the expression. Megan Carpentier, executive editor of the Raw Story, was an early adopter of “pearl clutching” in her days at Wonkette and Jezebel. Now, she says, “It’s a fun phrase when it’s not a cliché.” Now, though, “it’s lost its meaning or originality.”

The loss of novelty isn’t the only problem with the phrase. While the mental image is amusing, the use of the phrase has degenerated into accusatory shorthand, particularly in blog comments. People—particularly women—lob the charge at one another to accuse them of not being liberal, or feminist, or open-minded enough; not infrequently, it prompts tedious semantic debates about whether something is “pearl clutching” or a legitimate concern. And to that I say, mollusks