Pettiness Had Its Moment. Why Did It Fade?
Pettiness doesn’t have quite the same ring to it anymore. There was a time when it rose from the annals of shameful emotions we’d rather not express out loud, to being the dominant language of our times. At the vanguard of people reclaiming it were women, the queer community, and teenagers. This in itself is telling: a demographic so often forced to shrink itself became loud and proud to embrace rage over trivialities. Being petty was to take space — but without causing too much harm.
Petty used to be an insult. But much like a lot of humorous vocabulary, its reclamation began on Black Twitter — where keeping receipts and acting on the smallest impulses to regain control of a situation made for cathartic laughter.
Then, Taylor Swift’s album Reputation came along as the ultimate petty revenge album — giving a generation permission to celebrate their most base, unbecoming feelings. Its message, at large, became: nothing bad ever comes out of being petty — at best, you get chart-topping bangers from it.
Soon, pettiness wasn’t minimal anymore; it rose to affective superstardom, with individuals shedding all embarrassment about feeling petty. These were people whose niggling feelings of hurt, frustration, and anger were invalidated in exaggerated terms anyway. Take the trope of the crazy ex-girlfriend, the hysterical social justice warrior, or the sadistic teenager. Embracing feeling petty was an opportunity to take back the narrative and validate unpleasant emotions that didn’t have as much of an impact on others as the stereotypes claimed.
Social media, then, was replete for a while with memes about being petty. Women got back at exes who wronged them through little symbolic acts of revenge that would make said ex feel bad. But compared to the ex’s offense — cheating, emotional abuse, or something just as damaging — the petty act aimed to inflict not harm, but a statement. It was a way of expressing why we felt wronged, while simultaneously reinforcing that pettiness is just that: trivial, and nothing compared to the action or word that one felt wronged by.
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Office pettiness, too, became a way of pushing back against stifling norms of niceties and etiquette that didn’t allow negativity to breathe. Instagram content creators — again, usually women — began to make memes and give instructive advice on how to get back at co-workers through formal pettiness.
But in 2022, petty stopped being as funny — mostly because we began to see the outsized effects of powerful men being petty. Elon Musk took over Twitter — since then, he’s suspended the accounts of journalists who said anything about him. Kanye West, in the throes of his divorce from Kim Kardashian, began harassing and threatening her then-boyfriend, Pete Davidson. The defining ethos of the Trump administration was destructive pettiness. There were fears of these petty men pushing us into a nuclear apocalypse over a bruised ego.
Even the less powerful men had their moments. A viral TikTok showed a man charging his girlfriend for everything he spent on her, in one instance. And in a tragic, deadly turn — an Indian man killed his wife earlier this year for not cooking rice.
Being petty, then, was good for a time — when the systemically less powerful wielded it as a way of expressing their already limited agency. Amid a history of any show of emotion — especially negative — pathologized as hysteria, being petty not only felt liberating, but also corrected the misconception around the feeling — that it’s not, in fact, abnormal. However, now that men have begun to act out in louder, more conspicuous ways in every realm, being petty is no longer as fun. Often, men’s pettiness ruins lives. This was not the point of the emotion at all.
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It’s not just men, however. White women calling the cops on Black men (and even children) over minor perceived slights is another example of how dangerous things get when the powerful weaponize pettiness. We see this, too, in India — where an emboldened middle class is quick to yell at or complain about service staff that isn’t obsequious enough. Just this week, a passenger on a flight called an air hostess a “servant” over a minor confusion regarding his meals.
“The trouble is that, when you strip pettiness of cultural necessity and make it accessible up the ranks of the privileged, it risks becoming something monstrous,” noted Amanda Hess.
It’s behavior that used to be entirely unbecoming precisely because people with power used it to inflict pain on others — hence the terminology “petty bourgeois” to describe managers, shop-floor overseers, landlords, and others whose unfair and cruel whims over trivial matters harmed others.
The problem is as much the mainstreaming of the term away from Black communities, as much as it is about not recognizing powerful people’s behavior as more than just petty. As a result, petty has gone the same way as “woke” — with everyone using it to describe everyone else, but with no more meaningful engagement with the value it had for people.