In 1990, R.J. Reynolds test marketed a new brand of cigarette named "Dakota."
But the brand immediately generated controversy when internal company documents leaked to the Washington Post
revealed that the cigarettes were narrowly targeted at a demographic described as "virile females."
What exactly is a "virile female"? It was apparently "a woman with no education beyond high school, whose favorite television roles are Roseanne
and 'evening soap opera (bitches)' and whose chief aspiration is 'to get married in her early 20s' and spend her free time 'with her boyfriend doing whatever he is doing.'"
The phrase "virile female" attracted a lot of interest. Many people wondered if it was acceptable English. Language columnist William Safire weighed in on the issue, asking, "Can you use virile woman without committing an oxymoronic act?
" He concluded, yes you can:
Masculine woman is an acceptable phrase, as is effeminate man; what is meant here, however, is different from a female who acts like a male. A virile woman, as I interpret the promotional message, is "a woman who associates herself with activities and images formerly considered of primarily male interest."
He further noted that there was literary precedent for the phrase:
Etymologists will support the use of virile woman because the first appearance of the adjective, in William Caxton's 1490 translation of a French romance based on Virgil's 'Aeneid,' was in the phrase "O the fortytude viryle of wymmen."
However, even though Safire had officially approved the phrase "virile female," the cigarettes themselves didn't perform well in the test marketing, so Reynolds scuttled the brand.
Palm Beach Post - Feb 17, 1990