Monday, February 11, 2013

What does Language Have to do with Sexism?

We learn quickly that language is gendered. We learn words associated with boys (dominant, blue, strong, independent, leader, fearless) and those with girls (fun, pink, shopping, dancing, smiles, pretty). This gendered division of language grows only further and affects a variety of fields that shape the interactions between the sexes. 

Religion – still a common part of our lives, is predominantly neglectful of a written female presence. Even if we try to disassociate ourselves from the physical male stronghold over religious institutions – we cannot help but read that God’s maleness is the overarching source of divinity in most, if not all, global religious texts. Can a woman see herself in the divine if she has not been written in it? Where, in the holy books, has she been aptly portrayed? Is she worth anything more than her tightly constrained roles as either virgin or whore?

Gendered language can motivate our actions and alter our perceptions of self and of others. We take for granted that our social interactions, governed partly through common language, are the only way we can interact with each other, and we blindly use terms that cement negative gender roles and engender unequal distributions of power.

Sexual language is rife with rules on how women and men should behave. From the now socially acceptable punishing of women as ‘sluts’, ‘whores’ and ‘bitches’ to the very intimate way a man ‘deflowers’ a woman, ‘pops’ her cherry, and ‘bangs,’ ‘fucks’ and ‘destroys her’ during sex, sexual speak is laden with male-dominated violence. From the act of “hitting on a woman”, the comparisons of men’s penises to weaponry and the sexual act to a violent war (coined by Freud, who also said that women have penis envy), to men ‘blowing their load’ during sex, a man is portrayed as a violent ‘taker’ and the woman, a submissive ‘giver’. She, in contrast, is chastised for opening her legs, blamed for rape, and called scarring names for any kind of libido outside of marriage. Aspects of female ‘dominance’ are relegated to deviance, with women written into norms of submissiveness, virginity and purity. Just pick up any fashion magazine. Any Cosmo magazine will give you all the information you will ever need on how to ‘please him 18 ways in 5 minutes’ and ‘be the perfect girlfriend in bed,' but I’m wary to find the same in men's magazines (although this is picking up).

It’s a shock then, when women re-purpose this language. When Madonna declared that her ‘love was a revolver,’ and that you’d ‘die happy’ if you used it, these weren’t words strung together – this was an appropriation of violent male terminology. Lady Gaga’s lyrics bemoan her wish to ‘rebuke her condition’ and that ‘she’s a strong female and doesn’t need permission.’ Both pop stars’ concerts are full of imagery of dominant women and submissive men. This seemingly brash re-purposing of language is an anomaly, and one that is more dominantly being espoused by the likes of Rihanna and BeyoncĂ©. The result: we are uncomfortable with women in these roles, playing with violence, playing with men and assuming the roles associated with maleness. Strong women still need to navigate (read, hide) their strengths, and accommodate themselves to specific social markers for beauty, often defined through historical imbalances of power, whether through colonization, globalization or capitalism - all of which can be defined as traditional male structures of governance and power.

Advertisement plays an intrinsic role in burdening women with violent gendered language that alters our perception of self worth and encourages our acceptance of the violent sexual speak, pushing us further into embodying the role of submissive and insecure woman. With ads constantly telling women that they are useless, worthless, dry, damaged, in need of repair, too old, not good looking, not smart, not too mention never thin enough, that compare women to objects, sexualize their bodies and dismiss their minds, we cannot help but wonder if leaving the house with all our failings, flaws and shortcomings is even possible. The United States, as the number one consumer of beauty products (38 billion in 2007, 27.6 billion of that by women), might be hoping to make up for these inadequacies and yet still ranks 23rd on the global ranking of contentment. The two countries that spend the least on beauty products, Netherlands and Sweden, have the best rankings in the Satisfaction of Life Index. 

Enter the world of American politics. Recently, Washington Republicans circulated a white paper to their party members on how to speak about women and to women. This, is in reaction to their disastrous if not absolutely bewildering year of comparing women to farm animals (not one but oh, about seven different times), calling them sluts and whores and wondering aloud that if women couldn’t be blamed for rape then the least they could do would be to ‘shut the whole thing down.'

Such violent gendered language and the constant erasure of women in important written texts has permanent consequences, and to ignore the repercussions is to fail at grasping the way language, either read in a book or seen on an ad, molds us. Remember, we see about 5000 ads per day! Our news is replete with gendered speak (Fox News may win the prize for this dubious accomplishment), with debates still calling into question the strength of women as politicians (can she govern if she has mood swings and a bad hair day?), if women can even qualify as comedians since they’re just not funny, or how rape is something the body "can shut down". These are common male-dominated perspectives in conversations that are violently damaging.

And what of a woman's affected self-worth? How can she possibly enjoy sex if all she can think of is her jiggly bits, dry skin, un-cosmetically enhanced breasts, wrinkles, damaged hair, fat stomach and distinct lack of the inner thigh gap? All of this, of course, without missing the main purpose of bedroom activities, as per our media, movies and pornography: a man's pleasure. Outside of the bedroom, women cannot become what they cannot see. If women are going to be any equal part of society, it might help if she could see herself written into laws, policies and decision-making. If only on paper.

While developing an ‘asexual' or 'gender neutral speak’ may be far off (which is not as ludicrous as it sounds, as some Nordic countries are figuring out), developing a language that is gender-aware, and not only prime on neutrality. Neutrality is tricky - indeed, it usually skews to the dominant norm. Speaking of a ‘God’ evokes a white man with a beard. ‘Leader’ and ‘politician’ are still heavily white and masculinized terms. A language that is aware of the gendered nature of its terms is one that can seek to redress itself, much the same way language has been affected by racism and cultural appropriation and is now in the process of evolving beyond the damage it has caused.

What is also needed is a concerned male representation seeking to redefine the language used around the sexes. It is foolish to think that only women are affected by gendered terms; indeed, such terminology is damaging to men, reinforcing traditional male stereotypes through violently worded imagery. Language can be imprisoning for men, forcing them to define themselves in ways that they may not feel or think of themselves. Feminine terminology, in turn, is used to degrade men, the word 'pussy' being the ultimate insult to a man's strength. These constraints can be especially damaging, when men cannot find words in their language to positively or helpfully associate with emotions they may be going through, instead only finding that what are naturally occurring process in their minds and bodies are instead negatively associated with "being a girl."

At the very least, our institutions should have a responsibility towards the non-use of violent language, and this top-down leadership should influence the same policy changes in businesses, firms and banks: all social structures that we associates with truth. We have a responsibility toward each other in the language that we use to communicate. We must be more aware of this, and actively seek ways to change any structural discrimination or sexism that our language may cause.

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