Image by Chris Leggat

Finding the equivalent to energy efficient lightbulbs for sexism

I heard a phrase today that I’d not heard in years. A girl who was in the line behind me at the supermarket said ‘how blonde of me’.

When I was in primary school, and probably a bit of high school too, the term ‘blonde’ was a pretty common way to describe someone who’d done something silly or was a bit ditsy.

It was never a term I gave much thought to, although I think I recall my Mum saying from time to time it was a lazy stereotype that wasn’t very appropriate and by no means clever.

And she was right. It was, like many other names people use when throwing insults about, a silly and completely nonsensical connection.

I think the fact the term has fallen out of vogue a good sign. It gives a bit of hope to other stupid words and phrases we use which we have become so used to hearing, to the point we really don’t think about what we are saying, who we might be offending or what they really stand to mean.

I was talking to a friend about this exact topic a few weeks ago. We were discussing the idea of everyday sexism; a topic we are both very interested and invested in, and very determined to somehow change.

But, as we also discuss regularly, the idea of tackling sexism at large is a very overwhelming job. When you look around you’ll see so many amazing people dedicating a lot of energy to this cause, and yet sometimes it feels like progress is glacial.

Like any large project, when you look at what you’re ultimately trying to achieve, it can often feel too big; it’s hard to know where to start.

But this ‘blonde’ incident earlier today made me realise that language is one of the things that might actually be a good first step. Or rather, addressing the language we use which adds to the normalisation of sexism or gender stereotypes.

By creating a black list of words we refuse to use anymore, then maybe, just like the passing of ‘blonde’, we can start to erase some really unnecessary generalisations that inch their way into our subconscious.

The terms that immediately come to mind are ‘man up’, ‘son of a bitch’ and ‘grow a pair’.

I’ll admit, throughout my life I’ve probably used all three of these a number of times. But, when you pick apart what they all are truly saying, they’re really very stupid.

You could write a thesis on why ‘manning up’, and its use when someone is being told to get tougher, sets a terrible standard for what it takes to qualify as a man. Let alone what it says if you’re a woman. Any quips that fall into ‘yo mamma’ territory shouldn’t need an explanation as to why they’re poor form. And ‘growing a pair’ again implies balls are what it takes to be strong, bold or brave. (As an aside, whenever I hear this last one I finish the sentence off with ‘of ovaries’ in my head just to try and cancel out how much it irks me, but that’s not really the point, we should stop saying it in the first place).

The fact that in any given day we might hear or use any of these terms is exactly why we should look to quit using them. They’re far from intelligent and there’s nothing shrill in saying that their use is intertwined with a lot of what we accept in society when it comes to wider gender profiling. They’re also only three examples off a very long list.

Language is powerful. But we far trivialise too much of it. We need to remember that what we say, especially when speaking metaphorically, could be more damning that we think. And when it comes to sexism and looking for something small we can do that works toward all encompassing equality, our words seem like a tactical place to start. Think of them as the equivalent to using energy efficient light bulbs, but for sexism; they won’t be the single thing that knocks it out, but if everyone commits to making a little change we’ll start to chip away at it.