Systemic and stuck
Language, however thick our skin may be, plays a major role in politics and culture. Its influence, implications, and power have a much larger effect than many people might want to admit.
Language in the context of power structures — especially those that rely on and perpetuate sexism — is surprisingly potent.
Tackling systemic issues, obviously, has never been easy. When a cultural habit is deep-rooted and accepted for several generations, just calling it out doesn’t guarantee any change. In fact, you’re likely to get a lot of backlash that way. Taking on such issues, like sexual assault or sexism in general, must be done step by step, starting with spreading awareness. Only after the bulk of a population understands the context and causes of a cultural issue can anyone in the population begin to fight for change. One step along the way?
Though people might be reluctant to realize the way they speak may be contributing to the objectification of women, it’s time we take a closer look at the words we use and how they (and we) are unwittingly perpetuating sexism every day. In this installment of the Gone Viral series here at Ulzi, I’m going to delve into how some of the words we use adversely affect women everywhere, whether we realize it or not.
Pussy (n): Often synonymous with a coward and, at the same time, used to vulgarly describe a woman’s genitalia
The two definitions of the word don’t necessarily do a whole lot of harm on their own, but when used at the same time — as they pretty much automatically are — it causes real issues. When the female body is conflated with weakness, fear, and essentially powerlessness, it’s easier to dehumanize it. Efforts like the ‘Pink Pussy’ movement that took over Women’s March photos focus on women reclaiming the word for themselves — because (hello) vaginas aren’t offensive or disgusting. Unless you’re purposefully trying to make it harder for women to talk about their own bodies.
Gay (adj.): Technically means homosexual, also used to mean lame or stupid
“Gay,” “homo,” “queer,” “f*g” — they all colloquially mean the same thing. While it might seem (or you would expect that) people in the 21st century know how harmful these words can be, they have a platform for resurgence on the internet, more nowadays than ever before.
Men often use homophobic slurs like these to emasculate and feminize other men. Between homophobia and a great misunderstanding of gender fluidity and sexuality, being gay became linked to being feminine — and being feminine is synonymous with being weak, lesser than, and not as ‘manly.’
In turn, femininity — to be like a woman or a girl — is laden with an additional negative connotation. When these words are used, it reinforces the idea that femininity is akin to lack of strength, independence, and — ultimately — personhood.
Like the word “queer,” members of the LGBQT community have begun to try and reclaim “gay” for themselves. Because of that, there are situations where saying someone is gay is appropriate. You know. When they’re actually gay. And you’re not insulting them for being that way. But when used to negatively prescribe attributes to someone — ones which have nothing to do with being homosexual— it disregards the identities of that entire community.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t mean it as a homophobic or misogynistic slur, it does the same damage.
So remember, intent is irrelevant. And that's it.
The Office (2005) - S02E02 Sexual Harassment - Yarn is the best way to find video clips by quote. Find the exact moment…
Grow a Pair! (v): Referring to male genitalia; meaning to be courageous, take a chance, or step up to the plate
As obvious as it may be, linking strength and courage to male genitals doesn’t feel super inclusive.
We know that men aren’t the only demographic that can do heroic or courageous things. We know you don’t need balls or a prescribed masculinity to do great things. So why doesn’t our language reflect that?
“Grow a pair,” “Man up,” “Stop being a pussy” — Have we no gender-inclusive ways to tell someone to stop being afraid? Discontinuing the link between masculinity and fearlessness would benefit us all.
It’s also important to note that this phrase, along with a few other phrases on our list, is entirely reactionary. It’s used to police people of all genders who are not acting manly enough. Because if someone is acting womanly, they apparently need to be kept in check, which is painfully damaging in itself.
Chick (n): Another name for a woman, often used derogatorily
Whether it’s “broad,” “chick,” or my least favorite: “female.” Reducing women down to gender or sex makes it easier for them to be objectified and dehumanized — seen and used in whatever reflection one person wants to see.
Tone is also key in consideration of this term. While “chick” may feel like the feminine counterpart to “dude,” they don’t always have the same connotations. “Dude” feels familiar and friendly, while “chick” can feel more rude and cold, like less of the subject and more of the object.
No one wants to feel like a something rather than a someone, so before you tell your next story about “that chick you ______,” think about what you really mean by that. What’s her name? Would she want to be called that? Stop asking if your mother or daughter or sister or aunt would want to be called that and acknowledge that she doesn’t have to be related to a man to matter on her own.
Girl (n): A child, but often used to describe young women
A lesser known notion of anti-sexism is to refer to all women as women. When a woman becomes a woman is arguable, but consensus lies somewhere between age 16 and 18.
Young men are referred to as such starting typically around age 15 or 16 — That gap seems off considering the scientific studies on maturity between genders.
When young women are referred to as girls, it takes away from their agency, their maturity, and their abilities. In conversations about my peers, strangers, and even family members, college-aged women are referred to as “girls” more often than not, and it truly does have an effect.
Because women are subjected to more detrimental language — essentially just by the default of how our language works — we need to start taking action when children are younger. Teaching children to refer to women as women will solidify the word in their lexicon. Actually, it will effectively broaden the definition of “woman” since they’ll be used to calling a greater number of human beings women, and by elimination narrow the definition of “girl” to people who are under the age of 18.
Though this may feel nuanced, it’s important. Language is inherently influenced by existing gender stereotypes — and then of course perpetuates those same stereotypes. Changing your language and becoming aware of your contribution to culture is the first step in cutting into that detrimental spiral.
Never Hit a Woman! (phrase): Taught to boys and girls alike at a young age; reinforces the idea that women are weaker than men
While it’s obviously a great message to send to young boys, telling them not to hit girls or women in some ways does the opposite of what it’s supposed to. Can they hit other boys? Can they hit men? Why can’t they hit girls?
This is often the first lesson of respect taught to children, and it’s less inclusive than it seems. Teaching boys not to hit girls only emphasizes the idea that women are not as strong as men — and doesn’t do anything in the way of teaching boys not to hit anyone. This phrase puts the focus on the differences between genders rather than on anti-violence.
It’s an important lesson for boys to learn to respect women, but confining that respect to not physically assaulting them is coming up a little short of what we really need. There are many ways to respect women, and most are not physical. Respecting that women (and men) can have emotions — and that those emotions are real — is one gaping hole in terms of what we teach young men. Teaching boys to be less violent and aggressive emotionally, not just physically, is a huge first step.
She’s Someone’s Daughter! (phrase): You should worry about her, she’s related to someone else!
Ahh, my favorite problematic phrase. Referring to someone as someone’s daughter, mother, sister, cousin, brother, uncle, neighbor, or ex-best friend emphasizes the fact that these people are related in one way or another to someone else.
But is a person’s value determined by their relationship to someone else? Whether I am a sister, mother, daughter, or cousin, should be irrelevant. I should receive basic respect not based on who I’m related to — but based on the fact that I am human. Using someone’s familial ties as a basis for caring about them doesn’t denote respect — is shows that you don’t actually respect her. Just the person she’s related to.
I often see this rhetoric during conversations and articles regarding sexual assault, police brutality, and other forms of violence. The victim’s status in relation to how others sympathize for them should have nothing to do with their familial relations.
Respect the person as the person they are, not based on how the other men and women are affected by the violence.
If a young woman was sexually assaulted— which happens more often than you’d think — does it really matter more that she was someone’s daughter? Or is the emphasis on her own suffering? Why does it seem to take this relation to make the event matter?
While sensitivity and empathy are key in allyship, there’s no reason for those affected by an event to overshadow the plight of the victim or survivor.
Language is power
The power of language is immense. In slang, conversation, and academia, a firm grasp on the connotation of words not only betters your work, but gives you credibility.
Believe it or not, each of these phrases contributes to the way American culture objectifies women — in other words, these words make women seem like less than they are. In the effort to end sexual assault and abuse, we have to pay close attention to the language we use — because reducing women in the eyes of society makes it easier for their abuse to be tolerable.
Language that may seem inconsequential to you might be offensive to others. Be cautious in your choice of language. It helps everyone. While your neighbor, friend, or colleague might not seem gracious of your choice of words in the moment, not only could it inspire them to choose their words more carefully, but it might be the validation of their identity they were looking for.
Every journey begins with small steps, and some even start when you stop moving in the wrong direction. Choosing to avoid language which degrades another person’s — well — personhood, is a stand which takes little effort, but can have great impact. The more you refuse to use it, the more out of place it will become, and eventually the language of America will make sexist language unacceptable of its own accord.