In the Media
Word Choice and Not-So-Subtle Sexism
Including: Over 50 Terms We Only Use for Women and Girls
[Warning: There are some mature words referenced here. This post is meant for responsible teenagers and adults.]
Here is the little discussion I talked about in my new Snarky Review of Monstrous Regiment, which can be found on Goodreads. Thank you so much for reading through this post—or at least skimming it—because I actually worked really hard on gathering up all the nasty, sex-specific terms and catchphrases I could find. I think it just possibly may be the most complete list online. Before you read, you might want to see how many words/phrases you can come up with that are only used to refer to females and never (or almost never) to males. Go on, give it a try. It only takes a minute. Come up with at least five: that’s a tenth of what’s included below.
Done? Okay, now I’ll begin. What’s the problem?
When you read or hear something like “a postal worker may be forced to turn on his heel and flee from –turning and fleeing. No point in pretending otherwise; I do, too, even though the word “postman” was not used. Studies show that so-called “gender neutral” terms like Man, mankind, and the aforementioned “his” actually do cause sex bias and imply inequality. Imagine what this can do to your subconscious when you hear or read it coming from virtually everywhere, all day, every day, ad infinitum.
The Science Behind the Problem
Or, if you can’t imagine the consequences, take a look at some of the studies on language that are out there. You’ll find that, as Sherryl Kleinman, the teacher of a sociology course on gender inequality at the University of North Carolina, says, word choice is important “[b]ecause male-based generics are another indicator—and more importantly, a reinforcer—of a system in which ‘man’ in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women.” She adds that changing our language is a relatively easy way to start making inroads toward equality of the sexes. It’s sure as hell easier than eradicating violence against women worldwide—but it may actually be a start toward that holy goal. Anything that nets girls and women more respect and less disrespect may help change the ease with which some males lift their hands or their voices to harm them. Read Kleinman’s entire article, Why Sexist Language Matters. It’s good.
And here’s a great study by Pat K. Chew and Lauren K. Kelley-Chew that concludes that “male-gendered generics are exclusionary of women and tend to reinforce gender stereotypes. Yet, these words may not be recognized as discriminatory because their use is perceived as normative and therefore not unusual. In addition, those who use these words may not be intentionally harmful. Complaining about their use may even be criticized as a trivial activity or an overly sensitive reaction.”
Here’s another study on gender-biased language by Nancy L. Murdock and Donelson R. Forsyth. It points out that in modern times using “man” and “he” as generic words including women is perceived as “somewhat biased and sexist.” Well, at least we’re somewhat recognizing the problem.
There are plenty of other studies out there. It’s easy to google them. And once you’re attuned to the problem, maybe you too will wince when authors continue to cluelessly drivel on about the fate of mankind instead of humankind or talk about manpower and manning the helm and how the next president of the United States will be the most powerful man in the world. Or using the term “you guys” to include a group of girls or women. (Which I have done myself many times in the past—but which I will try my best to avoid from now on.) You too may feel something like a small white-hot ingot ricochet inside your brain when the media uses “he” and “him” as if that included “she” and “her.”
And here’s the thing: there’s no need to use even subtly sexist language. There are decent substitutes for all the male-oriented words; we just have to start using them. We need to accept “they” as a singular pronoun and “their” as a singular possessive adjective so that we can say “a postal worker may be forced to turn on their heel and flee” and not get flustered about it. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have right now and it’s much, much better than being sexist.
As babies we learn from language, and philosophers and philologists have argued for some time whether language actually dictates our thoughts rather than the reverse. I’m not going to insist that the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is correct and there can be no thought without language, because that’s already been disproved. But no one can deny that language influences thought and that once language is learned the two are interdependent.
Lera Boroditsky (and no, she’s not Borogravian and I did not make that name up) has written a fascinating article, How Language Shapes Thought. It points out that in recent years “a solid body of empirical evidence showing how languages shape thinking has finally emerged.”
Her conclusions, in brief, were: “People communicate using a multitude of languages that vary considerably in the information they convey. Scholars have long wondered whether different languages might impart different cognitive abilities. In recent years, empirical evidence for this causal relation has emerged, indicating that one’s mother tongue does indeed mold the way one thinks about many aspects of the world, including space and time. The latest findings also hint that language is part and parcel of many more aspects of thought than scientists had previously realized.”
But, see, you probably already know this yourself. Don’t you, really, when you examine the English language? You realize that you can actually tell something about a culture if it has a word for something. This leads me to some of my pet peeves.
Words we only use for women or girls
Like “cougar.” Not the innocent ferocious animal, the term meaning an older woman who’s dating a younger man. What’s the male equivalent of a cougar? It’s a man, period. No, it’s a Hollywood star who is probably also a politician. There is no male equivalent because it’s perfectly acceptable for an older man to date a younger woman and no one needs to comment on it. Why should there be a word for it? Aaargh!
Or how about minx? Chit? Old maid? Shrew? Strumpet? Broad? Virago? Bimbo? Belle? Slut? Drama queen? Ho? Floozy? Wench? Temptress? Waif? Damsel (which almost begs having “in distress” added to it)? Hag? Crone? Maiden aunt? Dumb blonde? Are there male equivalents for these? Nope. Unnecessary. Okay, you might argue that male equivalents to hag or crone could be geezer or codger, but they don’t really convey the amount of vituperation that the female-oriented words do.
Then there’s the fact that despite all that Hogwarts can do, calling a woman a witch is generally a bad thing while calling a man or woman a wizard at something is the same as saying they’re a genius.
And there’s the phrase “don’t be cowed,” which Americans will recognize and the phrase, “bull yourself up,” which Brits, at least, will know. Contrast the two and draw your own conclusions. And then what about filly and heifer? Both have negative connotations, while young buck and bronco, the closest male counterparts, are either neutral or subtly positive. In America we occasionally directly call a woman a cow, and that’s always derogatory; I believe the expression is even more common in the UK. Then there’s “catty.” Only women are catty: they can be “cats,” another pejorative term, or even “hellcats,” and they get into “catfights.” There is no specific term for a fight between two men; why should there be?
Let’s see: more words that are associated with girls and women and almost never with boys or men. What about “pert?” When was the last time you heard about a pert man? Or “swoon?” How many men swoon or fall into a swoon? The problem with these words is that both have a connotation of weakness. Pert means something like sassy, which is another thing men aren’t. It’s just a watered-down way of saying impertinent and spirited. Swoon gives you a picture of a woman in a long dress pressing one hand to her forehead and collapsing . . . daintily. (Yet another female-oriented word.) Do I really have to go into why this kind of weakness is less than desirable?
Even my beloved Sir Terry Pratchett, in Monstrous Regiment, says “She was short, although now Polly knew she was female, the word ‘petite’ could be decently used . . .” Why? Why should there be a different word for her stature just because of her sex? Doesn’t “petite” sound sort of small and cute and harmless? Whereas “short” is much more neutral. And if you’re going to argue that small and cute and harmless isn’t a bad thing for women, you’re reading the wrong post.
I’ll throw in “perky” and “spunky” while I’m at it here. They’re weak ways of saying lively and courageous. And then there’s “flighty.” Heard of a flighty man? What about a saucy one? And then there’s “coy.” Its very definition says “especially with reference to a woman.” Anybody want to be thought of as coy?
And what about the adverb “throatily?” Does any man (other than Deep Throat) say things throatily? How about “tremulously?” Or “waspishly?” I suppose a small boy or a very old man might speak tremulously, but waspishness is reserved for females. And then there’s doing something in “affected” way, like giving “an affected little shudder.” Do men ever do that? And what about “simper?” Ever heard of a man simpering? I have heard of boys both tittering and giggling, but in general these terms are reserved for females, too.
I knew that there must be still other words that are usually only used to describe women, so I googled the subject, and in The Telegraph found this article by Radhika Sanghani with 14 words.
It lists, among others: feisty, airhead, bossy, bubby, frigid, frumpy, ditsy, hysterical, hormonal, shrill, and voluptuous, besides pointing out that we classify a woman as a “mother of” (as in “mother of three) while we seldom classify a man as a “father of (some number of children)”; and we also use the term “working mother.” What about “working father?” Ah, right, that’s just assumed.
There’s another list here on Buzzfeed of 21 words. This site adds the terms: haughty, brash, bewitching, loose, and high-maintenance along with a few others that I might argue could actually be used for males. Isn’t it funny, though, how these female-oriented words are so negative? If they’re not outright slanderous, then, like voluptuous and bewitching, they refer to a woman’s attractiveness quotient. Women are commodities, objects, to be judged by their sexual appeal.
The Mature Discussion
But what really drives me crazy is that men (mostly men) use the term “bitch” not only when they’re trying to derogate a woman, but when they’re insulting a “weak” man. “You’re going down, bitch,” they shout over and over as they parkour their video game nemeses. “Bastard” at least implies some strength, but “bitch” simply ought to be outlawed by civilized people. I’m sick of hearing it.
Then of course there’s the other word for kitty, and the fact that saying that a woman “has some balls” is supposed to be a compliment, whereas a reference to the female genitalia is probably the ultimate insult. (The c-word.) This makes my blood boil. It all seems to tie into Freud’s crazy idea that women crave male organs and aren’t satisfied with their own, even though women are able to give birth with the wonderful equipment given to them by God or nature, depending on your point of view. Shouldn’t men envy that ability?
Why do we glorify men’s testicles and phalluses and degrade women’s sexuality? Even some of my favorite YouTube commentators fall into this trap, saying of men they scorn: “He must have a tiny [phallus],” or “Grow a sack!” or “What a p***y.” I’ve written to ask them not to, but I don’t hold out much hope for improvement. It’s too deeply ingrained, and, sadly, men who would cringe at a racist comment don’t seem to see that it’s just as bad to use words that put down women—even while they’re ranting at a male.
In the same vein, “kitty”-whipped (the synonym for henpecked) is degrading to both men and women. The very idea that there is a specific insult meaning that a man is over-influenced by his wife/girlfriend/baby mama is outrageous.
Being manly is a good thing while being womanish is undeniably bad. Try to count how many times you hear the phrase “be a man about it” or “man up” in the media and then meditate on exactly where that puts you if you are not a man to begin with and can’t be one no matter how you try (unless you’re transgender, which is fine with me but not an option for all women). Think about terms like “Don Juan” or “Holy Joe” and the fact that there are no female counterparts to these.
“Manhunt” is a frequently-used word even when it leads to ridiculous sentences like this from CNN’s website: “the furious shootout with the male and female suspects was the end of a daylong manhunt.” Then, as I said at the beginning, there’s manpower, and manning the guns/helm/ship, and those signs on the road saying “Men at work.” (A friend joked that what the signs really should say is “Cones up. No one at work,” since that’s usually what you see when you drive past.) There are even people who insist on saying businessman or chairman even when the object of their sentence is a woman.
People of both sexes exclaim “Dude!” at each other. “Oh, man,” and “oh, boy,” or “boy, oh, boy” are common catchphrases all over the USA.
Sex and Race
Did you know that there used to be another fairly common catchphrase: “that’s mighty white of you”? And that it meant exactly what you, in your horror, are thinking, oh, no, please tell me it didn’t mean that. Yep, it meant that you were being fair, honest, good, kind, and therefore Caucasian. You can still find it lingering in some books by authors of the twentieth century.
Another old axiom can be found in some of Robert Heinlein’s books in which characters announce that they are “free, white, and twenty-one” and therefore able to do as they please. These phrases are less common now, although I doubt that they have been totally eradicated or that equally disgusting things aren’t being said this very moment. The reason they’re less common than before is that people realized that they were wrong and that they affected the way people thought about people who were white—and non-white.
There’s still a lot of implicit racism in the English language, of course: in general dark things are bad and light, white, or bright things are good. That, frankly, sucks. And it behooves every one of us to think about it and try to fight it—but others are doing a much better job than I ever could of arguing against this kind of racism. What we have to realize is that verbal misogyny is just as disgusting, just as harmful, just as pernicious, just as insidious, and just as necessary to stamp out. That’s my chosen task.
As a word association football aside (only Monty Python fans will find that amusing), did you know that in Japanese you can say that someone did something without saying “he” or “she”? You can form a gender-neutral sentence. I don’t know what this says about misogyny in Japan, which there is plenty of, but I do hear that these days Japanese women are often choosing not to get married at all. It seems they are rejecting the limited role of traditional wife and mother and choosing to go with a career. Interesting factoid.
Hope for the Future
By the way, as I mentioned in my review of Monstrous Regiment, there’s wonderful news from across the Atlantic. In the UK terms like “man up,” “sissy,” “cupcake,” and statements like “you throw like a girl” have actually been banned in schools. Teachers have been named “Gender Champions” and are using guidelines promoted by the Department of Education and the Institute of Physics, a London-based scientific charity that works to advance physics education (yay for them!). “Go make me a sandwich” is also among the new no-nos. Which tells you something about what kids were saying before this project started.
Their aim is to make sexist phrases become “as unacceptable as racist language.” (Yay yay yay!) At the same time, they are trying to get more girls into traditionally male-dominated classes at school. (Yay yay yay yay!)
There’s also good news from you, my readers, and from all the youth of today. Teenagers growing up now are different from any who came before. They’re aware of issues that simply went unnoticed in my time and that weren’t obvious even one generation before them.
I’d like to tell you a little about one sixteen-year-old girl I know. Her name is Claire. She’s an ordinary teenager, meaning that she’s smart and savvy and she loves to text a lot. She’s popular with girls and boys both; she adores swimming, and she’s crazy about riding horses. She also loves chemistry, and participates in science fairs and the Science Olympiad. She takes classes like pre-calculus, which, frankly, I was too terrified to take myself in high school. She will be set up if she wants to become a chemist—and although she herself isn’t sure what she wants yet, she can become, quite simply, anything she cares to be. And the reason for that is herself: she sees no barriers before her forbidding a mere “chit” of a girl from any career to which she aspires. And she reminds me of so many of my young readers. They have an entirely new take on issues of racism and sexism as well. They don’t see the walls that have divided human beings from each other and caused strife and suffering. They are the world’s chance at a fresh start for women.
I believe that there is every reason to hope that things will change, and that we can help that change by revolutionizing language. This is why there is nothing trivial about the quest to conquer the male-dominated English tongue. It’s not the only front on which we must fight, but it’s an important one. If we neglect it, I believe that there will continue to be serious consequences, and we will be the decent folk who allow evil to perpetuate itself by simply standing still and doing nothing.
My Promise to You
Finally, one last thank you if you’ve read this far. I adore my readers and appreciate them more than I can express. You people are the breath of life to me, giving me wings to soar (I know that’s a dreadfully mixed metaphor but I’m just being honest here). You’re the reason for my existence, frankly. I can’t thank you enough for bearing with me. What I can do is to promise you more reviews, discussions, and, yes, books in the future.
As I point out elsewhere, they’re not going to be perfect books when weighed in the scale of female equalism. Although I might aspire to that, I know from experience that I will fall short. I speak a language that is laden with hidden booby-traps, for one thing, and there are plenty of times I will fail to spot a landmine. And then there’s the fact that my characters come to me and act out what they want to do with complete disregard for my outlines and good intentions. Finally, there are certain things I simply have to include in order to get a book published. But believe you me, I’ll be trying hard to further the Cause and to make you all proud. So thank you again for putting up with me.