Walking down the street often takes a lot out of me. Sometimes, the conversations I overhear are enough to make me cringe and want to run away to the dark safety of my bed and maybe a box of cookies.
Too often, leaving my house and interacting with society means being subjected to subtle verbal cues that the speaker in question does not, in fact, view me (or anyone else who isn’t a heterosexual cisgender white male) as a fully functioning human being capable of complex thoughts.
My friends and I recently met a few guys at the bar and went back to their place for more drinks. When we heard them routinely referring to each other as “faggots,” we asked them to kindly stop demeaning each other’s masculinity by using words that have historically been used to justify discrimination. Their reply was standard:
“Aw, we don’t really mean it though. I swear I don’t have a problem with gay people, it doesn’t affect me at all. I don’t care if someone’s gay.”
This response makes me fume. No matter how much people want to deny it, words are powerful and have real meaning. When people use “faggot” as an insult and insist they “don’t really mean anything” by it, they’re attempting to rid themselves of responsibility by denying years and years of oppression and hate crimes.
What’s more: it’s also insulting to anyone with a feminine gender identity. Consider that homophobia may be closely linked to (or even rooted in) misogyny. Sure, maybe dudes don’t care about dudes having sex with other dudes. But they are threatened by men acting feminine — it directly disrupts the gender dichotomies they’ve been programmed to accept. Underneath that “casual” and “harmless” insult, they’re expressing that they see femininity as a weak trait — something over which to hold power. Something to suppress and contain.
Internalized misogyny is a helluva drug.
And demeaning language isn’t limited to gay individuals — it extends to all of us who claim space as gender fluid or feminine. Whether in the classroom, in a bar, or walking down the streets of my town, I’ve heard women and men alike refer to other women as “sluts,” I’ve heard classmates taut art and fashion as “girly shit,” I’ve heard coaches tell their players not to “throw like a girl,” I’ve heard friends tell each other to “man up” or “grow some balls.” It’s tiring and insulting, because pegging femininity and feminine words as negatives have a real impact on how we see individuals who identify that way.
People don’t have a hard time believing the usage of words like “slut” and “whore” can be directly linked to violence against women, but what about the more subtle ways in which we reinforce inequalities through gendered language? What often goes unnoticed is the pervasive use of “men” as the default all throughout the English language. When we talk about people’s professions, we default to the man doing the job — postman, fireman, congressman, freshman, chairman. And because the English language lacks a plural “you,” those of us who aren’t prone to referring to groups of people by saying “ya’ll” (or “yins,” if you’re from Pittsburgh) will generally default to “you guys.” I’ve done it. My friends do it. Most people I know do this, and it isn’t respective to my corner of the universe — English speakers use these male generics the world over. Heck, even the word woman is included under the generic term man.
For centuries, grammar books, teachers, and professors have told writers and students to use the referential pronoun “he” when referring to a person in general. Studies have shown that people default to “he” nearly automatically when referring to people in high-status occupations like a doctor or lawyer, and shift to “she” when talking about secretaries, clerks, or nurses. Feminine terms are often infantilized and trivialized — the term “boys” is rarely used to describe grown men. They don’t have “a boys’ night” or indulge in “boy talk.” The term “girls,” on the other hand, can be used to describe women of all ages — heck, HBO’s Girls is the prime example, but women of all ages can fit in some “girl talk” at the office or “go out for drinks with the girls.”
Words aren’t just meaningless sounds we emit. When we place male-centric words as the default or norm, we peg maleness as the dominant group, effectively “other”-izing groups who don’t fit that standard. This is a subtle yet effective way to invisibilize the struggles of marginalized groups, struggles that are directly related to power structures manifested across economical, political, and societal stages dominated by men. And when we demean or trivialize a group’s experiences, it makes it that much easier for the group in power — the default — to justify violence or other harm against that group. They are reduced to the “Other,” the subhuman.
Gendered language constructs are so deeply imbedded, plenty of people want to know just what the big deal is — why should we care about subtly gendered language when there are bigger problems in the world, like the wage gap, violence, or rape? Yes, these problems deserve equal and perhaps even more pertinent attention, but these are problems that won’t be solved overnight. Something we can solve overnight is changing the way we refer to one another, and shunning language constructs that place women, LGBTQ individuals, and other marginalized groups at the bottom rung of the social ladder.
I know it isn’t easy to eradicate harmful patterns from our vernacular. But I’ve met plenty of people who have admitted to making a concerted effort to eradicating insulting words from everyday use. Among them, the term “retarded,” which, while not linked to gender, is still a hugely prevalent, ableist insult. One of my friends has her roommate make her pay a quarter as a reminder to stop each time she refers to something she dislikes as “retarded.”
So is it really so much trouble to make a conscious effort to think critically about the words coming out of our mouths and the political implications behind them? No more of this “they’re just words. It doesn’t mean anything.” Words are symbols of meaning — that is literally their evolutionary purpose. Words convey our prejudices, our fears, our anxieties.
When we look at gender patterns in language, we can begin to see the harmful ideas forming a fabric — a blanket of oppression that extends to all English speakers.
The good news is that blanket is something we can lift right now. The power is literally at the tip of our tongues.
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