Power of language in everyday sexism

By JONATHAN SMITH Time of article published Jul 17, 2013

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My spouse recently received an invitation to a “Thank You” dinner for an activity she had been vigorously involved in.

My role in it was minimal; yet the invitation was addressed to “Mr and Mrs J Smith”. And here one sees the everyday power of sexist language: in just five words, Candi was reduced from a strong, intelligent, free woman to someone who is defined and “completed” by her husband.

By assuming her surname is the same as mine, by removing her entire name and by naming me first, even though it was about her and her hard work, she, and society, are simply told by the invitation that no matter what she achieves her recognition is linked to that of her husband and that she needs to be under my control, guidance and blessing.

This highlights that the language we use is powerful. Language and words are not only used to bring meaning; but the words used to bring that meaning reveal to us what our society, friends and selves believe, or are subconsciously unaware of.

Communication is more than just sharing words and ideas; it is sharing one’s personal worldview with someone else who perhaps has a slightly differing worldview, and this is done in a society whose worldview itself could be different. Thus our language reveals our and society’s ideas, prejudices and stereotypes.

It should be no surprise then that the power of the written and spoken word can itself be used (subconsciously most likely) to reflect the current views, feelings and beliefs of society as a whole.

During apartheid, the readily accepted usage of “garden boy/house girl” to refer to a mature human being helped reinforced the crass inequality and racism that was in force.

Language has power: the challenge is for us to examine continually what we, and others, say for areas that may still be perpetrating any forms of discrimination.

Post 1994, we have done a better job at deconstructing racial semantics (despite certain quarters remaining ingrained in their racial ideology and language) – yet when it comes to language regarding women, the patriarchal system still seems firmly entrenched.

#EverydaySexism is a trending hashtag partly because sexist language is alive and well.

Patriarchy – the belief that the or a man is the centre of family (and life) – drives much of our language usage in either ensuring women are kept in their place, or even in preventing strong women from developing. Emerging from a sexist, patriarchal society, it is no wonder that language used to speak about and describe women reflects those very values.

Looking at the graphic above, one can easily see the difference in common terms used to describe men and women. This is by no means a definitive list; I spent a few moments listing common words I have heard or come across recently to describe men and women and it is not surprising that the number of negative terms for women are not only more frequent, but far more derogatory.

These words to belittle women seem to fall into two categories: the sexualised object who can be controlled, manipulated and “made” for man’s pleasure; and the words that seek to reduce a woman’s influence or power and set her up in a stereotypical view from which, again, she can be contained and can be dismissed as non-threatening.

When engaging with those similar words on the male side, those derogatory words themselves are not as bad as they seem. Some men take great pride in being called a “jock” because it could be a sign of virility and strength, yet very few women would want to be called a “slut”.

“Guy” is a cool word to describe a male (and increasingly so, a group of males and females, as in “Hey guys”), but “girl” is an insult and implies a reduced amount of power. I may be happy to be a “bachelor” but not a “spinster”; call me a “caveman” and I’ll love the irony, but a “spoilt princess” has automatically confined me.

Even the word “lady” can be used dismissively: at times “lady” implies the nineteenth-century image of a soft, sweet, well-mannered, obedient young lady/wife who is willing to support her husband and stand behind him all the way, without any ambition or real power. It is a limiting word used to dismiss equality in a sarcastic swipe.

Second, the connotation of a “Lady of the night” implies prostitution and all of the societal opinions associated with that word.

Language also has power in the way certain words are interpreted and changed over the years.

“Feminist” is a current word that is disparaged and viewed in a negative way; used to dismiss anyone who is willing to question the status quo, question everyday sexism, question why women are still treated unequally.

A man, when challenged by a woman raising a valid point about a sexist generalisation, can easily say “she is just a feminist” and thus dismiss her argument (and all the valid ideas and thoughts around it) into a “straw-man” image of a woman who is angry, doesn’t shave, hates men and actually is on the outside of society. Thus she doesn’t need to be heard or engaged with.

Feminism, at its core, is the belief in equality between men and women (or as is flippantly said: the belief that women are people). It has taken on such a negative connotation that many strong women – and men – in fear of being derided, refuse to use the term even though they believe in the values. Once again an example of language being used to control.

How we communicate is a mirror into our, and society’s, values and beliefs. Everyday sexism is reflected in one’s everyday language usage.

The sexism used in the invitation was not deliberately done (most probably it was seen as the polite societal approach), but highlights the need to question constantly, engage and move forward in bringing equality to our society. This interrogation of our language is an important task that cannot be sidelined to some radical straw-man “feminist”, but rather it is the task of all of us who strive for equality – we everyday feminists.

* Smith is an English teacher living in the Midlands. He gave up the corporate world to follow his passion for teaching. He is married to Candi, who daily shows him the strength and valour of a woman. Find him on twitter at @JonoASmith

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