a bird and a bottle

On Language & Gender, Part Trois
March 12, 2007, 6:24 am
Filed under: activism, feminism/s & gender, news & views, tongues

Language is important in shaping our conceptions of things, people, etc. It’s why there’s been such a hullaballoo around popular and public uses of words like vagina and scrotum (despite the fact that these are simply anatomical signifiers). Language is also often gendered male, as I have protested before (here and here).

Today, Alternet picks up the case, with a column by sociologist Sheryl Kleinman on the impact of sexist language. Kleinman takes aim at what she calls “male generics”:

I’m not referring to such words as “bitch,” “whore” and “slut.” What I focus on instead are words that students consider just fine: male (so-called) generics. Some of these words refer to persons occupying a position: postman, chairman, freshman, congressman, fireman. Other words refer to the entire universe of human beings: “mankind” or “he.” Then we’ve got manpower, manmade lakes and “Oh, man, where did I leave my keys?” There’s “manning” the tables in a country where children learn that “all men are created equal.” The most insidious, from my observations, is the popular expression “you guys.”

But Kleinman’s head is not in the sand — she knows that most people look at this list and say “so what?” or ask “What’s the big deal.” Her answer makes clear that language’s impact is insidious and subconscious — but significant.

Because 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. Some say that language merely reflects reality and so we should ignore our words and work on changing the unequal gender arrangements that are reflected in our language. Well, yes, in part.

It’s no accident that “man” is the anchor in our language and “woman” is not. And of course we should make social change all over the place. But the words we use can also reinforce current realities when they are sexist (or racist or heterosexist). Words are tolls of thought. We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways — which in turn creates the possibility of a new reality. It makes a difference if I think of myself as a “girl” or a “woman”; it makes a difference if we talk about “Negroes” or “African-Americans.” Do we want a truly inclusive language or one that just pretends?

But, as Kleinman is well aware, it’s not only men who feel attachment to male-gendered general terms like freshman, chairman, and you guys.

And why do so many women cling to “freshman,” “chairman” and “you guys?” I think I know why, though it doesn’t make me feel any better. “Man” is a high-status term, and women want to be included in the “better” group. But while being labeled “one of the guys” might make us feel included, it’s only a guise of inclusion, not the reality. If we were really included, we wouldn’t have to disappear into the word “guys.”

I got a lot of comments when I posted about clitzpa that it was a silly issue, that the change in language would never happen, that these posts were somehow frivolous and not connected in any real way to social change. And though I gave in and tagged the posts “frivolity,” I balked at the idea that what we say doesn’t somehow (and perhaps in a major way) affect what we do. Kleinman gets to the nub of why. Language is activism.

Now and then someone tells me that I should work on more important issues — like men’s violence against women — rather than on “trivial” issues like language. Well, I work on lots of issues. But that’s not the point. What I want to say (and do say, if I think they’ll give me the time to explain) is that working against sexist language is working against men’s violence against women. It’s one step.

And not only that, but it’s an easy step. It can’t be that hard to say you all instead of you guys (Southerners have been doing it for centuries). A change from freshman to freshpeople might be harder to bring about but hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere….Right y’all?


3 Comments so far
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What always amazes me is when people accuse feminists of “wasting time” on such silly issues. As if we couldn’t combat language issues at the same time as doing other, “more important” work. As if we might forget to show up to vote because we were tied up thinking and arguing about words. We can tackle semiotic issues at home, on the bus, at lunch, during meetings and on the way to anywhere! We are, out of necessity, multi-taskers.

Comment by Gender Blank

Great post. Some changes might be easier than you think. “Freshmen” has now been replaced by “First-years” on college campuses national wide. (It rolls off the tongue a little easier than “Freshpeople.”)
More generally, the Prague school of linguistics made the distinction between marked and unmarked terms. Unmarked terms are the ones we take for granted. Marked terms always signify otherness. Thus, the term “colored” people doesn’t refer to Caucasians (as if white were colorless in racial terms, too); “Gender studies” tends to focus on women (or gay men, as if heterosexual men don’t have gender); and there is no such thing as Masculinist history (we just call it history), etc.
Until language stops reinforcing certain social norms, it’ll be difficult to impossible to break out of them.

Comment by professorplum

This is like the “Broken Windows” theory. Sometimes you can make strides in the so-called important arenas by making changes in the seemingly frivilous ones.

Comment by sarahb

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