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Feminists: We need to sharpen our tongues

languageSome feminist activists view the discussion of semantics as little more than an academic indulgence, but language as it is commonly used today is stifling the feminist cause and it’s time we made an effort to change it, writes Casey Jenkins.

20 November 2011

“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation” – Angela Carter, author and feminist.

Language is a mercurial force as temperamental as a newborn child, constantly changing, adapting and reacting to its environment. Individual words fatted up by the tongues of many, in one time and place, can wither quickly into a state of anorexic weakness with the passing of just a few years or a few miles.

Words netted in popular culture by language enthusiasts and carefully placed between dictionary pages can be made extinct before they’ve even hit the library shelves – wiped out by one blockbuster movie or hit TV show with a catchy catch-phrase.

It is little wonder then, given the wily and capricious nature of language, that some feminist activists view the discussion of semantics as little more than an academic indulgence, an intellectual game with little connection to the pressing realities of women’s lives.

In fact I believe it is the very intangibility, changeability and ubiquitousness of language which evidence its great power, and rather than dismissing language as something which might be toyed with as a secondary concern, we must move it to the forefront of our fight.

Because to put it in no uncertain terms: language as it is commonly used today is stifling the feminist cause and it’s time we made an effort to change it.

Language is a barometer of a society’s beliefs; it reflects and supports the dominant culture and by studying it we can gauge that society’s attitudes.

In Australia today the word considered the most offensive possible, a word deemed so objectionable that it is blanked out of all major newspapers, is one which doubles to describe a part of the female anatomy.

Meanwhile the word ‘Slut’ is commonly understood to negatively describe a woman who participates often in sex, yet there is no male equivalent for this term. ‘House-husband’ awkwardly raises eye-brows, while ‘house-wife’ is so clichéd all it can raise is a yawn. Even this quick glance at the barometer of our language indicates that today’s social climate is a worryingly patriarchal one.

The past year, however, has seen a revival of interest in feminism, spearheaded by ‘Slutwalks’ across the (predominantly) western world.

Some have expressed concern that the walks are misdirecting the revival by employing the word ‘slut’, which they see as a distraction from other more tangible legal and systemic concerns, which seem more amenable to being grasped and altered in a concrete way.

But language cannot be separated from other issues and set to one side; it is with us every day, reflecting those days and shaping them too. If we fail to address language issues then the power of language will fall naturally into the hands of the dominant patriarchal culture, undermining any other action we take.

As author Ingrid Bengis said, 'Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change'. Indeed, I believe that words are one of the most powerful forms of action we have at our disposal today, and they are vital for tackling the particular new and unique challenges faced by contemporary feminism.

We live at a time when many of the barriers to equality have become less overt. Women now have the right to vote, sit in parliament, fight for the military and, in some areas of Australia, exercise extensive control over their own reproductive systems.

A large portion of the solid blockades of the patriarchy appear to have been torn down, and opponents of the feminist movement use this as evidence that ‘we now have equality’.

Of course, we do not; in the Australian parliament only 28.3% of members and senators are women, just 9% of private board directorships are held by women, and the portion of women’s sports coverage in the media is a grand total of 2%.

The blockades are still there, they’ve just become less glaring – assumptions and expectations of men and women are now seldom decreed by law, but rather held in place by subtle but pervasive patterns of language and communication, all the more insidious because they are not immediately visible.

Unfortunately low visibility does not decrease their power; it just makes them harder to tackle. A woman considering applying for a position in a high paying non-traditional field does not have the law to contend with, but she must struggle against the burden of her co-workers’ expectations, and her own expectations to follow a ‘natural’ path – which have been reinforced day in, day out, over her entire life, by language.

Describe one person as nurturing, caring, sweet and compliant and another as ambitious, strong-minded and aggressive and it is near impossible not to make gender assumptions because the words are used so predictably.

Some argue that the reason women don’t apply for, or aren’t successful in getting, certain jobs, and the reason certain behavioural words have gendered connotations, is that men and women are biologically geared to want different things and behave in different ways.

While there are a hundreds of possible words to describe most concepts and ideas, there is just one which adequately sums up this argument: bullshit. In her book, Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine quickly dispenses with assumptions about behavioural differences caused by a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain, stating that it is the social world which “entangles minds – gendering the very sense of self, social perception, and behaviour that will then seamlessly become once again part of the gendered world”.

We hesitate to do things not because we’re not capable of them but because we are indoctrinated with a strong and erroneous idea of gender capabilities by the language of the patriarchal system.

Unpicking language

How can we free ourselves from the limiting tangle of the social world, then, and is that even possible? Perhaps we can begin by unpicking that which binds it together: language.

It is possible for disenfranchised sections of society to take control of aspects of language for their own ends. Examples of words which have been actively appropriated by and within communities and have had the effect of galvanising and strengthening those communities and helping them to build positive senses of self-identity are the ‘n-word’, ‘queer’ and ‘wog’.

Even with these positive examples, many still view the idea of taking control of the capricious thing that is language as a near-impossible task.

Following the Slutwalk in Melbourne, many internet commentators seemed bemused as to what ‘the point’ of all this banner waving and word reclaiming was, arguing that it wasn’t likely to stop people from using the word in spite.

And the thing is, it probably won’t. Nor would more drastic measures such as enforced censorship have much effect; language is a wily force, and breezes past such obstacles like wind through a chain-link fence, which is why we’re all familiar with the word ‘cunt’ though (and perhaps to some extent because) it is forbidden in so many realms.

The fact that we’re not able to halt the distribution of words is certainly no reason to despair, because the happy news is, no force can dictate how words are absorbed – we each experience language in our own unique way, just as we all perceive the world in our own way.

I say the word ‘dog’ and one person will imagine a border collie, another a Chihuahua, a poodle, or perhaps a sausage in bread.

Say the word ‘cunt’ and I perceive something entirely wonderful but apparently most people aren’t seeing what I do.

The Slutwalks may well have done little to change the wider community’s attitude towards women who engage in frequent sexual activity; it may have provided no disincentive for individuals who have used the word from doing so in the future with the intention of shaming and insulting.

However, what it did do was galvanise a group of women who declared that they were no longer going to absorb this word and internalise the concept it denotes as an insult.

The sight of women across the globe marching and shouting this out gave women support and strength to enable them to deflect the blow of this word if ever it was hurled their way. It increased their immunity to the patriarchal mindset – the invisible barrier which holds so many women back from expressing behaviours and pursuing paths which men never think twice about.

A couple of years ago I was sitting in a bar with a female friend when a guy came up and asked if he could join us. We were deep in conversation and told him so. “Ya fuckin’ stuck up cunts,” he spat, hovering over us.

My friend laughed, “Well yes, we are deep and powerful, thank you.” The guy looked confused for a moment, then stalked off and we continued our conversation.

A word which was intended to hurt us or piss us off careened out of his mouth, pirouetted in mid air and landed daintily in our ears having taken on an entirely different form because we found nothing remotely offensive about female genitalia and had the tacit support of each other in our interpretation of the word.  A word delivered with hatred was rendered benign by our interpretation.

That is what taking back the power of language is: it is diffusing potentially hurtful words by analysing our reactions to them, and how they fit into or reflect our views – then finding other people to connect with and support who share our views, who truly speak our language.

And once we have taken that power, and made benign all those hidden patriarchal blockades, who knows what we may achieve?

As author Rita Mae Brown once said, “Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides”.

Ignore that power in the current climate and we’ll be allowing women to be washed out to sea, but learn to harness it and all the waves of feminism might at last come together to change the shape of our world.

This article is adapted from a ‘Feminism and Semantics’ workshop held at the 2011 Melbourne Feminist Futures Conference, by artist, activist and writer Casey Jenkins.

Casey’s links: /FemmeFightClub



0 #4 Rex 2011-12-28 20:21
I think this view is extremly relevent out of Scotland -- "the guardian" -- a place that understands "focus" "eye on the prize" and remains as free as it could possibly be given the island upon which it stands...

"Sexualisation" has become a much-debated issue in recent years, and a noticeable feature is the assumption that feminists who oppose sexual objectification are generating a "moral panic". Ever since sociologist Stanley Cohen introduced the term in 1972 it has been used as a shorthand way of critiquing conservatives for inventing another "problem" in order to demonise a group that challenges traditional moral standards.

So apparently feminists are now the conservatives fomenting unnecessary panic about the proliferation of "sexualised" images while the corporate-contr olled media industry that mass produces these images is the progressive force for change being unfairly demonised. What a strange turn of events.

To suggest feminists who oppose the pornification of society are stirring up a moral panic is to confuse a politically progressive movement with rightwing attempts to police sexual behaviour. We can, of course, identify just such a conservative strand in current debates in Britain: interventions of the coalition government include calls for girls to be given lessons in how to practise abstinence [http://www.gua itics/2011/may/ 04/nadine-dorri es-teenage-girl s" title="Guardian : Nadine Dorries: Teenage girls should be taught how to say no to sex] and attacks on abortion rights. But feminists who organise against pornification are not arguing that sexualised images of women cause moral decay; rather that they perpetuate myths of women's unconditional sexual availability and object status, and thus undermine women's rights to sexual autonomy, physical safety and economic and social equality. The harm done to women is not a moral harm but a political one, and any analysis must be grounded in a critique of the corporate control of our visual landscape.

The left has a long history of fighting capitalist ownership of the media. From Karl Marx to Antonio Gramsci to Noam Chomsky, leftist thinkers have understood the corporate media to be the propaganda machine for capitalist ideas and values. By mainstreaming the ideologies of the elite, corporate-contr olled media shapes our identities as workers and consumers, selling an image of success and happiness tied to the consumption of products that generate enormous wealth for the elite class. Alternative views are at best marginalised and at worst ridiculed.

No one in progressive circles would suggest for a moment that criticism of the corporate media is a moral panic. Chomsky has never, as far as we know, been called a "moral entrepreneur", yet those of us who organise against the corporations that churn out sexist imagery are regularly dismissed as stirring moral panic.

The industry-engine ered image of femininity has now become the dominant one in western society, crowding out alternative ways of being female. The clothes, cosmetics, diets, gym membership, trips to the hair salon, the waxing salon and the nail salon add up to a lot of money. Even in these dark economic times, when women are experiencing the most severe financial hardship, the UK beauty business is booming.

Women's self-loathing is big business, and supports a global capitalist system that, ironically, depends heavily on the exploitation of women's labour in developing countries. Adding insult to injury, many of these underpaid women are spending a significant proportion of their wages on skin-whitening products that promise social mobility out of the sweatshops.

In the west, cosmetic surgery is increasingly normalised. Last year in the UK, almost 9,500 women underwent breast augmentation surgery, and the number of labiaplasties has almost tripled in five years. One plastic surgeon helpfully explains on his website that labiaplasty "can sculpture the elongated or unequal labial [sic] minora (small inner lips) according to one's specification ? With laser reduction labiaplasty, we can accomplish the desires of the woman". If this is not evidence of living in a sexualised culture, what is?

The emotional cost of conforming to hypersexualisat ion is enormous for girls and young women who are in the process of forming their gender and sexual identities. We construct our identities through complex processes of interaction with the culture around us, but today images of hypersexualisat ion dominate. Where is a girl to go if she decides Beyonc?, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Rihanna or Britney Spears aren't for her?

An American Psychological Association study on girls' sexualisation found that it "has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs". Some of these effects include risky sexual behaviour, higher rates of eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem, and reduced academic performance. Of course, there are girls who resist, but there are real social penalties to be paid by those who do not conform to acceptable feminine appearance.

This weekend feminist campaigners are hosting a conference on the pornification of culture [http://www.cha llengingporn.or g/2011/09/3rd-d ec-feminist-act ivist-conferenc e.html" title="challeng 3 Dec: Feminist Activist Conference]. In the buildup, mass protests were held outside the London Playboy Club and Miss World beauty contest to highlight the relationship between corporate interests and the objectification of women. The fight against the increasingly narrow and limiting image of femininity is inextricably connected to the progressive fight for democratic ownership and control of the media. This is a political struggle. Feminists are rightly concerned, but we're not panicking. We're organising.
0 #3 Thanda 2011-12-06 01:05
I am still incredibly amazed that there are people who believe that men and women were designed to do the same things. We live in a society and not in a cacoon. The second great commandment is to love one another. Our goal, whether man or woman, should be to play a role the happiness and well-being of all humanity. Feminisim, while it is quite a few merrits, has unfortunately become a platform for the selfishness of women to be manifest just as chauvinism was and is a platform for the selfishness of men to be manifest. Life is not about "me, myself and I". Life is about how we interact with and affect the world we live in.
So while it is not necessarily wrong for a woman to be out working, the effect of women being out in workplace en masse has to considered. How does it affect the upbringing of our children? What is the effect of women throwing off the traditional virtues of feminity for the traditional virtues masculinity on society? Will soceity become more violent as a result? Is society more violent now that it was 100 years ago? Is soceity less caring? These consequences need to be considered and each woman and man has to consider their responsibility to the whole process - not just their own ambitions
0 #2 Mega88 2011-11-28 22:47
Great article, Casey. A nuanced and articulate exploration of a very complex area. Bravo!

And as for the confusing post above, not sure exactly what is meant by this half-quote, but there's nothing "politically correct" or remotely "elite" about using the words "cunt" and "slut": back to the drawing with with ye!:-)
0 #1 Roger Hornsby 2011-11-20 10:05
Edward W. Younkins --

"Political correctness involves the translation of Marxism from economic terms into cultural terms. The premise underlying political correctness is that if the elite can change the language then they can change the way individuals act and thus change society. Political correctness has corrupted the news media, universities, business, Congress, politics, etc. Declaring that some thoughts and words are “correct” while others are not permits those who are among the correct thinkers to escape free competition of ideas by

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