Feminists: We need to sharpen our tongues
- Published: 20 November 2011
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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.
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.