Language is a powerful indicator of underlying cultural values. More specifically, it reinforces gender stereotypes. Consider this example from the Public Editor at The New York Times, as she took on the topic of “mistress” as an outdated term a few months back. This occurred after readers wrote in, taking exception to its usage in a Times article.
Think about it. Why do we give a special label to women who engage in extramarital affairs, yet there is no such term for men who do the same? Aren’t these terms perpetuating stereotypes?
Margaret Sullivan writes:
… Language evolves… Words come and go… I propose… a shove to hasten the departure of “mistress” from news stories describing a modern-day woman having an extramarital affair.
Specifically, Ms. Sullivan’s comments pertain to usage of the word mistress in stories about General David Petraeus and the woman he was involved with, Paula Broadwell.
She cites one reader who wants to know:
… if The Times “could summon up a less archaic word that didn’t demean the female by her sex or her gender.”
Ms. Sullivan expresses the dilemma as follows:
… One problem is that there isn’t really a perfect word here. “Lover” is probably a little better… But “lover” doesn’t necessarily convey the idea that one or both partners is married to someone else. And it, too, has a bit of a romance-novel tone that isn’t perfect in a news story… A longer description is probably best, but not always easy or practical in a headline or a lead paragraph: “the woman with whom Mr. Petraeus, who was married, carried on a secret sexual relationship …”?
Duly noted. Also noted — Ms. Sullivan’s hope that “mistress” will nonetheless be retired.
Gender Stereotypes Are Alive and Well
In searching for language that reinforces stereotypes of women as being lesser in some way (or possibly, morally bankrupt), I find Verily addressing degrading terms like slut, bitch, and others that have become such common parlance as to be shrugged off by many. Are these a different matter? Accepted in some circles and more odious in others? And which is worse – when women apply these labels to each other, or when they’re applied to women by men?
Everyday language also offers theoretically gender-neutral terms that are only used with women, these terms with a slight (or definite) derisive undertone. An excellent example of this is “bossy.” We never describe men (or boys) as bossy, but rather as strong, confident, and decisive. Women (or girls) who exhibit these same leadership qualities are often deemed bossy by those who don’t like them, or resent working under a woman’s supervision.
A similar phenomenon occurs when women display their anger, justified or not, slapped with the “emotional” label, as if all reason for their ire is to be dismissed. Frankly, aren’t we all emotional at times? Isn’t it healthier to let out those emotions, depending on the circumstances?
I have another word to add to the mix. Shrill. Would we ever use this term for a man whose voice is demonstrating an excited quality?
Sexist Language We Need to Reconsider
The Gloss provides a list of sexist terms and hashtags as well: perky, bitchy, hormonal, mousy, feisty (among others)… along with their suggested male equivalents, some of which I find far-fetched. They are (respectively): go-getter, asshole, hot and cold, average and tenacious.
Personally, I don’t mind perky, though its cuteness diminishes authority, whereas go-getter is straightforward and positive. Say “perky” and I think Gidget — fresh-faced, inexperienced, and not to be taken seriously.
Bitchy versus asshole? I’d say that’s apples and oranges, and I’d take the former over the latter if I had to, and I’d say that ill-tempered might be a better equivalent.
Being on the receiving end of the term “hormonal” is a slap in the face, as if a woman’s behavior is purely governed by biology, the implication being that this isn’t true for a man.
Mousy does indeed strike me as gender-specific and suggesting timidity along with plainness, while feisty is a word I’ve used to describe myself — dare I admit using “feisty little broad” for humorous effect — and previously, had no issue with. Then again, I’ve also used the word tenacious to describe myself and other women I’ve known.
Another term comes to mind, which I’ve rarely (if ever?) heard applied to a man: the P word, promiscuous. We do so love to skewer our women for expressing their sexuality, don’t we?
A Matter of Habit? Conditioning? Tired of Fighting Sexism?
Even more common than the use of bitch, bossy, slut or the term Ms. Sullivan took up the pen to address, mistress, is one that irritates me no end. I’m speaking of the oft-cited “dear.”
Let me be as plain-spoken as possible when it comes to these offenders: Don’t call me dear, honey or sweetheart — unless you know me personally and are over the age of 85, or… maybe, just maybe, you’re wearing a waitress uniform and your name is Flo.
The fact is, language and personality are inextricably linked, we are shaped at least to a degree by the words used to describe us, and “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me” is utterly untrue.
This topic leads me to mention sexist ads, which I’m all too accustomed to ignoring, perhaps out of weariness. After all, we have to pick our battles, and like most of us I’m inured to many of the offending media images. However, when the tables were turned in this Adweek handling of sexist ads recast, I’m reminded to pay closer attention, and I hope my male friends and colleagues will do so as well.
Any gender-specific terms or expressions that get under your skin?
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