Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Semantics of Feminism

As will be becoming ever clearer from the topics I choose to write about in my blog, feminism is a big deal for me. I haven’t been able to afford it yet, but the next tattoo I’m getting is going to be the word FEMINIST, in big block letters, right on my forearm where it can’t be ignored.

My reasons for desiring this tattoo are two-fold. One, because I am a feminist and I’m proud of it. And two, because I think the word feminist is, in itself, so very important.

I’ve spotted a shifting trend in why people won’t get down with feminism. It used to be that feminists were all scary, dungaree wearing, penis piercing, man hating weirdos. Fortunately, I think many people – at least in my circle of friends, I can only speak from my own sheltered perspective - now realise that that is nonsense. So the new argument is that the word ‘feminist’ excludes men and so we should be calling ourselves ‘equalists’ or some such wishy washy rot.

I fiercely disagree with this. First and foremost, I think that any man who is genuinely interested in the tenets of feminism and thinks he might want to get on board, but is put off because the word is too girly, or too exclusive, needs to take a good hard look at himself and his ideas about the world. Women all over the world get on every day in a world that is exclusively biased towards masculinity on so many levels – income, violence and freedom to name but three. Perhaps starting to face this bias, even on the tiny level of coming to terms with the gender bias of one particular word, might help that man start to acknowledge his position of privilege and start thinking in a more feminist manner right from the get go.

Secondly, if women are put off because the word is too biased towards females, I think this says a lot about how downtrodden we are as a gender, and scared we are of empowering ourselves and each other to take charge of a few things en masse. Many powerful women say they don't like the word feminist, which makes me sad. Obviously, those women are not scared of their own power. But my guess is that they feel they are the fluke, and that we might get it wrong if a bunch of us tried to run something together. And that makes me even sadder. 

After all, language is important. That’s the one thing these anti-feminist, oh-yeah-no-sorry- it’s-just-the-word-honestly-I-do-want-equal-rights-for-all rapscallions have got right. Words shape the way we think. So let’s just take a moment and look at some everyday English language, shall we? Words and phrases that get hurled about in conversation, on TV, in papers, in films and books every day of our lives.


Son of a bitch.




That’s just a small sample to get us started off. Let’s look at that first word, MANkind, which obviously comes from huMAN. Where are the women in that? If you want to start picking apart individual words for things, start with the word which is meant to define and unite every single one of us on the planet, and you’ll notice that… oh yeah, hang on, 50% of us are left out. Deigned not to matter or be as important. And yes, you could say that woMAN also includes man, so in that way, it does speak to all of us, but it’s a bit bloody tenuous really, especially given the tendency I still see in a (thankfully) minority of academic papers and textbooks to continually say ‘he’ instead of ‘he or she’. Rarely, you’ll note, ‘she or he’. That would be a step too far, after all.

We can deal with son of a bitch and motherfucker together, I think, as the sexism in both phrases uses the same narrative; that is, that the man is blameless, while the woman brings shame. The son of the bitch has done nothing wrong, it’s his bloody whore of a mother that’s to blame. And the motherfucker is only maligned for his smearing of the pure Madonna ma. Either way, the problem is with the woman. Men will be men and do what they please, and if it’s upsetting? Well, it’s doubtless some sluttish woman who should have known better who caused all this.

We can take pussy and balls as opposite ends of the same pole. Both are slang for genitals, one female and one male. One means weak, cowardly, laughable; the other courageous, gutsy, strong. Despite the fact that, as Betty White may or may not have said (someone said it, the internet is patchy on who it was): “Why do people say "grow some balls"? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” I can’t improve on this fabulous statement, so I won’t even bother trying.

Even the female/male insults that we level at each other are semantically sexist, I would posit. If men are nincompoops, these days they are dicks or pricks. Again, male genitals, the narrative of which is power and privilege. What are nasty ladies called? Oh yes, bitches. Female dogs.

You might say that all this is nit picking, political correctness gone mad. But language is pervasive. There is a theory in psychology says that the words we use literally change the way we think – look up the ‘weak’ version of the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, if you’re interested. Another entire philosophical school says that discourses construct our world and the ways in which we relate to each other. So yes, the word feminism is biased towards women. And yes, it’s a shame that that has to be the way. But until the rest of language sorts itself out, I feel very strongly that we cannot give in and weaken our name to placate those who feel threatened by it. If it makes a few people think harder about language, then that has to be a good thing, because maybe that will also get them thinking harder about their behaviour, and the behaviour they see around them as well. The day we start calling each other bounders instead of bitches and cads instead of cocks is the day we might consider changing the name of feminism. But not until that day.