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The semantics of sexism: “Our language is littered with expressions referring to men as the powerful collective”

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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's weekly column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. This week, Stylist's editor-in-chief, Lisa Smosarski, gets to grips with the semantics of sexism, and argues that only once we've changed the way we speak, can we change the way society thinks.

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Feminist Lisa Smosarski says:

It turns out I’ve been unwittingly saying sexist things for years.

Not knowingly. Not the bad stuff. I’ve not been running around calling women Feminazis and bitches. But without even thinking about it, I’ve been accidentally reinforcing gender stereotypes. Calling women “guys”, describing my (female) deputy as my “right-hand man” and suggesting my husband “call a man in” to fix a leaky tap.

And this is despite editing a feminist magazine, taking a public stance on the need for equality in everything from the world of sports to pay, and dealing with the written word every single day of my working life. Man, do I feel a bit silly now.

OK, so that was to prove a point. But there are so many ways in which we use gendered language without even giving it a second thought. And it’s those words, those terms we accept as normal, that are the real problem.

From the innocuous sounding “Hey guys”, “manpower” and “oh, man”, through to the long-standing and never-withering “mankind”. Our language - old and new, colloquial and formal - is littered with expressions that refer to men as the powerful collective.

If we want to be part of the gang, we also need to be one of the “men”.

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"I’ve been unwittingly saying sexist things for years."

Adjectives also play a part too.

It’s not just collective nouns, job titles (policeman, workman, etc.) and exclamations, it’s the way we use words to describe women. Comedian, Bridget Christie, or to give her her gendered title, Feminist Comedienne Bridget Christie, writes of this in her autobiography, A Book For Her.

Christie says: “When a female comic talks passionately about issues she is perceived as “whinging” or “moaning”. A male comic doing the same thing is principled, committed and passionate.”

She’s right, she’s not just whinging.

The adjectives used to describe outspoken women of any status are designed to demean. We “yelp”, “screech”, “bleat”, “bitch” and “nag”. Men in the same position have “passion”, “enthusiasm”, “guts” and “force”. I agree with Christie when she says: “I look forward to a time when a woman’s voice, publicly expressing an opinion, isn’t compared to that of a sheep or a goat.”

And of course there’s that small matter of pointing out when women are involved in, well, just about anything.

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The word 'chairman' simply isn't inclusive

There are too many to list here, you have things to do, but let’s just say I’ve never heard George Osbourne described as a male MP, Michael McIntyre a man comedian nor David Beckham a bloke footballer. Gender simply doesn’t come into it. And, frankly, why should it? But women? Well that’s different. For some reason we must always call Karren Brady a “celebrity businesswoman”.

So why does this all matter? Why shouldn’t I stick with my “hey guys” and concentrate on  the really critical matters of FGM and the gender pay gap? Isn’t this just another tedious demand of the PC brigade who insist on renaming perfectly sensible things to stuff like Spotted Richard (Spotted Dick, tee-hee) and personal access units (manholes)?

It matters because language defines just about everything we say and do. If language is a mirror, the reflection we’re looking at says: “women we can’t see you” or perhaps scarier still “women, we do see you, but you’re not like us men”.

Sherryl Kleinman from the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina. writes in Why Sexist Language Matters

“All those ‘man’ words - said many times a day by millions of people every day - cumulatively reinforce the message that men are the standard and that women should be subsumed by the male category... ‘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.”

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Comedian, Bridget Christie, has broached the subject of sexist semantics

She goes onto cite a 1986 study by philosopher Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote A Person Paper on Purity in Language in which he created an imaginary world where generic terms were based on race not gender.

The word “manpower” was replaced with “whitepower”, chairman with “chairwhite”. Through satire he made the point that defining people by gender is as offensive and outdated as defining people by race.

The results of using race in an an exclusive and hierarchical way were shocking, yet it illustrated clearly that using any generic term, like that defined by race, at the exclusion of any other groups is both damaging and offensive.

There are other worrying ramifications too. There is an excellent Ted talk by Jackson Katz, an anti-sexism educator, who looks at how gendered language is being used to turn men’s problems into women’s problems. Specifically, at making women the victims of male violence.

He refers to a study by American linguist, Julia Penelope, who observes how the sentence “John beats Mary”, where John is the subject and Mary the object, quickly evolves to “Mary was beaten by John”, “Mary was beaten” to “Mary is a battered woman”.

Without much thought, Mary becomes the victim and the questions become: “Why did Mary stay with John?” or “Why do women stay with violent men?” when the question really should be “why do men behave violently to women?”

Katz explains that as a consequence men instinctively dismiss this as “women’s issues”, believing it has nothing to do with them, and all of a sudden violent men are ruled out of the entire conversation about their violence. 


Use this chart to correct your accidental sexism

semantics of sexism

Alongside this, countless studies have proven the impact language has on our development, confidence and status in society.

The words we use can be deliberately designed to influence, fight wars, hurt, undermine, demonise and demean. At a subconscious level they can influence everything from our mood to our politics.

A Google search on negative self talk throws out over 14 million results on why using negative language when thinking about yourself can create issues with confidence and mental health. Yet our negative collective vernacular on gender remains unchallenged.

These are powerful and alarming examples of how small shifts in our choice of words and the way we structure our sentences completely changes our perception of women. And damning proof that the need to change our own gendered language isn’t just another campaign of the “PC brigade”.

Kleinman concludes: “If women primarily exist in language as ‘girls’ (children), ‘sluts’ and ‘guys,’ it does not surprise me that we still have a long list of gendered inequalities to fix.”

And that’s why I say it’s time for us all to commit to change. To collectively call time on gendered language. If we each made an effort to change how we speak, to choose our words more carefully, we could start to make a difference to how women are treated - and reflected - in society.

So let’s forget the “guys”; “people” it’s time to get out there and start fixing.


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