Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gender embedded in language


My feminist theory course talked about language today, and one of our exercises was to list some ways that gender is embedded in common expressions and ways that language is constrained by the gender of the user or the gender of the referent.

For instance, there are many more negative words referring to women's genitalia than to men's, and those words themselves can often be applied to a person to indicate that they are worthless, weak, cheap, or cowardly. Women and objects are beautiful, but most men don't want to be called beautiful, even if they are. Only women are described as shrill, and if a man performs in a way that would get a woman called shrill, he is unlikely to
be judged negatively at all.

The linguist at Dinosaur Comics does a great job with this, as usual:

2 comments:

Nick said...

Hi Evalyn,

I am sympathetic to an analysis of gendered language, but I think that something you say in this post is quite misguided.

"there are many more negative words referring to women's genitalia than to men's, and those words themselves can often be applied to a person to indicate that they are worthless, weak, cheap, or cowardly."

When I do a little word-count, here, I come up with a 3-3 tie. I fear some filter will censor me here, so: there are three principle feminine words (C---, P----, T---). There are also three extremely common male words: (Pr---, D---, C---, also Dick----). Why ignore these? Why ignore that the penis is equated with poor moral character, with being selfish or inconsiderate?

Furthermore, when was the last time you heard a woman called an "asshole"? Surely that is just as bad as "shrill", perhaps worse.

I self-identify as a feminist male, but I think that this linguistic stuff may be one of the weakest points of contemporary feminist analysis. Only an ideological analysis could denounce the female-genitalia words while ignoring the male ones.

Evelyn Brister said...

Yeah, OK, the point with the list is well-taken. We generated this in my class, and it's likely that we weren't complete. Indeed, my students did not all know that the feminine C-word referred to female genitalia!

I could add co--s-----, because the implication is that only someone small and despicable would please a man that way (so not necessarily derogatory towards just women). And 'snatch.'

One thing that is interesting is that some of these words (including both P----'s) are primarily applied to men. But the masculine P---- indicates that a man is unacceptably aggressive, while the feminine P---- indicates that he is a coward.

These ideas were brought into class discussion by a student who pointed out that women can be wh--es, sl--s, hussies, tramps, so we had all of those words in the mix. But they also shift the focus from language specifically to norms of female sexuality.

Ummm, I hear women called assholes with some frequency. But it's possible that I run in circles which substitute this term for gendered terms like b--ch. I agree that it's worse than 'shrill'. I was thinking of someone saying that "shrill" is a word that had appeared on her teaching evaluations. On the one hand, it's perfectly acceptable, clean language. On the other hand, it's gendered. And in a teaching environment like mine (few female students, few female teachers), there is some evidence to suggest that femaleness itself is held against professors. But how could that be expressed? One possibility: with gender-coded language.

I do like Jenny Saul's article on this in the Stanford Encyclopedia.

But disagreeing is no fun, so let's sing a song.