At the Women’s Center, we strive to use gender-neutral language when appropriate. (I say when appropriate because it would be silly to refer to someone with gender-neutral pronouns if they had already indicated which pronouns they prefer (though I recognize that sometimes in that instance it might make sense to use gender-neutral pronouns (gender is complicated, ok?)).) Occasionally my friends ask me why that is the case, or why I try to use gender-neutral language in my day-to-day life. Sometimes, I find it difficult to articulate why such language is important; other times, I just don’t want to have a 14 hours long conversation that still doesn’t cover it all. Furthermore, there are so many different reasons why different people prefer gender-neutral language in different situations. I’m going to talk about a few of them.
If you’re reading this, you’re online. If there’s a word you don’t know (cisgender or heteronormativity, for example), google it.
There are several ways that gendered language is used!! Here are three: first, gendered pronouns; second, phrases that reflect a cis-man-dominated history and assign certain roles to women, and that subsume individuals who don’t identify as men into the category of man; and third, phrases that are rooted in violence. The first, for example, is manifest in such words such as “he” and “she;” the second in phrases such as “fireman,” “freshman,” and “hey guys;” and the third in words like “whore,” “slut,” and “bitch.” This is not to say that every instance of each of these words is problematic. I’m in the camp of people who believe in the ability of groups to reclaim language (though that is for another blog entry). However, very often these phrases are used in ways that perpetuate gendered power dynamics. Gender-neutral language obviously won’t fix everything (how nice would that be, am I right?) but I believe it’s one necessary step in the longer trek.
The use of gendered pronouns is problematic inasmuch as it means the assumption of an individual’s gender, which is based in the assumption that all people are cisgender, and that normative gender performance is what one should expect. Essentially, assuming an individual is cisgender means assuming that gender and sex are the same thing, which they are not. A person can be male-bodied but identify as a woman, and have an androgynous gender performance, while also identifying as a butch/boi/bulldagger/othergenderysexualityraceetctermshere. There are endless ways in which intersecting identities can exist in a person and illuminate their experiences. To this end, assuming that everybody fits into the normative cisgender category can be offensive and is just inaccurate. It’s important to recognize individual experiences with identity and to respect those experiences with words. Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that gender and sex are not the same thing. An easy way to begin to do these is not to assume gender but to use gender-neutral language, at least until a person tells you how they identify. Boom. Done.
The second type of gendered language is similar in that it deals with cultural norms, but it doesn’t deal with cis-normativity and individual experience to the same extent that personal gendered pronouns do. This type of language deals with the assumption that to be a man is the norm. Words that describe certain professions in particular seem to be regularly gendered. “Policeman,” “fireman,” etc. The word man is attached to these professions as the generic term because historically men have occupied these roles and currently it is assumed that men will continue to occupy them. However, this completely negates the fact that there are women in these roles, that women are perfectly qualified to fill these roles, and that there are people who don’t identify with the man-woman binary. Furthermore, it is commonplace to refer to a group of firepeople as “firemen” even if there are multiple genders present in the group. To refer to a group of firepeople as “firewomen” would be laughable if there were even one man present (also, “firemen” is recognized as a word through spellcheck, while “firewomen” is not. I hate those little squiggly red lines that try to tell me I’m wrong. You’re wrong spellcheck!!). The generic gender is man. This is seen in phrases such as “hey guys” as well. The term “guys” can include women, because “guys” reflects the norm. To say “hey ladies” to a group of men would be considered silly, rude, or stupid. A good way to circumvent the problem posed here is, again, gender-neutral language. Professional terms such as “firefighters” or “firepeople” don’t assert the normativity of one gender over the other. Similarly, phrases such as “folks,” “y’all,” and my favorite, “friends,” don’t allow all other genders to be subsumed into the category of man. Check. Awesome.
Finally, there is the use of gendered language in violent ways. Often, I hear the argument that “bitch,” and other gendered insults are post-gender. This is ridiculous. A “bitch” is a woman who argues, who complains, or possibly who is just mean. This can be used to describe a man, of course, but part of why the word works is because culturally it’s ‘wrong’ to be a woman with an opinion, who is argumentative. There is no equivalent word that describes a man who argues, or who complains regularly, which might be rooted in a cultural understanding that man are allowed to be argumentative to “get ahead.” Women are “supposed to” be domestic and accept their places in life. Alternatively, perhaps it’s because it’s culturally determined that women aren’t actually supposed to have their own opinions, while men are. Regardless, to use the word “bitch” is to contribute to a culture that continues to assert that women are subject to men, while also creating a singular script for what it means to be a proper women (that is, a woman can’t be argumentative and she can’t complain, because that would make her not a “woman” but a “bitch”). The term “asshole” doesn’t have these implications and therefore doesn’t reflect the sexist culture that “bitch” does. Words such as “cunt” and “whore” can be similarly unpacked, especially when compared to their male-gendered equivalents (“cunt” is a much stronger insult than “dick,” and the only male-gendered equivalent I can think of for “whore” is “stud,” which implies that female sexuality is bad whereas male sexuality is laudable). How do we move past gendered language violence? Stop using gendered terms violently. Call someone an asshole instead of a bitch. Better yet, be creative. Come up with your own insults. My grandma usually calls people “turnip-heads” or some other combination of fruit/vegetable/root/thing-with-body part.
All in all, the linguistic treatment of women in the English language is kinda iffy and should be questioned and actively changed. It really isn’t hard. Don’t assume what another person’s identity is by using gendered language to describe them before asking. Don’t promote the understanding that man is the norm by using male pronouns and words to refer to groups that include people who don’t identify as men. Don’t use gendered language violently. Problems solved. Not all of the problems, of course, but at least some of them.
No but seriously, try calling someone a turnip-head. It’s great.