The F-Word: Language


As ever, massive thank yous have to go to Ellie Robert and Christina Muller for talking so eloquently about language (meta) and the ways in which it affects attitudes towards women on this week's F-Word. Both did an excellent job but, as always, this blog will be my own take on the issue.

I think we're all agreed that language is pretty handy. It's the way we comprehend the world, it's how we learn, how we teach, it's – arguably – what makes humans human. But enough of the philosophical musings, I hear you say; get to the feminist stuff.

So here's the problem. All the things that make language really cool are the same things that make it a powerful and potentially dangerous tool, especially in the case of 'marginalised' groups like women, ethnic minorities and the disabled amongst others. This all sounds quite academic and abstract but take a minute to stop and think. Have you ever called anyone a slut or been called a bitch? Babe? Even sweetheart? Then I'm talking to you.

Everything is context-dependent. I'll always be 'darling' to my nana and 'sweetheart' to my mum and there will always be couples who call each other 'babe', 'honey', and all number of other weird

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names because they're sickening and cheesy… just kidding. The point is that they're not strangers in the street leering at passers-by, or men casually infantilising women with words like 'girlie' and 'pet' precisely to be patronising, or even people you know 'jokingly' passing judgement on your one-night-stand. It's all about context. So to pre-empt what some of you are inevitably thinking; yes, men can and do get called slut. But not within the context of a history of institutional oppression – and more often than not they're actually called playboy or hero instead.

I'm not trying to say that women don't use the term themselves; we undoubtedly do. But that's exactly the point I'm making – these terms are ingrained, unchallenged and said without thinking because, sadly, so are some ideas about how women should behave. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't think of a 'male' word comparable to slut or whore. If women are sexually liberated then they're entitled to go home with whoever they want as many times as they like as far as I'm concerned. I equally don't think most straight single men would be all that impressed if the entire female sex took a vow of celibacy in response to their 'disapproval' of promiscuity. So what's the point? I'm not convinced that users of the word themselves really know either but I would like to point them towards the wisdom of Christina Aguilera: “If you look back in history/It's a common double standard of society/The guy gets all the glory the more he can score/While the girl can do the same and yet you call her a whore”. In fact, maybe I should have just posted the entire lyrics to 'Can't Hold Us Down' in place of a blog this week…

But seriously, these are just words that, just like any other word, we hear, learn, adopt and use without thinking about it. And yet they reinforce the

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idea of shaming and blaming women for their sexuality, which can have very serious impacts indeed when it comes to issues of sexual assault, for example. The same can be said for the comparison between 'spinster' or 'old maid' and 'bachelor'.

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I, personally, would love a bachelor pad like the ones that are always depicted in Hollywood films and reality TV. But

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I'm not much of a fan of cats and I quite like to brush my hair now and again, so I think I'll avoid becoming a spinster thanks. See what I mean? These words that nobody thinks about perpetuate age-old ideas about the domestic duties of women and men; women without families are useless and demented, while men in the same position are in the prime of their lives, all silver-foxy and “only improving with age”.

That last quote comes from a Daily Mail article about George Clooney. The Daily Mail, I know, SIGH. But they are just such an amazing example of everything that's rubbish about the media that I'm actually kind of grateful to them. In the

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same paper, you'll find entire stories formulated around pictures of women taking their children to school or browsing pregnancy tests and engagement rings. Not specifically language-based I know, but its always clear whether the media is talking about a woman or a man: “Helen ensures all eyes are on her as she prepares to enter the jungle” and “Lauren gets it wrong with an unflattering dress” while men (who are notably usually referred to by their last names only) are praised for their “soaring rhetoric” and “decision” to spend time

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with their families. The media has a huge role in the reinforcing of language and the attitudes that come with it. But it gets even worse than that, because so too do official forms and apparently gender-neutral paperwork through the various categories describing women – Miss, Mrs, Ms – in comparison to plain old Mr. It's not a coincidence that each female title relates directly to a marital status, and it's equally unsurprising that those who adopt 'Ms' are often seen as trying to 'make a statement'. French women this year did make a statement – a pretty massive one – when they

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successfully campaigned for the removal of the categories 'maiden name' and 'mademoiselle' from official paperwork owing to its origin in the French word for virginity.

Now I'm not claiming that every time I fill out a form, I'm huffing and puffing and rolling my eyes about having to tick a box – I don't really ever think about it, and I doubt a lot of you do either. I equally don't go through the paper angrily scrubbing out every other word and mentally composing complaint emails to editors. Because that's exactly the point really – language is so pervasive, subconscious and widespread that its affecting us all all the time without us realising it.

If I could wave my magic feminist wand and transform the dictionary then maybe I would. But the fact remains that language is just incomprehensibly permeating and mostly unchallenged. Whether it reinforces attitudes or forms them is a chicken vs egg argument, but it's actually kind of irrelevant. The important point is that the two are hugely interlinked, and this has effects in every aspect of life whether that's having a conversation, listening to a song, watching a comedy act or reading a paper. Maybe changing language really is the first step to changing attitudes, but how we even begin to go about that I have no idea. In the meantime I suggest that we quote Christina Aguilera to everyone and get working on those feminist magic wands.


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