Bilerico Report

How do we dump sexist language in all its forms?

Bil Browning

Humans in general are one of those rare animal species with the capacity to understand and transmit language with precision and detail. Language is among the many ways we communicate with one another and convey ideas, thoughts, and emotions of all kinds. Through language, people come to understand their culture, begin to develop a sense of who they are, and come to know what is expected of them in terms of their social and cultural roles.

While an acorn will inevitably become an oak tree, humans require language and culture to realize their full potential. Cooley talks about the “looking glass self,” whereby other people are the mirrors through which we see ourselves.

Language constantly evolves and changes. Over time, new words enter the vocabulary while others silently die out through disuse. Central to comprehension of the world around us is our capacity to continually analyze how our culture uses words, to investigate and sometimes challenge the meaning of words, and to adopt terminology and definitions that are authentic to our identities and our respective communities.

Many English-language words and phrases in a United States context still in common usage today promote the many forms of oppression. I would like here to concentrate on words and phrases that encourage and maintain forms of oppression specifically based on sex, sexuality, and gender identity and expression.

Sexist Language

Language itself often reinforces sexism. Indeed, the language we use expresses the way we experience the world around us, and the words people use in talking about the sexes reveal social attitudes that tend to maintain and advance sexist behaviors.

I define “sexism” as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on males. It is prejudice and discrimination based on sex, especially against females and intersex people, founded on a patriarchal structure of male domination through hegemonic social and cultural systems.

Gender roles (sometimes called “sex role”) include the set of socially-defined roles and behaviors forced onto people according to the sex they are assigned at birth. This can and does vary from culture to culture.

Our society recognizes basically two distinct gender roles. One is the “masculine,” having the qualities and characteristics attributed to males. The other is the “feminine,” having the qualities and characteristics attributed to females. A third gender role, rarely condoned in our society, at least for those assigned “male” at birth, is “androgyny” (sometimes called “unisex”) combining assumed male (andro) and female (gyne) qualities.

When males and females both exhibit similar outward behaviors, the sex we are assigned at birth will often determine the societal value affixed to those behaviors. For example, what may be seen as “assertive” behavior in a male may be called “pushiness” in a female. A male may be seen as being “enthusiastic” or “passionate,” whereas a female is accused of being “emotional” or “on the rag.” Where a male is viewed as “confident” or “firm,” a female, on the other hand, is considered “stubborn” or “bitchy.” 

When a woman aims to step higher on the job ladder in business, moving outside the gender role assigned to her, she is sometimes accused of “trying to be like a man” and she is considered “too masculine.”

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