Language is an incredible and amazing tool. It can also readily become a weapon, as evidenced by the way slurs are used in a calculated fashion to lash out and harm people. Those who engage with, discuss, and explore language do so from a huge variety of perspectives, but it has particular implications in social justice, where language can become a tool of liberation or oppression depending on how it’s used. Outsiders often accuse the social justice community of being ‘easily offended,’ but what intrigues me isn’t the attention to linguistic detail, but rather the unconscious use of oppressive language in social justice spaces by people who should know better.
There are lots of contexts in which this comes up, but I’ve been thinking a great deal about sexist and misogynistic coded language — something I will freely admit that I use unconsciously myself, because let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Somewhere in this very post, you’ll likely be able to identify an inadvertent slip of the tongue, whether it’s a description of a woman, or a turn of speech, or something else, and it’s identifying such slips that allows us to explore the ways language is used to oppress women (it’s also used to oppress people of other genders, but it’s women I’m taking a look at today).
Scold. Think about that word for a minute. It carries negative connotations, right? To be scolded is to be yelled at — or reprimanded — and often in a harsh, nasty, unpleasant way. ‘She’s in for a scolding.’ ‘There’s no reason to scold me.’ Notably, the etymology for this term specifically namechecks ‘shrewish women.’ Aha. To be scolded is, specifically, to be ‘abused’ (to borrow from etymology again) by a woman. I’ve encountered this word throughout my life, and I can count the number of times I’ve seen it used to describe a man on the fingers of my elbow. ‘Scold’ is a very powerfully gendered word — and yet I see people using it to refer to women all the time, usually in a very negative way. It’s not a ‘correction’ or a ‘request,’ it’s a scolding. I also see it weaponised against nonbinary femmes, who are further marginalised by being read as ‘scolds,’ i.e., shrewish women.
Think, too, of other words used to describe women’s speech. Harsh. Shrill. Shriek. Cackle. All of these things come with negative connotations — women’s voices are grating, they’re annoying (shut up, women). Women’s voices are unpleasant when they’re asking people to create space for them (go back in the corner). Women interact with each other on a level that’s far less mature than men (squealing teenage girls, shrieking women at a high school reunion). Many of these terms stretch back to or reference complicated gendered notions about women — the cackling witch, for example. If the way we describe women’s speech is gendered, imagine what else we’re doing.
Someone at some point put up a fantastic piece on the use of gendered language in Harry Potter, noting that Hermione was often depicted with very coded language — in fact, when the manner of her speech was described, it was almost inevitably gendered. I don’t think Rowling is misogynist or that she’s sexist, but she’s clearly absorbed language and notions about women. Hermione is a bit of a swotter, a bit of a shrew herself, and thus of course she’d do things like scold people, or hiss at them, or do the other things she does within the text. She’s a profoundly gendered character through the way she’s seen through the eyes of other characters, and the way she’s described for the reader. (I’m being vague about this piece not to deprive the author of credit, but because I couldn’t find it after searching — if you can think of the piece I’m referencing, please do Tweet at me or email me so I can edit with an update!)
These things have been troubling me, as have other norms about how women communicate: A woman who is clear and concise is ‘brusque’ or ‘rude,’ while a man who uses exactly the same kind of framing is just efficient and getting things done. If a woman doesn’t use ‘softening language’ to apologise for her very existence, she’s a bitch, a harridan. This has profound effects for professional women, who are forced to cutesify their communications in order to avoid being punished, up to and including highly gendered and sexist formal reprimands. (Notably, nonbinary femmes are subjected to exactly the same situation — this applies to people read or forcibly passed as women just as it applies to women.)
Women are taught to be nice or else in society, and this is something the social justice community rightly condemns. Yet, it repeatedly reinforces this self-same damaging social messaging when it comes to the way it talks about women and interacts with them. I see gendered speech used to describe women all the time, whether it’s commentary about a woman’s tone, or fury than a woman doesn’t apologise profusely for daring to insert herself into someone’s inbox, or anger about vocal fry. Tone policing takes on many different forms, and every time I see a woman
scolded punished for speaking, it makes me burn with rage, especially when the same speech is perfectly acceptable and sometimes even praised coming from men. Own your hypocrisy, liberals, lest it come to bite you.
Image: Women in Côte d’Ivoire Celebrate International Women’s Day, United Nations Photo, Flickr