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Columns


The Language of Gender

by Jen Frankel

So, here I am a girl. A woman. Whatever. Female, undoubtably. Got the double X chromosomes, and the tell-tale primary and secondary sexual characteristics. You’re just going to have to take my word on the former.

There are a lot of words used to describe women. Chick. Babe. Cow. Sow. Lady. Gal. Lass. Hot mama. Words in the English language have a hard time avoiding denotations that are as strong as their connotations or their literal meanings. Babe is good-looking. Cow, a lot less so.

Gender-specific compliments and insults are rife in the language. Not only do we tend to have a set of standard stereotypes about the genders and the expressions to enunciate them, we have a vast array of preconceptions linking gender to ability, to personality, and to value.

“You throw like a girl” is not meant to evoke the literal truth of how women throw a ball; it is an insult, pure and simple, predicated on the easy assumption that women throw badly, and that to compare a man to a female is a deadly slur.

Leaving aside all the cultural and, yeah, physiological differences between male and female approaches to sport (and yes, women throw better underhand than overhand because of actual difference in skeletal structure), it’s kind of telling that men compare their friends to women in order to tear them down.

It’s not a comfortable thing to hear men using “woman” and “girl” as slurs on male friends. It’s not a lot more comfortable to hear women rolling their eyes over some incidence of male misconduct with a “of course, he’s a boy.”

But a lot of our expressions regarding gender are just that – slurs. When the sexes get down and dirty, to infer that one is more like a member of the other is about as nasty as it gets.I think men have it a lot better, though. When you look at encouraging gender-typed expressions, a lot of phrasing encouraging male behavior are far more positive and sometimes inspiring. To “be a man” is to behave in a grown-up, mature fashion. To “man up” is to show positive characteristics like strength and leadership. Being “manly” conjures images of steadfast, brave, essential men whose qualities are highly desirable.

On the other hand, to emasculate, literally to “be less male,” means to weaken or impair, to, so to speak, remove the balls from. The state of being male, in the English language, is intensely desirable in and of itself.

sex talkLooking at phrases relating to women, you don’t have much positive on offer. Beyond “throw like a girl,” you can also “scream like a girl,” “cry like a girl,” and any other number of embarrassing shows of apparently female weakness. There’s no counter-expression to being a man that involves an invocation of positive female qualities; in English, thanks in large part to the Victorian ideal of the fainting female, being a woman seems laden with the connotation of weakness, sweetness, virginal virtue, and compliance.It kinda sucks.

sex talkAnd I find it impossible to recommend any kind of redress by way of coining some pithy phrases to inspire positive thoughts about women. We even tend to associate various personality traits with the feminine and masculine, as if “bravery” was a male thing and “nuturing” was female. Psychiatry and astrology both seem to associate the male with the active and the female with the passive. Even when adamant that men and women comprise a range of traits from both sides of the “gender divide,” some characteristics are thought of as decidedly more apparent in men and some in women. And, unfortunately for female dignity, a lot of the female ones are rather less than desirable, especially in a world that’s increasingly blurring the traditional lines between male and female spheres.

That’s a good thing; we just might have to wait a while for language to catch up to the reality.


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