How do you tell your friends that they should do something that takes courage or gumption? Most likely, you don’t tell them, “Hey, be brave,” or “Go take responsibility for your actions!” You may, however, tell them to “man up,” “grow a pair,” “get some balls,” or “stop being a p***y.” Quick quiz: what do all of those expressions have in common? a) They all assume masculinity to be inherently related to courage, directness or initiative and b) they are all problematic.
By this point, I hope you’ve realized that not only are items a and b both correct, they are related; namely, the aforementioned expressions are problematic because they tie certain positively-viewed personality characteristics to masculinity. By extension, they reinforce the conception of femininity as being related to weakness, powerlessness and submissiveness—an inaccurate picture that has regrettably been painted over and over again throughout history. Realistically, the average man/masculine-identified person is no more gutsy or direct than the average woman/feminine-identified person. With respect for individual differences, I believe that most people would admit that, from an objective viewpoint, women are just as bold as men (and if they wouldn’t admit it, they’d be wrong). So, then, why doesn’t our colloquial lexicon reflect that equality?
The patriarchy, to put it quite simply—and to achieve the status of “that person” at the same time. You don’t need to be a history major to understand that women have been consistently looked down upon throughout American history, and you don’t need to be a GWSS major to know that, although we have made great strides, women are still not equal today. As a result of this long and continuing story of discrimination, our culture has created a conversational vocabulary that builds men up as it puts women down; simple slang has become a tool of oppression.
Even more often than we use terms that uphold false assumptions about gender, we assume men as a default. I have a question for you: what do you call the person who delivers your mail? Many of you probably said mailman. I have another question for you: do you know the gender of the person who delivers your mail? If you don’t, but still answered mailman, then congratulations! You’ve helped me prove another point. Far too often, nonspecific male terms are used in place of gender neutrality—“he-as-a-third-person-pronoun-even-when-gender-is-unspecified,” “the-term-man-signifies-all-humans,” “fireman, businessman, repairman.” On and on the list goes, always thoughtlessly assuming men as the standard for humanity. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly not going to sit back and pretend that one-half is the whole.
“Now you just wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “I’ve used terms like that, but I completely believe in women’s equality. You’re generalizing and I hate you!” Now you just wait a minute: I don’t want to use this column to either imply that everyone uses these expressions or persecute those who do; my intention is simply to point out how language can reinforce stereotypes and problematic assumptions. I don’t want to demonize you, I simply want to make you think. Unnecessarily gendered terminology is often used unconsciously—we don’t think about why such terms exist, and we pay no mind to the effects of their continued use, which is exactly the problem. Even more than being “simply” gendered, much of our language is heteronormative—third-person speech, for example, reflects our dominant culture’s adherence to the gender binary. Gender-neutral pronouns are becoming more common, but it takes an individual effort to completely assimilate new terminology into—and to eradicate old, problematic expressions from—a language.
At first, new and different words may not come to mind easily. That’s understandable, as problematically gendered speech has been legitimized and constantly reinforced. So if you slip up, just correct yourself and move on. Look for more creative ways to express what you’re trying to say, and if all else fails, go buy yourself a dictionary. Alternatively, allow me to introduce you to a rad website called thesaurus.com, where you can find a synonym for almost any word! Putting aside my sarcastic motivational speaker persona, I want to say one more time that details do matter. The seemingly “harmless” use of expressions that reinforce stereotypical and incorrect perceptions of masculinity and femininity or assume men as the standard are quite literally creating a dialogue of oppression. We’re all equal, so let’s create some new slang to prove it.