December 03, 2007

Language, Gender and Power

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you ever noticed the gendered nature of the English language? If you take a close look, words highlight some important features of our culture.

Take the word “seminal” (as in “semiclip_image003nal work” or “seminal idea”). We use this word to credit people with creating work so important that it has changed the way we think about something. Seminal work inspires many others as well .

Seminal is durative of the word semen; as in human reproduction, seminal work has gone forth and multiplied much like sperm does if it is successful in merging with an “egg” (or ovum) and conception occurs.

Why don’t we use “ovular” in the same way? Ova are the female equivalent to sperm and are just as responsible for the creation of a new being. Although there are many more sperm created in the time it takes for one ovum to move through its cycle, both are responsible for creating new life.We could say that someone has created an ovular idea that then inspires others to go forth and develop other ideas based on that one ovular thought.

Likewise, think of how we address people formally. We refer to most men as “Mr.” Traditionally, women’s courtesy titles have been “Miss” or “Mrs.”. Now clip_image006women can be called “Ms.”—thus women have three titles, “Miss” (single woman or girl), “Mrs.” (married woman), or “Ms.” (grown woman, marital status undetermined) while men just have the one (grown man, marital status irrelevant). Have you wondered why women have the three and men only the one? Why don’t men have titles that indicate their marital status?

Now, let’s consider curse words. Some are gender neutral, such as referring to one’s posterior. Some are specifically reserved for women, such as the short b-word indicating a crabby female (as opposed to a female dog) and the c-word or the p-word, which are references to women’s genitals. Even if the words are aimed at men or women, these terms often refer to women negatively.

Perhaps one’s mother is the target of the insult, whether through having a child outside marriage, another b-word, or as a willing or unwilling intercourse participant, as in “mother” f-word as an active verb. Or, as the f-word itself does, the word invokes the act of intercourse and ties the act of penetration as a potentially violent action.

Of course, curse words aren’t always intended as insults, since many people use them for fun or for teasing their friends. Some women use some of them as a term of empowerment (the c-word or the first b-word mentioned above).

But this only applies if they utter them, not if they are labeled with them by others (especially men). This is similar to the n-word and our current social debate over who (and if anyone) can use it; most recognize that when African Americans say it, it means something wholly different than when others, especially whites say it.

The f-word in particular has many uses—both as a noun and a verb—however it does connects sex and violence, not just as a threat against women but also against gay men. Gay men have other words directed at them, many of which refer to them as feminine (or even female) or suggest violence.

Sociology helps explain these word choices. Rather than anomalies or coincidences, they reflect our society’s power structure.

If you think about power and gender in this society, it quickly becomes clear that as a group, men dominate women. Men are the gender group with power in this society, not women. This is why important ideas that spawn other works (not to clip_image009mention Nobel Prizes) are called “seminal” not ovular. Traditionally, men have received credit, even if women were involved in their creation.

Why is marital status such a big deal for women and not for men? Not so long ago in this country, women were considered property; their title indicated who was responsible for this woman: father or husband. “Ms.” came about during the women’s movement in the 1960-70s when many women no longer wished to be identified by their marital status, thus “Ms.” was created as contraction of “Miss” and “Mrs.”

Why do curse words refer to body parts and pejorative references to women? Because in a society characterized by male power, one doesn’t insult a male directly, one must refer to inferior things, such as crude references to body parts considered “dirty” and to people who are less than masculine according to that society’s norms.

clip_image012In dominant American culture, masculinity is defined as being assertive, aggressive, strong, a leader, and heterosexual. This is what Bob Connell refers to as "hegemonic masculinity" in his classic book, Gender and Power. Hegemonic masculinity insists that men be dominant over others in society to prove that they are “real men.”

“Emphasized femininity,” Connell’s counterpart to hegemonic masculinity, encourages women to be passive, nurturing, caring, mothering, and otherwise subordinate. Yes, our definitions of masculine and feminine change over time and place yet these ideals are primary in our media and in how we socialize children. Note also how gay men are equated with women thus they are set aside from the more powerful group of heterosexual men.

Our language reflects our society--the words I have discussed here all distinguish between men and women—all to reinforce and maintain the gendered hierarchy of power.


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In dominant American culture, masculinity is defined as being assertive, aggressive, strong, a leader, and heterosexual.

This article is very true because I feel like men take advantage of the power they have and women are discriminated against when they do have a lot of power and are described with inappropriate words when they have to be tough. My generation uses bad words left and right as a part of their every day vocabulary regardless of the affects on the person they are implying those words too.

Many people do not think about how hurtful their words are. Almost every inappropriate word will offend someone, whether it be a women, an African American, or any other type of ethnic group. I think that there is an overall struggle with power in America, not just with women and men, but with all society. The fact that we use words that are offensive to one another in order to show power needs to change. People need to see what their words are doing, how people react to them, and what they are actually saying. I think if everyone takes a step back from what they have been doing for so long, they will see how wrong it is, and attempt to fix it.

I would like to point out that it this is a pretty far-fetched concept that Sally Raskoff is trying to pitch to her readers. I will in no way argue that we live in a male dominated society, we do, and the way that we grow up and feel about our opportunities as women is affected by the idea that we might not be able to, because we are not men. Nonetheless, Raskoff’s arguments are blown way out of proportion and make things seem like there is a huge conspiracy against the women.
The marriage terminology has bothered me as well. I don’t see why anyone would choose to go around and be called Miss (Insert name here). It sounds unpleasant and forgettable to me. I am from Russia, and I feel like our way of handling this issue is a lot more logical. We do not use “Miss” or “Ms.” or “Mrs.” or “Mr.” Rather; we use the first name, the middle name which is a derivative of the father’s first name, and then the family’s last name. Example: Julia Pavlovna Korolenko – My first name, followed by “Daughter of Paul”, followed by family of Korolenko.
As far as curse words go, I do not see anyone aiming specifically at women. Men’s nether regions undergo quite a bit of ridicule and derogatory language as women’s do. The f-word is very prevalent in everyday language, but there is nothing particularly demeaning or threatening about it to women or to gay men. Upon researching the definition and its original origins, the word that was used most frequently to define the f-word had nothing to do with violence or power, it was “to copulate.”
Now, women get upset if they are called masculine, they get upset if they are called feminine. Women get upset if gay men are called feminine, and if lesbians get called masculine. No matter what, women will get upset, they will find sexism in everything, and they will continue to make points about it. Interestingly enough, I think that it is this obsession with finding sexism everywhere that is contributing to society continuing to be sexist. I think that feminine and masculine are two important concepts in our society that should not die out because the only “equality” that we can strive for is where the lines are so blurred that we cannot even distinguish between the two.

A word about "seminal", Sally Raskoff:

Your premise is entirely wrong ... and this is partially because you are ignorant of the etymology of the word itself.

The word "seminal" is derived originally from Latin and means "seed". The same happens to be the true concerning the ancient Greek word "sperma" also meaning "seed".

Firstly, the metaphorical sense of the word seed is intended when the term "seminal idea" is used. The idea of male gametes, whether man or animal, is not under consideration. Very simply, the meaning that was always intended is that 'Great things grow from small ideas', etc. Seminal thought is like seed that develops of its own accord.

Secondly, in old literature, seed is used of women too. The seed of the woman is also spoken about (see Genesis 3:15). In fact the ancient Greek translation (Septuagint) of this talks of the 'Spermatos" of the woman or "sperm" of the woman. I dare say the old Latin Vulgate would use the word semen here.

You can see then, after all, that it would be rather foolish to speak of "ovular ideas". You may perhaps have stopped to check these things if you were not so obsessed with "femo-speak". It seems that the real reason that you rush to make such statements lies in your perverse reasoning. In this your true motives are revealed as well as your lack of scholarly thought, because you have an agenda. Language is simple, and without guile. you seem to want to find your version of "evil' everywhere you turn.

You may like to note, that there are other terms that are similarly derived: "Feminine" comes from the Old French and Old German words; Femme (one who breastfeeds) and Männin (a female man). "Humankind" or "Humanity" come out of the Old Latin "Humanus", and means "Mankind", or "Man" in the generic or natural sense, which is that of the human race. These terms have always had these meanings, but now due to completely arbitrary "femo-speak" propaganda, you are teaching these words have some loaded meaning.

I thought this article was very well written. I never even thought about the way one gender over powers one another with the words you hear all the time. Being in highschool, you don't think of the real meaning of all the swear words you hear, but yes they do refer to woman negativly. Seminal does make you think of males, never occured to me. Thanks for the article!

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