Equality between genders is a work in progress. Millennia of misogyny and sexism on a global scale cannot be undone in a short span of time. Each generation makes progress over the previous one, and finds new issues to grapple with.
Patriarchy has been so all-encompassing for millennia that it is deep-rooted and still manifests in many of our actions, traditions, and practices.
Language is a universal human phenomenon, and therefore, patriarchy bleeds into our language in ways that are sometimes difficult to detect. In fact, the language we speak today has evolved with patriarchy; it has been structured to suit patriarchal practices and phenomenon. Language, however, has not evolved at the same pace as feminism, and still suffers from a patriarchal hangover. Consequently, we still casually use language that is misogynistic and demeaning, despite not meaning to cause offence or insult.
Men and women are both prone to using certain phrases in common parlance. It is time to rethink this casual sexism.
This phrase is used to indicate that the listener has to be tougher or more aggressive. It genders strength, implying that any form of weakness is therefore feminine. Its greatest harm is in the way it hampers emotional responses in men and shames vulnerability in them. Regardless of gender, emotions are an integral part of the human experience and should be expressed healthily. People having angry or aggressive outbursts aren’t told to ‘woman up’, and rightly so.
“____ like a girl”
In a similar light, this phrase attributes weakness and ineptitude to women, and shames men for not being ‘macho’ and stoic. Throwing like a girl and acting like a girl are made sub-standard qualities to qualify as insults. This treats women as being inferior to men, and men as being a uniform breed of exemplary strength and smarts.
This phrase is typically used in situations where a woman has rebuffed the romantic advances of a male suitor and decided to maintain a platonic equation. By “zoning” friendship as an undesirable state, it indicates that the only worthy interaction with a woman is a romantic pursual. It also shames the woman for exercising her right to say no, and shames the man for forming a new friendship. It is an unhealthy labelling of friendships between men and women.
“___ like a lady”
Women are expected to walk, talk, and sit a particular way. There are companies in India that have held “orientation” sessions for women where they were taught how to sit, dress, and even place their bags. “Ladylike” behaviour is always decorous and appropriate. Women deviating from unnatural societal expectations and expressing themselves in a forthright manner is unpalatable to those who subscribe to this “Ladylike” decorum. These expectations don’t exist for men who are free to be as carefree or even crude or vulgar as they please.
“Wearing the pants”
This phrase is used to indicate who the dominant half of a relationship is. It is rooted in the assumed superiority of men, who at one point held a monopoly over pants as an attire. It is also indicative of how dominance is automatically connected to masculinity. The phrase has sexist origins which perhaps the ubiquitous wearing of pants by women today can counteract.
“Grow a pair”
When people behave fearfully, they are asked to grow a pair of testicles because courage, as a trait, has been claimed by masculinity. Women, as a result, have been associated with timidity. Hence, testicles are apparently key to a state of exalted courage and strength. This phrase is outrightly derogatory and doesn’t have a place in modern society.
There is no “career man” – a man who is devoted to his career is simply a man. However, if a woman devotes herself to a career, she is a “career woman”. This is indicative of a society that is yet to accept a working woman under the characterization of its ideal woman who, as it is still largely believed, primarily focussed on her family. This sub-category of woman has been created to keep the ideal image untainted of the professional goals of women lest they neglect their families. It adds pejorative connotations to a woman wanting to realise her professional goals through hard work, and should simply not be part of our vocabulary.
“Not like other girls”/ “one of the boys”
Both these phrases shine favourable light on groups of men while that of women is backhandedly dismissed. This is premised on a stereotypical understanding of both genders that doesn’t take into account the incredible diversity of humanity. To be “not like the other girls” is handed as a compliment for girls who defy undesirable female traits. If a girl displays the ability to comingle with men by foregoing her female traits, she is “one of the boys,” which is also a compliment. These phrases make it abundantly clear that being male or male-like is more desirable than female. It also assigns value to the gender of companionship rather than to the quality of it.
We are all victims of sexism, regardless of gender, and perpetuate it in ways unknown to us. However, language is something to be mindful of as it is a carrier of ideas. By ensuring we don’t employ words that are premised on sexist beliefs, we also ensure that patriarchy is nipped in the bud.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)