Sexist language is any word or phrase that promote/encourage/reinforce gender inequality. This language keeps women in their place and men in power. Why is it that, “you have a lot of balls!” means courage and bravery while “You’re such a pussy!” is an insult to someone? The first associates the male genitalia with positive traits while the latter associates the female counterpart with cowardliness. This issue is not just about a few slang words or a few phrases. The biggest problem with this kind of language is that it’s misogynistic and it perpetuates ignorant stereotypes.Since we live in a patriarchy, this language is permitted and even sometimes encourage. But normalizing this language misogyny and sexism an acceptable code of conduct.
While at Hunter College, I focus on linguistics for my minor. I learned that Benjamin Lee Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis suggests that language drives our understanding of the world; it shapes our society. Language is apparatus used by the powerful in this case males, to keep the status quo and those who are not like them, meaning females, are to be controlled and oppressed. There are two main ways in which language influences the way we think: name calling and semantic slanting.
Name calling is used to label people and influence the way others perceive them. For example, Bitch is a term not just used for a female dog but for a woman who is firm, independent, in power and those who displease in any way. Girls who are assertive and show leadership qualities are usually labeled this way. This prevents many young women speaking up or taking leadership roles in schools and later in their professional and romantic lives. Women use it for the same reason, when one displeases us in any way…they’re a bitch. This name calling is also used to label someone who is below or “whipped.” Again, this label is derogatory and calling women this name is a way of keeping them from succeeding and kept in line. It’s a shame that now likes the n-word is used in the Black community, Bitch is used as friendly term between women.
Semantic slanting is a language used purposely to evoke a specific reaction. This is what we were talking at the beginning. Phrases like, “you throw like a girl” is meant to evoke shame and a correction of a behavior. These statements impact the way children learn about gender hierarchy and sexism; the way they see the world. Which is why the problem persists. Though some prefer to have gender-neutral statements especially because of the transgender movement, is not about having had neutrality or vagueness but about equality. Growing up my mother always said, ” you must have big ovaries to do that!” whenever I had the audacity to do something some might consider un-feminine. One time while in high school (all girls Catholic High School), I admitted to her that I hadn’t brush my hair in three days. This statement was her response. Which prompt me to take care of the issue right away.Hopefully one day, instead of meaning un-feminine, this statement will mean bravery and courage just like it’s counterpart, “you have a lot of balls.”
I believe that language mirrors society and thus evolves because with it. However, if Whorf’s hypothesis is true, language must change first in order for our world view to be reshaped. Until our language—-words, phrases, and definitions change, generations after generation will become participants with no one to break the sexist cycle.