Sexism presents itself in our language in a multitude of ways. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.
SADIA KHATRI | OPINION COLUMNIST | email@example.com
Dramatic. Emotional. Sensitive. Quirky. If you had to ascribe a gender to these words, what gender comes to mind? Chances are that you thought of a woman. None of these words are objectively gendered, so why do we associate these words with women?
Gendered language is everywhere around us. Words carry connotations that are deeper than their objective meanings, and that subtext often means more than we may think. As with many things in this world, there is quite a lot of misogyny at play when it comes to many of the words and phrases that we use.
Kiara Somerville, a senior computer science and economics double major and the president of Gender Equity Movement, shared that subtle sexism is inescapable.
“A big way I see subtle misogyny is in the way people phrase things when directed at women,” Somerville said. “When telling someone what to do, sometimes people subtly will just assume women don’t know as much as the [men] so they will do extra explaining or their tone will change or they [infantilize] women as opposed to treating them [like] adults.”
Mansplaining in particular is something that many women are familiar with all too well. Mansplaining is a sexist phenomenon where men explain things to women based on their perception that women likely do not understand what is going on. Women are no less capable than men, and they do not need to be talked down to.
The sexism that presents itself in language is everywhere around us. Think about how often we hear about a man who is dramatic or emotional or bossy or hormonal or quirky or hysterical or sensitive or dramatic. There are countless examples of words that are unequally associated with one gender over another.
Dr. Tom Mould, a professor in the history, anthropology and classics department who teaches an anthropology course about language and culture, noted that the sexism present in our language is often representative of larger social systems.
“Language is simply reflecting the social relationships that we have constructed in society,” Mould said. “If there is sexism, and if there is misogyny … you’re going to see it in the language. The trick with the language is it’s often subtle. It’s often not perceived. And so it can be quite insidious in that way, in terms of people not quite realizing it.”
It can be deeply infuriating to experience subtle misogyny; experiencing subtle sexism on a regular basis takes a toll on a person. When sexist language is used to describe women, it undermines our experiences.
These subtly gendered terms are not the only forms of sexism that exist in our language. Many other forms of sexism in language are far more derogatory, with words like “b*tch,” “sl*t” and “wh*re” exclusively ever used to describe women. There are no male versions of these terms; only women are b*tches, sl*ts and wh*res.
Derogatory language used towards women is often related to women’s sexuality and sexual expressions. Women are shamed for the number of partners they have had and for how they dress — critiques that men never face.
Mould shared that the marginalized status of women contributes to the way women’s perspectives are minimized by society.
“No matter what women say, if they are a stigmatized group [and] if they are seen as having less power … that language is going to carry the stigma of the group,” Mould said. “When [women] open their mouths, people’s perceptions are going to perceive them as different, and that difference is usually less powerful. So it becomes more difficult to navigate the same spaces that men are in.”
Within my life, I am always nervous that people might use negatively gendered words to describe me. When I lead a meeting, I think about how I do not want people to think of me as bossy. When I share my feelings, I think about how I do not want people to think of me as sensitive. When I am raising genuine concerns about misogyny or sexism that I have experienced or witnessed, I think about how I do not want people to think I am dramatic.
My male peers do not have to worry about this. A man who can lead a meeting successfully is assertive. A man who shares his feelings is mature and in touch with his emotions. A man who raises concerns about something is sensible.
Somerville shared that these double standards make it tough for women to share their perspectives.
“It makes us speak less in a room full of men,” Somerville said. “It makes women … feel like their voice is [not] going to be heard unless they are speaking to another woman.”
It can feel incredibly difficult to speak up in an environment where there is a large majority of men present. I know that I feel uncomfortable and nervous to talk as I normally would when I am surrounded by a lot of men. I do not know how they will react, or if they will give me basic respect and listen to me.
There are double standards in place that allow for men to be depicted much more positively than women for exhibiting the same behaviors. When women are constantly labeled differently from men, it establishes the notion that women genuinely are vastly different in quite the negative way. It formalizes the concept that women are actually more emotional or more bossy or more sensitive or more quirky or more crazy.
Sahar Atmar, a first-year biology and Spanish double major, emphasized how frustrating it is to constantly be criticized for something because of your gender.
“It’s obviously demoralizing when you are living your life the same way that a man would … and you’re constantly being critiqued and told you’re doing it wrong,” Atmar said.
Wide generalizations about an entire gender are harmful, and they impact how seriously women are taken. Minimizing the experiences of women makes it easier to undermine women. The culture of assuming that women are more emotional, crazy and dramatic can bring into question if what women experience is even real. A woman who is tired of experiencing harassment and misogyny is just being crazy, and a woman who is tired of being silenced is just being dramatic.
Experiencing and witnessing subtle digs at someone’s competence and character because they are a woman can become suffocating for women. Seeing the knowing looks men give each other when a woman speaks is infuriating and demoralizing.
Sexism and misogyny only continue to proliferate the more they are ignored. Actively dismantling misogyny requires the assistance of the perpetrators of misogyny. It is critical that men step up and consider the language they use. If you are a man, think about how often you use the word “b*tch” and who you use it towards. Breaking down misogyny and sexism is impossible if men do not start seriously reflecting on the language they use towards women.
The time to stop using sexist language was a long time ago. Stand up for the women around you.