Women seem to be at orange level alert for sexism this year. Trailing behind most of the world, we Americans are poised on the brink of electing our first female leader, and if nothing else, the ascendency of Hilary Clinton has caused an uptick of articles examining not only the way we view girls and women, but the language we use to describe them.
For this old feminist, it’s a long overdue and entirely welcome sight.
Take, for instance, the coverage being given to the way women are being reported about at the Olympics.
Corey Cogdell-Unrein, a three-time Olympic medalist was identified in The Chicago Tribune not by her name, but as ‘the wife of…’
Right after Katinka Hosszu broke a world record and won gold, a commentator suggested her husband and coach was the one responsible for her win.
Katie Ledecky, a record-breaking swimmer is referred to as a “female Michael Phelps” and comparisons are being made to how she ‘swims like a man’.
A commentator said The US Women’s Gymnastic team looked as if they were ‘standing in the middle of a mall’.
Language, and the way we use it, is ingrained and entwined with the way we see girls and boys, men and women. Girls and women who achieve, whether in sports or business or politics, are almost constantly compared and contrasted with the boys and men who achieved those things before them. Women are rated, marked, and judged against the same criteria as men–but more often than not, the traits which are seen as worthy and admirable in males (ambition, assertiveness, confidence) are seen as unattractive and undesirable in females (gold-digging, bitchiness, arrogance).
When the majority of achievements have been male, it may seem natural and innocuous to compare a woman’s performance to one that came before. But by doing that, we’re taking away from HER achievement by bringing in the HIM. We are validating the female achievement only in comparison to the male’s. If Katie Ledecky goes on to win more lifetime gold medals than Michael Phelps, do you think the media will refer to the next great swimmer as the “male Katie Ledecky”?
Lots of folks will claim mountains out of mole hills, but the way we talk to girls AND boys, the way we compare them, it makes a difference. Over years and childhoods, girls internalize those comments and comparisons. Girls are told they must act a certain way in order to achieve (tough, grit, perseverance) yet when they absorb those qualities, they are shunned, demeaned, and negatively compared to males.
(Think of the comparison of Hilary Clinton to Lady Macbeth–her personal and political ambitions must be nefarious and solely for personal gain, whereby the ambitions of her male challengers are alternately forgiven or seen as altruistic.)
The kicker? Both men and women do it. Even someone as staunchly feminist as myself has found myself on the verge of saying ‘like a girl’ from time to time.
I’ve found that when you’re thinking of how we use comparative language with girls and boys, ‘like a girl’ is a great litmus test.
Every time someone says ‘don’t cry like a girl’, we’re insinuating that girls cry more than boys, that it’s wrong to cry, and therefore it’s insulting to be likened to a girl.
Every time someone says ‘you throw like a girl’, we’re saying boys throw better and you don’t want to throw ‘like a girl’ because it’s not as good.
Every time someone says ‘you’re acting like a girl’, the girl part of that is negative. No one ever says you’re acting like a girl when they are talking about empathy or compromise do they? No, they use ‘you’re acting like a girl” when they perceive someone is doing something wrong, faulty, or cowardly.
Alternately, when we say Katie Ledecky swims ‘like a man’, that is considered a good thing. Until she starts getting shit for not being feminine enough, that is–or, until she becomes a threat.
Over time, ‘like a girl’ become synonymous with the negative aspect, ‘like a boy’, the positive.
Now, imagine you’re a girl who has heard that over and over. You hear it over and over because it’s the norm. You see it in print, in movies, in media. You see it and hear it so much you don’t even question it. Over time, you become numb to it, as if someone has applied Novocaine to your psyche. But it’s there, and each time young girls hear it, they assume that negative aspect. And each time we contrast a girl’s achievement by holding it up to a male one, or validate it against a male’s, a thin layer hardens. Eventually the layers are thick enough that the result is the inevitable chip women carry on our shoulders–the one which weighs us down with ‘no matter what we do, we’re never going to be as good as’.
So–it may seem silly to make a big deal out of making sure the media knows that calling Katie Ledecky the ‘female Michael Phelps’ is wrong. It may seem silly to insist that it was wrong from the Chicago Tribune to refer to a Corey Cogell-Unrein as “wife of xy”.
But for all the women out there bearing that weight, shining a spotlight on those little things can chip away at it a little at a time. And for those girls just starting out, looking up to the girls and women who shrugged that weight through life plowing a path for them, hopefully it will lighten the load.
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I’m wishing there were a LOVE button for this one. I’ve always been a rabid feminist and proud of it for all the reasons you write here, but my daughters have brought it out even more lately. Our Middle pointed out another example of sexism in sports as we watched Olympic coverage the other night. “Male gymnasts aren’t forced/expected to smile when they salute the judges and crowd.” It’s there in every damn moment of every woman’s life.
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Yes. It is there. Every.Damn.Minute. (I love that. If you don’t use it as a title for something soon I’m letting you know I’m going to steal it).
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That sounds like a challenge, and I accept! As it happens I’m at a day-long storytelling workshop today, and now I feel another story coming on…
I look forward to it!
In high school I got told to sing like a girl. The fun part? Once I discovered the soprano part of my voice, the tenor got deeper and richer. There may be a lesson there…
Lol, you sang like a girl and a boy. I suspect that as with everything else, balance is key–but before we can get to a point of balance, we’ve got to get the scales in line.
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Reblogged this on buildingapoem and commented:
Wisdom from our friend at Wine and Cheese Doodles! She rocks it like a girl!
Thanks–am proud to rock like a girl!
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The subtleties of language and words is something I used to think was overblown. (I was one of those guys.) Then I read an article about how white athletes were often referred to by their first names and last names were used to talk about black or Hispanic players. Once it was pointed out I really started to notice it. It doesn’t happen as often these days but it just goes to show that language does show those subtle prejudices. I think we’re making progress but then again Trump is out there shouting about political correctness (code for “I liked it better when I could call people bad names without guilt”). I know I still have lots of room for growth.
We ALL have lots of room for growth. Even I am shocked by how gender biased my own language can be…and I studied it at college! It gets a bit repetitive and feels like you’re shoving it down people’s throats, but the alternative is to let it remain stagnant. I wonder, if as the father of a daughter, it became more important to you as she got older. I’m working on a theory that part of the progressiveness we’ve seen in the US in the past two decades has resulted from parents actively working to change the world we live in for their own children–e.g., feminist principles becoming more important for a man who has a daughter, gay and lesbian rights becoming more important to parents of gay children who felt more comfortable coming out…Do you feel like your daughter has enhanced your role as a feminist? Trump is an asshole. I like asshole because it’s an equal opportunity insult ;-).
(This is probably going to get a bit lengthy for a blog comment, but I have thought about this for a bit.) The connection between language and power is something I don’t think is understood by enough people and it is something that drives me a bit nutty. Since I end up teaching a number of novels with “offensive” language in them, I spend lots of time discussing language and power with my students. I usually approach all of it using “bitch” as my example. Here’s a word that starts as a reference to a female dog and eventually morphs into an insult in which there is no male equivalent. A male student can call a female teacher a bitch and even though the teacher obviously holds the power in the relationship, the word has enough history, power, and threat that it can still turn the power dynamic upside down. There isn’t a word a student can call me because I am a white male in a society dominated by white males. The term can also be used within groups of females as a term of endearment or insult depending on how it is used. Once kids see how power and language work with this example it is easy to apply the same rules to other offensive words and most kids get it.
All of this language stuff started to impact me once I got married. My wife also teaches and being a teacher is much harder for women in our culture. I get asked to serve on committees, I’m given leadership roles, I get more pats on the back, and classroom management is 100 times easier for me because I’m a tall white dude. My wife is really good at what she does, but she has to work five times as hard as I do. If we weren’t both teachers I’d probably still think that there was a level playing field and that I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps and was just awesome. (The invisible knapsack essay also help me see this more clearly.)
Then I had a daughter. That really helped me turn the corner. She has turned out to be a real fireplug. She’s 18 now and doesn’t hesitate to challenge my thinking and language. I think we have always emphasized two things that I didn’t have to emphasize with my son: be strong, be independent. She is all that and a side order of protein bars. Her strength (physical and mental, she’s one of those crossfit nuts) is viewed so differently than if she were male. She is seen as bossy, but if she were a guy she would just be an Alpha-male who knows what he wants. Seeing how she is often treated has really opened my eyes. It has made me far more aware of how LBGT kids are treated and how language marginalizes all types of people who don’t fit the accepted power mode.
So, to shorten up my answer, yes, being a dad has made me see the world differently and has made me want to speak up when I notice the inequalities. It has also made me believe the answer to most of the world’s problems rests in empowering women. I don’t mean that in a “hey, I’m a feminist” kind of way, but the reality is that societies with equality are the most peaceful.
Sorry, I got a little carried away…
Thank you for that–it’s more honesty that I could naturally expect from someone I’ve actually never met ;-). I’m glad. I’m glad that being a father to a daughter had broadened your sense of equality and empowerment. I think that’s all we can ask for is progress—I know there were a lot of angry people out there who wanted a revolution, but I’ve said it before, the first people to be picked off in a revolution are the poor, the marginalised, women, and minorities. No thanks. Most of the time change happens somewhere in the middle, with a lot of compromise. And I think women are masters of compromise. I think we’ve had to compromise to ensure our survival for millennia. So is it too slow at times? Definitely. But as long as we keep moving forward I think that’s all we could ask for.
I’m glad you’re aware of the differences in the way you and your wife are treated. It’s my argument for why I support Hillary (beyond her just being NOT TRUMP). She’s had to work 5x as hard to get where she is. I honestly believe most men would not have still been standing if they’ve had to endure what she’s needed to put up with to get here. No, she’s not perfect and no, she hasn’t made the right decision every single time she’s needed to make a decision (why do we all of a sudden think that a politician has to have made the exact right decision at every, single point in their live to earn our vote???), but I respect the fact that she’s still standing. Like your wife.
Keep on moving forward. Just think how amazing your grandchildren will be 🙂
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As a father to several daughters, a husband to a smart and very capable wife, as a son to a hard-working woman who overcame displacement, family loss and personal tragedy, as a brother-in-law to some magnificent women who are breaking barriers and showing what excellence looks like, yeah, it’s about time. In our household, doing something “like a girl” is a compliment. As a Canadian, if it wasn’t for our female athletes, we wouldn’t have much to celebrate at the Olympics. That said, the NBC coverage of the Olympics, especially the way the various commentators talked about the female athletes, harkens back to the 1950’s. Fortunately the Canadian media coverage has been somewhat more up to date in terms of referencing the women as athletes first. Not perfect, but other than the occasional slip-up, I didn’t have to grind my teeth every few minutes.
Doing it “like a girl” is actually desirable. I am currently going through a rather frustrating search for women workers for my contracting business. There are a few women in the construction trade, but ‘way too few. I’ve put out the word to friends, acquaintances, hiring associations, manpower centers, and so far have found too few that were interested. I’ve come across some contractor company owners who are women, but they usually either work by themselves, or have guys working for them. Dagnabit, why is it so hard to find women who want to work in construction?! Oh, and why am I looking for women workers? Because if they are anywhere like my various family members, they can DO ANYTHING, they have excellent common sense, and they think on the job. Something that the younger macho guys don’t do as well. So if you or any of your readers know of such women workers, let me know what would be important to them to be attracted to the business as a workplace.
One of my daughters is really good with her hands, loves getting into building stuff, and would perhaps be a natural in the business, but she discovered that she loves math, and I’m encouraging her to go as far as her interest and enthusiasm take her. She’s creating her own opportunities, and who knows where those will lead. Do it “like a girl”, and know no limits.
So Dina, how are your boys doing?
Paul, I always enjoy your thoughtful comments–they’re a pleasure for me, as writer, to read! Thank you. I think men and fathers in particular play an ENORMOUS role in all of this, in actions, words, language–everything really. You know, I always expected I would have girls. I looked forward to raising these strong, independent, kick-ass feminists who knew no bounds. I should have known I would have boys–it took me a long time to realise that the most feminist thing I could do in this world is to raise boys–future men–to view girls and women as their equals. Do I fail miserably at it in some small way every day? Of course. But I’m fighting the long game here and I hope that in the end the ‘battlefield’ will be cleared and we’ll all stand as equals. I’ve married a man who is on board 100% and constantly reminds the boys that they need to look at the world beyond them as well to see where inequality lay. Like you’re doing. So, keep up the good work!
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