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.
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.