by Bethany Fischer
When someone is told to “stop being such a sissy,” they are being told to toughen up, because being a “sissy,” is weak. When they are told to “throw harder, you throw like a girl,” they are hearing “you’re not performing well enough.” When someone is upset, they are patronized with “don’t get your panties in a wad,” meaning they should calm down, and not be so emotional.
These statements have one thing in common: They are well known phrases of passive-aggressive criticism and are subtle examples of how language considered “feminine” can be used as an insult. Being a sissy is lame because it means being like a girl and being like a girl is a bad thing. Don’t throw like a girl, because girls are weak. Girls are slower and weaker and being like them is a bad thing. Don’t be emotional; emotions are the ceremonious “panties” you should un-wad because panties are girly and being “girly” is a bad thing.
Countless phrases like the those mentioned litter the English language and have for generations, and the influence is pervasive throughout modern American culture. What is most concerning is the effect our female opposed language has on young girls, who are affectionately called “doll” or “sweetheart.” These words emphasize fragility and artificial sweetness, while boys are dubbed “big guys” and “champs.” When a little boy is complimented, he is told that he is “strong,” or a “lady killer.” But, when a little girl is complimented, she is as pretty as a princess, or cute as a button. These are superficial compliments about parts of her that have nothing to do with who she is, or what she can do.
I see this imbalance in my own life with my two-year-old niece, Ava. She has a male step cousin who is one year older than her. I hear the way some people speak to him, praising him when he does something kind or celebrating him when he says something smart. Then, I hear the way they speak to Ava, adoring her beautiful blonde hair and striking blue eyes. I think she is beautiful, too, but she is so much more than that. When she is praised, it’s for being “sweet,” or when she is being scolded, it’s for being “bossy.” But, when her cousin stands up for himself, he’s praised for being a man. Of course, I want Ava to be sweet, and I want her to be kind, and there are many times that she is praised for something other than her femininity, but I can’t help but feel that the times that she isn’t are damaging.
This type of stereotypical language tells girls that being a woman is somehow wrong, or not as good as being a man. A girl’s only asset is how she looks, or that she needs caring for. When she does assert herself, she risks being seen as disruptive or impolite. She is put back in her place as being less than a man when she dares to step outside of gender norms. Being masculine means being strong and successful.
Thankfully, there is now a voice taking on the misogyny that still lingers like bad smell in our culture. Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have brought not only sexual assault and harassment to the forefront of mainstream politics and new cycles, but also the sexist rhetoric that keeps this oppression relevant. We are seeing change in the way jobs are bring described; instead of a “policeman,” we have “police officers.” Instead of a “stewardess,” we have “flight attendants.” Even waiters and waitresses are exchanging their gender assigning titles for a more neutral label, a “server.” And it’s not stopping there. Sexual Harassment in the workplace is now being extended past groping and aggressive, unwanted advances, and includes more micro-aggressive actions, such as unwanted hugging and touching, use of demeaning pet names, and lewd comments that perpetuate unfair sexual stereotypes. New York recently passed legislation that requires employers to provide sexual harassment training, and many states are following suit.
This new awareness of the oppressive parts of our language opens a door for women to explore industries that normally belong to men. In fact, we are seeing an explosion of female influence on our culture right now. Pop music icons like Beyoncé, Rhianna, and Taylor Swift top the charts for most successful entertainers of 2019, and up and commers like Lizzo are breaking more musical records as the weeks go by. J.K Rowling has remained one of the world’s wealthiest women for years and is one of the most influential authors of the 21st century. Women are even making huge strides in industries that have poor female employment statistics. Katie Bouman is being credited for her massive influence in modern astrophysics, when she led the development for an algorithm known as CHIRP. This allowed scientists to reconstruct an image of a black hole, one of the most important scientific advancement in 2019. During the 2018 elections, 90 women were elected to various political offices around the country, such as Kristi Noem, who became South Dakota’s first female governor, and Marsha Blackburn was chosen as Tennesse’s first female senator, among so many others.
Imagine these women when they were small children, being showered with patronizing language. If you knew what these women were going to accomplish in the future, would you still use these phrases that diminish a girl’s potential? You wouldn’t be able to sit there and only acknowledge how “pretty” a young Bouman is when in a little over a decade, she would be making history in fields like astronomy and quantum physics.
What would happen if all young girls were raised in a language that uplifted, rather than restricted? Initiatives to increase female employment in STEM programs wouldn’t be needed because they would already be encouraged to do it themselves. It wouldn’t be a historic feat when many women are elected to office. Without misogyny laced throughout our language, perhaps movements like #MeToo wouldn’t even need to exist.
I will continue to be aware of how my language affects the people around me. My niece will grow up knowing that she is more than a “pretty princess.” I will make a point to tell her how smart, kind, strong, and how important she is. There is nothing wrong with embracing your femininity, but there is everything wrong with associating femininity with weakness. Our girls are given the short end of the stick when we place their worth in their beauty, but with a little bit of awareness, we can make sure that our language is not a contributing force.