How Feminists Change the Existing Language Vocabulary
Language is a system of verbal, written, and somatic communication through which ideas are transmitted. When language is used correctly, it can be a helpful tool for channeling ideas and understanding unfamiliar perspectives to encompass a greater awareness of ourselves and others. Presently, our language is at a watershed moment — mankind has abused the language system and squandered its serviceability. The terminology for sex, gender, and sexuality have been used interchangeably and been treated as mutually exclusive categories. These terms, however, should not be thought of as independent of one another, but closely intertwined. Feminist scholars are confronting this oppositional and phallocentric language, which subverts women and maintains the male-dominated lingual structure. It is critical to interrogate what these terms mean and how feminists have challenged the existing oppressive modes of thought to express a more fluid and capacious vocabulary.
Conventional gender attitudes enforced the idea that men are supposed to behave in a hyper-masculine manner and any display of behavior considered feminine would not mean they are not a man. The phrase “blue is for boys and pink is for girls” is one of the first ways we teach children from an early age about gender stereotypes, but this has not always been the case. Before World War II, girls usually wore blue, while boys mainly were dressed in pink; and dressing children in colors such as white was common long before the current association was established. The overarching thought of the time was, “If we dress our girls more like boys and less like frilly little girls . . . they are going to have more options and feel freer to be active”. When interacting with babies, the gender-color association has conditioned us to use code-switching. We use a different tone of voice, hold them differently, and interact with them in discrete ways based on their attire. Furthermore, Beauvoir argues, “So not every female human being is necessarily a woman; she must take part in this mysterious and endangered reality known as femininity. Is femininity secreted by the ovaries?”. Beauvoir believes that within a patriarchal culture, women are considered the “other” — or everything a man is not. Gender is not an essential characteristic of a person, but something one becomes through socialization.
Enter into any toy store in America and you will observe a striking divide: the side of one aisle is decorated with pink, lacy dresses and barbies, while the opposite side is dominated by various shades of blue, engulfed by the imagery of footballs and action figures. “Boyish” toys(i.e. monster trucks, toy guns, and Legos) encourage authority, competition, and supremacy which promotes boys to assert dominance over girls. But “girly” toys (i.e. dollhouses, make up, and Hello Kitty) consistently encourage caring and cooperation, which are thought to be compliant behaviors that make girls easier to control and exploit. The father, through fear and the embodiment of toxic-masculinity, teaches their sons to aspire to a “manly-man” and not to play with “girl” toys because he sees women as the weaker sex. The father teaches girls to be approval seeking individuals and to cater to the fragile male ego. Despite that, this shifting of the paradigm is not an incidental deviation in American culture. The recent coupling between gender and particular colors led to orthodox gender roles and conformity to these values. We should ask ourselves, what if in raising children we focus on interest instead of gender.
The shifting attitudes in how we attribute specific colors to gender may seem momentous for the gender equality movement, but their underlying after-effects still linger. The gender-color incident has raised the issue of gender stereotyping in American society. During the early stages of childhood development, children become acutely aware of what is appropriate for “boys” and “girls” through our culture’s emphasis on gender. From a very young age, boys are taught to be afraid of fear, weakness, and vulnerability. Boys are discouraged from expressing emotions and are taught to mask their true selves and to become stoic and phlegmatic. Girls are taught to obsess over body image by shrinking themselves and to be less ambitious than their male counterparts in order to make the man feel his place as the breadwinner is not threatened. The teachings that women must dress a certain way and cover themselves to manage the appetites of men are regressive because they insinuate men have a lack of self-control and act impulsively, and conveys to women who do not follow these standards that they are asking to be sexually assaulted. This notion degrades and humiliates women and leads men to legislate control over women’s bodies.
The differences between men and women are biological facts, but for women, the bedrock of their identity begins with their anatomy. Therefore, a woman is a sexual object, a body whose sole purpose is to reproduce. A woman’s identity is not somehow rooted in nature, and Adichie sums this notion up quite nicely by stating “Some people will bring up evolutionary biology and apes — how female apes bow to male apes — that sort of thing. But the point is this: we are not apes. Apes also live in trees and eat earthworms. We do not”. The man perceives the woman as fundamentally different; women are diminished to the status of the second sex. Men root women in nature and this can be traced back to early studies of sperm and egg cells. The sperm cell was identified as penetrating the female egg, thus man is the active principle while the woman is the passive principle.
The world is filled with powerful women and with men and women who do not respect powerful women. This is because “women have been so conditioned to think of power as male and that a powerful woman is an aberration”. Women who detest calling themselves feminists the kinds of women are known to embrace a poisonous ideology known as feminist lite. They are double agents of the patriarchy — a wolf in sheep’s clothing — who is still pushing the patriarchal narrative out into the world and benefitting, profiting off, and selling it to other women. Furthermore, this type of woman is known as “Daddy’s Girl, always tense and fearful, uncool, unanalytical, lacking objectivity, appraises Daddy … [she] accepts the male definition of himself as superior, as a female, and of herself, as inferior, as a male, which, thanks to Daddy, she really is”. Solanas recognizes women can be their own worst enemy and they can hold the proverbial cards only to deal against themselves, or as Madeleine Albright put it, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Some women seem ambivalent about feminism because their divergence falls outside of historical fact. Marginalized groups assume their identity in acknowledgment of racial differences rather than the man/woman binary. The biological need for sexual desire, the fact that women live in scattered groups among men and not in segregated communities, have not emancipated women. Beauvoir argues that women are sometimes duplicitous in their Otherness because their enslavement is convenient and they can deduce fulfillment alongside men.
Americans today have corrupted language. They have advanced a primitive and fear-based system of categorization, to a point that is beyond tolerable, one which prevents people, regardless of gender, from having the liberty and agency to be who they want to be. Luckily, feminism is our instrument which we can use to gauge systems of oppression and dismantle barriers. Feminism isn’t dogma, it’s a toolkit that teaches us how to think instead of what to think.