War of Words

'Feminism' 'Slut' 'Bitch': all powerful words evoking strong (mostly negative) reactions. Should we reclaim tainted words, or drop them for something less provocative? Kate Townshend discusses this question, and explains why the language we use to define ourselves - and allow others to use to define us - is still important to the feminist cause.

Kate Townshend, 16 November 2006

Mankind has made huge leaps in terms of gender equality this century.

...Or should that be humanity has made huge leaps? It's possibly a pedantic, some would argue even irrelevant point to make; but I believe that we can and should still be looking to language as one of the places where feminist ideologies do battle with the status quo. After all, we use words to control and quantify almost everything we do. Think about the difference between fucking and making love, murder and 'unlawful killing', feminism and... well feminism.

Lets start off with the big one then folks; as this very site nods to in its title, feminism is still a dirty word in some quarters. An admission of man-hating dysfunction, frigidity, anti-sex, anti-fun for joyless and embittered women, right? And of course, that old chestnut, the assumption that feminist and lesbian are interchangeable. As Ali G would say, we should all be trying feminism once 'even if we is drunk at a party, innit.' But to me, and I believe many other women feminism is about empowerment, friendship, freedom, an assertion of individuality and a possibility of another way of living. Much has been written about this issue; the unfortunate way feminism is seen by the world in general and what feminism actually represents. Most comments seem to boil down to pretty much the same thing: the word is broken and accordingly it either needs throwing away or replacing. It is, at the end of the day, only a word after all.

If we are afraid to define ourselves as feminists we have to ask the question, why?

Except that, saying 'only a word' is a bit like saying, hey... its only a nuclear warhead... what's the big deal? Words are important. There is a reason why propaganda plays an increasingly big part in today's global conflicts; as George and Tony are so fond of telling us we are engaged in a war of ideas, and when it comes to ideas, words matter. If we are afraid to define ourselves as feminists we have to ask the question, why? If we begin to fear the word as much as some men do then we accept its negative definition and lose sight entirely of its original joyous incarnation.

Who exactly are we allowing to define us here? As for giving the word up for lost, are we really so ready to abandon it? Can you imagine Christians forsaking the title Christianity for being just not cool enough or vegetarians re-branding themselves non-meat eating carnivores so as not to sound too different?

The struggle to preserve and reclaim the word against a tendency to dismiss and disable it is one clear example of exactly why we still need feminism. The word is ours, but this is one war of ideas that we are currently losing. We need to have the conviction in the word and what it stands for to announce ourselves as feminists proudly, and to ignore the numerous voices that seek to dismiss us as mere feminists.

we need to have the conviction and announce ourselves as feminists proudly

Of course, this is one of the reasons why words are so powerful, their ability to label, categorise and contain the diversity of humanity into neat, easy to understand groups. For women this used to come down to the virgin, mother, whore divide but in these enlightened times a whole slew of other categories have opened up... slut, single mother, yummy mummy, slag, slapper, mutton dressed as lamb, bitch, moose, skank. These are all words in current usage and they point to a continuing and alarming tendency to categorise women according to their sexual behaviour.

Nor is this a purely Western phenomena. In the Phillipines, for example, single, straight women are still likely to be taunted with the charming expression 'matandang dalaga' (old maid). Apparently, it is still reasonable to make a judgement on a woman's general worth in terms of who she is (or is not) sleeping with.

Much as I hate to hold up Big Brother as any kind of cultural yard mark, we were treated to a fairly graphic demonstration of this sexual language in action this summer. Amidst the allegations of 'mooses', 'slappers' and the dubiously complimentary 'top spec bitch' one story in particular stood out. Promotions girl Aislyne was widely dismissed as a worthless slag, largely because she had the temerity to walk around in a thong for much of her time in the house. As feminists we might be uncomfortable with her reasons for displaying so much flesh but surely we are duty bound to recognise and accept her choice to do so. What was really interesting about the debate surrounding Aislyne however was what simply was not said. Arguments in favour of and against her were along the lines of 'She is a slut because of x/y/z... she is not a slut because of x/y/x.' I'm willing to admit to a moment of hand-wringing despair during this. Did it really occur to so few people that even if Aislyne did make the choice to dress provocatively and sleep around perhaps that was less important than her kindness, warmth, humour and intelligence? The word slut is powerful as well as acceptable and tends to overshadow anything else that a woman might be. It would appear that we are still unable to view a sexual woman as anything other than a threat.

there is an alarming tendency to categorise women according to their sexual behaviour

That other cultural zeitgeist, Wikipedia, makes the grandiose if apparently foundless assertion that 'slut' is a word largely used by women against each other. Remember girls, we are in essence our own worst enemies, far too concerned with competition and jealousy to worry about sisterhood surely? To be a slut is to be dirty somehow, damaged goods with a lack of morality or self-worth. And what man would be interested in someone like that (for anything other than the obvious at least)? Whether you accept that slut is a word used as often by women as by men or not, what seems to matter here, regardless of who is using the word is what men think about 'sluts'. No woman could possibly want to be a slut because men might not want her anymore. The word is just a focal point for women's own insecurities right? We accept the word so we must accept its meanings.

Of course, not everyone does accept the word, but curiously enough in spite of its long history as a way to control and diminish women, it does not seem to be women's groups or feminists who are leading the rebellion against the negative connotations of the word. The book The Ethical Slut is written largely for the BDSM and polyamorous communities and proposes a definition of a 'slut' as someone who enjoys sex and potentially wishes to seek pleasure with multiple partners. Like the word 'feminism' then, perhaps we should be seeking not to destroy the word 'slut' (after all, how can an idea be destroyed?) but to collaborate with its reclamation. If language can be used as a tool for judgement then it can also be used as a tool to affect change. Perhaps we should be announcing ourselves as sluts as proudly as we announce ourselves as feminists.

That we talk about feminism at all is a crucial and continuing victory

The English language in general abounds with words whose meanings change in response to cultural and political shifts. But the truth is that both 'feminism' and the sexual slang that can stand against it are words that are not powerful and important purely in isolation. In order to effect a shift in the meaning of a particular word we need to use language in a more general sense to frame it. That we talk about feminism at all, that the debates still exist and are invigorated is a crucial and continuing victory. Male gaze has always positioned women as objects to be seen, decorative, visual creatures. Feminism and its associated movements announce women as creatures to be heard as well.

We may not always agree with each other, it may sometimes be a struggle to get people to listen, but in order to win this war of words we need to use them. To state it at its most simplistic, we need feminism in order to talk about feminism. We need to talk about it in order to practice it. And we need to practice it in order to actually affect the world with it. We stopped suffering in silence a long time ago. But now we might actually need to shout.

About the author

Kate Townshend

Kate Townshend is an English Literature graduate whose friends could accuse her of many things, but never of being at a loss for words.

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