Mind Your Language

'Political Correctness gone mad' is considered the ultimate insult whenever a feminist dares to speak up about language. Sarah Louisa Phythian-Adams isn't scared off though: she argues that we need to question and challenge the words we use now more than ever.

Sarah Louisa Phythian-Adams, 8 January 2007

"Mind that person-hole!," the office clown quips. It's a tired old attempt at humour, the kind of humour that's rolled out in easy dismissal of the threat of a conversation about their conversation.

Then someone laughs about replacing all of the 'mailman' with 'postal delivery operatives' and everyone is having fun and bonding, male and female colleagues united in their dislike for this unfashionable and totally out of touch 'PC lark'. And the moment has gone, the moment to just stop and consider why it isn't OK to throw away comments like 'girls' when addressing a group of women, all of whom were over the age of eighteen and all of whom were qualified, capable, productive employees.

To many feminists, the subject of language is a familiar one and perhaps even considered 'old ground' little worth a revisit, but of late, I've been increasingly shocked by the continual decline in the way we as a culture choose to talk about women, the terms we accept and even use ourselves and the impending sense of an ever downward spiral. I therefore believe that the language we use - or rather the language we choose not to question - needs to be put unashamedly back on our feminist agendas.

I've been increasingly shocked by the way we talk about women

Perhaps some of you reading are thinking - is she mad? The last thing we want is to step back into the lip service days of minding our Ps and Qs... Or perhaps more people than I dare to imagine have spent some time absorbing the kind of MTV language that's now common currency amongst our younger sisterhood. For most, the next two paragraphs of warbling about NLP (bear with me) will be old hat, but for some of my niece's generation, I fear, it will be news.

During my 6th form years, I was lucky enough to attend a series of talks on the subject of NLP, or Neuro Linguistic Programming. Being a young feminist I was particularly engaged by the consideration of gendered language and the idea of a future without it. The lecturer, whose name I have sadly lost to time, but whose ideas so inspired me, foresaw a radical change in the way our language would evolve as women increasingly moved into higher profiles in the public arena.

But here I am, some 15 years later, shocked not by the radical pace of change, but by the lack of it.

For those who are unfamiliar - NLP, although sounding very grand, boils down to a simple principle: what we say (and do) generates a feedback loop to what we think, that again effects what we say (and do), etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum...

Of course, it's a reasonable hypothesis; a culture's language is a living thing and therefore a dynamic reflection of what that culture has to say and a culture will only use words it feels has relevance to what it wants to say and hey presto.

what we say affects what we think, which affects what we say, ad infinitum

And revisiting this, my views on language haven't changed much since then. I still agree that it starts with the basics and works up. 'Man' the generic term for homosapians; Mankind, Men, Manmade, Manpower are all words that generalise the human race in male form... and I agree, it seems likely that we all internalise these uses but I'm still just flexible enough to accept that some things may have to be struck off to antiquity and this might just be one of them.

This aside though, according to numerous contemporary pieces of research, we still have deeply engendered ideas about some occupations. Some that have been particularly highlighted are Nurse/ Male nurse; Model/ Male Model; Policeman/ WPC; Actor/ Actress, Host/ Hostess... and my favourite of all: Air hostess... and erm: Air steward!?

Admittedly some things have moved on; at the time of first learning about this issue, I can also still remember that in my local GPs surgery the GPs were referred to as 'the doctors' except for one - 'the Lady doctor'. I'm glad to say that at least this quaint little gem has bitten the dust, but many of the other usual suspects still retain their time wearied connotations - Master/Mistress, Bachelor/Spinster, Freshman/Freshwoman, Governor/Governess, Patron/Matron, Sir/Madam, Wizard/Witch... and I have to say, for every tiny victory there seems to be a landslide slip elsewhere.

in this brave new world of modern language people get 'bitch slapped' and 'pimped'

The landslide I'm talking about is the MTV language of a generation that seem to believe they already have equality and think Feminism is what Germaine Greer from Big Brother used to do back in the 70's when it was fashionable. In this brave new world of modern language people get 'bitch slapped' and 'pimped', they 'squeal like a bitch' or moan like one and 'erotic' is the new word for any kind of sexual practice that departs from that terribly old fashioned idea of love-making, even when this borders on abuse. And with these new extremes, the middle has started to bend toward the old extremes as the drip, drip, drip effect compiles this new and 'exiting' language into the collective unconscious and we all start to internalise ever more misogynistic lingo.

A few hours of TV - the kind that excuses its language as that of its target (the 18-24 year old male), but is happy to admit that its audience is actually a more general 12-34 - churns out a conveyor belt of derogatory terms, so much so that you lose the will to count. They are of course, most often engendered to women: slag, bitch, slapper, bimbo, whore, hussy, tart, old biddy, total crone, etc. Although I have noticed that the last two are especially reserved for the impudent recurrence of Madonna, a woman who should, according to those who are the experts (and by this I mean radio DJs and TV presenters), know when to give up.

If you're cool you're a 'dog' and any woman is a 'bitch' or a 'ho', especially if you're a pimp, when she's not just a bitch but YOUR bitch. But if they're attractive - they might be fit mooses. (Yes, that is moose with a double plural) and let's not forget those who happen to be married to or dating some male celebrity, who are of course now one of the WAGs.

almost anything can become an insult if you add 'like a girl' to the end of it

In media land, one TV presenter will bullishly joke 'stop being such a big girl' and think nothing of accusing another of doing XYZ 'like a girl'. In fact, almost anything can become an insult if you add 'like a girl' to the end of it. Which they do frequently: even the girls.

Indeed, the word 'Girl' is now more loaded than ever. A sign in the street saying 'girls, girls, girls...' has an unmistakable meaning - and it certainly won't be pointing you to the 'My little Pony' section of a toy shop. Soft porn channels promise you 'all girl action', and girls of the Playboy mansion epitomise, MTV style, what it is to be an empowered 'girl'. And I outright reject their pedalling of femininity as some narcissistic absorption with a highly sexualised appearance, subjugating these 'girls' even in name as a function of men's consumption (Playboy bunnies/ Playboy playmates!)

No wonder some young women rile against being classed 'a girl' - it's basically an insult. These young women, who are the ones really absorbing this new language, seem to be faced with an extreme dichotomy of choice: Pussy Cat Doll or wannabe bloke. And this view has become so acceptable, that it spawned an entire chocolate ad campaign - "Yorkie - It's not for girls!" (girls meaning women in general). And the reason? Not much more justification than we can't understand the offside rule in football.

But can you imagine if a chocolate bar company chose any other demographic group and spoke of them in such diminutive terms? Can you imagine a chocolate bar 'it's not for blacks' campaign? You would expect a public outcry right? A rejection of that chocolate bar by discerning consumers in society? Well perhaps if a chocolate bar company was ever foolish enough to do that. Unfortunately, picking out 'girls' isn't quite the same, perhaps because the cause isn't so trendy. In fact, quite the opposite, the cause of the oppressed male seems to be: oppressed by political correctness apparently, and they want 'something just for them' (Nestle spokesman words not mine). What - like power and influence in the political, corporate and public arena? Yes, but they want the chocolate bar as well - and of course, far from there being an outcry, sales of Yorkie reportedly went up by a third.

I fear without a better challenge, gendered stereotypes will only be reinforced

To be honest, I'm not surprised by this, nor by my twelve year old Neice's disparate reactions to their culture - one who actively pursues the Pussy Cat Doll stereotype and one that desires to be the antithesis. They are equally products of the misogynistic media and language we all accept and I fear without a better challenge, gendered stereotypes will only be reinforced and the situation will continue to worsen as this tendency to bend women to a culture shaped by men and men's desires spirals beyond our influence.

In fact, the only time its OK to be a 'girl' is when she's a sexual object - which is also 'empowering'. However, don't be fooled, this is far from a celebration of female sexuality, merely more of the same old male-propagated sex; objectification shrouded in an excuse of empowerment. The same power women have always had: to be a male-defined sex object. And the worst crime you can commit as a woman is not to be attractive or at least seek to be attractive according to their definition. 'Kangorillapigs' are not wanted.

And while you may raise a sly chuckle at the thought of someone you don't like for whom you think this might be a fitting insult (which for me would be the originator of the word, a radio 1 DJ called Chris Moyles) you still have to put it into context. A Kangorillapig is an unattractive woman, and in the world of this particular radio 1 DJ, means she is therefore inconsequential. She will be held up to ridicule and abuse no matter what her role. For example, the same radio 1 DJ oh so cleverly changed the name of the all girl group 'the sugarbabes' to the 'sugar-mingers' and popularised the infamous alcohol scale, where 'birds' are '5 pinters', '10 pinters' or anything in between depending on how many drinks you (a blokey bloke) would need 'to shag 'em'.

complaints are dismissed as more 'moaning' from 'The Feminists'

And if you're thinking about complaining about this language, do expect a stock reply from the BBC citing this particular DJ's 'overwhelming popularity'. Although in this case Mr Chris Moyles does give the odd on air mention back to these complaints as more 'moaning' from 'The Feminists'. Emphasis on the 'the', so as to reinforce the 'them and us' mentality that seems to grant him a free license with popularising his own pseudo-youth culture brand of misogyny. I would be interested to hear the reaction to him using divisive phrasing like 'the Blacks', 'the Asians' or 'the Jews', but I don't think this will ever happen, as 'political correctness gone mad', the pat phrase for being able to peddle misogyny, is mostly reserved for language abuse toward women.

In fact, the only heartfelt discussion of gendered language I've heard on television in the last few years was about the term 'Housewife' - spurred on I believe by that gem of televisual programming 'Anthea Turner's good Housewife'. The discussion sadly wasn't about whether or not women should aspire to be 'a good housewife' in a society that has supposedly been freed from the bondage of domestic tyranny, but about whether 'housewife' as a word was a bit passé and if culturally, we should find a new term for it, something far less loaded like (their suggestion) Domestic Goddess!!!?

Furthermore, some words, like 'empowering', once the reserve of positivist feminism have been well and truly taken to the dark side, now rarely used in media conversation attached to anything other than excuses. Once upon a time women were empowered to vote, empowered to enter the workplace, empowered to stand up to oppression. Now pole dancing is empowering. Low budget Porn, anal double dogging is empowering. Vibrating on MTV like a red-bottomed monkey in a thong is empowering. So empowering that as long as yours cheeks are to the camera, who cares about your face... it literally doesn't even come into the picture. How much more empowering do you want?

But of course the reality of study after study into the seedy underbelly of lap dancing and strip joints reveals inextricable links with hard core porn, prostitution, people trafficking and drugs. How disempowered must we actually be to instead buy into this 'empowering' crap. That's the power of language, say it enough and it must be true.

Once upon a time women were 'empowered' to vote, 'empowered' to enter the workplace, 'empowered' to stand up to oppression

Perhaps we need empowering to speak our minds? If the kind of responses I'm used to are anything to go by. I've even been accused of 'despising femininity' and wanting to 'turn women into blokes'.

If I despise anything, it's the one-dimensionalising of femininity into an infantilised, highly explicit form of sexual objectification. And if the language we use could in anyway be influencing this, then I will continue to bring it up - even at the risk of accusations of 'pc gone mad'.

How can we accept that we have a situation of 'PC gone mad' where women are concerned, when TV is filled with stereotypes and labels that have become increasingly loaded or reduced to a base core? NOT objecting to cultural input - music videos, television programming and mass media that unashamedly use these labels - right down to and including the minor suspects like 'babe', 'chick' or 'doll', makes us complicit in giving our culture willing permission to infantilise, to see 'girls' as lesser, to treat us as lesser.

If ever you wanted an attitude barometer on our slip in language - just look at the number of young women who once again insist on being titled 'Miss'. 'Ms' is now even considered 'silly' by a good proportion and I had a long discussion with a graduate student only a few years back on why women ever adopted the designate 'Ms'. Despite all of my best protestations, her barrier to understanding and deciding comment was simply, 'well how else will people know whether or not you're married?'

not objecting makes us complicit

At time of writing the media spotlight is back on 'Single mothers' with Tony Blair jumping back on that old chestnut of singling out those we should all point at and despise and blame for the woes of society. Mr Blair to the rescue - saving these silly single mothers from themselves with his own version of a super nanny state. And whether or not he chooses to use the more politically correct term 'single parent', which pays heed to the minority of male single parents, it is still reported in the news interchangeably with 'single mothers', lest we forget the natural order of blame.

I'm sure at some point you've asked yourself why the problems of a generation of ASBO children should be blamed on the 'single mother', when most of the literature you will find seems to suggest that anti-social behavioural problems are far more likely to have arisen through the absence of the father. In short, it's far from a problem of having a singular mother (for most of us have just one) - she's the one that's stuck around! But rather than base the issues around 'absentee fathers' and find ourselves with an uncomfortable premise of male culpability, our language quite naturally lends itself to inverting the problem and focusing it back on the women. The problem of ASBOs is now nicely the problem of 'Single mothers' - and not 'Absentee fathers'. The power of the language we use is astounding.

Then there is of course the newest of derogatory phrases 'Older mothers'. In fact I stumbled onto a conversation only last week on a fan forum of a large rock group between a group of young women between 17-21 who expounded the general view that these were the scourge of modern society. And from my observations this passive acceptance and proliferation of baseless MTV style sound bite stereotypes seems to have replaced the desire for vocal objective reasoning amongst our younger sisterhood and we need put the fire back.

just because someone is free to say something, doesn't mean that it's necessarily right

I'm not just standing on my soap box and having a go at MTV, being a bitter old biddy whinging about youth culture. As a long-time fan of all things music, I spend a large proportion of my time watching these channels. It's just unfortunate that my music choice comes with a complimentary (compulsory) side order of Misogyny.

I'm also not asking to ban some uses of language, but simply to re-attach the consequences. To re-establish the questioning philosophy that just because someone is free to say something, doesn't mean that it's necessarily right - and that you should be equally free to contest it. We need to lead by example, rejecting the idea that because we raise the issue of language, doesn't mean it's OK to label us as overly censorial overreactionists that exist on the fringes of society.

We need to get to a point where the MTV presenter being accused of throwing/running/crying like a girl will say: 'What do you mean I throw like a girl? Are you saying that girls can't throw things, just by virtue of having two X chromosomes?'

In this culture of increasing linguistic misogyny, we need to get active again - so go on, next time you hear something you don't like - complain! Add to the voices of dissention and make those in the media who feel they have a free reign to spread their anti-women mirth responsible for their bigotry once more. It's not PC gone mad, it's our right!

Below is a list of email addresses or links I have used. (Although don't be surprised if some of them take several months to respond to you.)

About the author

Sarah Louisa Phythian-Adams

Sarah Louisa Phythian-Adams is a graduate of Economics, MBA and part qualified Actuary, who runs her own business in creative IT consultancy.

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