IT’S NOT JUST A SAYING: THE POWER OF GENDER BIAS IN THE SPOKEN WORD

So, who isn’t familiar with the terms “—has got balls!”, “—is a pussy!”, “you hit like a girl!” or “chick flick”?  Unless you live under a rock, you probably hear at least one of these terms at least once a week.  But, has anyone ever really looked at their true meaning and what that says about our perspectives on women and men and the notion of femininity versus masculinity?  Outside of women’s advocacy groups and university courses, I’ll bet not.

Who is using these terms?  The answer is everyone.  This includes women as much as men.  In fact, most people don’t bat so much as an eye while using them or think that using them might be influencing and perpetuating particular ways of thinking.  If I had a nickel for every time I mentioned the importance of words, including phrases, and was told “Aw!  It’s just a saying!”, I would probably be on a paid vacation right now.  I think you know what I mean.  This does beg the question, however of how particular phrases turn into ‘sayings’.

When phrases that someone has said turn into words or phrases that many people, especially those in a particular region or culture reiterate, then it becomes an idiomatic expression (idiom) or slang termWikipedia defines an idiom as an expression consisting of a combination of words with a figurative meaning separate from the literal meaning of the words (http://en.wikipedia.org/Idiom).  An idiomatic expression differs from slang in that slang is usually a term that only a particular subculture or group can understand.  A slang term may exist as a real word (with a different meaning) or it may be made up to suit a circumstance.  In the first paragraph, all shown are slang terms and phrases.  Idioms have their origins in concrete things or circumstances.  For example, take the phrase “close but no cigar”.  This phrase evolved from the fact that carnivals had games of skill that used to hand out cigars as prizes.  If the contestant came close to hitting the target but did not hit it, that contestant did not win the cigar (Idioms and Phrases, http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com).  Most often, slang has no such clearly-derived origin.

An interesting aspect of North American culture today is that idioms are disappearing as fast as baby boomers are getting older while the use of slang as a type of mainstream communication is on the rise.  Of course, no one is saying that the use of idioms or slang terms is bad.  It is just important to be aware of their use and to fully realize the implications of their use.  Let me explain.

I was watching a movie the other day.  In it, one male character was speaking to another male character that was fearful or hesitant of something.  The first character ridiculed the so-called weaker character and called him a “pussy”.  As most know, this slang term refers to female genitalia.  So what does it mean when someone who appears emotional or fearful is called that?  Many people, consciously or not, would relate this lack of strength for want of a better term to something unwelcome and belonging to the female gender.  Likewise, if the phrase “you’ve got balls” is used in a situation where someone is being lauded for being courageous or brave, it would tend to make all listeners relate strength and goodness to male genitalia or the male gender.  The bottom line is that these terms, because they are so prevalent in modern society, have become infused with everyday life and lie underneath our consciousness.  We tend to say them in particular situations because our brains have made sense of how they should be used to get a particular point across.  We don’t police this rhetoric because we think it is just a saying and that it isn’t offending anyone or saying anything that is untrue.  We don’t relate them to their implications of use.  Those implications involve men/boys and women/girls viewing themselves in terms of these perspectives.  Females, if they use these terms, whether they know it or not, are saying they agree that showing emotion is weak and ‘less than’ whereas showing bravado or strength is ‘more than’ or better.  This idea of less than then tends to become transferred to the female gender or anyone who exhibits so-called feminine attributes while the idea of greater than or more is attributed the male gender or anyone who exhibits these traits.  The female attributes are seen as undesirable while the male the pinnacle to which all of us should strive.  Until we realize that all words, slang or not, have power and have real meaning, we will continue this unconscious gender labeling.

I know quite a few girls and women, for example, who are excellent softball players.  So, why is someone who can’t play ball well said to “throw like a girl”?  Since the use of these gender-specific terms doesn’t seem to be waning, it is ever more important for all of us to really think before we speak.  As discussed previously, idioms or ‘sayings’ originated from figurative meanings for particular cultures.  They were used and were handed down for centuries because they had real meanings attributed to them.  Generations used them without really knowing how they came about.  The same goes today for trendy slang terms and expressions.  These words have real meaning used within their context and have the power to effect how people see themselves and others.  Perspectives won’t change until we all see, understand, and respect this.

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