By Liz Greene
It’s one of the few things that makes me feel like a bad feminist — I am a terrible abuser of the expression, “you guys.” “Dude”, “man”, and “brah” also come out of my mouth way more than I’d like to admit. I’ve been trying to erase these phrases from my vocabulary for a while, but I can tell you in all honesty, it’s no easy feat. However, the soft sexism implicit in these expressions is what motivates me to keep trying.
As difficult as it may be to change our language, it’s something we should all be focused on. What may surprise you is that masculine generics actually play a part in some of the most heinous forms of sexism women face. This includes (but is obviously not limited to) the fact that:
- Women run only 30 percent of the world’s businesses, and only 5 percent of the largest ones.
- On average, women are paid approximately 72 percent of the salary men receive for identical or similar jobs. For women of color, the wage gap is much wider.
- 65 percent of all women had experienced street harassment.
- Women are far more likely than men to be victims of sexual assault and rape. 82 percent of all juvenile victims are female. 90 percent of adult victims are female.
- 1 in 3 women have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
- 72 percent of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner; 94 percent of the victims of these murder suicides are female.
You’re no doubt asking how these seemingly innocuous expressions could have anything to do with the pressing issues mentioned above, especially when it’s evident that this kind of language is meant to be conversational and good-natured. Well, it all hinges on the English language being built on implicit “maleness” — and how very few people ever question it.
Let’s start with a few examples. There are occupations (congressman, mailman, policeman), verbs (to man something), nouns (manpower, man hours), adjectives (man-made) — hell, even the human race is regularly referred to as mankind. Many of us live in a country where children are taught that “all men are created equal.” Though it seems harmless, this male-centric language effectively make women invisible. Male-based generics both indicate and reinforce the system in which men are the “default” version of humanity and women are simply a subcategory. It reveals the inequality inherent in our society and continually reminds half of humanity that they are seen as inferior.
A recent study out of the School of Psychological Sciences at Tel Aviv University found that when men and women were asked to complete an assessment of self-efficacy (a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task), the women reported lower self-efficacy than men when filling out the masculine-generic form of the questionnaire than when they filled out the gender-neutral form of the same questionnaire.
The women also reported higher intrinsic goal orientation and higher task value when answering questionnaires written in gender-neutral form. The research demonstrated that women can more readily identify with statements that refer to both genders, as they are better able to envision themselves in said situations. The men, however, scored about the same on either form — which is no real surprise.
All those masculine generics — which continue to be said multiple times daily by billions of people — only serve to erase women from the human narrative. If history has taught us anything, it’s that making a group invisible makes it easier for those in positions of power to trample on their rights. And, as any woman can tell you, far too many men are doing just that — if not outright assaulting women.
If you can recognize the link between calling women “sluts” and “whores” and men’s sexual violence toward women, then you should be able to see that by using language to make women a “subgroup” of men, it turns them into objects. And when women are reduced to objects, they can be ignored, condescended to, beaten, raped, and murdered with nary a consequence.
Still not convinced? Before you dismiss this whole thing as being politically correct nonsense, consider philosopher Douglas Hofstadter’s 1985 article, “A Person Paper on Purity in Language.” His parody drew an analogy between racist and sexist language by creating an imaginary world where lingual generics were based on race rather than gender.
In Hofstadter’s world, people used words such as “chairwhite”, “spokeswhite”, and “policewhites.” They greeted each other as a “you whiteys,” and talked of the achievements of “whitekind”. Of course, in this world, people of color were linguistically erased — just as women are when masculine generics benefit from continued usage. By substituting “white” for “man” Hofstadter made it easy to see why using “man” for all human beings is wrong, and underscored how ludicrous it is to expect all genders to feel included by specifically masculine generics.
Language is far more powerful than most people realize. When the words we use are sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, or xenophobic, they reinforce the idea that it’s completely acceptable to act on them. We can use words as a tool to either maintain the status quo, or to move forward as a society and create a new reality. It’s time to drop masculine generics and start being more inclusive in our language. Only then can we truly begin dismantling sexism.
Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.