Posted by Pattie on 11/17/2002 09:55:00 AM

...continued from Friday, more sociology.

English reflects the history of patriarchy as well. Much has been done in the past 50 years to critique the ways in which English supports the idea of men being "normal" and women being "other." But much of the patriarchal roots remain. English itself is sexist. (So are many other languages, BTW, but I'll limit myself to English-speaking cultures because it is the language I speak and the language in which the blogs in question were written.) Enlgish also privileges European history and philosophy over other cultures, even when those cultures now use English. For example, many commonwealth countries in Africa and Asia have traditional cultures that cannot be spoke of easily in the imperial language of English because their philosophy is holistic and their concept of time is circular while English is dualistic and its concept of time is linear.

One last concept and then I will get to my point. When we speak or write English we are acting. By that I mean that the usual dichotomy of speech and action is a false dichotomy. Speech (and by implication writing) is an activity. This is important because it means that speaking or writing sexist language is an act of sexism.


If English reflects a sexist history and culture, and speaking English is an act, then it becomes difficult to talk without acting sexist. This is not an excuse for those who say sexist things or present sexist images. The implication of this statement is quite the opposite. Language is evolutionary. It reflects changes in culture as well as preserves the history of a culture. For sexism (or any other "ism" in our cultural history) to change will require a mindfulness about speech. Thus, it becomes extremely important to challenge sexist language whenever and wherever it occurs. It can change.

One of the culture shocks I've had since moving to Canada (where not all but most of the people speak English) is that people in airports and banks automatically call me "Mrs." instead of "Ms." It drives me crazy because I kept my maiden name and Mrs. Thomas is my mother, not me. It also drives me crazy because its the 21st century and I'm not alone in my desire to assert my own name and my own personhood. But I am reminded that "Ms." was a change in American culture that has only happened in my lifetime. It wasn't even a word when I was born. It is a small change to be sure, but even in the deep south, it was never assumed that I would want to be called "Mrs." and it was considered polite since the 70s to use "Ms." as the default until otherwise told.

But that was language about gender identify. Language about sex is much more difficult to address. In fact, engaging in sexual relations between men and women is difficult to negotiate in a sexist world for men and women alike. I've been in a monagamous relationship for almost 12 years now and sex is still difficult to negotiate at times without sexist contexts creeping in even with someone I consider one of the most enlightened men I know.

This mindfulness about language leads to two important strategies in addressing sexism.

1. Concentrating on who is sexist or which representation is sexist misses the point. A picture isn't sexist because of what is in the picture. In one context the form of a naked woman can be a beautiful representation of the female body, celebrating her personhood as well as her physicality. In another context, the exact same picture can be meant to degrade women and their place in the world. Images of the goddess Venus is a perfect example of this. Venus has come to represent sexual freedom to many women, the ability to chose one's lovers and to express one's sexuality. However, (and I searched but was not able to find the image and I can't remember the artist's name) a reproduction of a nude painting of a reclining venus used to hang over the bar of an Irish pub that I used to frequent. It was not there for its art value, but for the enjoyment of drunk men and I suffered through a couple of pick-up lines that involved that painting. Sexism occurs in the interaction, not merely in the intention of the speaker or writer (or poster of an image). This means that feedback to a speaker is a legitimate part of the process. Both speaker and listener can confront and negotiate the meaning of words and images. Agreeing to disagree is, of course, an option, but if sexism in English is to change, one would hope that new ways of speaking might emerge from the negotiation. Certainly, though, accusations and censorship will not result in those changes. If the conversation proceeds on the level of "You're a sexist pig" "That's not what I meant and you know it." Then nothing really changes. But men and women discussing sexist contexts and alternatives to sexist language has a great deal of potential. (see the comments at Tish's and follow her links to some great discussions along this line)

2. We must mindfully create other language for sexual expression. That might involve creating new words. It might involve reclaiming old expressions. This mindful creation will need the cooperation of others. I think poetry is probably the best way this can happen. Poems use old words in new ways.

I guess my point is that it is pointless to worry about who is sexist and who isn't because even the best of intentions are filtered through English. There are people who will not negotiate meaning with their readers. They will argue and defend their positions without consideration for what their words do to reproduce hardship on others. I walk away from those people. They are not ready to work it out and their rigidity just plain hurts me. But there are others where the effort of negotiation leads to new and wonderful things. That's where the fun begins.

I guess this is an odd conclusion to come to after all this writing. I think there was something else I was going to say, but I can't remember what it was now. It is hard when words speak through us and does and says things we don't intend. Tish said just a few minutes ago:

"It seems I wrote something a while back that someone took a certain way. In a way that I did not intend. But I can see how it was taken that way. I guess. At first I thought about writing to the person to try and clear things up. Then I thought about taking a break from blogging. Then I thought about leaving my writing program and finding a convent, or ashram, or something, where I could take a vow of silence and give up on trying to use language at all. Ever. Then I thought ... aw.....what the fuck. Sometimes you write something and it hits the mark. Sometimes people just slide past each other. "

I think that sums up the problems with language well.