Language, Gender, and Patriarchy

Hillary Smith

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At the Power and Privilege Symposium a few weeks ago, I attended a workshop on patriarchy and gendered language. It made me realize how casually people, including myself, use language that perpetuates a patriarchal system. We don’t even realize we are doing this because these concepts are so ingrained in our words and our speech. We don’t think about what we’re actually saying.

Take the phrase “you guys,” for example. That is a perfectly harmless phrase, right? It’s a casual form of acknowledgment among both females and males. But wait; if it’s a form of acknowledgment among both females and males, why does it only address males? Why isn’t it “you girls?” Well, think about how grossly wrong it would feel if someone came up to a group of both males and females and said, “Hey girls.” That would feel extremely weird, right? That is precisely the point. The fact that a masculine phrase represents both genders but a feminine phrase can only speak for females proves how deeply embedded the patriarchal system is in our speech and our psyche.

Then we come to the expression “Oh man!” Why does it have to be “man”? Why can’t it be “Oh woman”? Because that would sound very strange. Which is precisely the reason we need to start saying it.

What about the more profane language? I’ll focus on “bitch.” This word epitomizes the different standards men and women are held up to. To call a woman a bitch implies that she is aggressive, overbearing, unlikeable, and severe. But to call a man a bitch, or to say that he is someone else’s bitch, implies that he is weak and subservient. Thus, our use of this word is immensely problematic because it means the opposite for each gender. It perpetuates the concept that women should not be aggressive and men should not be weak. Men should be the aggressive, dominant ones. Women should be subservient. When a woman is in her subservient role, she is deemed “sweet,” not “weak.” When a man is in his dominant role, he is deemed “confident,” not “aggressive.”

When considered in this light, our everyday language is actually quite disturbing. What is even more fascinating is how the patriarchal dynamic plays out in other languages. In my French class, we discussed how each word has a gender, and how the masculine article is used when addressing a group of both males and females. Some words, including many that represent professions, do not even have a feminine form. In French, masculine is considered the neutral form. But this still implies that women are somehow special. Feminine cannot possibly be the neutral form!

At the workshop, we discussed how we can begin to change our speech. One suggestion was to use the phrase “you all” instead of “you guys.” I’ll admit, this has been difficult for me. I have become so used to these phrases myself that to use new phrases almost feels like trying to speak a different language altogether. But the point of the workshop was to show that we need to start trying. We need to make this effort, because language has more of an impact on us than we realize.

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