In my first post on language and sexism, I noted that all too much of our language makes females invisible and treats males as the norm. These are fairly pernicious influences. Our language is also biased in how it characterizes the roles of males and females. But before going on I must make this a disclaimer: highly general claims about how we use language are always dangerous since usage can change very quickly and there is always variation in usage at any given time. I hope that commenters will free to comment in variations they are familiar with.
We have only once had a woman as a major party Vice Presidential candidate, namely Geraldine Ferraro, and we have never had a woman as a major party Presidential candidate. It would be interesting to see how our newspapers would characterize a second female VP candidate today. The first trime around they didn't cover themselves with glory. The Wall Street Journal, a respectable, even if conservative paper started off their main story with the heads and sub-heads:
Mondale's Choice FerraroThe reference to Ferraro as being "spunky" and "natural" are so sexist that no editor of that paper today or any other respectable paper would describe a female candidate that way. It reflected our background presuppositions about women -- assumptions that were subconscious in nature. The term "spunky" is normally reserved for old men, women, children, and small dogs -- in short humans and animals that are not seen as strong by nature. We would laugh at anyone who described Arnold Schwarzenegger as "spunky" in The Terminator. But the kids in the Home Alone series of movies could fairly have been said to have been spunky. Rottweilers are not spunky but Pekingese can be. "Feisty" is another term that is reserved for the more aggressive humans or animals on the bottom half of our potency scale.
Spunky And Natural, Moves Into a
Even more telling about our attitudes toward women was the use of "Natural." This term made clear that Ferraro was seen as playing a role that one would not expect a woman to be able to pull off in a natural way. She was, in short, acting "out of role"as a VP candidate as sociologists might say.
At the site associated with the Title link it is said
he gender stereotype of women as warm, nurturing, and caring and the corresponding stereotype of men as cold, competitive, and authoritarian may have contributed to a popular perception that women are less effective than men in leadership positions, though in fact they are equally effective.This suggests that male views of women have been changing very slowly where they have changed at all. What has changed is what men write and say for public conception. My book on the Language of Politics has some other examples of how newspapers presented this news item.
Where do we get these differential perceptions of men and women? I suspect we get them from every kind of source -- from children's commercials where boys are treated as leaders and girls as followers, from the toys and books parents give their children, from nursery rhymes, and from what they hear at school and at home, and from their friends say, etc.
In regard to school, our daughter came home when she was quite young chanting a little ditty that concluded.
boys have the musselsMy wife (a professional with a Ph.D.) and I were amazed -- fortunately, the role model presented by her mother and my own aggressive nature (my daughter when about 6 or 7 said "I like your style" to me to explain why she wanted to be like me) kept her safe from this sort of crap. Of course, we also had to battle the differential representations of boys and girls in the nursery rhymes, commercials, and her friends.
and girls have the sexy legs.
Many of the influences mentioned that operate to differentiate the roles of men and women are quite overt. Some are more subtle. The most effective would be the influences that we are scarcely aware of -- that are, in a way, subconscious or out of explicit awareness. IMO, how we characterize males and females through our use of language can have this sort of "subconscious" effect on the perceptions boys and girls acquire as to who and what they are.
Women are still seen primarily as sex objects (in the heterosexual world to which I will restrict myself) and this shows up linguistically. In the wonderful movie "When Mary met Sally," Billy Crystal tells Meg Ryan that males cannot be with an attractive woman, even one who is "officially" just a friend, without wanting to have sex with her. He -- or rather, his character -- is very probably right about most of us. To our everlasting disappointment all too many women "friends" don't feel that way about the males they hang out with.
Suppose someone says of some person, Terry, whom you had never heard of before, tbat this person was a virgint. I am betting that most of you would think instantly of Terry as being a female. Note that the very recent movie "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" was about a man who had not lost his cherry, not a woman. His friend's see his virginity as a problem he needed to rid himself of. No one would make a movie about a 40-year-old female virgin whose friends try to help her get laid for the first time though movies about women who are struggling to become active socially after a divorce or death of a husband are not uncommon. This asymmetry speaks to the asymmetry in roles of males and females sexually. Males are looking to get laid for the most part and women, while obviously not uninterested in sex, are looking for something more more substantial.
This asymmetry pops up throughout our language about sex. If I say, "Terry is a slut," most of you will see Terry as being female though one sometimes hears promiscuous males being refered to as sluts. That is a double put down since it equates the male with having a quality normally associated with females. Before Aids being a promiscuous male was seen as a good thing by many or even most men. In my day, this made you a "cocksman" or "stud." My dad actually said one time, "You cut a wider swath than I did," which he meant as a compliment. I can't see my mom saying that to one of my sisters.
Aids has changed things but I suspect that our attitudes about male and female promiscuity have not. Back in the "bad old days," being a whore was a bad thing but being a gigolo was not nearly as bad. I had thought that "gigolo" had dropped out of the language until the Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigalow movie came out. ("Male" was redundant in the movie title, of course.) But "whore" has definitely not dropped out. These days, one finds many references to "male whore,"suggests that being a whore is quintessentially a female vocation with male whores being the non-normal or exceptional cases.
The worst instances of the use of language to put women down are the pejorative terms used by men (normally) to refer to women. Some fifteen years ago or so, I went on a camping trip to Canada with three other men where we planned to do a lot of canoeing. One of the men used the term "bitch" and its plural virtually every time he referred to women. This drove me absolutely crazy but it illustrates a point. The negative terms that we use with women are great in number and are much too frequently used by men in talking to other men. I have in mind the use of terms like "slut," "whore," "cunt," and "bitch," and the like. Little boys who hear this sort of talk, as we all did in my time and as boys surely do today as well, cannot help but derive some fairly negative images of women. It is hard to see how boys would learn to respect women when they hear that sort of talk.
And, men use female terms to put other men down, as when they say things like "John's a pussy," or "throws like a girl," and the like. In comments to my first blog on sexism in language, some examples like this were given. Answers.com says of "bitchy" that it can be used offensively in reference to "A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing" or "A lewd woman" or "A man considered to be weak or contemptible." The notion of females being the "weaker sex," if only because women are generally physically weaker than males, is likely to be with us for a very long time. The sad thing is that physical strength is not much of an asset in a world in which being smart and educated is of critical importance for success. And we will surely also put men down by using terms suggesting that they exhibit properties normally associated with women. Only if we use our brains are we men of much value in this world except to chop firewood and other mindless physical tasks.
One last note, which I find very funny. Mothers and fathers have have very different roles in our lives normally. Interestingly, when used as verbs they also have very different interpretations.. One can say "Terry mothered the children of the village" even when she was not the biological mother of any of the children. However, "Terry fathered the children of the village" is way different and is consistent only with his being the biological father of all of the children. Where it gets quite funny is when one contrasts "Terry mothered her kittens" with "Terry fathered his kittens."
I have noted in comments to the other blog that there are women who are comfortable with sexism. That is too bad. It doesn't do women or men or the society at large any good.