Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Who You Callin' a Bitch? : Deconstructing Sexist Language

“What up, ho?”

I hear this question fairly often. Fifteen years ago, this might have been said by a gangsta rapper, but now, I mostly hear this kind of language from girls.
“Bitch,” “ho,” “whore,” and “slut” (etc.) have all made their way into teenage vernacular. Friends call each other names; it’s all a part of joking.

Let me say: I am
not against a well-placed insult for the type of comedic gold that is either ironic or that kind of funny that catches you off-guard and is hilarious. (Earlier this year, I was leaving my apartment and as I was opening the door to leave, my roommate asked me where I was going. “Oh, out,” I said. “I have to go.” She then immediately said, “Oh. You gotta go. You GOTTA go. You always gotta go. You’re a gotta-go-ho,” which cracked us both up.)

But my problem with “reclaiming” formerly offensive language is that it doesn’t clearly define what’s okay and what’s not. A girl can get called a “ho” by her friend, but if a strange guy on the street says that to her she would be offended. The issue with reclaiming language is that you can’t truly reclaim it.

“You all have
got to stop calling each other sluts and whores! It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
-Tina Fey, “Mean Girls”

If a pirate stole your treasure chest and you stole it back, you reclaimed it. It’s yours. The other person has no part of it, it’s an object that belongs to you and then is controlled by you. You can’t do that with words. And even though you may revel in the irony of a woman saying the word “bitch” (side note: the world “bitch” has a certain ring to it. “Bastard” does not have quite the same pop-effect. “Bastard” is generally reserved for those super dramatic moments in cheesy TV or movies when a couple fights and the music builds up to the final blow—whether it is words or a slap—and the woman says dramatically, “You,
BAStard!”), but the continued use of the word is an unspoken acceptance that the word has power.

It’s tempting and easy when watching a TV show or movie where some female character is wreaking havoc to pass the judgment that, “She is such a

That description generally covers everything from talking behind a friend’s back to going after another girl’s man to murder plotlines.

If the character were male, what word would you use? “Psychopath?” Whatever the situation is for the man, I would bet that 9 times out of 10, the negative word used to describe him would be not be gendered. (Or, in some cases, a female-associated word would be used to add extra insult.)

My challenge to you: Own the words you use. You can’t control what others say, but you can control what you say. Think about when you use gendered insults. Is there a better word? Probably. Try to use that one. You’ll probably describe things more accurately when you get creative and throw bitch/whore/ho/slut out of your repertoire of insults (and maybe even improve your vocabulary).

Also, listen to Queen Latifah.

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