HIStory Sucks: Language, Sexism, and Betty White

So I was sitting at a bar with a friend the other evening when a language/sexism epiphany dawned on me. I hadn’t had one since attending a lecture on HIStory (“practically every ‘historical’ document ever is HIS story, OMG!”) Anyway, I was saying something ‘sucked’, and in my leisurely state, I rather uninspiringly recalled that ‘suck’ and ‘blow’ amount to pretty much the same meaning – you know, widespread terms to describe something negative, pathetic, lacking in amiability, respectability, etc. What I hadn’t yet pondered was the derivation of both terms from their origin: the performance of fellatio. So, by speaking these terms, I was inadvertently degrading those who perform the act of fellatio (namely women and homosexuals, how surprising!) by unconsciously linking the two definitions together. What’s worse is that after I realised, I struggled to come up with an apt alternative – the word ‘suck’ for negativity is so ingrained in my vocabulary.

This is what scares me about language: as EJ Cook wrote in her Settle Petal article Word of the week: Spanking, language is behaviour. It is also the most powerful form of thought control. My little epiphanies have taught me that language infiltrates: we are capable of perpetuating gender stereotypes (amongst other ones) quite unconsciously. Feminine or homosexual behaviours in males are ostracised from a very early age through words like “poof”, “homo”,  and “sissy”, or sentences like “be a man”, and “you’re crying like a girl”. Such ostracising is a continual social warning for males to act masculine, lest they forfeit their privileged social position and endure a second-class status like the rest of us. Similarly, for girls, gender-specific words like: “slut”, “mole”, and “whore” attempt to scare us back into sexually passive social roles.

Writing this, I’m reminded of a popular facebook meme that sparked some interesting discussion on my page. The meme depicts Betty White’s head next to a quote that reads:

 “Why do people say ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive! If you really wanna get tough, grow a vagina! Those things can take a pounding!”

Lighthearted and naïve as this little nugget was, it nonetheless angered a certain distant-and-until-this-time-assumed-non-sexist facebook ‘friend’. He was apparently not content until asserting his hetero-masculine dominance by commenting: “but what do they take a pounding from?”, to which a certain fantastic individual (that may or may not have been myself) responded: “as far as I’m aware, they can take a pounding from any number of things, unless one is thinking in hetero-normative, wife-beater logic”, as another friend added “way to ruin the joke”. Snap! (This was followed by yet another friend dubbing him a “jizzcock”, but we won’t attempt to deconstruct that one here.)

One of my favourite feminist novelists, Kathy Acker, took her inspiration from William S. Boroughs in attempting to “find a language that won’t be so modulated by expectation”. Acker was a post-modern feminist suspicious of language taboos of any sort, ever since she had realised at a young age that being named a girl meant being excluded from pirate adventures. Acker goes to great efforts to exploit and expose all words that give or take power from a certain social group. As a result, nothing is sacred in her novels. One of her seasoned favourites is the word ‘cunt’ – she uses it in a way that empowers women to identify with their own sexuality, as opposed to a ‘no girls allowed’ term that keeps women subordinated through fear or embarrassment. She is also suspicious of patriarchal influences over language structure, and it’s subsequent linear and ‘rational’ form. This results in some wonderful language experimentation on Acker’s part – poetry intermingled with text, literal narrative depictions of unconscious desires, and mapped-out versions of dreams complete with pictures and arrows.

Thus, I will leave you with a feminist blogger’s interpretation of the well-loved facebook meme discussed above. Fine, so Betty may not have really said it, but who cares? The sentiment is there! Grow a vagina!

Elisabeth Morgan is a young feminist writer, volunteer and activist – particularly interested in shifting cultural preconceptions of ‘femininity as weakness’. When she isn’t getting opinio-intoxicated at parties, she’s writing poetry, reading literature, or watching cheesy 90s sitcoms with her favourite feline. She has a penchant for Buddhism, Kate Bush, and losing things.

4 thoughts on “HIStory Sucks: Language, Sexism, and Betty White

  1. Pingback: On the (Rest of the) Net. « The Early Bird Catches the Worm

  2. Pingback: HIStory Sucks: Language, Sexism & Betty White « This is what Elisabeth looks like…

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