We all know the idiom: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
Whoever said that knew nothing about gender inequality.
Recently, I was contacted by a reader who asked me to address terms used to discredit and delegitimize women. The reader shared that she is frequently asked, “How are we today, young lady?” by men across various age groups. As a semi-retired project manager on Wall Street, she is infuriated by what she describes as “ridiculousness.” She’s right- that’s exactly what it is.
Patriarchal phrases are often used to discredit and subordinate women. These words make us one-dimensional and powerless as we are identified based on stereotypically primitive and visceral characteristics of which, as society will lead you to believe, we have limited control. The intended effect of a stranger calling a woman ‘sweetheart’ and ‘honey’ is to placate and appease- because let’s face it, women are completely unhinged and if you don’t say something nice we’ll start flipping over tables, right?
As if that wasn’t bad enough, our social discourse traps us in the cycle of inequality as words such as bitch, slut, skank and whore permeate our culture. These terms often assign gender to action and because it’s socially acceptable for women to be characterized as submissive, their use is hardly challenged. The consequences affect men as well, making it difficult for them to be emotive without social repercussions.
The double standard exists, too- a woman with different sexual partners is stigmatized and scorned while men are praised for sexually conquering sums of partners. There are a handful of names for women in this category- slut, skank, whore, ho, hussy- but what about men? Man-whore comes to mind, but only as a derivation of the female slur.
All in all, these words limit our ability to appreciate each other’s differences and binds us to rigid gender roles. How can we, as individuals, as a society, evolve while adhering to antiquated ideas of what men and women should be?