Yesterday, my fellow Fem2pt0 blogger Maggie Arden wrote a post called “Words Matter” about the use of language to devalue women. She was right about the idea that our every day language and the portrayal of women even in just the written media contributes to the overall discrimination of women.
But the problem is even more complex than having to check a box on a form indicating whether I’m a Ms. or a Mrs. Something as subtle but as powerful as language is a window into how we perceive half of our population, and also an indicator of the value we place on gender in our society, leading to real life consequences for those on the receiving end of discriminatory verbiage.
The Department of Justice reports that in 2006 alone, there were 233,019 acts of rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault committed against women in the U.S. We know that rape is about power and control, not sex; men are taught to be strong and fierce, while women are supposed to be the passive recipients of that power.
We need only to look at the language we use to talk about sex and gender relations to see the power struggle play out. Men are taught to view their sexuality as a weapon, while women are taught to view their sexuality as a fragile flower, to be protected against the invader. This idea isn’t new: Sigmund Freud describes the links between male sexuality and violence in “Symbolism in the Dream”, stating that “[t]he male organ is symbolized by objects that have the characteristic, in common with it, of penetration into the body, and consequent injury, hence pointed weapons of every type, knives, daggers, lances, swords.”
Looking at it from another perspective, language itself is replete with violent imagery when describing relations with women and girls. Examples include phrases such as: “I tried to get her in bed but got shot down”, “he’s always hitting on women,” “she’s a knockout,” “what a bombshell,” etc. These metaphors subtly reinforce the violent nature of gender-based discrimination and sexuality. Even examining a historical wartime context, in the United States, an important aspect of the arms race was phallic worship: in fact, “missile envy” was one of the primary motivating forces in the nuclear build-up. It is interesting to note that the nuclear scientists involved in the development of the atom bomb consistently referred to a successful bomb as a “boy” and a failed attempt as a “girl.”
Even today, both the military itself and the arms manufacturers routinely exploit the phallic imagery and promise of sexual domination that their weapons so conveniently suggest. Phrases such as “digging deep,” “penetrating the enemy,” and countless others used in promotional materials instill an element of sexual domination and conquest to the operations. The idea of one’s forces “penetrating the enemy” is particularly relevant when one considers the value of land and its symbolism in warfare, surrendered as a spoil of war. When one additionally considers that land has traditionally been assigned a feminine identity (i.e. Mother Earth), one can see that this language supports even further the sexualized context of war and plunder. When considering the assigning of gender roles to failed versus successful bomb attempts, it is not difficult to see that the “boy” would have ultimate power of violent domination over female Nature.
It’s not just in our words that such messages are being passed on either: think of the mutilated and dead women replete in Kanye West’s “Monster” video. Melinda Reist writes that “this is the message they are imbibing… that men are brutal and dominant, and men enjoy dead women as sex and entertainment. The female body is to be devoured, reduced to the same status as meat.” So even the images we are surrounded by every day reinforce the ties between violence and sexuality.
So the question is, why does any of this matter? And the answer is, because gender discrimination is not just a question of what is in our laws and on our books. We are moving ever closer towards gender justice and equity, but part of that movement is recognizing where and how discrimination and devaluation exists. And here in our culture and our society, our language perpetuates the idea that men are sexually violent aggressors seeking to dominate and control passive and fragile women.
As Maggiepointed out yesterday: words matter. We can change all the laws and all the policies we want, but gender discrimination and violence against women are destroying the lives of millions of women and girls all over the world every day. So the next time you want to encourage a friend to “bang a girl,” think about what message you are sending, and what it says about how you value the women in your life.