Gender exclusive language–its use in speaking and writing–was deeply frowned upon at my college. From the moment I stepped into any classroom at Emory University-across disciplines and departments–gender exclusive language was announced as a no-no. Before college, I was wholly ignorant that the use of “man/men” for the collective was a social norm that I was complicit in. Of course, that is the power of such norms they are silent, ubiquitous enforcers. What is it enforcing? Maleness as a social construct is the most normative, socially accepted way of being and thus, when speaking about everyone–male or female–it is okay to use “mankind” in lieu of “humankind.”
At the start of college, it was as if the scales fell from my eyes. I began to see and hear gender exclusive language everywhere–books, magazines, movies, TV, on the tongues of my friends, family. I was a religious studies major and the gendered language surrounding God opened up a whole host of other conversations. From that moment on, I committed myself to using gender inclusive language in my writing and speaking. When using “he” or “she” became onerous, I used “she” throughout.
In the wake of the mass murders by the UCSB male coed, I’ve been reflecting on language and gender. There are idioms or sayings in the cultural lexicon that are particularly gendered. Some are pretty innocuous and can be reimagined. Others are pejorative. A short list:
2. Man (meaning to work as in to “man” a booth or desk)
3. Man up
4. Pussy (a weak, overly sensitive, spineless person)
5. ‘like a girl’ (usually in relation to sports, i.e. “You throw like a girl” or “Quit acting like a girl.” The idea is acting like a girl is antithetical to competition, strength, winning, power, etc.)
6. Man card (a proverbial membership card into the community of men. Having your man card revoked is the ultimate insult. It means that one’s manhood was tested and found wanting. What does a man do to have his man card revoked? In most cases, he acts sensibly and non-violently in some situation where violence in words and deeds would have been preferable to defend one’s manhood.)
This is far from an exhaustive list. From this very short list a theme emerges: Woman = bad/weak/not preferable and Man = good/strong/preferable.
There was a scene in Lifetime’s film adaptation of Terry McMillan’s novel, A Day Late and A Dollar Short that caused a heated discussion in my family. It was me against my husband and daughter. During the scene, a father was confronting his son’s stepfather after finding bruises inflicted on his son by the stepfather. The father was absentee having only visited his son sporadically after divorcing (or leaving–I can’t remember) his mother. The father had some personal struggles which included drug abuse and stints in prison. The father, weeks out of jail and clean, spoke respectfully to the stepfather about the bruises. He calmly asked the father to stop and asserted his role in his son’s life. The mother seemed oblivious to the abuse. As the viewer, I was proud of the father and then the stepfather responded negatively. He castigated the father and asserted his authority to do whatever he wanted to the son in his house. The father held his peace and the mother agreed to allow the son to go with the father until things cooled down. The stepfather continued to verbally insult the father. Things went from bad to horrible and bam–the father gave the stepfather a serious pummeling before leaving the house without his son. I responded in disappoint and screamed at the TV, “No!” My daughter and husband, on the other hand, were triumphant and celebratory. They were happy that the father gave the stepfather the beat down he deserved for the way he disrespected the father and physically abused the son. My husband was adamant that the father did what was necessary. My husband argued that the mom needed to man up and do her part as this should have been an eye opening experience for her. My daughter thought the violence was a natural response. “Mom,” she said, “If you found out someone was beating me, wouldn’t you be mad like that?” I responded in the affirmative, but explained that I didn’t have to act with the same violence.
In our spirited discussion, I explained that the father’s violent response was at its essence a selfish act. Obviously the stepfather was selfish. Instead of following the father’s lead and being respectful and cordial, he pushed the father’s male buttons and questioned his manhood. What came next was a pissing match between the two men to mark territory and reassert their manhood. It had nothing to do with the son. What the spectacle did was to teach the son the way men should act: like brutes. Had the father put his son first, he would have taken his son away from the house–the mother had agreed to this–in an effort to stop the violence against his son. Instead he used violence, left his son there, and ran away. That same night he was arrested. At the end of the movie, when all the loose ends were seemingly tied up, there was a montage with the son and the father at the library. They looked to be working on a school project. This convinced my daughter that all was well. I said that it was just a snapshot. Perhaps the son was still in the abusive situation. Perhaps not.
It is better to have the courage NOT to ‘man up.’ By ‘man up,’ I mean to act and speak in the socially constructed way of man, misogynistic, woman-hating, and aggressive. It takes reteaching and reeducation to have that courage. The scales have to fall way from the eyes in the same way they fell off my face at Emory University. I became aware and then practiced a new way of seeing the world.