“Did you see what he was wearing? He has no respect for himself. He looked like such a slag,” said no one ever.
As a linguist and student of literature, it has occurred to me just how deeply misogyny has been engrained into the language we use on a daily basis. Century upon century of man (and woman) keeping woman ‘in her place’ has constructed a fortified mesh of disdain suffocating what the bigots of today still consider to be the inferior sex. It is a mesh that has germinated from the seed of all knowledge, from the most fundamental building block of human understanding: our language. As a result, it is now frustratingly hard to dismantle.
Misogyny: from the Greek words misos (hatred) and gini (woman). Only a compound word as explicit as this could aptly describe the violence lurking within our speech.
Do I sound hyperbolic? Just take a moment to consider something: how many words can you think of that criticise a woman who refuses to express her sexuality modestly? Slag, slut, whore, tart, sket, slapper, hussy, skank, to name a few for those of you who are struggling. Now tell me a word that belittles a man who liberally expresses his sexuality.
Can’t think of any? That is because people have never sought to penalise men who do. How can one insult a man confident in his own skin when one’s language does not permit it? Even halfhearted attempts to find equivalent insults for men rely on words that reprimand women: manwhore being a prime example.
Fine. Point taken. But do these words really matter in the grand scheme of things? I hear you ask.
Of course they do. For as George Orwell told us, “if thought corrupts language, language corrupts thought.” If we are to be the generation that kicks the final embers of misogyny into nonexistence, how can we claim to have made any real difference without first pulling the age-old carpet of pejoratives from under the misogynist’s feet? Language evolves with the attitude of the masses and until the majority of us reject these outdated insults as gibberish, public attitude will never make that final shift away from prejudice.
Just look at the news for confirmation that attitude still needs to change.
On 1st December 2018, Egyptian actress Rania Youssef was charged with ‘inciting debauchery’ by the Egyptian courts for wearing a dress that exposed her legs.
A few weeks earlier, Australian influencer Newsha Syeh was refused entrance into the Louvre because of her attire (in a country that swears by the national motto liberty, equality, fraternity).
This obsession with women’s flesh and the subsequent desire to conceal it can be found in language in all spheres of life but perhaps no more crudely than in the home. It is here the daughter is taught she must cover up. A dress that shows her thighs makes her slutty. A top that implies a cleavage makes her trashy. An outfit that clings to her curves could well mean she is ‘asking for it’. Thus a clear instruction is drilled into the female adolescent: retreat, restrain, recoil.
At the same time, the son is expected to show off his biceps, abs and legs. While his sister should be mute, parents wait for his sexual bravado to bloom. Not once shall he be shamed for arousing an other or indeed wanting to arouse. He is a man’s man, a lad. As so many parents from my own community would say, ‘he’s getting it out of his system’ before marriage.
Why am I going through this? Because the uncomfortable truth remains that we who believe that man and woman stand equal are not doing what needs to be done to break down the existing order. We share an article on Facebook, praise #MeToo and think our work is done. It has only just started.
Before I wrap up, allow me to reiterate an earlier point, for it cannot be left ignored: language shapes our subconscious. By continuing the circulation of words and phrases that demonise women for their sexuality, we inflate this one aspect of a human being into something that defines an entire demographic. With every ‘your mum joke’, with every slut shame, with every order for daughters to ‘cover up’, we continue to lock women into a paradigm that states they are either sexless or sex symbols.
Of course, there is an even uglier side to this coin. If indeed the daughter is judged, positively or negatively, on her ability to sexually arouse, is it any wonder she grows up self-conscious of her own skin? If the daughter is a slut and the son a lad is it any wonder that he believes he is ‘entitled’ to ‘help himself’? If you tell your daughter her clothes are ‘asking for it’, why then do you cry when she blames herself for having been sexually assaulted?
In 2019, the tide is ready to turn. Now that the fodder of misogyny has been identified it is time to starve the beast. It is time to reeducate our children. For every wife who has suffered in silence, for every daughter who has been taught to submit, for every girl who has been degraded by someone else’s words, it is time for us to make the final stand. To the jealous husband, to the controlling father, to every fool who has perpetuated the subordination of women through their language, listen carefully: you have had your time. Now you are part of a diminishing minority. Your behaviour shall be shamed and your words shall see you alienated…because at long last, on this beautiful dawn, your time is up.