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“Little Marie”: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language
by Marie Shear
I am lying on a gurney in a hospital hallway, alone, waiting to be rolled into the O.R. for the first of two operations. The surgeon approaches and greets me: “It’s Little Marie!” he exclaims. Although his first name is Richard, he does not have jheri curls, a piano and a falsetto with which to sing “Tutti Frutti”; so I cannot reply, “Hiya, Little Richard!” Fortunately, I don’t realize until later that a man named Richard who calls a woman “little” invites a reply that minimizes his most cherished protuberance: It would have been imprudent to say, “Hello, Little Dick!” moments before he stuck a sharp knife into my carcass.
Eventually, the same surgeon will address me as "kiddo" and "the little chippie.” A chippie, of course, is a prostitute. He tells the friend who has accompanied me to the exam that he is using the phrase "to bait her (-- meaning me --) because I know it gets her goat." Later the surgeon will fire me as a patient and rage at me like a vitriolic prosecutor on steroids. At the same time, he will rant at a staffer young enough to be his granddaughter, all within earshot of other staffers and patients. Clearly, he is accustomed to scourging women with impunity.
Examined with an analytic eye and a diagnostic ear, sexist language reveals an underlying social disease -- contempt for and fury at women. Being literally communicable, the disease both reflects and perpetuates our degradation.
Sexist usage takes many forms: diminutives, “first-namery,” surnames, endearments, elderspeak, exclusion, salutations, honorifics, pronouns, references to our looks, and more. It includes words like “girl,” “spinster,” “guys,” “young lady,” “seminal,” and “bitch.” (“Girl,” pronouns, and “bitch” -- the commonest misogynistic hate word, which is used as a noun, adjective, and verb --warrant separate articles of their own.)
Everywhere we turn on an ordinary day — to politics, greeting cards, stand-up comedy, New York Times crossword puzzles, the dentist, the mail, the florist’s messenger and the TV pontificators — we meet words that demoralize and flay us.
Some sexist usage is mindless, echoed on autopilot by people who’ve inhaled it because it pervades the nation’s air. They mistake it for friendly informality. Other usage is malevolent. Whether ignorant or malign, it belittles and mocks.
I do not arise each morning seeking slights to fume at. I’m a normal adult, not an armored crusader spurring my steed to charge up a hill as I brandish a banner. Thus sexist language keeps surprising me. Its dailiness gets me.
A bus driver watching me haul myself laboriously up his stairs says, “Take big-girl steps.” (Kiss my big-girl Aunt Fanny.) An officer at the local police station addresses me as “Babe,” and it takes me seven letters over five years to extract an apology from the NYPD. At the annual meeting of a professional organization, its leader addresses his predominantly female audience as “guys.” (If “guys” seems okay to you, try walking into a room filled with men and chirping "Hello, gals." That usage unmans men. “Guys” unwomans women.)
The sidewalk coffee vendor calls me “dear” twice and calls the male customer behind me “sir.” Reporting for jury duty, I hear a guard at a metal detector greeting every female who arrives with “young lady”; he welcomes no male with “young gentleman.” He doesn’t know that calling older women “young” is like complimenting an African-American woman by calling her pale. Recently, when I took a break from writing this article to fetch the mail, it included an ad for a product that allegedly thickens your hair; the twits who sent it address me as “Dear Marie,” then repeat my first name twice. When my mother, then in her seventies, had surgery, a well-meaning 20-something hospital dietician asked “Ada” what her favorite pudding was.
The moment I enter a magazine shop in Manhattan, a customer asks, “What are you looking for, darlin’?” I turn and look at him, speechless. Mistaking my incredulity for incomprehension, he rephrases his question: “What are you looking for, sweetheart?” I draw myself up to my full, if negligible, height, assume my 5’10” voice, and tell him sternly, “Don’t call me ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’! It’s patronizing!” Without missing a beat, he replies, “I was just trying to be nice to an old lady.”
The media supply more of the same. A New York Times article about a 105-year old woman calls her a “bachelorette" and “the birthday girl." New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, snippily calls female reporters “miss," omitting their names. On Face the Nation, the chair of a joint congressional intelligence committee keeps referring to “this young lady"; the “young lady" is a 47-year old FBI official who wrote a memo maintaining that FBI headquarters had failed to pursue leads that might have uncovered the 9/11 plot beforehand.
Special occasions bring no respite. In 1984, a few minutes after I wept joyfully at seeing Sen. Walter Mondale with his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro, on TV, I went downstairs, refreshed and proud. There, the letter carrier called me “sweetheart.” I shriveled, reduced from a grownup to a mushroom, a footstool.
Women of high rank are targets, too. At a Washington dinner, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor once heard, "Come on, Sandy baby. Loosen up. You’re too tight." Having thus combined first-namery and endearment, the speaker, a drunken former football player, passed out on the floor. At a 2007 campaign event, a woman asked Sen. John McCain, “How do we beat the bitch?” -- meaning Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Republican presidential candidate responded by smiling and chuckling. No firestorm erupted. Indeed, people who would have been incensed if McCain had fluffed off the infamous slur for African Americans readily use its equivalent, “bitch,” themselves. Rodham Clinton, the only woman seeking the presidency, was regularly called “Hillary” by newspapers, magazines, and TV pundits in what I call The Smuggery.
Hello seminal women and girly men
For bigots, the beauty of sexist language is its Catch-22: Protest a given instance of it and we may be scorned for fussing over trifles or cursed out by a speaker, his animus bursting through his cozy veneer. But if we do not protest, the cumulative effect on our spirits is toxic.
Men escape most such ignominy. They are considered decisive and commanding; their female counterparts are “overqualified,” as if lucidity and a graduate degree are deformities like Elephant Man disease. A bachelor is a desirable catch, a spinster a dried-up wallflower.
Like tomcats with urological problems, sexists back up and spray the adjective “seminal” onto women’s achievements, heedless of the absurdity. Hence Michele Wallace's book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman; Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven's article "The Feminization of Poverty"; Rosa Parks' refusal to give her bus seat to a white person; work for the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights by the feminist Ernesta Drinker Ballard; the articles in Feminist Review; a lesbian tennis player; and Judy Chicago's art installation The Dinner Party have all been annexed as "seminal." (An excellent thesaurus of alternatives to biased language is Rosalie Maggio's Talking About People.)
With bizarre symmetry, female words are tacked onto men to deride them. Male politicians, military recruits, journalists and others have been called “girls,” “girly-men,” and “pussies.” (Meow.) As columnist Frank Rich observed, “Such castration warfare has been a Republican staple….” An erratic, egotistical or malicious man is called “bitchy,” and his objections to anything are termed “bitching.” An accomplished, authoritative woman is a “bitch,” a topic I explored in a 1987 “Media Watch” column for New Directions for Women.
Like the “darlin’ ” man in the magazine store, bigots switch instantly from one category of bias to another, compounding sexist condescension with ageist usage, called elderspeak, rather than substituting respectful words when a woman’s hair greys. Misogyny also interlocks with usage disparaging people who aren’t thin or physically decorative and parallels usage that insults people who aren’t white.
The onerousness and gravity of biased language are apparent from the perennial fight against racist/colorist usage. People of color have been denied honorifics, called instead by their first names or bare surnames, and infantilized with “girl” and “boy.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., detailed whites’ dishonorable language in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, described by Randall Kennedy in his book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. When Barack Obama ran for president, a rightwing columnist repeatedly referred to him by his first name. Color-based words and images attacking President Obama are rife today.
Alan Alda, who is a writer as well as an actor and director, told a feminist gathering in the 1980s that “honey” is acceptable usage only for a bear addressing its lunch. He once asked why people don’t realize that words hurt. They do. As a means of social control, ridicule is second only to rape.
Bigoted usage makes us tired. We grow old early. Women spend our lives explaining the obvious to the uneducable. In the face of daily indignities and humiliations, why must we explain that we are neither prigs nor prunes — just people?
What’s concerning us, feminists and progressives? From the front lines to the back burners, our angle on vital matters on our minds and popping up in the news.
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