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Sexist language: Invisible and discriminatory

The use and exploitation of words and images has historically favoured men in whose hands, lies the authority of important and universal texts concerning the conduct of cultures and nations. Women have been the losers as a result.


mariposa butterfly  ecologia pixabayMarjorie Andrea González Ramírez

It doesn’t always happen, but it happens frequently.  Passages, definitions and examples are used in such deeply rooted books as the Bible and the Koran or in academic texts such as Spanish language dictionaries, and they stipulate a principle of authority in which men consider themselves superior to women.

In the face of this reality, some researchers have considered that everyday language influences the impressions people have about women and men, the former being described as weak, invisible and dependent and men as strong, autonomous and free.

This connection between gender and communication implies interpretation of imaginary and cultural codes about the roles men and women have assumed in society throughout history, because this is where sexist stereotypes as well as exclusive and discriminatory nicknames come from.

dream pixabay 3To give an example there are religious texts, which have a strong influence on society. For example in the book of Corinthians in the Bible it says:

“The head of every man is Christ and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3).

In the West the Bible has permeated many aspects of popular culture, which in oral memory as well as the actions of human beings reflects a deep conviction about what the role of women should be in society, as a wife or mother, but never as a woman with rights.

According to writers Pearson Turner and Todd-Mancillas, authors of the book Communication and Gender, this kind of discrimination is reflected in popular language which is often used by less educated people.

But it can also be seen in various academic texts, media, and political speeches and in  churches, showing a great amount of influence of sexist language in all social spaces and manifestations.

Dictionaries are guilty of this as well. In the VOX Great General Dictionary of the Spanish Language, edited for the second time in April 1991,  the meaning of the word woman is made up of concepts such as having reached puberty, or being married with a husband, or a prostitute.

fish pescado mar pixabayThe meaning of the word man has a positive connotation, because man is described as being made up of a material body and a spiritual soul created by God in his own image and resemblance and that all men form one gender and one species.

Pearson, Turner and Todd-Mancillas assert that such definitions place men in a position of vantage over women, who in turn always hold a subordinate position. This is because it is usually men who belong to the group that holds the power to designate these terms to people, places and things.

This perhaps explains why the same term applied to a man and a woman becomes so different for both, where the majority of the time the former comes out better.

Examples such as bachelor and old maid; stud and prostitute; wizard and witch; lover and mistress, help to illustrate how women have to put up with negative tags for historical reasons that have no solid foundations, all of which seems to state that  women have a divine and natural calling to be  housewives and symbols of maternity.

ciclo surreal mujer pixabaySince the 1970s, there has been growing world-wide concern about discrimination against women in language, which has led to research on the subject and feminist groups trying to reverse its effects. However, it seems that nowadays these linguistic practices are still in use.

One of the decisive points in the debate could lead many people to think that sexist language undermines the construction of an alternative paradigm of communication that might end this marginalisation.

Experts also affirm that explicit and direct language aren’t the only expressions of linguistic sexism.  According to Pearson, Turner and Todd-Mancillas in their research, the use of gender pronouns, which are mainly masculine, is a subtle and implicit way of making women invisible and relegating them to a sort of second rank.

If the situation is this bad, it is very common that when terms such as “He”, “They” (“los as opposed to las”) and “We” (“nosotros” as opposed to “nosotras”) are used when speaking to an audience of men and women there is no objection.  According to many cases this obeys the notion that  inherited culture transmits  official public discourse, making us believe that it is the correct thing to do.

Y en el futuro evolucion pixabay huevoThis allows analysts to perceive that the way in which women are made invisible in society is very common and repeated, so when any objection is made to this, an attempt is made to trivialise the issue and make it seem ridiculous.

However, the mere fact that changing gender pronouns for alternatives in text or speech is possible doesn’t guarantee that women’s rights will be respected, that they will participate in the public sphere or that their work will be recognised as important in the history of humanity.

Some experts in the field say that the starting point for structural transformation should be a secular education based on rights rather than stereotypes, one which would allow the carrying out of life projects where women and men assume a role that isn’t their traditional one, debunking sexist myths, respecting difference and making alternative, inclusive and communicative connections. (May 20, 2012 @ 15:00)

 Photos: Pixabay  –  (Translated by Jose Stovell)

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