Thursday, April 18, 2013

How Words Shape our Perceptions

The discussion in class about the word flanerie versus the word streetwalker, prompted me to start thinking about how the use of words shape and reflect so many perceptions in our society.
Let’s start with the first word that I have an issue with: “she”. You are probably saying to yourself, “What? How can she have a problem with such an innocent word?” I don’t have a problem with the word itself; I have a problem with how it is sometimes used. It has always bothered me when people refer to inanimate objects as a “she”. “Yep she (my boat) just went out to sea for the first time.” Yes I’ve actually heard that phrase being used before. Why are we indicating possession of inanimate objects by using a female word? There is something about the fact that we indicate possession with “she” that just gets under my skin.
Now let’s move to the more commonly and more casually used word: “bitch”. The first problem I have with this word is how casually it’s used. I have heard numerous females use this phrase flippantly to describe a member of their own sex. I have also heard many men use this word to viciously describe women that have dejected them. The Webster Dictionary defines this word as “the female version of dog, a lewd or immoral woman or something that is extremely difficult or unpleasant”. There are so many things that are disturbing about this definition, including the fact that we are using the same word to describe a dog and a woman. But the most disturbing thing of all is that our society actually has a word for this for a “lewd” woman, while we definitely do not have a parallel word for a man.
Another word that I have a problem with is “spinster”. The fact that the word for a single man is bachelor while the word for a single woman is spinster portrays a gender perception that we are all aware of. When the word “bachelor” comes to mind, I think of a strapping young man. When the word “spinster” comes to mind, I think of a crotchety old woman sitting at home reading to her cats. These two parallel words seem to suggest that is fine for a man to be unmarried, but incredibly troubling for a woman to not have a husband.
Virginia Woolf used her writing to convey ideas that pushed the limits of gender. Through her words she protested the patriarchal structure of our society. However, the fact that many words convey gender stereotypes suggests that notions about gender are deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. So I ask, in order to change stereotypes associated with our gender, do we first have to change the way we use words in our society and then seek to change the patriarchal system?

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