The Writing Life

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Why some words have the power to hurt

On Americablog, there's a huge fight over John Aravosis' use of "big girl" as an insult to politician Pat Roberts. Several women asked him politely to change the words and John dug his heels in, claiming the words as belonging to "gay venacular" as opposed to women. He doesn't appear to like admitting mistakes and would rather eliminate a large portion of his readership, instead. My posts were deleted, as were hundreds of others. He left the ones that agreed with him or denigrated women (apparently, the women had "sand in their vagina" according to many of the men whose posts remained. John wrote a note saying that he didn't have time to eliminate those notes. I'm guessing it was because he was too busy eliminating the notes written by women or those sympathetic to women). Soon he just started deleting the entire comments thread. Over and over again.

I won't be visiting his blog again. I don't go where I'm not wanted. But I would like to have my say, so I shall do so here, telling him why we're all so upset.

It has to do with power and words.

In our society, the straight male WASP is the ultimate dominant. Beneath him are all others.

Those at the same level, i.e. black to black, woman to woman, gay to gay, can say whatever they want to each other because they are equals. But when a dominant uses degrading words about a non-dominant, it's demeaning, regardless of intent simply because he's in the power seat. One of the ways he retains that power is through language. When one word becomes taboo, he creates another one to replace it, though he will often use the old words for awhile, knowing they are offensive. Many dominants hate giving up any of their power.

This is one reason why the non-dominant work hard to take back those pieces of language. A black calling another black by the N word is saying to the dominant whites, "You can't use it, but I can. It's my word now. I just chipped one tiny piece out of your power position." A lesbian calling another lesbian a dyke is saying the same thing to straights. There are a lot of words that start with the dominant and end up in the hands of those he's sitting upon.

This doesn't cross boundaries. White gays don't get to call blacks the N word just because gays are another subjugated group. White supercedes gay in this case because the word refers to race, not sexual orientation.

The "rules" are pretty clear and it all boils down to one thing: the non-dominants in society doing whatever they can to claim some of the power that has been stolen from them by the dominant.

As a male, John Aravosis is not allowed to use the words "big girl" as an insult. Gay has nothing to do with it. He is male. In his hands, it can only be a slur. Period.

It's up to the non-dominant group as to how they want to use the words they're trying to usurp. Some flaunt them, as the use of the N word is often flaunted, black to black. The N word is well-known as a slur, and therefore no longer can be used by whites without it being demeaning.

Some don't want the word used at all. Gays no longer like the word homosexual, but it's still being used all the time, because it's a relatively new word grab. Several decades ago, the worst name you could call a gay person was queer. But now queer is known to be a slur, so it's safe to use, gay to gay. In fact, it's been usurped so long, it's almost lost all of its sting. That's why straights have abandonned it for fag and other epithets. Gays are working on usurping fag. Homosexual isn't known to be a slur to many people, so it still needs to become one. The usurping has just begun. In 10 or 20 years, it will most likely be bandied about like queer or dyke.

Women have been trying to get rid of 'girl' and 'pussy' and several other female words for awhile, but it's a difficult fight. People rarely listen to us. People rarely validate the hurt. There's usually a "grow up" or a "whiny bitch" or a "don't be so emotional and sensitive" thrown our way for objecting to it. It's going to take a lot longer for women to win back their words. Men aren't going to give them up without a fight, because so many men adore using them. Gay men often feel they have a right to female words, because of the straight male dominance over gay males. But it's not true. Those are our words. Gay does not superceded male because these are words specific to our gender, not yours. Fight all you want to take back the gay words, but leave our female epithets alone. Only we get to decide when and if to use them.

So why haven't we successfully usurped them? When adult black males objected to being called 'boy', they eventually won the fight. Yet women are still almost at ground zero in the battle to eradicate 'girl' as a subtle and not-so-subtle put-down. We made some headway in decades past, but it stalled out and 'girl' is still being used far too commonly as both an insult and a way to describe an adult female.

Why is it so difficult for us? Because unlike any of the other groups I mentioned, women are half the population. We're too big a threat. Some men may not know a gay or a jew or a black, but they all know women. We're everywhere, and instantly recognizable as women. And even worse, we're in every group except "male".

That's why men fight so hard to control our bodies, our lives, our paychecks, and our words.

We're scary -- scarier than any other group by far. Better make sure girl=bad, or there's no telling what else might happen.


  • Excellent post! I wrote about the same topic here:

    By Blogger Mad Kane, at 8:50 PM  

  • Thank you! Love your limericks. I saw the Big Girl limerick in the 90 seconds it existed at Amblog. Gotta be quick over there!

    By Blogger Guanna, at 11:03 PM  

  • Please call me a GIRL!!!!
    A few weeks ago I got into a heated discussion with a fellow gay male. His only response to my witty retorts was "You are such a GIRL". I kept saying "THANK YOU!" and he never got it!

    A few years ago I volunteered working with second grade students helping them with reading and math skills. One day there was a big fuss made over one student calling another student a "GIRL". My respsonse was "Wow! Girls are wonderful, powerful, kind, funny, friendly and amazing, you can call me a girl anytime!!!" The second graders got it. From that point on being called a girl in that classroom was considered a compliment.

    I am a gay male who NEVER thinks the word GIRL is an insult. Too bad Aravosis doesn't get it.

    By Blogger Everyday Activist, at 9:41 AM  

  • Aravosis doesn't "get it" period.

    By Blogger Yeshua David, at 5:49 PM  

  • EA, using 'girl' as a compliment will always be okay to us womenfolk. It's only its use as an insult that needs to be eradicated.

    And great job on teaching the kids the better way to think.

    -- Guanna

    By Blogger Guanna, at 8:54 PM  

  • White supercedes gay in this case because the word refers to race, not sexual orientation.

    White does not supercede gay. The reason the white gay doesn't say the N word to the black guy is because he is white, not because he is gay. What, can the black guy call him a honkey faggot?

    By Blogger beervolcano, at 8:32 AM  

  • Actually, you're just corroborating my point. "White supercedes gay" means that being white is the more important aspect of the two qualities in that case because the word in question is about race and not sexual orientation. That's why the gay white can't say the N word -- because he's white. Gay doesn't matter.

    In the case of the black guy, he can't call the white guy any derogatory gay terms if he isn't gay. In that case, straight would supercede black because it would be about sexual orientation, and straight is the dominant. Straight black can't use faggot (without it being derogatry) because he's straight. Black has nothing to do with it.

    As for honkey -- are whites really upset by that term? I've never heard a white care all that much about it. Honkey is a case where a non-dominant tried to find a word to bring dominants down, but it really doesn't work very well.

    By Blogger Guanna, at 12:55 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home