Focus Identity and Resistance Society

The Power and Politics of Language

The use of gendered language has a huge impact on the way we perceive others and make sense of the world. This paper attempts to bring together the language that women listen to all their lives and its impact.

By Savita Tyagi

Abstract

In today’s capitalist world, where more and more women are trying to break the glass ceiling and change people’s perspectives towards gender stereotypical roles, we often overlook the language being used to address women, their issues and ideas. This kind of language has been in use since time immemorial and has shaped various aspects of women’s lives such as their notion of self, relationships and everyday life. The use of gendered language has a huge impact on the way we perceive others and make sense of the world. This paper attempts to bring together the language that women listen to all their lives, read in fairy tales, novels, poetry and songs, learn from childhood and are exposed to in the public domain. It also discusses the impact of such language on their overall personality and their perception of their gender.

Introduction

While we all know what abuse can do to the growing child, or for that matter anyone, we hardly ever stop and analyse how the everyday language which is seemingly harmless contributes to the shaping of a human being in its entirety, especially when one is surrounded by this “language”. This paper primarily focuses on the inter-linkages between culture and language and the forms of language that a girl or woman is exposed to at different levels of her life and how it shapes herself, including her perspective and understanding of the world. Most of the forms have been covered i.e. what is spoken to her, what she reads, what is being read to her, what she is allowed and NOT allowed to say and finally the use of language in the public domain. 

Defining Language

Human beings can communicate with each other. We can exchange knowledge, beliefs, opinions, wishes, threats, commands, gratitude, promises, declarations, feelings – only our imagination sets limits. We can laugh to express amusement, happiness, or disrespect, we can smile to express amusement, pleasure, approval, or bitter feelings, we can shriek to express anger and so on, but our system of communication before anything is language. Language can thus be defined as a system of communication which is based upon words and the combination of words into sentences. Communication using language may be referred to as linguistic communication and the other ways mentioned above – such as laughing and shrieking which are forms of non-linguistic communication. Most animals communicate through non-linguistic modes such as gorillas or chimpanzees who exchange different kinds of information by composing their faces in numerous ways, moving their hands and arms in different gestures, bees move in certain patterns to tell their fellow workers where to find honey, some birds sing songs either to mark their territory or attract a mate but it is only the human being who has a clear distinct language with syntax and grammar. Language thus exclusively becomes human property. However, as human property, the issues of gender are represented differently. Upon extensive critiquing, feminists have concluded that the languages are sexisti i.e. they represent or ‘name’ the world from a masculine viewpoint and follow stereotyped beliefs about the sexes. Thus, some English words such as bossy, aggressive, high-maintenance, feisty, hysterical etc. are only used for women. Also, there is no male equivalent to the words like a mistress, cougar, working mother and spinster etc. 

Feminists have identified that many languages have an underlying grammatical rule whereby the male is positive and female negative so that the tenets of male chauvinism are encoded into language; and second, that the reason why languages are structured in this sexist way is because their rules and meanings have been ‘man’-made – women have been excluded from naming and the process of defining words. For example, Gallo in Spanish means tough while gallina means cowardly; similarly, un entraineur in French means a trainer while une entralineuse is used for a barmaid.

This has resulted in the absence of words for certain feelings and ideas which the language makers have chosen not to ‘name’ because they do not fit in with the official male worldview. Since feelings and ideas without words to express them may remain fleeting and unrecognised by the culture at large, our languages are less than perfect vehicles for expressing women’s most pressing concerns. It thus comes as no shock that a term like a double burden was coined in 1989 even though it reflects the massive struggle of women who work outside such as farms, offices etc. and then undertake a major portion of unpaid domestic work since ages. 

The effects of this ‘naming’ of the world from a masculine perspective can range from making it hard for women to conceive of them as real writers to reducing women to passive objects. This further interlinks with culture and impacts the thought process of people as discussed in the next section.

Relationship between Culture and Language

Note – Cognition means the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses.

To study the nature of human cognition, one of the key factors is the relationship between culture, language and thought. Various research disciplines have spent enormous amounts of time investigating this issue (Imai M, Kanero J, Masuda T, 2016)1

In cultural psychology, culture comprises of narratives, meaning systems, systems of thought, cultural worldview, communication styles, or self-construal (Geertz C, 1973)2. Thus, a language which is accepted as an inseparable collection of elements consisting of words, grammar, pragmatics, and narrative styles functioning together then becomes a medium through which cultural views are reflected (Kashima Y, 2009)3. Language is so closely intertwined with a culture that many cultural psychologists take for granted that language is part of the culture and hence do not mention the role language plays when discussing how culture influences thought. 

For the researchers interested in cultural psychology, ‘culture’ refers to the macro-level thinking patterns such as attitude, beliefs and values while ‘language’ is used as a tool to encourage certain attitudes, social judgements or causal attributions (Duhjsterhuis A, Chartrand TL, Aarts H, 2007)4. For example, in an experiment conducted by Thomas K. Srull and Robert S. Wyer, it was found that if the participants were presented with an emotionally charged word e.g. hostility for a hypothetical person, their impressions were influenced to a great deal (Srull & Wyer, 1979)5. This proves the effect of language on the socio-cultural behaviour of people. Thus, this is the position which is being taken in this paper which emphasizes the impact of culture and  language on the formation of thoughts in the minds of people. 

To say or not to say

It is often pointed out that women or girls cannot put their thoughts “coherently” or cannot participate in a serious discussion. However, very little attention is paid to the practices which manifest into “incoherent” thoughts in women’s lives.

Deborah Cameron in her book The Feminist Critique of Language – a reader expresses how by dissuading a little girl from “talking roughly”, the parents, teachers and the societal structure is moulding her into a person who will not be taken seriously and her style of speech will be used to keep her in a demeaning position. She explains that for children under the age of 5, women play a dominant role and thus, boys and girls learn “woman’s language” as the first language. However, in later stages, boys and girls go through different phases. The boys get introduced to “rough talk” whereas it is highly discouraged in girls. While the use of such language among boys is thought to be amusing when they do it publicly, the girls are chided for the same and parents’ reaction is that of a shock. By the time they split  into same-sex peer groups, this language is already inherent. What essentially happens is that boys have unlearned and then learnt the new language while the girls have had no such opportunity. Here the author also wonders if this is somehow related to the fact that boys innovate a lot more in their games and activities than girls. 

In the later stages of life, a girl is ridiculed and criticized if she does not talk like a “lady” but in case she does learn to talk like a lady is supposed to, she is ridiculed for not being able to speak precisely or express herself assertively. This makes her status as less than human. Thus, she is left with these two choices – less than a woman or less than a person – both of which are acutely painful. The author aptly describes it as “So a girl is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.” 

Given that most women who get to college learn to switch from women’s language to the one desired in appropriate surroundings, but this too is riddled with complications. In doing so, she essentially becomes bilingual. Like in the case of several bilinguals, she rarely masters any one language – she has enough command on both for surviving the situation but she would never really be confident using either for she would never feel certain if she is using the right one in the right situation. Furthermore, switching from one language to other requires the knowledge of nuances of social situations which demands extra energy that is almost always sapped from more creative work and restricts women from expressing themselves as confidently and as certainly as they might otherwise. 

The overall effect of “women’s language” – meaning both, language restricted in use to women and language descriptive of women alone – is this: it submerges a woman’s personal identity, by denying her the means of expressing herself strongly, on the one hand, and encouraging expressions that suggest triviality in subject matter and uncertainty about it; and, when a woman is being discussed, by treating her as an object – sexual or otherwise – but never a serious person with individual views. (Lakoff R, 1973, p. 5)6

The repercussion of this seemingly tiny form of nurturance is that women are systematically and structurally denied access to power, arguing that they would be incapable of holding it as proved already by their linguistic behaviour coupled with other results of socialization. The worst part here is that women are made to believe that such treatment is justified because of inadequacies in their intelligence and education. It is noteworthy that because as girls we learned our lesson so well, that we suffer from such discrimination. 

Fairy Tales

The earliest fairy tales were collected by the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm over a hundred years ago from German women who worked as spinners and they would tell tales long in the night to keep them and their partners awake to complete the spin. The main characters were thus women however, the tales underwent tremendous changes as they moved from the source, women and into the greater realm of patriarchal Germany.

Since then, the major characteristic of the moralistic woman is her attractiveness – rosy lips, skin as fair as milk, slender body, silky voice with a heart pure as gold which results in a happy and content future where she marries a prince and lives happily ever after. The underlying theme is that a good woman is always submissive who does not raise her voice against the wrong being done to her while waiting for a prince to rescue her, shower her with love and take control of her destiny. In contrast, women who lack beautiful facial features are a source of suspicion and they would go to any lengths to undermine the beautiful girls like the mutilation of stepsister’s feet in Cinderella. Thus, girls should not believe other girls especially if they are not “beautiful”. The young readers are presented with a contrast – lazy girls and older women are generally ugly, evil, strong, determined and greedy – everything that threatens the feminine ideal by not accepting their situation and making plans to change it without the presence of a man whereas the beautiful girl relies on her beauty and good-natured behaviour rather than actions to attract the prince to come for her and lead her towards a better and happier future. 

Such tales have remarkable effects on children. In a study conducted with around 2500 children of the age group 8-10 years old in a German school, a variety of introductory statements were given to boys and girls and they were asked to complete the stories. The stories revealed that if the introductory statement suggested victimization, repression or helplessness of the main character, both boys and girls wrote the story about a girl whereas if the main character was independent implied by leaving home, both genders picked a male character to complete the story. Thus, this is evidence to say that these fairy tales largely impress gendered behaviours and their expectations from each.  

Novels and adolescence

Adolescence is the period when children start reading novels and start defining masculinity and femininity concretely. Since most of the early novels read by children are western, they are introduced to the idea of gender as binary i.e. what is feminine is not masculine and vice versa. Thus, their minds link gender to a highly polarized binary in which terms gain meaning only in relation to the other (Harper H, 2007)7

This is also the time when teenagers learn about relationships which are mostly based on web series and fiction. The relationships depicted are mostly abusive, violent and based on stereotypical gender roles in the society. 

To explain the concept of violent relationships in fiction, the novel Twilight by Stephanie Meyer would serve as a good example. Throughout the entire series, the existence of a romantic relationship has been prioritised over its health and internal power dynamics. “By prioritizing being in a relationship over being in a healthy relationship, any disquiet about the quality of a relationship is silenced (Clasen, 2010)8” Over and over in the series, physical violence has been treated as an unfortunate event that can be overlooked if the perpetrator is truly apologetic symbolising that violence in relationships is culturally acceptable under specific circumstances. The unasked kiss planted on Bella from Jacob has been romanticised so much that the readers are unable to differentiate is as sexual assault. Thus, it reiterates the link between love and violence that is inherent in a patriarchal society. 

Bella faces psychological and emotional abuse along with physical violence which has been constantly downplayed and in some places glorified as the passion that Edward has for Bella. He watches her sleep, follows her when she goes shopping with her friends and keeps tabs on her friends constantly to know what she is talking about. Since Bella wants to keep her relationship a secret, she is isolated from her friends and it is only logical to state that Edward’s intimidation, isolation, and regulation has led to her lonely existence. He has been shown to control her visits to her friend Jacob by various means ranging from physically stopping her to psychologically manipulating her into thinking Jacob is dangerous. Edward’s restriction of Bella’s liberty and mobility also reflects Stark’s belief that “the primary harm inflicted by coercive control is political, not physical and reflects the deprivation of rights and resources that are critical to personhood and citizenship (Stark, 2007)9.” This resonates with the typical behaviour of control over women and denial to let women make their own decisions relegating them the status of second class citizens. This act of infantilising her in her own eyes and family’s reaffirms her dependence upon him perpetuating the vicious cycle of her inability to make decisions and thus being trapped in the relationship all under the garb of love and passion. 

The series also reinforces the stereotype of a modern, sophisticated girl as the one who remains silent even at the cost of her risk and safety. Answering the question of the popularity of this novel in spite of such blatant physical and emotional abuse, Modelski and Radway, 1984 discussed how “in the genre of romance, through the violent behaviour of the male love interest, which is later revealed as a symbol of the depth of his love for the heroine, the predominantly female audience is reassured that any violence they suffer can be a precursor to happiness.” The reassuring qualities of romance are also highlighted by Modleski who states: “romantic literature performs a crucial function in assuring us that although some men may actually enjoy inflicting pain on women, there are also “bullies” whose meanness is nothing more than the overflow of their love or the measure of their resistance to our extraordinary charms”. Thus this literature subtly implies that women should stay in violent relationships in order to determine which category of violence their partner falls into. So if he is just a “bully”, then the woman might lose out on someone who could have given her an emotionally fulfilling relationship. 

Gendered songs and phrases during a wedding

In the Indian context, a young girl might or might not know what her future would look like in terms of career and jobs but she definitely knows that one day she will get married and leave her own home. Why is it? Probably because ever since she is born, she has heard statements like “Bringing up a daughter is like pouring water in the sand” or “Bringing up a daughter is like watering a plant in another’s courtyard” over and over again. Her parents are often pitied particularly if she has no brothers to ‘support her parents in old age’. The words of blessing them are also different which suggest they have a large number of sons and be always “married” (sada suhagan raho) as opposed to a widow who has no standing in the society. 

When a girl approaches the “marriageable” age, she comes across conversations where she is equated with ghee in Oriya which is valuable but would stink if not disposed of on time or a boil on the chest in Telugu which will get worse if not treated in time. Thus, their childhood is embedded with the “notion of their temporary membership within the natal home” (Dube L, 1988)10. During the hour of farewell, the songs usually talk about the accident of birth and the contrasting fortunes of daughters and sons. For example, in central India, the mother wails: “My child, had you been a son you would have lived with us and ploughed the field and looked after us. I would have served you hot rice. But now you are being sent out of the house like a corpse”. Some of these songs are accompanied by a description of the marital home and its problems, for instance, “I went inside and the maid-servant scolded me; fearing the maid-servant I went to my room; my sister-in-law abused me, fearing my sister-in-law, I went to the kitchen to cook and my mother-in-law threatened me. Please don’t be angry, mother-in-law, I am like a daughter to you – if you drive me out, where shall I go??” and the other which goes to the extent of presenting suffocation in the in-laws home, “the natal home is beautiful, there we can play to our hearts’ content; the in-law’s place is cruel, it stifles and kills”. 

All the above songs normalise the stereotypes and violence in the marriage. This coupled with the thoughts of love and romance becomes a nightmare for women when they are faced with the reality of it all.

Representation of women in public spaces

While the above arguments have been for the private sphere where the parents, relatives, proverbs and their books have an impact on the women, there is another sphere where the representation of women is hugely problematic. One such example is from the news media to discuss how women are seen by journalists. In case of news related to rapes, one can often see the headlines or statements as “The hymen of a student as a rape victim remains undamaged”, “Primary school student sexually abused by 6 youth all night long”, “A rapist suspect: I was just told to feel it, they said she is a ‘bitchy’ teen”. Here “all night long” gives the image of male superiority or rather toxic masculinity. Similarly, by labelling the victim as ‘bitchy’, the perpetrator becomes the victim in the public eyes – thus “her fault”. The first statement also conspires to gain sympathy for the perpetrator as the hymen was not broken and hence the psychological condition of the actual victim is not even worthy of the news. Thankfully, this narration has been changing ever since women have started joining the teams. 

Similar is the case of poetry, fiction and non-fiction where women are mostly passive and submissive. They accept marriage as their fate and since nothing can be done then, they suffer patiently. They are ever shy and demure as traditional Indian women should always be. However, women like Mahadevi Verma, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande and many more have given rise to female characters that long for freedom and justice for their personality, who rebel against the orthodox traditions of village life and often presents the miseries of women and the emotional turmoil they go through to come out of it (Vyomakesisri T, 2017)11.

The highly objectified portrayal of women in songs needs no introduction. Where on the one hand, women are portrayed to be those characters which will be used in the climax to blackmail the actor, on the other hand, they add spice to the otherwise masculine reel by being eye candies. The songs are sung by women and they often ask questions like “aag hai ye badan, kaun sa ang dekhoge (I have a sexy body, which part would you like to see)” from the movie Johny Mera Naam, and suggest things that might happen in due course of time “do ghoonth mujhe bhi pila de, dekh fir hota hai kya (let me have a peg or two and see what might transpire)” from the movie Jheel ke us paar, “har koi chahe mujhse milna akela (everyone wants to meet me alone)” from the movie Qurbani. If one looks carefully, these songs have no relevance to the script but a sexual being is always welcome in the movies to cater to the male gaze since masculinity is all about action and sex or rather response to the sexuality of women. 

Conclusion

Thus, language is essentially one of the most important tools that shape a woman and the way to liberty would constitute a change in the language. Feminists have come up with tales for young children that do not conform to the stereotypes, similarly, in other arenas an effort is being made to critically reflect on the language being used such as print media, fiction and so on to garner sensitivity towards women’s issues and move from gendered language to engendered narratives. Great care should be taken as to what kind of literature the young girls and boys are exposed to so that they can be aware of the social constructs from a very young age. This could have a significant impact on the way society perceives gender and stereotypical roles. The future is not very grim. The first steps to change the gendered literature have been taken. The journey should just continue.

Footnotes

1. Mutsumi Imai, Junko Kanero Takahiko Masuda. The relation between language, culture and thought. Vol. 8, April 2016, Pages 70-77

2. Geertz C: The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books; 1973.

3. Kashima Y: Culture comparison and culture priming: a critical analysis. In Understanding Culture: Theory, Research, and Application. Edited by Wyer RS, Chiu C, Hong Y. Psychology Press; 2009:53-77.

4. Duhjsterhuis A, Chartrand TL, Aarts H: Effects of priming and perception on social behavior and goal pursuit. In Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes. Edited by Bargh JA. Psychology Press; 2007: 51-131.

5. Srull TK, Wyer RS: The role of category accessibility in the interpretation of information about persons: Some determinants and implications. J Pers Soc Psychol 1979, 37:1660-1672.

6. Lakoff, R. (1973). Language and Woman’s Place. Language in Society, 2(1), 45-80. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from http://ezproxy.tiss.edu:2067/stable/4166707

7. Harper, H. (2007). Studying Masculinity(ies) in Books about Girls. Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne De L’éducation, 30(2), 508-530. doi:10.2307/20466648

8. CLASEN, TRICIA . 2010. “Taking a Bite Out of Love: The Myth of Romantic Love in the Twilight Series.” In Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media and the Vampire Franchise, edited by Melissa A. Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, 119–134. New York: Peter Lang Publishing. 400 JESSICA

 9. STARK, EVAN. 2007. Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 10. Dube, L. (1988). On the Construction of Gender: Hindu Girls in Patrilineal India. Economic and Political Weekly, 23(18), WS11-WS19. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4378429

11. Vyomakesisri, Tippabhotla. “Presentation of Women in Literature from Past to Present.” IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS), vol. 22, no. 11, 2017, pp. 18–20, http://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-jhss/papers/Vol. 22 Issue11/Version-9/C2211091820.pdf.


About the Author

Savita Tyagi, a social worker with specialization in Women Centered Practice and engineering background. She is passionate about technology and is looking for ways to use it to bring a change in the gender dynamics of the society. She is a Potterhead and would definitely visit the Hogwarts Castle one day.

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