by Rita Maria Neyer
Here is a thought that many of you can probably relate to in one way or another (for women of colour, LBGTQ+, and non-binary people, the story would be even more complex, but I am bound to speak from my own experience as a cis-gender ‘white’ woman). Maybe a friend told you about a similar situation, or maybe you’ve been there yourself. You (male, *insert job description*, in your twenties/thirties/forties/etc.) are on a first date/waiting at the bus stop/talking/working with a woman (female, *insert job description*, in her twenties/thirties/etc.). You approach her to tell her that she looks very cute/sweet/sexy/adorable/fuckable.
Strangely enough, she is less than happy with your assessment because she thinks of herself as a smart, strong, independent, accomplished woman, and is sick of having to deal with men looking down on her, and expressing it through comments that implicitly or explicitly reduce her to a toy or sex object. She tells you to not call her that. How do you react?
- You get defensive and tell her that you meant it as a compliment, and that she should learn how to take a damn compliment.
- You insist, saying that it is just a fact that she is very cute/sweet/sexy/adorable/fuckable.
- You say that she is just not as much fun as you thought and leave, mumbling one last insult.
- You ask her to explain her point of view just to interrupt her mid-sentence, claiming that “it was just a compliment, though.”
- You think about what caused the cognitive dissonance between your compliment and how she reacted to it, show some respect by backing off, and do some damn research on language and sexism once you are back home.
Not a tough choice. Or is it?
Language is a powerful instrument. In the wrong hands – or mouth – it can easily turn into a weapon. It conveys emotions, content, feelings, social codes, compliments, insults… And very often the receiver’s perception is not the same as the speaker’s intended message. We have to remind ourselves of that every now and then! Honestly, I often doubt my own writing and speech these days: Is my phrasing acceptable? is it inclusive towards minorities? Could certain audiences be offended by this?
Yes, it can be frustrating, sometimes, when you have to roll around every word twice in your head and need thirteen attempts to write it down. It’s a Sisyphean task. Words change as language changes – rapidly. What you could say some 20 years ago is now prohibited. Just like that, one can’t use the A-, B-, C-, D-, … X-word anymore.
It’s easy to think, “this is all because some idiots made it offensive! They try to take away my free speech! I will show you fr…” But if you’re being honest, that little conscience within you, your Angel-self, knows that it’s not true. It has always been offensive and hurtful to those on the receiving end of the word. The only difference is that, now, they dare to point your attention to the fact. They put your nose right into the steaming heap of bullshit. And you can’t ignore them any longer because their voices and that stench are getting too obnoxious.
So you do what you always do when times are gettin’ tough: you run, and you hide. Behind something inconspicuous and inoffensive… A cover! Yes, that’s what you need!
What about nice talk? Hide it behind compliments. Keep them happy on the surface. But nice is the little brother of asshole, and hollow compliments are just a fart in the wind: they get your attention for a quick uncomfortable second, and then vanish without a trace. We know that now.
So, next try. What about humour? That’s perfect! You can just pretend that it was a joke! And those who won’t laugh you just call party poopers! Top it off with a layer of laughter. The ultimate weapon of mass suppression!
Your little Angel-you will hear this and will be very sad, because, there was some point in your existence, when you were little, your Angel-self wanted to become a non-denominational, anti-sexist, feminist, no-war, pro-justice, moral voice inside the head of one of those super awesome people on TV who change the world for the better, every single day of their meaningful life. This was before you even knew about social injustice and all those nasty -isms and chronically annoying gendered pronouns. Or even angels. You had your own set of values, and an open mind. This was sufficient for you to be happy. But, you know, the problem with an open mind is that people come and try to fill it…
So here you are. Full of the -isms you never knew you had or wanted, mind closed to the problems of the world, sitting comfortably on your cushy privilege, as you may or may not realize. And here she is, that cocky little bitch who asks you to not call her cute/sweet/sexy/adorable/fuckable. What? Now you can’t even say cute/sweet/sexy/adorable/fuckable anymore? What kind of world are we living in?
And the non-denominational Angel-you will grind its little gender-neutral teeth. It will whisper very, very quietly: “Ever thought about calling her something other than cute/sweet/sexy/adorable/fuckable? Something along the lines of smart/strong/independent/accomplished… No? Why not? How about you go home and do some introspection. And, since you’re already at it, some fucking research.”
Banner photography courtesy of Eric Montfort.