Sexism and language: don't call me chick!

Wednesday, May 12, 1999 - 10:00

By Sarah Peart

When I heard someone yell out "Hey chick!", I calmly turned around prepared to explain to this juvenile male that I don't appreciate being referred to as a fluffy baby chicken. To my shock, I found that it was a feminist woman.

The idea that women can "reclaim" words that have always been sexist is virtually received wisdom in student feminist circles. A quick flick through many magazines and a glance at some TV shows show that it is "geek girls", "riot girls" and "cyber-chicks" who are presented as the strong assertive women of the "post-feminist" era.

Words that have previously been rejected by feminists as sexist are now being promoted by the billionaire makers of pop culture, sold to women as their "road to liberation". The fact that sexist terminology is being adopted by women who believe in and actively campaign for equal rights should ring alarm bells among those of us who want to see the feminist movement making progress.

Pivotal to the argument that one can "reclaim" words is the idea that they can exist outside of a social context or can take on different social meanings in different contexts. For example, a growing number of feminists argue that the consequences for women of a man on a building site calling a woman "chick" are different (i.e., negative) from those of a lesbian woman calling her partner "chick" (i.e., endearing).

While not denying that language is used in different contexts with different intents, we should also recognise the overarching context of the sexist society we live in. Words don't exist in neutral space, from where we grab them as we choose and inject our own meaning into them. The meaning of words — how and why they are generally used by the majority of people — is determined by the social setting.

Even in one's "personal context", the bigger societal context has an impact. For example, in a relationship between an Asian and an Anglo, the latter calling the former "slanty eyes" is unlikely to be understood by the many people as particularly endearing.

Within the small circles of feminist activists on university campuses and/or living in inner-city ghettos of progressive-minded people, the intent of using the word "chick" or "girl" may not be sexist. But in general society, these words are still used overwhelmingly to denigrate or trivialise women. That's why women who are perceived to have power in society are not labelled in this way.

Are feminists empowering themselves and undermining the sexist nature of these words by using them? Far from it. Rather, such usage undermines feminists' efforts to convince more and more people that sexist language reflects gender inequality and should be rejected.

Last year, the women's edition of the Sydney University student newspaper, Honi Soit, was renamed Honi Slut. The issue, which was produced by feminist women, contained a photograph of the campus women's officers topless and with "slut" written across their breasts.

This did absolutely nothing to challenge the use of sexist language on campus. On the contrary, it legitimised the use of the word slut in reference to women, making it harder for women to challenge men who call them slut.

There is nothing empowering about trying to "reclaim" words that are used to describe women in a belittling and abusive way. Anita Harris, a lecturer in women's studies at Deakin University, explains: "I am not convinced by the argument that using the bad girl tag is part of a feminist reclamation and redefinition of pejorative words like ... spinster and hag. This is unlikely to have ironic resonance outside an individual clique. Proclaiming oneself to be a slut ... [is] surely lost in a patriarchal culture that is forged on this same representation of women."

The postmodernist idea that we can redefine our own reality through language is doomed to fail women. Parodying sexist language does not change the objective reality of women's lives in a sexist society, a reality fraught with fear of rape, discrimination in the workplace, lack of access to abortion and so on. The idea that we can change sexist reality by using the language of our oppressors is illusory.

While changing language cannot change reality, language does influence how people think about reality. Insistence on the use of non-sexist language forces an acknowledgment that women are denigrated and oppressed, and that resistance to that oppression is possible.

The women's liberation movement campaigned for public acceptance of gender-neutral terms such as chairperson, firefighter or police officer. The ability to promote non-sexist terms reflects the relative strength of feminist consciousness in society.

These efforts, because they involve explaining sexism and the impact it has on women, can help to develop a better understanding among more people about how sexism operates and thereby encourage non-sexist behaviour.

Over time, given developments which have a profound impact on the majority of people's consciousness, the meaning of words can change. Gay used to mean happy; today it refers to a male homosexual.

But while people can debate the extent to which some words have or have not been "reclaimed", it has always been the strength and public impact of mass movements against oppression that have determined how the words used to describe the oppressed group have changed. In today's context of conservative backlash and the gradual erosion of feminist consciousness, using the word "chick" is neither personally empowering nor a challenge to the sexist status quo.

Even if the generally understood meaning of some words used to describe women does change, this doesn't in itself alter capitalist society's reliance on (and constant efforts to reinforce) the oppression of women.

If our aims are to build a strong movement for the liberation of women and strengthen feminist consciousness, using the word "chick" is not going to help. The fact that increasing numbers of feminists are not convinced of this illustrates the success of the current backlash against the women's liberation movement.

So don't call me chick!

[Sarah Peart is the Sydney Resistance organiser].

From GLW issue 360