Here’s one piece of stereotypical advice that I urge everyone to heed — never call a woman crazy. The English language already implies it with even commonplace terms.
The word “lunatic” — which stems from Latin — originally referred to the cycles of the moon causing temporary madness. That, to you, perhaps, is not a revolutionary discovery. However, this term historically targeted women as the ones that experienced “insanity supposedly dependent on the phases of the moon.” Historically, people often thought the female menstrual cycle synced with the cycle of the moon.
Hysteria is historically a female-exclusive symptom of madness, the cure for which, according to Sigmund Freud, was getting married and having sex. Even in seemingly neutral terms, the English language is inherently gendered.
Western civilization was built on the ideal that women are the inferior sex. The language that is used in the modern era reflects those values clearly. The term “doctor,” for example — a supposedly gender-neutral term — is commonly associated with the pronoun “he” as opposed to “she.”
When someone is regarded as weak or cowardly, they are deemed a “p—y.” “You throw like a girl.” “Man up.” These examples demonstrate that men are linguistically portrayed as the stronger sex.
Linguistic sexism presents itself very clearly when we examine gendered derogatory terms such as b–ch, sl-t and w–re. These insults are used to target women and female-presenting people. As society in the 21st century becomes more progressive, it’s shocking that men still use these gendered derogatory terms so prolifically.
Since these gendered slurs don’t seem to be going away any time soon, how can women deweaponize them?
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This phrase promotes the idea that the ideal linguistic process for the deweaponization of terms is eradication. If no one uses the words any more, then they can no longer be harmful.
Let me be blunt. Eradication doesn’t work. The term “b–ch” has existed as a gendered derogatory term since the 1400s. The fact that this specific gendered slur and countless others have lasted 600 years proves that in spite of societal progress, gendered language survives the test of time.
In fact, gendered language doesn’t just survive, it persists against all odds. Our language has changed dramatically in the past few centuries. People used to be able to understand Shakespeare as if it were common everyday speech! Attempting to eliminate a word that survived 600 years in spite of massive linguistic developments just isn’t feasible.
Additionally, a main facet of eradication is telling people that they cannot, under any circumstances, say that word. Yet, telling the popular majority that they cannot say a word reserved for minority groups only makes some of that majority want to say it more. Attempts at eradicating the use of gendered derogatory terms will only create a taboo incentive for the term to be used more frequently and in the same derogatory manner.
But just because eradication is not effective doesn’t mean that the deweaponization of gendered derogatory terms is impossible. In fact, there is one very effective way to reduce these terms’ harmful impacts — reappropriation.
In the article “The Reappropriation of Stigmatizing Labels: The Reciprocal Relationship Between Power and Self-Labeling,” researchers define linguistic reappropriation as the theoretical model of “taking possession of a slur previously used exclusively by dominant groups to reinforce another group’s lesser status.”
In 10 different experiments, researchers encouraged oppressed groups such as women, racial minorities and sexual minorities to utilize derogatory terms historically used to oppress them, reclaiming the terms as their own in order to make themselves feel empowered. The research concluded that through this process of reclamation, “these labels were evaluated less negatively after self-labeling, and this attenuation of stigma was mediated by perceived power.” Essentially, the groups that fully embraced the use of the terms subsequently felt more empowered, rather than degraded.
This is why it feels so great to scream “I’m a b–ch, I’m a boss” along with Doja Cat in her song, “Boss B–ch.” The female rap industry, specifically, helped begin the process of reappropriation of gendered derogatory terms. Through its abundant use in the rap industry and more recently, the female rap industry, the phrase “bad b–ch” became positively connotated.
This is reappropriation in action. This phrase that contains a gendered derogatory term has become a phrase that does not promote degradation, but empowerment. The next steps for altering the connotations of other gendered slurs are well within our reach.
Those that linguistic sexism targets must have reclamation. I am, by no means, saying that men should not be involved in the reappropriation process. If I told men they couldn’t use these words, that would encourage the same taboo incentive that eradication does. What I am saying is that women shouldn’t be afraid of using these terms. In fact, they should use them frequently.
The best way to ensure that we, as women, are using gendered language in a positive and reappropriating way is to use the language to refer to yourself when you feel strong and powerful.
Also, avoid using gendered terms to put other women down. That is not reappropriation, but rather continuing the weaponization of these terms. Only use gendered language in a positive connotation. Language is constantly changing and shifting. I promise that if women all begin to call themselves “b–ches” in a positive way, the label will be de-stigmatized and will become a term of empowerment. Because reappropriation works.
A linguistic proposal known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that the language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality. Language matters. The way that we use the language at our disposal matters. In a very real sense, people can change the world with words alone.
So go out and change the world, b–ches.
Anna Fischer writes about female empowerment, language, and literature. She’s really into bagels. Write to her at [email protected].