What's in a Word? Objectifying with Language


[This post may be NSFW thanks to language usage. My apologies.] “I meant it as gender neutral.”

This was the defense of a guy I blocked on twitter last week for using the word “cunt” in response to something I said – because he meant it as gender neutral and was using it to describe a man, it was no longer a gendered slur.

Oh. Okay.

It’s not that the c-word is necessarily more powerful or offensive, but that it is inherently, necessarily, gendered. And in a benevolently sexist quirk of American culture, “cunt” will get you fined by the FCC while “dick” will get you laughs. The word and its place in American culture says “being a vagina is a terrible, awful, horrible thing to be.” “Dick” is considerably less terrible.

Within a few hours of that incident, a friend of mine emailed me this piece, from new start up, PubScout. The site – featuring an all white, all male writing staff – decided that personifying an inanimate object as a “whore” would be pretty damn hilarious.

Cue humorless feminist face.


Yeah, that one.

I feel sometimes like grabbing a megaphone and standing in a square to yell “WORDS. MEAN. THINGS.” It seems that I’m saying that more often than anything else in my life. Words have social and oppressive implications and we ignore that at our peril.

When we compare things – inanimate, consumerist objects – to real life people in real life situations, we degrade people. We put them into a category with objects, and we dehumanize them. It’s no surprise that women are one of those groups that get compared to objects more often than not.

Like this ad from Sunday’s Superbowl:


The woman is only respected when she is a mute robot, not a literal woman.

Maybe ads with literal women treat them better?

How about this Audi ad?


Nope. That’s actually sexual assault. The woman is a prize to be taken, not a person with her own motivations and desires and who probably didn’t want to be kissed.

What about here?

And here?

The message we’re continually bombarded with is “women exist not for themselves but for the pleasure of men.” It’s the definitive male gaze.

And that is what bothers me about PubScout doing it in writing, about men using slang words for certain body parts as negative, about the narrative of “he throws like a girl” or “don’t pussy out,” or “man up.” When our very language and our very humor reflect the idea that women – especially vulnerable groups like sex workers, which is what is implied when we call things “whores” – are objects for consumption, it makes it really hard to change and advocate for the idea that women are human beings.

This is the second thing I would yell from my megaphone: that women are people, not things. But our language and our laughter often reinforce this idea – that women are the butt of jokes, that calling something a “whore” is to be funny, not a subjugation of a vulnerable group. But when we laugh at that joke – racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, etc – what we’re really saying is “haha, it’s funny to be you; you’re the thing we’re laughing at.”

And it makes it a lot harder to find empathy or solidarity with other people when your very language betrays you.

So guys – PubScout and dude who said “cunt” in particular – don’t be that guy. Don’t use your language to oppress and harm. We want to work with you, we really do, but we can’t do it if you don’t see us as people.

feminismDianna Anderson