Words Are Powerful
And they matter, not just because of the power of some words to ~offend~ others (which is important, but it's also kind of passive, in that, it puts the problem in the ears of others, rather than in the mouth of us, the speakers) but because the words we choose use do not just express our viewpoints (including our prejudices, conscious or not) but also, actively shape our perceptions.
I got this wrong, the last time I tried to talk about it. It got bogged down in mudslinging with someone who felt personally insulted by the context that provoked it. I didn't know as much then, as I have now read, about linguistics and power.
But I keep coming back to it, this past week. At least three things got me thinking about it.
1) A series of posts on Racialicious about not just the *use* of an incredibly offensive racial slur on a placard during the NYC Slutwalk, but also about the refusal of a group of white feminists to engage in debate about, or understand why it was not OK. Sure, I recognise that my understanding of racial issues is crude at best and I have (and continue to) get it wrong and try to learn from my mistakes, but jesus christ, the lack of understanding - or even willingness to listen - made even me cringe. Dear fellow white feminists: we do not get to define the bounds of racism. We just don't.
2) A twitter conversation about this piece on Sociological Images about the different rates of sexualisation in images of men vs women on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. That was the word used. Sexualisation. Yet the man whose retweeted link alerted me to the article chose to use the word "Stripperfication." (And oddly, tried to claim that the reason for changing the word was the 140 character limit of twitter, even though, as you can see "Stripperfication" - with all its inherent slut-shaming and demonisation of sex workers - is actually a longer word than that the researchers used.)
And oddly, even though the women in the images displayed in the post were all the kind of passive, childlike (young, white, slim, blonde) images of submissive and objectified women that tend to annoy feminists - when he responded to my concerns, the person that raised *his* ire on the "stripperfication" front was Rihanna, who is well known for her images of assertive, female-directed depictions of sexuality which highlight her own desire and agency of the kind that some feminists call "sex positive" and other feminists, well, aren't so sure. It's complicated. We're still working this one out, but Feminists are allowed to agree to disagree.
Thing is, when I pointed out that perhaps there was a difference between passive sexualisation (like the Rolling Stones covers) and the kind of active, agental sexuality expressed by Rihanna, Electrik Red or Nicki Minaj, he told me that "Minaj's own plan is irrelevant." That's right. The agency, actions and sexuality of women - especially Women of Colour, whose sexuality has been long been demonised - is irrelevant, in the face of White Man On The Internet, Splainin'.
He then went on to tell me that the whole visual and sexual marketing of boybands like Take That is based *entirely* on gay culture because oh yeah right, women aren't ~visual~ in their sexuality and all images of naked men are homoerotic - sorry, I just forgot all that, with me being a visual artist who works with erotic images of men sometimes even for a feminist porn magazine.
Then of course, he starts in on how I'm just being picky and "squandering my energy" by "berating someone about the language they use" because that's the problem here. Just the language, and not the racist, sexist, slut-shaming, agency-denying, demonising-of-marginalised-people (because when he's saying the problem is "stripperfication" or "pornification" that's not making negative judgements about sex workers, not at all) ideas inherent in those words that he's using.
Because, yeah, I agree that the endless dichotomy of "men clothed, women naked" is something that I'm really tired of. But I don't take the easy route of blaming strippers, I see this as being down to the endless pressure that men act, women appear and women will only ever be judged on their appearances, whether they are strippers, or platinum recording artists or cabinet ministers. The pearl-clutching over Rihanna or Britney, it's that age-old tool of patriarchy, that you narrow and constrict the paths and means available for women to achieve power or success - and then you condemn the women who *do* play by those rules and use those paths.
There are so many words that he could have chosen. Yes, I have a problem with the *commercialisation* of sex and the sexualisation of commercials. I have a problem with the *genderfication* of childhood which involves the *pinkification* of girlhood - my biggest problem isn't that children are being *sexualised* but they are being squished into narrower and more constricting definitions of gender, of which a highly sexualised and passive presentation of femininity is just a part. But do we talk about body image, media literacy and the Beauty Myth? No. We talk about Strippers and their bad, pornified sexuality corrupting our youth because demonising sex workers has never been used to justify the oppression of whole classes of women, oh no.
So is this a petty argument about just ~language~? No, I'm afraid it's not. It's an argument about agency and power, and who gets to define those things, and when you tell me that women's desires don't exist, and the artist's own plans are *irrelevant* and I should just STFU and not challenge your assumptions because they're just words - I'm sorry, but we are not on the same page here, and you and that whole "not listening to women" thing are part of the problem in a way that a lady taking her clothes off to pay the rent, well, isn't.
See, this is the thing. It is not just words being ~offensive~ - the words you *choose* tell others the concepts *you* believe, the ideals you buy into and accept as reality.
3. Reading an interview with a band I actually really like and admire, and I think that they were vastly underrated, and have a pretty important story to tell, about how the blossoming diversity of the musical landscape of the 90s, got shut down in the face of the monolith that was Britpop, and how that was all tied up in notions about class. And it was challenging reading to me, sure, because I'm middle class (I was born, by accident, in the very "High Essex" he talks about Blur being a part of and yeah, I'm a Blur fan, though that meant a slightly different thing in the US than it did here) but it's good for me to read viewpoints that challenge my preconceptions.
And there it is. 5 questions down. The "rape used as a cheeky metaphor for things that are not rape*."
(*And before someone decides to be clever and point out that I have used a rape metaphor on this blog before I will point out that I was comparing the emotions of a situation where I felt powerlessness, with the emotions inspired by a real sexual assault that actually happened to me. Not quite the same thing.)
And that is one of those red-letter words that makes me instantly click the little red X in the top corner of my browser. (Ditto rape jokes, which get you an instant unfollow on twitter.)
It's not even about being triggered any more, even though I am a rape survivor. Many other people have written about why this is not OK better than I ever could. And it's just... Why did you have to do that? Of all the metaphors you could have chosen? Pillaging? Harrowing, with its ready made class associations? Here, you are trying to get me, the reader, to align with your status of being marginalised due to being working class, yet you pick a word which so deliberately marginalises *me*, as a woman and a rape survivor? I can't even...
Words are important. Words *mean* things, both overtly and by implication. The words that you pick show what you believe, what you value, what you disparrage. The words that you use describe your world, but the words that you consider available, or appropriate also *define* your world - both internally, and externally, for the people who read or hear them. It is not just that they are offensive to others, but that they show your *own* prejudices, and that maligns you as much as it offends others.
I have probably made mistakes in this blog posts, I am sure that I have expressed mine own subconscious prejudices. If I have done this, tell me, because I never claimed to be perfect, but I am *trying* to learn.