I went to a Hen Party this last weekend and I got to thinking about the difference between the names of the female pre-wedding party and its male equivalent Stag party.
Hens and stags and the language we use.
Hens are domesticated, caged and perceived to be silly creatures. They fuss and peck, cluck and cackle.
The perception of the Stag however, is that of the noble wild beast, roaming free in the bush and cutting a fine figure as he stands proudly alone on the craggy peak. Stags roar, strut and rut.
These background associations lie underneath and unnoticed in our popular expressions.
But if we listen to those undercurrents we get a picture of how sexism is propped up in our language.
When listening to what we are saying, there are two major discords I loathe hearing.
The first is the sexism inherent in our speech and the second is the use of animal names to denigrate a woman.
Animal Farm was a book and then a movie that used farmyard animals to mirror human activity. However, our daily language doesn’t mirror back animal behaviour but instead reflects a horrible picture of humans.
We abuse and disrespect animals all the time in our speech, which isn’t actually surprising given the way we actually treat animals in our society.
It also suggests to me that despite humans having an inordinately high opinion of themselves as civilised, rational creatures high in the evolutionary tree, so far above the rest of the animal kingdom – we are in fact just another animal with a very thin veneer of civilisation.
I wonder if animals have all kinds of derogatory names in their language for humans - given what we do to them and our shared habitat. (According to WWF the world has lost half its wildlife in the last 40 years)
So we (other women as well as men) call a woman we don’t like a “cow”. Cows are still worshipped in India and once were in Europe (this very word is the name of the great Cow Goddess Europa!)
Cows are beautiful sensitive creatures who give us food and clothes. They are farmed for their milk and dairy products and sacrificed for their meat and leather.
This practice of calling women a “cow” to vilify her has arisen in our society over the last 30 years. Concurrently so too has the barbaric practice of factory farming become more prevalent. Farming animals as “product” with not an iota of appreciation for their sensitivities as sentient beings, has dangerous side-effects. In a society based on violence, denigration of nature and lack of respect for the weak and powerless, the powerful more and more despise anyone below them in the pecking order. I believe that misogyny in our language reflects this trend.
So here’s a list of words we use for women – all of which are belittling, demeaning or just plain despicable - or refer to women as sexual creatures.
Bird, chick, hen, dog, bitch, fox, vixen, cougar, cat, kitty, pussy, nag, porker, goose, bunny, beaver, queen bee, mother hen.
|Silly girls are birdbrains|
There are not so many words for men, who get called stud, stag, ram, goat (old goat), alley cat, ape – all of which are more or less admiring of sexual prowess and not usually degrading.
To call a woman a dog is to insult her to the max. A man is more likely to be named a ‘sly old dog’ as a term of affection or grudging admiration. A woman is ‘catty’ or in a ‘cat fight’. A man is an alley cat – quite a different feel for the cat association.
Should we be thankful for Catwoman? (who is of course a beautiful sex object.)
Other non- animal words are interesting too from a gendered viewpoint.
Women get called girls regularly although this is changing since the 1970s Women Movement (Just lately on radio, the ToppTwins discussed how it was permissible for other women to call them girls, but they considered it was totally not on for men to call them girls. If women can call the shots in this way, then times have changed. When I was growing up, ‘Girls’ were what grown women were regularly called by men.
We call women and men boys and girls “guys” these days. The word ‘guys’ is being taken over by women as an ungendered expression. But this type of change never occurs the other way. Hey Dolls! is not an expression that is going to be used in addressing the men in the audience for some time to come.
‘Babe’ is as close as it gets, and we only ever use that word for a man if we know him pretty well.
Women are called dolls, sluts, babes, dames, tarts, dishes (the food association), twats, bitches, witches, vamps, mean girls, bad girls, bimbos, fag hags, old bags, tricks, hussies, whores, tramps, slappers, hoes, floozies the village bike.
Like animal names they are all in the main, derogatory and abusive. Sexual knowhow is not celebrated as for a man, but becomes an insult.
The male equivalents are rather different and make a much shorter list.
Dude, He’s the Man, sugar daddy, babe- magnet, all refer once more to the man’s sexual talents (sigh).
Where are the male equivalents to bimbo, bitch, whore, etc etc ?
Homeboy or bro are often being taken over to refer to both sexes like ‘guy’.
Gigolo or stud – are these actually terms of abuse? – I think not, except for maybe gigolo. And there’s not really a female equivalent that I can think of for this term.
Cock, dick and prick refer to the masculine sex, but seem to have become only mildly abusive (maybe it’s because they flop). Whereas bitch has become shortened to ‘b’ and now can refer to men as well as women as an insult just because it IS a female word.
And then there’s a word that is probably the most obscene word we have and the most taboo.
Breaking taboos has become de rigeur during my lifetime and so the use of this very worst word you can call someone –of both sexes – has grown more popular. More women are using this to insult others they really hate.
|Primordial Goddess setting at Judy Chicago's Dinner Party|
Admittedly it makes a terrific explosive sound in the mouth that can be spat out with force and venom – a marvellous sounding expletive.
It is an old word and one that has been considered obscene in the English language before Shakespeare’s time. In Sumeria (ancient Iraq) Kunta meant “the one who has female genitalia – the Queen who invented writing”.
A cunt is the part of a woman’s body that we use to make love and sex - as well as the place where babies are born from. The life-giving part of our body is being used as the very worst word in the language.
|Virginia Woolf's plate|
It has replaced Fuck as number 1 abuse word. Fuck means to make sex or love. This word at least is something men and women do together. But cunt is all female.
What is wrong with us?
Cunts are deep, warm wonderful places of mystery and life. Women are the life-givers of our species. This is deep misogyny of the language and language is meant to be our highest form of expression as humans. Do we hate women – and by extension ourselves - this much?
|Susan B. Anthony's plate|
Can we reclaim the word – I’m sure we can together. But we do need to find an alternative to insult the people who do us injury.
Something hard that stands up to useage.
'Prick' just doesn’t stand up to cunt.
'Cock' has that great ‘k’ sound one needs in a satisfying expletive but it doesn’t the oomph either and anyway we can use ‘cockup’ in polite company these days.
Suggestions please – it’s a great conversation piece for a Hen’s party (cackle cackle!)
So to end on a joyful note and to revert to our animal theme – let us remember all you glorious women and lovely ladies – that there is one insult we can use solely for the males we loathe. Please forgive me all you beautiful piggies out there….
George Orwell in his masterpiece Animal Farm, did name the evil mastermind of Fascism – Napoleon. He was a pig!
A Male Chauvinist Pig (MCP) is the lowest form of human and just because there is so much piggery in this misogynist world – let us reclaim this wonderful epithet and use it when necessary and right!
And remember all you hens - at the next Hen’s party, the best way of enjoying yourself is to dance and cackle! Chicks live in cages - women are free.
|Georgia O Keefe, Petronilla de Meath, Hypatia & Trotula|