Language Can Make Women Disappear
- Europeans play football
- Americans play baseball
- Australians are bear-drinking surfies
A few years ago (when both language and culture were more sexist than today) Dale Spender asked some teens to play a game. She made statements like those above and asked if they could guess the rule behind the game. Girls were quicker to catch on:
You pretend you’re talking about everybody but you don’t. It’s only men.
Basically, they were using language to make women disappear. The boys had a lot of fun with this game.
Until she changed the rule.
Let’s make men disappear
“Now let’s make men disappear,” suggested Spender.
- Adolescents think only of marriage and makeup
- Australians look good in bikinis
The girls had a lot of fun. But the boys grew hostile and withdrew. They didn’t like feeling excluded and not counting.
Why didn’t the girls get upset when they were “disappeared?”
Probably because girls were so used to it that it had come to feel natural and normal. Girls had grown used to being secondary and left out.
People are much less likely to only say “he” instead of “he and she” these days. But it still happens. But “he” still usually comes before “she,” making men primary.
And it’s still not uncommon for humans, male and female, to be called:
Man, mankind, brotherhood, fellowship…
We still talk of chairmen, congressmen and mailmen… and “man’s best friend,” the dog — if less so than in the past.
Psychological consequences of words
Words affect our psyches. That’s why the totalitarian master planners of George Orwell’s 1984 sought to rid the world of words. They wanted to remove the thoughts that lie behind them.
Helen Keller knew this from first hand experience. Born blind and deaf, she did not learn language for many years. During that time she had very few thoughts, she said.
Language works a bit like covert propaganda. We hear it all of our lives from the time we are tiny — a time when we are not sophisticated enough to think critically about the things we hear. So it all seeps into our unconscious.
And so we unconsciously learn our place in society.
Girls learn that they are the more invisible and secondary sex.