Although words themselves are not responsible for sexism, many perpetuate the idea that men and women are so different that you must use separate words—even if they are doing the same thing.
When I was a child, there was a time when I did not know what the word ‘actress’ meant. I did know what ‘actor’ meant and just assumed, naively, that there was just one word for those people that I saw in movies and TV shows. Eventually, someone corrected me. I can’t remember exactly who, or what they said, but I vividly remember my confusion. Why does there have to be a separate word for women? What is so irrevocably different about women that we needed to create a whole new word for a woman who acts?
This confusion, or maybe a better word would be disappointment, has followed me my whole life. One day, my dad was mentioning a doctor’s appointment that he had to go to the next day. He said he was going to see his “lady doctor.” He spat the word ‘lady’ like it was some sort of irredeemable character defect. I asked him why he had to say lady. Even if she was a woman, she was still a doctor, wasn’t she? “She’s a lady. So I call her my lady doctor.”
In high school, another division jumped out, this time with sports teams. I wasn’t a Badger—I was a lady Badger. This was particularly noticeable in basketball, when the girls team played earlier on in the evening. Most parents were still at work. You could tell that the boys game was about to start when the stands started filling up, until there were double the spectators idly chatting during the girls game while they waited for the boys to come out. The girls team was nearly undefeated while the boys were last in their division. Despite this, the boys still found it necessary to degrade the girls, saying that our division was much easier and that they were better than we ever could be.
Language has always been a special interest of mine, particularly where it pertains to sexism. Language is steeped in history, particularly a history that wasn’t kind to women or any kind of minority. Some of the outdated words are practically laughable now: murderess, comedienne, aviatrix, authoress. We can look back and roll our eyes, patting ourselves on the back for moving past gendering nouns. However, there are still some terms that haven’t quite phased out of our vocabulary—such as actress, women’s basketball, chairman, waitress and fireman. In modern society where we are starting to question the division between genders, these words must be discontinued.
Some of the outdated words are practically laughable now: murderess, comedienne, aviatrix, authoress. However, there are still some terms that haven’t quite phased out of our vocabulary—such as actress, women’s basketball, chairman, waitress, and fireman.
Although the words themselves are not responsible for sexism, they perpetuate the idea that men and women are so different that you must use separate words even if they are doing the same thing. Both waiters and waitresses serve the same purpose: taking orders, delivering food to the customers and taking payment. Actors and actresses do the exact same thing, and yet awards shows like the Oscars have separated them into different categories.
This unnecessary division also has a distinct power dynamic. Feminine words often have negative connotations. When the word actress was first introduced, it was only used for female actors who were rumored to be promiscuous. This is still relevant today. When I think of an ‘actress,’ Marilyn Monroe immediately comes to mind. She is notable for being one of the biggest sex symbols in history. Promiscuity and acting are still inherently tied together for women who dream of being on the big screen. Male actors, on the other hand, are not as sexualized.
Thinking about the gendered words themselves, of the generic character that comes to mind, can help us understand the power dynamic. Picture a king and a queen. The king is undoubtedly more powerful than his queen, and it’s not necessarily our fault for jumping to that conclusion. We are just mirroring the characters we’ve seen in the media and the inherent biases in the gendered words.
The power imbalance is undeniable. When boys are growing up, they can fantasize about being anything they can dream of. They can dream about becoming kings and warriors, while little girls just have to settle for being queens or princesses, significantly less powerful titles. When I was little and imagining my life as a fantasy world, I remember telling my mother I wanted to be a king. She smiled like I was being a little ridiculous and placatingly said that I could be a queen instead.
I remember frowning and thinking, “No. I want to be a king. Just one that happens to be a girl.”