Sexism In English

This is a response essay to “Sexism in English: Embodiment and Language”. By Alleen Pace Nilsen. If you would like to read this, click the link below:

Alleen Pace Nilsen wrote this after a very blatant set of sexist experiences in Afghanistan. Causing her to decide to study out sexism when she got home, and what better way to study it except through the English language.

Throughout her study, she found many interesting points that she summed up using three simple titles: “Women Are Sexy; Men Are Successful”, “Women Are Passive; Men Are Active”, “Women are Connected with Negative Connotations; Men with Positive Connotations” (Nilsen 160, 163,166). She then illustrates her points using words of the English language, taking a dictionary as her main source and guide, to show just how many assumptions we make because of a person’s gender.  In the end she does say that some of these sexist words are being replaced and she is glad that is so, but she would like to see more of this change.

I was neither in full agreement or full disagreement with Nilsen. I found some of her observations to be spot-on and some to be over analytic or simply viewed through the wrong lenses. In other words: Yes, there are sexist Connotations and injustices in the English language. However, not everything that draws a distinguished line between the sexes is actually sexist, and sometimes sexism can be confused with a simple respect for gender.

Nilsen started with “Women are Sexy; Men Are Successful”, therefore, I will start with it as well. In general this was one of the sections I actually mostly agreed with her views. Nonetheless, she almost killed her title with her first paragraph, by saying, “… in American culture a women is valued for the attractiveness and sexiness of her body, while a man is valued for his physical strength and accomplishments.” (Nilsen 160). This, to me, is a slight contradiction to what she is trying to say. By saying that “… a man is valued for his physical strength…” she is basically saying men are considered “sexy” too, just in a different way. When I saw this, it annoyed me. Yet, her observations and detailed examples in the section were very convincing and her point was made clear, despite her rough start.

In section two, “Women are Passive; Men are Active” you begin to see the tainted view that Nilsen carries out into her writing. She opens the section using the illustration of a wedding in progress. “’…Who gives the bride away’?” and the father answers, ‘I do,’…” (Nilsen 163). Nilsen claims that “The idea that a bride is something to be handed over… goes back to the days when a man’s servants, his children, and his wife were all considered his property.” (Nilsen 163). In this respect she is right, but these days are far different then the days of old. Today a father would never dream of considering his daughter his property, as if she were an animal to be handed or sold off to the highest bidder. In fact, I just went to a wedding two weeks ago and those same words were quoted. It isn’t because the father and groom were sexist, it’s because it was symbolic and respectful of the brides wish to become a part of the groom and his wish to become an equal part of her. It is also a way for the father to show the young man that he is handing off a great jewel to him, and that he (the young man) should respect and care for it.

Even though this observation was obviously wrong, Nilsen insisted on bringing in yet another faulty piece of evidence to prove “Women are Passive; Men are Active”.  She makes a reference to sex and how the man is considered the active party by being able to take “…away her virginity” (Nilsen 163). While a woman is passive because someone can only say “she lost her virginity”(Nilsen 163).  This is by far the most twisted thing I have ever heard, when it comes to sexual references. A woman can just as easily take a man’s virginity as a man could take a woman’s. The term coined in the song by Al Hofman and Dick Manning  “Takes Two to Tango,” is a perfect illustration in this instance. Just as it takes two to dance the Tango it takes a man who wants to give or take “virginity”, and a woman who wants to as well; or vice-versa(Nilsen 163).

Women are Passive, what poppy-cock. In this section it almost sounds as if Nilsen is trying to convince us, that the Groom should be given away to the bride, and the woman should grow the male sex organ, with very slanted arguments, over analysis, and unconvincing evidence.

Nilsen’s final observations in “Women are Connected with Negative Connotations; Men with positive Connotations”, are not quite so outlandish, but still contain a remnant of her feminist bias (Nilsen 166). She opens this section far more convincingly then the previous two, by using the example of the words shrew and shrewd. “The word shrew taken from the name of a small but especially vicious animal was defined in my dictionary as ‘an ill-tempered scolding woman,’ but the word shrewd taken from the same root was defined as ‘marked my clever, discerning awareness’ and was illustrated with the phrase ‘a shrewd businessman,’”(Nilsen 166). The use of this language illustration fully agreed with the subject and made me think of just how sexist we are.

She backs this up with another great illustration of our idolization of the male. “If a little girl acts like a tomboy, most parents have mixed feelings, being at least partially proud. But if their little boy acts like a sissy (derived from sister), they call a psychologist,” (Nilsen 166). I had never noticed this before, but once I had read it I realize I have seen this multiple times: A girl riding her brothers bike, with Buzz Light-Year stickers on it,  no big deal. Yet, if a boy wanted to borrow his sister’s bike that was plastered with Hannah Montana, there would be a problem. A girl borrowing her boyfriends oversized Broncos sweat-shirt. Yet, if he asked to borrow her white with pink striped Nike sweat-shirt she would laugh at him.

Then Nilsen said “When a little girl is told to be a lady, she is being told to sit with her knees together and to be quiet and dainty. But when a little boy is told to be a man, he is being told to be noble, strong and virtuous” (Nilsen 166). First off, I know plenty of women that I would consider to be ladies that talk more than most men. Does this make them any-less lady like? Absolutely not. Therefore, Nilsen’s definition of “Lady like” is definitely out of date (Nilsen 166). Secondly, what’s wrong with the man being what a man should be? Men were wired toward being “Noble, strong and virtuous” (Nilsen 166). Granted not all men become these things, but neither do all women become true ladies.

I was raised in an environment of traditional chivalry and respect for the opposite sex; and along with that came a pride or dignity in my sex. We should take pride in our gender, because the day we stop taking pride in our gender and its traditional treatment of others, is the day that we truly have to worry about sexism. Fortunately I think that day has come and gone.

Even though I have much criticism for Alleen Pace Nilsen’s work, I must say I admire her. She wrote a very eye catching title, and a thought provoking text to back it up. Yes, I do not agree with her feminist stand point, but no, I do not consider her work a failure because of our different views. Nilsen portrays this urgency to stop sexism, which is good, but she does so by nit-picking at simple respect for and between the genders; causing more harm than help. Then again she does bring some underlying tones and wrong perspectives out of the shadows, which we need to take note of and strive to change. In all, this essay was a good read. It was filled with a great many observations and thoughts, that are far deeper than most writing of these days.

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