Previously published on Words are My Weapons
As a girl, a woman, a member of the female species, I’ve lived my whole life in a world where the language and culture routinely portray me as weak and less valuable, just by virtue of my sex. How often are phrases like women’s work, sissy (a word that originated as term for “sister”), acting like a girl and more derogatory terms like being a pussy and the advice to grow a set of balls, tossed around without a second thought?
These words are used as insults and the message behind the insult is clear: to be a woman is to be weak, to be a man is to be strong.
There are moments where it bothers me, deeply, and complaints to many men throughout my life have generally been dismissed with accusations of being dramatic or that I’m “making a big deal out of nothing” or “reading too much into it”. Sadly, complaints to even some women are similarly dismissed with the added rationalization that it’s “just the way it is”. I’ve been told that the words our society, our world, uses to minimize women are just that, words, that don’t really mean anything. But the thing is, they do mean something and over time they can mean everything.
I’m mother to two daughters, ages 8 and 5, both bright and full of joy, innocence, and optimism about the world around them. The thought of my daughters being dismissed as less than simply for being female both angers and saddens me. My husband and I love to tell our daughters that they are strong, smart human beings, capable of reaching any goal they set.
Yet behind the scenes, the language that surrounds them tells them a different story.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I sat in our living room watching the movie Captain America: The First Avenger. My oldest wandered in to ask me a question and sat to watch for a few minutes. The scene she happened to come in during was the one in which Peggy Carter is addressing the new army recruits. She calls the all male recruits ladies. My daughter turned to my husband genuinely confused and asked “Daddy, why did she call those men ladies?”
What followed was his trying to gently explain that Agent Carter meant that as an insult and then explaining why that was wrong, while I tried to maintain my composure. I wanted to scream, “Because it’s sexist bullshit! And I’m pretty sure Peggy Carter could kick those guys’ asses!” I wanted to scream that, but of course I didn’t. I calmly added (although my husband might have a different version of events in which I was not so calm at all) that because some people think women are weaker than men, they call men women to insult them. My daughter thought that was crazy and didn’t make any sense.
I hope she always believes that.
Recently, the company Always launched the Like a Girl advertising campaign. Yes I know, Always is a company trying to sell a product, but it doesn’t negate the power of the video and the power of the message. All the participants were asked to demonstrate doing things like running and throwing like a girl. The differences in the responses between the young girls and the older ones are vast and it saddened my heart to watch it.
But I am watching it first hand in real time, unfolding slowly before me, in my own girls. At ages 8 and 5, they do believe themselves to be smart, strong and capable of anything they put their minds to. I don’t want that to change. I don’t want them to one day hear the words like a girl and think that means less than. I never want my daughters, your daughters, your sisters, your nieces, your girlfriends, or you to accept that as truth. I never want your sons, nephews, brothers, husbands, fathers, uncles and boyfriends to think that a man’s strength is defined by the perception that a woman is weak.
Gender doesn’t determine your strength, your intelligence, or your worth, and I want you all to always believe that.