‘Female’ is an adjective, not a noun.

The language we use matters, even if we don’t think it does.

by MATT STOKES | SEPTEMBER 15, 2014

Years ago I made the decision to stop saying the word “fag.” I don’t think I was a homophobe back then, and I used the word in the same way that South Park once argued is okay—as a synonym for “lame,” not in reference to a gay person. But still, I had been persuaded by enough gay people that the word is hurtful in any context, and decided that they, not I, should make that call. So I eliminated that word (along with “gay” in the similar sense, as in, “that’s so gay, brah!”) from my vocabulary altogether. Because I’ve been writing on the internet for so long, I have so many things that I wrote from long ago where words like “retarded” are in such casual use that I recoil reading them now. I never intended offense, but I arrogantly thought that the lack of bad intentions exonerated me from the polluting effect language can have.

Similarly, I was made aware of how important language is in devaluing women. There are obvious things, like, “Don’t be a sissy!” and “You play like a girl!” but I’m speaking more broadly. The most important thing I learned was this: There is only one appropriate way to refer to a female adult, and that is to call her a woman. This means not calling female adults “girls,” “ladies,” or “females.”

That last one surprised me, but it wouldn’t have had I given it any thought. “Female” is an adjective, not a noun—it’s “a female dinosaur,” not “a dinosaur that is a female”—and is generally only used in the anatomical sense. To call a woman a female is to dehumanize her, to reduce her to animal status. As soon as this clicked for me, I started noticing how often people say, “a female” or “females,” and every time it made me cringe.

I started to pay attention to the way I used language in relation to sex, and I noticed something peculiar: When I referred generally to a man, I would say “person”—as in, “That person over there”—but when referring generally to a woman, I’d say “woman.” In my mind, the default person could be assumed to be a man, and if it was a woman, I should specify otherwise. This kind of thinking is as old-fashioned and screwed-up as phrases like “lady doctor” or “lady lawyer,” it just isn’t as obvious because it’s beneath the surface. I have worked to deprogram myself of this way of speaking and thinking.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of the Ray Rice/Janay Palmer domestic violence story that’s been all over the news this week. The relationship between language and the treatment of women has been richly explored by many of the great feminist thinkers of the last century, so I’m not exactly breaking new ground here. But I do want to stress how important it is that, to fight endemic problems like domestic violence, we have to expand far away from the problem and change things that seem unrelated. It includes rethinking the language we use.

It also includes challenging our assumptions about the world. I used to think that women were inherently inferior to men when it came to comedy and rock music. I said, “If women are just as good as men at rock, why aren’t there any great woman guitar players?” What I never considered was the socio-cultural barrier to rock music for women and girls, how much better women have to be than men at rock music to even get any attention, how much we discourage girls from pursuing playing guitar and playing in bands in their childhood and teenage years. This same principle applies to comedy as well. It took marrying a very funny woman for me to realize this, but it shouldn’t have.

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