This is a response to the New York Times article “Ladies, We Have a Problem,” and a discussion that resulted from it.Near the end of the piece, Rebecca Traister states:
Social progress is imperfect, full of half-truths and sloppy misrepresentations. After all, we celebrate the victories of a civil rights movement that was shot through with misogyny, and of a women’s movement riddled with racial, class and sexual resentments. Fighting for power is a complicated, messy process, especially for complicated, messy human beings. Often, the best we can hope for is that our efforts draw a spotlight.
And she’s absolutely right. It is a messy process, and it doesn’t help that the tools we have to use to fight for power–specifically language–are damaged and imperfect at best and completely user dependent. I can use the same tool in a completely different way than my friend sitting next to me. This linguistic variation is at the heart of the SlutWalk debate and the source of my current heartache.
There are so many cries that linguistic reclamation or appropriation is an effort in futility surrounding SlutWalk and the larger theoretical linguistic ideas embedded in it. One group cannot change the way the masses think. Continuing the propagation of pejoratives is counter productive and wrong. But that hasn’t stopped groups from trying. And, feminist groups are among the most active participants in efforts of linguistic reformation, and their vocabulary bank runs the gamut from extremely hard, jarring words like “slut,” “bitch,” “cunt” to softer words like “girl” or “lady.” I’ll spend time treating each term or group in more detail in another entry, but for now, what’s important is that each of these terms has been the target of reappropriation.
So, the question raised by the SlutWalk spectacle and accompanying article is questioning whether or not these efforts are successful. It seems the masses are saying “NO.” This troubles me. Feminists–another word identified as being in need of reclaiming–are hyper aware of the power of language and loud, proud language at that. But there seems to be a shying away from analyzing and refining these techniques.
Opponents to reclamation are frantically fighting to keep these bad-guy words under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind. But just as they argue that reclamation doesn’t work because there isn’t total buy-in for the new meaning, trying to sweep all these words under a large collective consciousness blanket isn’t going to work either.
Trying to hide these words allows them to keep their bad-guy power. The longer they rest unused or used in the same ways without any tinkering, the stronger their pejorativity becomes.
Even if it is sloppy and imperfect, efforts to reclaim words like the ones identified by the feminist movement is a grab for power. Using a word like “slut” in daylight by those the term is most often used against is taking away some of its power to cause pain. Insults only work if we let them–that whole “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” thing. There is value in this, feminists. It shows a group that is refusing to let these linguistic tools, sharpened and poised to cut them down, staring at the sharp edge, knowing what it could do, but refusing to let it. In that moment, the weapon falls and fails.
This brings me to the image that accompanies this post. Saying “I’m not a feminist, but” acknowledges feminist as a negative thing. The second part of the image reclaims the term, “But nothing. I’m a feminist because.” We need to take ownership of these terms. We need to taste their bitterness and rework the recipe to make it sweeter. Banning these words from our vocabulary isn’t going to make them go away, just like banning abortions in certain states won’t stop women from seeking them out–that’s another blog post in itself.
To close, I’m going to reclaim myself:
I’m a feminist because I believe every individual should have the freedom and power to choose how to govern and use their own mind and body.
And, part of that choice is language. Who are we, the fighters for freedom and choice, to say what a person can and cannot say or think? Linguistic conservativism does nothing except to keep the wicked power in pejorative words.We should embrace and maybe even encourage progressive usages of words of all flavors. It is through this kind of linguistic fluidity that meanings are made and changed, and we have the power to be these agents of change.