By Erin Entrada Kelly
I once worked as a journalist for a regional newspaper. One morning, back then, I discovered two full pots of coffee in the break room. There was a man standing next to them, stirring his cream and sugar.
“The pot on the left is strong,” he explained. “The one on the right is the girl coffee.”
I raised an eyebrow, made a snarky comment that I no longer remember, and went back to my desk with a steaming beverage and even steamier temperament. He’d said “girl coffee” so casually, so nonchalantly, as if it were a completely reasonable explanation. That’s what pissed me off the most.
When you’re a young woman searching for a voice—one that rises against sexism, marginalization, and other forms of oppression—you face an uphill battle. Not only the obvious cultural war against centuries of learned behavior, but also the more covert challenges against the small, daily words and actions that infiltrate our lives so seamlessly and sneakily that we don’t even notice them. Things like using female-centric words as synonyms for weakness.
It happens so often that your dial may not be tuned to it yet. But once it is, you’ll never get past the noise. You’ll hear it everywhere. The good news is that you’ll be more aware of how soaked we are in sexist language, and awareness is the first step to empowerment and change. The bad news is that the language will get so noisy that you won’t know which battle to fight. And when you do, you’ll be treated as a cynical killjoy who doesn’t know how to have fun. “It’s just a joke,” people will say. “Don’t take things so seriously.”
I went along with that for a long time. I didn’t want to be “too serious” or humorless, god forbid. I didn’t want to be the person carrying the wet towel to throw on every ill-conceived remark.
But here’s what I’ve learned: semantics matter. The way we use language, the things we say, and the reasons we say them – all of that is incredibly important to how we build our worldview, and how we influence the worldview of others. When we say or accept phrases like “don’t be such a pussy,” “grow some balls,” or “be a man,” we willingly accept the underlying message that lies beneath. And it’s not just harmful to girls—it’s harmful to men, too.
Language reflects our reality. The things we say either challenge that or reinforce it. When we use “pussy” as a synonym for weakness and “balls” as an indicator of strength, we’re submitting to oppressive language that reinforces ideals meant to demoralize, minimize, and undermine girls and women. Just because it’s become part of our everyday vernacular doesn’t mean it should be.
Before we can lift each other up and become fully empowered, we have to be aware of our own actions, beliefs, and words. We have to turn the dial and listen.
How can we expect to enforce a unified and empowered world view when we’re speaking the wrong language?
I’ve challenged myself over the years to pay attention to my words and how I use them. Now, I challenge you.