Allow me to womansplain the problem with gendered language | Arwa Mahdawi

Arwa Mahdawi
Sophia Amoruso, who popularised the term girlboss, at the premiere of Netflix’s Girlboss TV show. Photograph: Latour/Variety/Rex/Shutterstock

She is a #Girlboss. She is a mumtrepreneur. She is a SheEO. He is a manterrupter. A mansplainer. A manspreader. He is always bropropriating women’s ideas. She is a feminazi. He’s got a dadbod and the man flu. What is it with the growing popularity of overtly gendered neologisms? From chick flicks to dick pics, from boss babes to guyliner, there has been a proliferation of his or hers portmanteaux.

Much of this is feminism’s fault, naturally. There has been more scrutiny of everyday sexism; words such as manspreading and manterrupting simply give a name to behaviour that was taken for granted before. There has also been more discussion of women in the workplace, leading to a rise in supposedly empowering labels such as girlboss, a term popularised by Sophia Amoruso, the founder of online retailer Nasty Gal. In 2014, Amoruso wrote a bestselling memoir/self-help book for entrepreneurially minded millennial women called #GIRLBOSS and the word entered the popular vernacular – it is now a Netflix show.

Neologisms such as girlboss and SheEO are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, of course. They are supposed to illuminate the fact that words such as boss and CEO are not actually gender-neutral, but implicitly coded as male, that language is “man made”, as the feminist Dale Spender put it, and reinforces a male world view. However, I can’t help feeling that, when it comes to girlboss, that subtlety has been lost. There are 5,491,625 pictures tagged with #girlboss on Instagram. It has become a cutesy girl-power phrase that is less empowering than it is patronising. It doesn’t tear down the sexism encoded in language, it reinforces it.

The same is true of the manifold vocabulary for manshaming. Words such as manspreading or mansplaining are – or at least they were – useful. If you don’t have a name for something, then it is harder to talk about and it is taken less seriously. But mansplaining and the various other man-words have become overused and diluted. They have gone from making an important point to simply being lazy ways to reinforce gender binaries. Men are like this; women are like that.

Language reflects and reinforces social norms; ungendering language is an important part of solving sexism. And there has been some progress. As you might expect, much of this emanates from Sweden. In the 1990s, there was consternation among Swedes that there was a colloquial, non-sexual word for penis (“snopp”) but no female equivalent; a discrepancy with ramifications on how children view and learn about their body. So Anna Kosztovics, a social worker from Malmö, coined “snippa” in 2000 and started promoting it. The government encouraged her efforts. Apparently, nursery school teachers were encouraged to put up notes on their doors asking: “Have you said snippa today?” Snippa entered the Swedish dictionary in 2006 and is now widely used.

Earlier this year, Kosztovics called for the UK to follow Sweden’s lead in a video on the BBC. British English has the word “willy” but lacks a widely used non-clinical, non-sexual way to talk about the vagina. Kosztovics says this means “little girls grow up with the thought that there is something wrong between their legs”. She adds: “There are 360 million people who speak English and I think it’s time for you to discover your own word … I say let the best word win.”

Hurricane names are another example of ungendering language. From 1953 to 1978, Atlantic hurricanes were given exclusively women’s names. In the 70s, feminists pushed to change this, but were met with resistance. A New York Times headline from 1972 declares: “Weather men insist storms are feminine.” According to some of these weathermen, female nomenclature was a matter of safety not sexism. Male-named storms wouldn’t be taken seriously, they argued, because they wouldn’t evoke female rage. Hell hath no fury like a female-named storm and all that. But the winds of change were not in the weathermen’s favour and Hurricane Bob hit Louisiana in 1979.

Perhaps the most success around fixing semantic sexism has been had by the increase of “they” being used as a singular pronoun. People have grappled with English’s lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun for centuries, often falling back on they. Chaucer and Shakespeare used they as a singular pronoun. Jane Austen uses they in this way 75 times in Pride and Prejudice. However, it is only recently that its use has become commonplace. They was named word of the year in 2015 by the American Dialect Society and, around the same time, the Washington Post style guide ratified the use of “they” as a singular.

We are more aware of the problems of gendered language than ever and, as the use of the singular they demonstrates, we are taking steps to fix it. At the same time, however, we seem to be creating a new gendering of language as the popularity of words such as mansplain and girlboss demonstrate. And that looks set to continue. On Friday, Girlboss, the show based on Amoruso’s life debuted, further reinforcing the word’s place in the vernacular. Girlboss may be one big step for one particular woman, but it is not a giant linguistic leap for womankind.

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