Society often considers males and females to be opposite from each other when realistically there are more differences found within a gender than between the two traditional and the most recognized genders we have in Western society. Language separates humans from animals, and realistically, we designed it—or let it evolve to a point where it separates us even further within our own species. Language helps define us and helps define what it means to be masculine or feminine. It can even help to identify someone as a member of a particular group based on their own individual linguistic traits and habits. Many people may not even realize that they are doing it, but society has equipped us to decipher the use of language and expression as if it were an encrypted code we constantly decode subconsciously.
From a very young age, we hear things like ‘boys do not cry’, ‘you throw like a girl’ and other stereotypical gender reinforcements that help create the identity that we have of genders. It also strengthens our perceived notions of what is to be male or female on a general basis. We are also, perhaps indirectly taught that girls need to be more polite and less assertive. Or that it is okay if a boy is loud and obnoxious but for a girl, that is not lady-like. These sayings and gendered rules that are implicated towards young children are forms of gender policing that we are taught to do to ourselves and to our peers as children. Often, the policing continues as we become adults at which point we continue to police our peers and even teach our own children to do the same policing towards their friends and peers as well.
“Gender policing is making sure people obey the unwritten rules about how to be a man or woman and generally those are the only two choices. Things like buying children the right color of clothing, or the right toy, or in language, making fun of people for using the wrong words or intonation,” said Gerard Van Herk, a professor in MUN’s Linguistics Department who is currently teaching Linguistics 2212: Language and Gender.
Gender policing often highlights the sexist bias between genders even at a very young age. Young boys who assert control are often considered to be showing ‘leadership’ while young girls who display the same behavior are often seen as ‘bossy’. Even continuing as adults in professional environments, women are expected to assert power that they have in their role while stifling their emotions and maintaining a soft exterior.
“Women in professional environments are expected to be assertive, but without giving up any of their niceness, and niceness seems to include not being assertive,” said Van Herk.
The notion of males taking on the use of feminine linguistic traits is also frowned upon. Things like asking too many questions, showing emotional attachment to people or displaying empathy and even the use of specific linguistic traits or style of marked language—meaning the word or speech act indicates something specific about the speaker, such as they are of a certain gender, race or age. In this case, femininity in men is taboo because it is an indication of feminine behavior, but more importantly, it is a display of un-manly behavior.
Often, language and linguistic traits of white males are considered unmarked or neutral, thus often considered as the default use of language when it comes to professional, educational and previously male-dominated areas of society. The people who use these ‘default’ linguistic styles and traits are so neutral that if they do use any marked linguistic traits that have been borrowed from another linguistic group, the once neutral speaker becomes obvious in their use of borrowed language.
In 2017, the notion of gendered language is perhaps not as prominent as it once was. Especially with the idea of identifying outside the traditional gender binaries and not conforming to traditional gender norms in society gaining more mainstream acceptance, we like to think that gender policing is getting more lenient and kids are beginning to grow up in more of a gender-neutral environment. Obviously, there are some people who do not understand gender diversity or simply are not exposed to people who live outside the stereotypical gender definitions that we have traditionally had imposed on in our society. Then there are still some people who are just downright ignorant or even hateful.
“As a semi-educated observer, I think gendered language is changing among younger people who are more comfortable with gender fluidity, when speaking to other similar people. There are more gender options than there used to be and presumably that will lead to more gendered language options,” said Van Herk.
We as a society have come a long way when it comes to language and gender, however we are obviously not finished this journey just yet. For instance, Facebook has seventy-one gender options that are available for users to identify with. However, individuals only have two choices of gender markers available to them on the driver’s license in Newfoundland that they are able to identify with. The legal aspect of language will perhaps be one of the biggest and hardest battles in regards to gender identity—as it often is with any human rights equality battle. Just as issues with consent, sexual assault and what should be considered proper procedure in official government roles, there are still linguistic gray areas in the laws that simply do not use the correct language to project the intended implications and combat the issues at stake; which ends up with unequal protection of the rights of individuals.
Acceptance in society is crucial in the healthy development of not only individual people but for the community as a whole. Language plays a huge and often unrecognized role in creating acceptance, but also denying prejudice. Speak up and choose your words wisely. As Dr. Seuss once said, “say what you mean and mean what you say, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”