From ‘Her’ to ‘Bitch’: How Gendered Language Teaches Us Women Are Objects To Be Controlled

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Culture & Conversation Human Rights

From ‘Her’ to ‘Bitch’: How Gendered Language Teaches Us Women Are Objects To Be Controlled

Jessica Ensley

The practice of using feminine pronouns (often in a sexually suggestive way) to refer to things such as tools, cars, and even boats is fairly common—so common that many people do not stop to question what they are actually saying, which is that women are objects. This underlying message in our language is reflective of how our society treats women.

“Aw yeah, fill her up. She loves it,” I overheard at work. My male coworkers in the Maine Conservation Corps were not talking about a fellow employee; they were talking about a chainsaw that needed gas.

I will often hear things like “rip her out” when talking about a tree or “that bitch is really in there,” discussing a rock that needs to be moved. Serving here has made me more aware of the pronouns (he, she, etc.) people use to describe both objects and animals. The various projects all require hard physical labor with numerous types of tools. While there are many women within the corps, the labor-intensive job itself would still be deemed by society as traditionally masculine.

The practice of using feminine pronouns (often in a sexually suggestive way) to refer to things such as tools, cars, and even boats is fairly common—so common that many people do not stop to question what they are actually saying, which is that women are objects. This underlying message in our language is reflective of how our society treats women. Women’s reproductive rights, for example, are consistently under attack because women are still not seen as humans who can make their own decisions about their bodies.

“Language is like an X-ray in providing visible evidence of invisible thoughts,” says children’s literature specialist Alleen Pace Nilsen in her work Sexism in English. Nilsen depicts throughout many of her works that the English language has many underlying sexist themes. Women are often referred to as pieces of dessert. “Honey” and “sweetie” may be something partners of all genders use, but many women, including myself, are often called these things by male strangers. Not once in all my life have I talked to a strange man and called him “honey.”

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The comparison of women to objects unfortunately does not stop with desserts. Laurel Richardson, a professor in sociology at Ohio State University, writes in Gender Stereotyping in the English Language: “It seems as though the smaller (e.g., kittens), the graceful (e.g., poetry), the unpredictable (e.g., the fates), the nurturant (e.g., the church, the school) and that which is owned and/or controlled by men (e.g., boats, cars, governments, nations) represent the feminine, whereas that which is a controlling forceful power in and of itself (e.g. God, Satan, tiger) primarily represents the masculine.”

The words we use to describe objects helps us to understand how we actually feel about them. I grew up around men who loved fast cars. They liked to fix them up and race them at a local track. It wasn’t uncommon to hear “I’ve got to polish her up,” and, “Look at how beautiful she is; she’s just begging to be taken for a spin.” Not only were they talking about an inanimate object as being female, but they talked about the car as if it were something to have sex with. The car, like a woman, is something to be owned and controlled by men. The car (woman) has no autonomy. It (she) does not get to decide what happens to it (her).

There was a television show dedicated to “pimping your ride.” At car shows where people go to buy, sell or oogle at various vehicles, women are shown standing in front of them with barely any clothes as if they are another pretty car to buy and own. The use of this type of language and possession goes past gender into other troubling territories. Who can afford to buy and use these objects to be controlled such as expensive tools, cars, and boats? Upper-class, white, fully able-bodied cisgender men. (Cisgender denotes that the individual identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.)

Gendering objects not only harmfully impacts cisgender women, but also transgender and gender-nonconforming people, individuals with a gender identity and expression that fits outside of the gender binary. Yet we live in a world where people assume objects, from modes of transportation to pets, work within a gender binary, thus reinforcing it. As transgender advocate Janet Mock stated during a recent interview with the New Republic’s Jamil Smith, “I think a lot of the [activist] work, and a lot of the work specifically of genderqueer people and non-binary people is saying that: Why do we have to gender everything? Why can’t we just say that a Lego is a Lego?”

While objects tend to hold feminine pronouns, animals on the other hand are often assumed to be male. Any animal that is seen to be somewhat powerful, such as a dog or reptile, is often specified using masculine pronouns. Working in the woods, I would see my teammates calling most wildlife “he” if they could not immediately tell the sex. Walking my dog at home, strangers will stop and mis-pronoun her by using the pronoun “he.” This helps reinforce the belief that men are not only autonomous but also animalistic. Animals act independently and by instinct. Violent or crude behaviors of men are often excused as being instinctual or natural.

Some people argue that using male nouns and pronouns simply encompasses all genders. Richardson states, “Research has consistently demonstrated that when the generic man is used, people visualize men, not women.” Women are consistently seen as less human than men. They are ignored as subjects for medical research. Furthermore, as Rewire has reported, disability claims under workers’ compensation include the coverage of prostate cancer but not breast cancer.

Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, stated in her thesis Language and Woman’s Place, “Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-world imbalances and inequities.” These imbalances seen in pronouns of both objects and animals show the gender inequality we still have to overcome in society.

Women are still seen by men as objects meant to be controlled. One only has to look at the current attack on Planned Parenthood to see the results of not viewing women as full human beings able to make their own decisions. Planned Parenthood clinics across the nation are facing arson terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill are attempting to defund the organization. State legislators, from Alabama to Texas, are moving in attempt to remove Planned Parenthood from Medicaid.

Ohio, my home state, is following in Texas’ footsteps. The Ohio Senate passed a bill that would defund Planned Parenthoods across the state. The bill’s sponsor, Keith Faber, was quoted as saying, “This bill is not about women’s health care.” Faber has apparently decided it is up to him to prevent the cars (women) being taken to the mechanic (or health care clinic). He will see to it they rot with rust if that is what he desires.

Our language clearly reflects a larger issue. Women are seen as objects to be controlled, bought, driven, or used. While this reclaiming of our bodies must be fought on multiple fronts, we also should push back to make our language more inclusive, which as Richardson has found, does have an impact. Richardson’s research shows that when the general masculine pronoun is replaced by the feminine, women feel a greater sense of importance.

We should stop referring to objects as gendered beings. Unless we know the sex of an animal, we could start referring to animals using gender-neutral pronouns such as the singular “they.”

All individuals have a right to decide what is best for their bodies and their own lives. It is time we start viewing everyone as, well, people.