Have you changed the way you talk about women? Do you think twice when writing fiction – avoiding depictions of fat or ugly female characters, toning down a woman character’s bitchiness? Are you offended when a male author writes an unflattering description of a woman?
Just how politically correct is your language, and how did it get that way?
New words and changes in usage normally spring up in conversation (and these days the internet is part of the conversation), with official recognition from dictionaries and other publications lagging a bit behind. But when it came to the way we talk and write about gender, as well as race, changes were forced into being by law and a new social consciousness.
By now most government departments, businesses, colleges and universities, newspapers, TV stations, and magazines have written guidelines for avoiding racist and sexist language. Judging by the evidence, though, getting rid of racial references in everyday speech has turned out to be easier than achieving totally gender-neutral expression. Regardless of how we twist and torture common words and phrases, it’s not easy to erase women from the English language.
The person who brings our meal in a restaurant may introduce herself or himself as a server, but male and female customers alike continue to use the terms waitress and waiter.
In the military, where women are expected to perform exactly as men do, no gender-neutral form of address exists for officers beyond their ranks. A female superior is addressed either by her rank or as ma’am.
In corporations where men hold most of the top-level jobs, the term chairman of the board has never been supplanted by chair. (Does chair of the board sound as peculiar to you as it does to me?) As in many other cases, the “man” ending is dropped only when a woman occupies the position, so the altered word fails its purpose by loudly signaling that this is a female we’re talking about.
In other cases, so-called gender neutrality is awkwardly achieved by dropping the female version of a word and applying the male version to men and women alike. The Screen Actors Guild, for example, calls all its members actors. But they negate what they may believe is a principled stance by separating the sexes at awards time, presenting awards for “Best Performance by a Male Actor” and “Best Performance by a Female Actor.” If they want to remove distinctions between the sexes, perhaps they should give gender-neutral awards and let both men and women compete for them. That’s the way we do it in the writing field. Mystery Writers of America doesn’t give out Edgars for “Best Novel by a Woman” and “Best Novel by a Man” – and no other writing awards make that distinction either. Is SAG afraid women will be slighted if they have to compete directly with men? Do they think Meryl Streep can’t hold her own against Brad Pitt?
Fortunately, many job titles sound fine when given to either men or women. There was a period, blessedly brief, in the 19th century when grammarians wanted people to use words like doctoress and lawyeress, but the idea seems laughable now. However, some people still feel compelled, when mentioning a doctor who isn’t a man, to tack on a gender word: woman doctor, female doctor. The opposite side of the coin is the way we refer to nurses who aren’t women. If you were telling someone about a hospital stay, would you drop in the fact that one nurse was a he, even if the nurse's gender had nothing to do with the story?
I believe some job descriptions have changed for the better in the campaign for gender-neutral language. The term stewardess was so sullied by smutty jokes and lame comedy routines that it did no justice to the trained professionals who will not only serve us beverages during uneventful flights but will possibly save our lives in a crash. Flight attendant is an altogether more dignified job title, whether it refers to a woman or a man.
On the whole, though, I think a lot of energy is wasted on trying to make people drop particular words from their vocabularies. A few months ago I was verbally attacked because I used the word “suffragette” in a group discussion. I was informed that by using such a word I dishonored the women who fought for female suffrage, that I was insulting them, making light of their achievement. Actually, I was making a distinction between suffragists – anyone and everyone who supports women’s suffrage – and the courageous, militant women who marched, protested, chained themselves to fences, went to prison, endured force-feedings and other indignities to gain the same rights men enjoyed. Suffragette may have been a derogatory term when it was coined by a British newspaper, but it stuck even as changing attitudes and laws swept away the negative meaning. No one who really knows me would seriously suggest that I don’t respect the women I call suffragettes.
In my opinion, we also waste time trying to remove job titles like waitress from the language. The title is innocuous. What matters is how the waitress is treated by her employer, whether she is penalized for being overweight or middle-aged, and whether customers see her as a human being with a life and mind of her own rather than a faceless servant. Calling a female server a waitress doesn't have the same effect as calling a woman a slut or a whore. Sometimes a job title is just a job title, and it doesn’t automatically denigrate the person doing the work.
I know some writers who are so determinedly P.C. in their speech, and so terrified of offending readers with their prose, that I’m afraid their timidity will rob their writing of all originality and insight. For a fiction writer, too much political correctness can be deadly. We have to write about people as they really are. Women can do stupid things. For example, some women stay in abusive relationships. Some commit murder. Men, too, can be selfish and pigheaded and violent. Writers have to explore those realities. The minute we start censoring our characters’ behavior and editing their speech, it’s time to stop writing and find some other way to occupy ourselves.