Everyday Sexisms in our American Language

Recently, I saw a commercial for Always menstrual products where they asked a variety of male and mostly adult female subjects to imitate running and throwing “like a girl.”  They all ran with arms flailing and threw as if they had jelly arms.  When they asked young girls to do the same, they all ran and threw with gumption and purpose.

(See video below)

Yes, Always is a corporate company out to sell pads and they created this video to do just that by making women feel empowered.  We’re here!  We’re women!  We get periods!  We can throw balls!  It’s a tricky mind game.  But, having said that, it did what it set out to do by creating a great video that placed a magnifying glass over commonly used sayings such as, “runs like a girl” and “throws like a girl.”  Given that nearly everyone had the same reaction to mimicking “a girl,” it’s safe to say that these sexist terms are completely embedded in American culture, and so much so that their meanings are culturally understood with no explanation.

Sexist language has so completely saturated our culture that it has become inherent without question in the daily dialogue of both men and women, starting with how we’re socialized from birth.  When I was in grade school, a fellow female classmate and I were throwing balls and me, coming from a family who put zero importance on sports, couldn’t throw for shit, while this other girl seemed to have a natural knack for throwing a football.  Over twenty years later now, I can still clearly recall her saying that she threw like a boy and my gut response even as a little girl was that it was ridiculous.  By saying that she was more like a boy, she was better than me, a girl, and that part of her was better because it was more like a trait that is traditionally perceived as more male.  Not only did she think she was better than girls, but there was a sense of shame in herself as a biologically born female, thinking that by being born a girl, she inherently could not throw a football.

This type of sexually exclusive language keeps women as second class citizens when spoken by men, and reinforced when spoken by women.  Here are a few choice examples of “hidden” sexisms that may have seeped into your daily dialogue and need to be addressed and eliminated from our conversations:

You’re a Pussy.  Here, the connotation is that you are acting like a woman, and the assumption is that women are inherently weak.  Who has “pussies”?  Being slang for vagina- obviously women.  Arguably, when the word “pussy” is used as a derogatory term, I doubt is that someone is being accused of acting soft and cuddly like a kitty cat.

Fireman, Policeman, Mailman, Ballboy.  (The ballboy is a shout-out to tennis season.  I’d like to hear someone tell Martina Navratilova that she was only “hitting like a man.”) Using sexually exclusive language makes “he,” or men, the norm.  Let’s face it, it starts with the basic fundamentals of most major world religions as God as “Him.”  These texts have also been written by only men who felt it necessary to make a man, the image of themselves, not their wife, mothers or daughters, the “great equalizer.”  I’ve heard disagreement about this, that man refers to all people, kind of like “actor.”  If this is the case, then changing He to She as a “gender neutral” phrase would work, right?  The solution to this is ending these exclusive words with the gender neutral suffix, person.

Like a Little Girl.  Similar to throw like, this insult is thrown around ad nauseam, and literally means you are acting weak and whiny.  Don’t think this is insulting?  Have you ever heard “like a little boy”?  Yeah, me neither, and as a librarian in a public building, I have seen little boys freak the fuck out and not one scream was dissimilar to the sound of a little girl’s cries.

He/She Has Some Balls.  Being tough is synonymous with being a man, who presumably has testicles.  Most of us have even seen the Sex and the City episode where Steve feels like less of a man after surviving testicular cancer and wants to buy the biggest fake balls that money can buy.  Luckily, the phrase “that takes ovaries” has become increasingly popular, but I prefer the good old gender neutral, “spine.”

Some other choice phrases include: boys will be boys; man up; act like a man; he has some big balls, and so forth.  To some, these may seem nit-pickey, but to a woman, whose credibility and existence on this earth are put into question with a single mindless utterance, there are volumes in the mindful, the carefully chosen turn-of-phrase that aids in neutralizing the sexisms in our daily discourse.


Feel free to add your own idioms in the comments below!


5 thoughts on “Everyday Sexisms in our American Language

  1. michaelgloversmith says:

    Great and provocative post. I’m ashamed to say that I am guilty of using some of the above phrases! Of course, I also always thought there was something problematic with the “just like a little girl” line in Bob Dylan’s otherwise sublime “Just Like a Woman.”

  2. jpreskitt says:

    Everytime I reach for a typical “sissy”, “sally”, “pu**y” insult, I pause and try and come with a more neutral word as to not insult the unintended. But I can’t and end up calling someone a “girl”. So what are the words we could be using? Recently I’ve used “muppet”, thanks to my mates across the pond, but would like some more suggestions 😉

  3. jilliemae says:

    Preskitt, what is your intention when you call these words? Are you trying to say that someone is just acting weak? I think maybe considering the intent of the word first would help. If you are trying to throw an insult that someone is acting timid, maybe “spineless” would work? Or yes, a completely different word, like, you’re acting like limp spaghetti!

  4. Empty Sack (@empty_sack_) says:

    “He/She Has Some Balls. Being tough is synonymous with being a man, who presumably has testicles.”
    I hate this one. Having had the misfortune of losing both testicles I’m perhaps more sensitive than most to notions that “having balls” is required for being tough or brave or manly.
    I’m not sure if the language is driving the societal attitudes or if it’s the other way around. Or maybe some sort of feedback loop.
    So far I haven’t had the spine to challenge the use of these phrases.

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