Ceraolo: Power in Language

by Julia Ceraolo | 8/13/15 6:27pm

It is no mystery that English, as well as many other languages, has an embarrassingly high number of male-centric words. It’s a risky game for a woman to write about entrenched unfairness, but this column is not so much a lament as it is an attempt to explore an often-overlooked language dynamic.

We have plenty of words to describe blatant sexist experiences women might undergo. We have the word “dominate” — we say that women are “dominated” by men in certain societies. More interestingly, we have the word “subjugate.”The word is tossed around in media and academic discourses that effectively omit individuals by only referring to them in large groups. There are, to be sure, people who happen to feel prompted by “subjugate” to think of an individual woman, rather than a group of faceless ones, but this is an exception. Even as words evolve over time to mean new things, many still carry their original gendered weight.

Rather than creating overtly discriminatory practices, these words subtly disregard the unique personal experiences of women. To begin with, the word “subjugate,” though useful in some ways, carries an unfortunate complication in terms of its association with women. Google’s top definitions of subjugate — “to bring under domination or control, especially by conquest” and “make someone or something subordinate to” — focus on the actor carrying out these injustices. In fact, “domination” and “control” are terms frequently used in positive circumstances such as the case of a sports team winning a game.

What we do not have is a feminine word on par with “emasculate,” a term that largely invests itself in the inner life and experiences of the individual, of the single man. “Emasculate” is tinged with the sexuality, self-esteem and strength of a man in ways that a word like “subjugate” just does not compete. It is also frustrating to think of how often “emasculate” gets to be exchanged in more personal conversations between friends. Men can use it as a self-deprecatory tool, an admission of vulnerability, a part of their jokes — that’s the surface. Underneath these sorts of conversations is a way of asserting that their individual identity and manhood matters because it would be terrifying to lose. If women have something similar in English, we certainly would not have such a convenient shorthand.

“Emasculate,” like “subjugate,” is a verb, and as such describes what actions are being taken, by definition. This description, however, also manages to point out how the victim is feeling. The result of the action “to emasculate” is inextricable from the action itself. Something interior and under-the-skin is happening when an individual is emasculated — he is deprived of his identity. For all we know, a woman who has been subjugated may have never had an identity deemed important by society in the first place.

Of course, the ties between women and “subjugate” are not as strong as they are between men and “emasculate” — the word “emasculate” has its root in the word “masculinity.” But it is enough to consider historical patriarchal systems to understand that even in all of the many cases of invaders subjugating entire tribes and peoples, women are special targets. They are raped or sold into sex slavery or married off in far greater numbers than men.

I am not advocating for an erasure of gender in language. I wish that Google’s first definition for “emasculate” was not to “make (a person, idea, or piece of legislation) weaker or less effective.” I wish that the second definition — “deprive (a man) of his male role or identity” — was on top. Nowadays, people use “emasculate” for women or for the genderless “person,” a phenomenon that assumes people will stop associating “emasculate” with maleness. Accordingly, we see that the deprivation of a male-esque “role or identity” — one that equates with general strength — takes priority in the public consciousness over the fact that the female gender, or any other, does not get its own vocabulary. The change in the usage of “emasculate” is cause for even greater concern. It is about time we get feminine terminology that takes into account women’s personal experiences of injustice.

This female equivalent of “emasculate” would ideally describe the stripping of a woman’s positive, feminine qualities or identity — it would neither equate femininity with weakness, nor would it signify a woman’s being masculinized. These feminine qualities do not stand in direct contrast with male qualities, but rather complement them — they are different, but they are neither lesser nor greater. The feminine counterpart would serve as a way to recognize the autonomy of women and their desire to be fully themselves.

While no one can be expected to neatly conform to femininity or masculinity, it is also unfair to call for total androgyny because that limits one’s ability to fully express one’s identity.