Saturday, November 16, 2013

Misogyny and "crazy women"

On the bus recently, I listened to a group of noisy adolescents, out from school, carry on.  Their  common language was continually interspersed with "slut", "ho", and "F--k", so much so that I was shocked.  A daily language that makes absolutely profane sexuality, and in particular, girls and female sexuality.  So very sad to see this as the ugly petri dish within which these girls are blossuming into their female beauty and potency.  A very long cry from, say, the coming of age "Pollen Ceremony" for young women among the Navajo. 
I reflected on why the imagined world of Jane Austen is so popular to many sensitive young women, in the face of such brutality and vulgarity everywhere. 
I have to thank  Max Dashu  for forwarding this article by "Dr. Nerd" Harris O'Malley, which articulates so well something I know most women have had to deal with in one form or another.  At least, I did in my youth, and it was a long process learning to not become disempowered and self-negating.   Examining language is so important, as it reveals what is deeply, and collectively, embedded beneath the surface currents of social interaction. 
"There are certain words that are applied to women specifically in order to manipulate them into compliance: "slut," "bitch," "ugly/fat" and, of course, "crazy." These words encapsulate what society defines as the worst possible things a woman can be. Slut-shaming is used to coerce women into restricting their own sexuality into a pre-approved vision of feminine modesty and restraint. "Bitch" is used against women who might be seen as being too aggressive or assertive... acting, in other words, like a man might. "Ugly" or "fat" are used -- frequently interchangeably -- to remind them that their core worth is based on a specific definition of beauty, and to deviate from it is to devalue not only oneself but to render her accomplishments or concerns as invalid.

"Crazy" may well be the most insidious one of the four because it encompasses so much. At its base, calling women "crazy" is a way of waving away any behavior that men might find undesirable while simultaneously absolving those same men from responsibility. Why did you break up with her? Well, she was crazy. Said something a woman might find offensive? Stop being so sensitive. The idea of the "crazy" woman is so vague and nebulous that it can apply to just about any scenario."

"The association between women's behavior and being labeled "crazy" has a long and infamous history in Western culture. The word "hysteria" -- defined as "behavior exhibiting excessive or uncontrollable emotion, such as fear or panic" -- is derived from the ancient Greek word "hystera," meaning uterus. Until the early 20th century, female hysteria was the official medical diagnosis for a truly massive array of symptoms in women including but not limited to: loss of appetite, nervousness, irritability, fluid retention, emotional excitability, outbursts of negativity, excessive sexual desire and "a tendency to cause trouble."

While some of the symptoms of "female hysteria" could be signs of legitimate (if misdiagnosed) mental health issues, most of it described male (as the medical field was a men-only profession up until the mid-19th century) discomfort with women's behavior and sexuality. Calling it a medical issue meant that men didn't have to respond to behavior that challenged male sensibilities or belief structures. Instead, labeling women as "hysterical" made it much easier to diminish women's concerns and issues without having to pause to consider them as possibly being valid.


Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

What is ssd and true about language is that women who believe as we do are still labeled nuts - but maybe not as nutty as before. The world is evolving but not fast enough for you and me.

Wes Hansen said...

You know, I find it interesting, by convention north is up and south is down, right is masculine and left is feminine. So, if you lay on the ground with your feet to the south and head to the north your right arm points west (masculine) and your left arm east (feminine). In the west the word for the female sex is vagina which etymologically means, quite literally, "a sheath or place to put the sword." So, in the west, which it could be argued is, by convention, masculine, the female sex is referred to in terms of the masculine. In the east, which it could be argued is, by convention, feminine, the female sex is called Yoni which, etymologically, means "holy place or sacred place or place of the Goddess" or Jade Gate which is the pathway to the Jade Palace - the sacred residence of Goddess. Is this not interesting?