No one is immune to the volcanic force of language. An altered preposition, an inflection or a simple nuance can change the course of events if not our mood for the day. This awesome power is acknowledged before we even arrive on the planet. Our names will be labored over (sometimes literally.) First names, middle names even last named will be constructed to pay respect or foretell character traits or ensure we’ll never have a seat on the supreme court. The words we are first taught, those we are allowed to hear and those we are punished for saying are all overseen with a scrutiny befitting a bank manager. Our legal system and our government are keen on the minutia of language and are poised to change and limit it all the time. (Lest we think only of the dangers of limiting free speech, let us remember that screaming “fire” in a movie theater is simply not prudent.) As a society we are continuously reexamining what words and terms are inflammatory or used to incite.
One of the most potent uses of language is that of branding. There are words and phrases whose intent is spin. Over the course of time we have found ways to passively (aggressively) brand people or things. When a grown woman is continuously referred to as a girl, it just sounds more polite than repeating, “you are less than a man.” Almost any person who’s affiliated with an underrepresented group could offer examples of this paradigm. As groups become more visible and vocal, words and labels change. People and groups are still labeled but with new words that have yet to ring as offensive to our ears. No doubt there is a predictable timeframe of revision that is in play. What sounds innocuous in 2012 will probably be horrifying in 2032. We need only think back to what a compliment it was in the 1950s to be called a ‘housewife.’ In the 21st century it is considered an insult (to houses or wives, I’m not sure.) People now stumble and scramble over terms such as: ‘stay at home mother’ (which suggests an ankle monitor) or “work in the home” (which could mean anything from novelist to parenting to piecework.) Lots of awkward vague phrasing which rarely accurately communicates anything.
Of course where this less than graceful terminology stems from is the discomfort we’re currently experiencing around women, work, and parenting in the 21st century. There is much anxiety around the freedom of choice that some women experience. The anxiety is only exacerbated by the fishbowl we now inhabit. Even a person 100% certain about his/her choices is barraged by confidence shaking messages. Culturally we are reacting vigorously to the fact that women now do have choices (perhaps not enough but far more than any other time in recent history.) If you were a Martian and found yourself at a magazine stand you would think it was in fact the 1950s. Women are cautioned and coached on how to keep a man interested. Fashion consists of girdles (with naughty names) sky-high heels, artificial hair (all the better to swish ‘round a pole) dark lacquered nails (requiring daily maintenance) and false eyelashes (forcing perfect posture so as not to inadvertently drop one onto someone’s lap or lunch.) Now of course no one would confuse a fashion magazine for anything but a nicely bound advert delivery system. But people are buying them and presumably reading them (which takes all of 10 minutes.)
Is it any wonder that in the midst of what can appear to be a pop culture feminist backlash we find ourselves peppered with the ‘man’ prefix? It all probably started innocently enough with the first utterance of “male nurse.’ As if we are French and need gender defining articles preceding our nouns. We now find ourselves in a sea of ‘man caves’ ‘man bags’ ‘bromance’ ‘manny’ ‘manscape’ and countless others I’ve been fortunate enough to ignore. I’m not sure when a tote bag became feminine or why male friendships need a new name. Having had male sitters as a child, I’ve no idea why nannies need gender identity. Manscape? Really? It’s called grooming. What really sticks in my craw however is the ‘man cave.’ If this was a real cave, one in which caped crusaders worked on mammoth computers and were served tea by stiff-upper-lipped British man-servants, I’d be all over it. But alas, it’s not. It is a reference to an abode or part of an abode that is reserved for a man. You know, like how Ward Cleaver had his den and Don Draper had his office because the home was really the woman’s domain? Look, I’m no Martian (or am I?) but it’s beginning to look a bit like the late 1950s. Women molded into a Betty Boop silhouette (surgically or through the miracle of spandex) teetering on heels, men sequestered in their “he-man women hater no girls allowed’ space looks an awful lot like there is a yearning to get the genie back into the bottle.
Whether there is something worthwhile in this yearning for a time with clearly defined roles is an interesting concept. It could be illuminating to tease apart our feelings and desires around equality and options. But to do so, to have a discourse which goes beyond soundbite or 1000 word blog post we need to know what we’re actually saying. Understanding ourselves, let alone each other is not facilitated by euphemism or trendy semantics. There is a difference between using language that is respectful and using language to obfuscate.