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Monday, 21 March 2016

Baby, Honey, Darling Idiot...When is a word an insult?


Continuing in my tradition of consecrating events only after they happen (viz), this week's post follows an online discussion I participated in on Facebook, on International Women's Day (8th March). The situation was this: Fleur McGerr, who does social media PR, updated a company's Twitter account and was chastised by a fellow Twitterer (twit?) for using the word 'babes'. I quote:
Genuine musing here, in honour of IWD. A woman has had a go at me on Twitter for using the word 'babes' as a collective noun to describe the women of Bar Chick (no comment on their use of Chick or their handle being 'HotBarChick') and said 'That's why IWD is important'. She assumed first off the Twitter account was run by a man, of course, but when I pointed out I was a fellow woman, said I was awful anyway. 
Now, I call people 'babes' all the time, men, women, my cat. I have used it to describe London on a particularly fine day, even...But in all seriousness, am I part of the problem? Do I need to go cold turkey on 'babes', not just on IWD but forever?
In a classic case of light humour gone sour, this is a great example of a situation that arises when language changes, and of how informal slang words can hold multiple meanings. The discussion on Fleur's Facebook profile discussion was both thoughtful and thought-provoking, with participants considering all sides of the story. One of the points raised was how 'babes' was intended to be a gender-neutral word. Another was that we interpret words due to our own experiences, so although on the whole the contributors (including myself) agreed that calling someone 'babes' isn't necessarily sexist, we shouldn't negate the original Twitterer's opinion as it seemed very likely that she had had negative experiences with the use of the word.

Whilst reading feminist and queer theory, particularly of the 1960s-1990s, one is struck by the overall conviction that changes in society must be reflected in changes in language. Spanning a selection of second-wave feminism to first-wave queer theory, you can read this in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949); Luce Irigaray's Je, tu, nous (1992); Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990); and J. Halberstam's Female Masculinity (1998).* Many influential thinkers of the 20th Century were French, including those who influenced feminism and queer theory, i.e Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault. Gender differentiation in Romantic languages is far more entrenched and prominent than in English. When grammar requires the feminine to be usurped by the masculine, it is obvious how the seeds of discontent were sown in the fabric of everyday life . Nonetheless, it can be difficult to remember the importance of language and everyday word choices, especially when dramatic protests and wild parties are so much more exciting than simply being reminded to change your speech habits. 

Most often, slang words are the first to change: quick to both enter and leave a language, and quick to change their meanings. An important facet of interpreting slang is understanding intention. In languages which aren't bound by intonation,  much meaning can be imparted from the delivery: you can go from complementary, to questioning, to sarcastic all through your inflection. The trouble lies in the fact that when the emotional delivery of a word takes over, people often forget the other meanings that the word used to bear. Playing on this can allow people to reclaim words that used to be insults (including queer); be humorous (wicked, sick to mean great); but also deeply problematic (gay to mean bad). 

That's where pet names come in: darling, sweetie, honey, baby. We use these familiar, diminutive words to address our children, pets, and lovers. When you work in the theatre, it's common practice - if not the industry standard - to use these words in lieu of people's actual names. But 
any diminutive word or pet name has the possibility of seeming derogatory as well as endearing, and indeed is frequently used in workplaces to patronise or otherwise talk down women who are acting assertive. Whilst these words are frequently associated with women and children, ultimately I believe they are genderless. However, if someone has only interacted with a word in negative contexts, it is easy to see how any use of that word would hit a nerve.

Whilst it is correct to consider the etymology of a word, at the end of the day, so much meaning is imparted through the social context, and the relations that speakers have with each other. In my opinion, Twitter is the worst place to have deep and meaningful conversations; it's far easier to just throw out one-liners and jibes. Certainly, these terms of endearment have been used as insults - but through continued positive usage, we can stop the negativity from winning out. By taking the sting out of a word, we take away its power, and negate the user's intention to cause us harm. We have the potential to reclaim language, and to talk back. This is not to overlook individual's bad experiences; but rather to come together to collectively move beyond and above insults. Indeed, with enough people, we can change the meaning of a word entirely - so let's ensure that we continue to develop our language to reflect positive attitudes to gender and sexuality. 

My conclusion? Yes: you can be a feminist, postfeminist, queer feminist, queer activist - and still be  a babe. In fact, it's recommended!

-Anushka

*This is hardly an exhaustive bibliography - and you can tell from this list that my past research has drawn more from queer than feminist theory. Please feel free to add suggested reading in the comments.    

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