Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. It is a familiar phrase, bantered about with nursery rhymes and other lyrics. Sticks and stones batter the flesh, draw blood, and tear away at the material body, words cannot; however, the language we speak absorbs as well as informs the physical violence, the gender-based violence we experience and witness. Language is a lens to the ideologies and beliefs that accept and perpetuate the egregious abuse, assault, and harassment. What we say reveals what we think. Consider the following phrases: “That’s so gay.” “Don’t be a pussy.” “You run like a girl.” “Man up.” “Women are just crazy, hysterical, too emotional.” These are distortions of language. Words connected to gender and sexuality are re-contextualized as insults, revealing the beliefs behind those words. Gay=dumb, pussy=weak, girl=less, man=better, woman=unreliable/unintelligent.
The language is structured on gendered and sexualized dichotomies of expectation. Male is dominant and strong and thinking. He is the norm against which difference is measured. Female is subordinate and weak and feeling. She is “other.” This extends beyond binary gender, in which all non-cisgender males are also “other.” Furthermore, heterosexuality is accepted, and homosexuality is not, creating yet another linguistic and conceptual binary. Language then becomes the troubling normative foundation. There is little space left for the in-between and that is why in recent history, we have repurposed and re-visioned language for that liminal space: transgender, pansexual, queer, etc.
However, this is more than a lesson in semantics; it is a call to action. I have had the privilege of studying language in undergraduate and graduate school; however, it is not just the job of scholars or academics or students. We may not have all experienced or even witnessed or heard about gender-based violence in the form of physical assaults and sticks and stones, but I can guarantee we have all overheard or even unintentionally spoken in the language of violence and oppression. As feminists, as individuals fighting for equality, fighting for liberation, fighting for justice, and fighting for peace, we have a responsibility. As Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands/La Frontera, responsibility is simply “the ability to respond.” I find myself asking how I can respond, and oftentimes I find the answer in language. There I find an imperative to change my own language; to be critical and aware of how I use words fraught with connotation and history, navigating a queered linguistic borderlands and space between ‘normal’ and ‘other’; and to speak in kindness but also in honesty.
I frequently return to American feminist poet Adrienne Rich, and would like to leave you with her words. They are my inspiration and incessant critique. If you are unfamiliar, I would encourage you to dive in and read her work.
In “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision,” she writes:
“Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.”
This imperative extends beyond women to all individuals who suffer under gender, race, and class oppression. For Rich, this work of re-visioning begins but does not end in language. In one of her most famous poems, “Diving into the Wreck,” she writes:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.
As we navigate our own “wrecks,” histories, cultures, and identities, through words, we have to contend with the ocean, “the assumptions in which we are drenched,” guided only by a “book of myths,” an inadequate language, “in which / our names do not appear,” in which we are not fully represented. This is our challenge and our work: to re-vision language and be conscious of the meanings dripping from the words we speak, but also to move with that consciousness towards action.
Elizabeth Brug is a mother, daughter, sister, best friend, teacher and graduate student at New Mexico State University.