Tuesday, February 4

"I'm Just Joking": Why I Take Oppressive Language Seriously and You Should Too

Below is an essay written by my younger sister about the importance and power of language and its direct link to oppression. Maybe I'm biased, but I thought this essay was beautifully written, perfectly articulated and extremely relevant.


“I’m not a feminist, I just believe that both genders should be treated equally.”

“Tell me, why are girls so mean?”

“Are you on your period, is that why you’re mad?”

“Quit being such a feminazi, we’re just joking.”

Language and oppression have been so entangled in the human mind for so long that we start to forget just how powerful words can be. Especially among adolescents, a sense of invincibility that comes from being a part of a generation that is viewed as tolerant and progressive leads to unabashed use of racist and sexist slang and comments under the assumption that it’s “just a joke” and can’t do any real harm since they “don’t really think like that.”

Among my friends, a diverse group of extremely intelligent, well-educated teens, sexist language has become as accepted as any other form of communication. They call each other derogatory names for female genitalia, they make hateful, degrading sexual comments about our English teacher when she assigns what they think is too much homework, and they dismiss any backlash about this behavior as overreacting or PMSing. They won’t hear any criticism because as far as they’re concerned, if the right intention is buried beneath their slurs, they can say whatever they want.

What they don’t understand, what they refuse to accept, is that by making sexist language acceptable, they are making sexism itself acceptable. When they make a comment on my friend’s breasts instead of listening to what she has to say, they aren’t just making a joke—they are actually objectifying her. When they use a pejorative term for vagina to call each other weak or cowards, they are perpetuating the connection between women themselves and weakness or cowardice. They think that since they weren’t intending their words to be oppressive, they can’t be harmful. But they are.

After all, language is the basis of how we think. We think in words. And if those words continue to imply that women are less than men, we will, as a society, continue to think that way. In George Orwell’s 1984, the Party realized how much influence language has on thought. They created a new language, newspeak, which changed and eliminated words that reflected views opposing the Party’s goals, such as freedom and equality. The idea was that without the knowledge of these words, without the ability to express these ideas through language, people would not be able to think in a way that conflicted with Party ideals.

Photo from Flickr user Jason llagan
The same concept applies to sexist language. This is not to say we should forget or ignore sexist slang altogether—of course, in a democracy, it is necessary that the full range of expression be accessible. But it does illustrate the idea that as long as sexist language is allowed to be so pervasively commonplace, sexist thought will also be considered acceptable.

An interesting discrepancy I’ve found amongst my peers, with regards to their perception of what it is acceptable to say, is that in recent years they have become admirably averse to using homophobic slang—while use of the n-word and misogynistic language have become ubiquitous. The basic explanation behind this disparity, as far as I can tell, is that the fight against sexuality-based discrimination is happening right now, and visibly. Gay marriage, LGBT portrayal in the media, sexuality-related hate crimes—these are all major topics of discussion and activism at the moment, so people recognize that in order to make progress in the present, we have to cut out the offensive language. On the other hand, kids think that the fights for women and blacks are over. All of the major “checkpoints” have, in their minds, been passed: voting rights, interracial marriage, female congresspeople, black president. So, apparently, we don’t have to be careful any longer: we can make sexist and racist jokes because sexism and racism don’t really exist anymore.

But the fight isn’t over. As long as my cousin is paid less than the man she trained for the same job, as long as my female classmate thinks Hillary Clinton would have gone no where had she not “clung” to her husband, and as long as “getting laid” in high school brings a boy praise but a girl ridicule, we still have a long way to go.

One of the greatest obstacles to the feminist struggle against sexism, however, is the word “feminist” itself. The word has been demonized to such a degree that for the ignorant, it has come to refer only to the supposed man-hating, female supremacy radicals that the media and the internet love to portray but who don’t really exist in large numbers. Feminism, a word that comes from a long history in which securing equality has meant elevating of the status of women, has been grossly misinterpreted—often intentionally by those who would wish to silence the movement—making it seem extremist and hypocritical, when it actually reflects the views of most intelligent, modern people.

Photo from Flickr user Steve Rhodes
This vilification of the word has lead to a contempt for the whole idea of gender equality and the people who try to promote it. The use of “feminist” as an insult dismisses and marginalizes the ideas behind feminism, which are otherwise difficult to contest—and it is not used derogatorily only by blatant sexists who actually oppose feminist ideas. Those who otherwise consider themselves proponents of equality but are accused of sexism or sexist language, uncomfortable with being criticized and made to feel unprogressive, also tend to dismiss their critics as crazy or militant. They make fun of “fanatical feminists” to make themselves feel not bigoted but merely moderate, when in truth, feminism itself should be considered a unifying, centrist movement. Instead, sexism takes the mainstream, and feminism is banished to the fringe.

The world likes to think it has conquered sexism, but until we can put our mouths where our money is we can never really change societal attitudes towards women. Sexist language is just as harmful to the ideal of permanent gender equality as any other big-ticket issue; the difference is that it can be fought on the small scale, by anyone. There is no excuse for devaluing women through speech, regardless of whether it was said in anger or meant as a joke, because it only functions to strengthen the ongoing, underlying belief in the inferiority of women. Even when all the tangible, measurable pillars of institutional sexism have been taken down, the feminist battle cannot be won until the world truly believes—and can articulate its belief—in the power and value of women.


  1. Awesome essay! Everyone should read it!

  2. What a wonderful essay. We need more strong voices like yours and your sister's, so thank you both for entering into the conversation. This is spot on and I will now be even more aware of my language as well as starting conversations about the language I hear others use. Thank you!

  3. What an amazing essay. As I read it realized that the thought could be applied to many other instances and types of oppression, especially those that pervade our schools.

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  6. Oppressive 1. burdensome, unjustly harsh, or tyrannical: an oppressive king; oppressive laws. 2. causing discomfort by being excessive, intense, elaborate, etc ...

    What comes to my mind is a very controlling, perfectionist type of person who always criticizes and complains about others' work etc making it very difficult for others to feel good about their work. An oppressive boss maybe gives no slack about anything, is not friendly, and is very hard to please.
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