Lately, for one reason or another, I have been keenly aware of women’s issues in my personal life, my professional life, and society generally -- as if I have been primed for them. I’m not sure whether it was enrolling in this class or whether I had already started becoming more sensitive to them (given, perhaps, that I am in my mid-twenties and on about to begin a career in law?), but it seems that every day something new, different, and often troublesome arises. This past week, in particular, I’ve noticed, mentally catalogued, and critically reflected on the various ways in which people address me. Am I a Miss? Mrs.? Ms.? Ma’am? Evidently, all of the above. And then some.
The event that triggered my interest was an encounter with a barista at Starbucks. She was a middle-aged, apparently happy woman, and in terms of customer service, she excelled. (My second pumpkin spice latte of the season, incidentally, was perfect.) There was one thing, however, I didn’t appreciate: she initially addressed me as “sweetie.” She then addressed me as “hun.” And as I left, she addressed me as “dear.” Granted, I probably look young for my age. Even still, I’m not a child -- or a doll. The entire exchange lasted about two minutes, and using three terms of endearment in that period of time, I thought, was a little excessive. And, quite frankly, it irritated me.
But why? I was by myself, and only she and I were privy to the conversation, so I can’t say that I was embarrassed. Further, I certainly wasn’t professionally dressed, so I’m sure I looked much less like a “Ms.” than I’d like to think. Finally, and most importantly, she was so nice. Really -- just trying to do her job well. Likely, she thought she was complimenting me or making me feel welcome. Who am I to step on her attempts at friendliness? What kind of a jerk calls someone out on that? And what could I even say? That she was being sexist? If I did, it would seem, I would be doing far more harm than good for Feminism. Inevitably, I would come off as rude and angry and reinforce a stereotype I don’t really care to embrace. But then, what is the alternative?
As I contemplated those issues, I began to ponder language and feminism, generally. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an excellent, concise overview of feminism and linguistics.) Here, I think, was a prime example of simple, subtle sexism digging its heels deeper and deeper into our collective subconscious. With every use, “sweetie,” “honey,” “dear,” and the like reinforce negative gender stereotypes in our cultural lexicon. These, of course, are some of the more egregious examples. Others, however, are perhaps less conspicuous: “forefathers,” “mankind,” “manpower,” etc.
Of course, this isn’t a novel discussion. Scholars have pondered language and feminism for years. The problem is, however, that the situation doesn’t seem to be improving. Perhaps in academia, we favor “he or she,” alternate pronouns, or lazily default to “they,” but our vernacular, arguably, remains heavily gendered. So what do we do? How do we redirect the well-meaning baristas, the doting aunts, the talking heads, the teachers, congresspersons, and parents? And how do we do so without further alienating (enraging?) certain groups resistant to change? Is it worth conforming to certain stereotypes (e.g., the “angry” feminist) to stifle others? Is it necessary?
I can’t pretend to have the answer to any of these questions, but I can say that I am not convinced language merely reflects reality. Language, I think, is much more fluid and not so passive, and we must be vigilant and aware of the great effect even the smallest words can have… Yet still, what to say to the barista?