The power of words
Redefining words as a mean of redefining the world
I have been wondering about what being a woman means in society, and how it is represented in movies, advertising, literature, and in language. I detected that women are basically represented as weak, passive, obsessed to please, superficial, and naturally devoted to men and kids. I have always felt that this representation is extremely limited as if there was a single way of embodying a woman, perpetually in an oppressive relation to men. I have always tried to convince myself that I was probably being paranoid and misinterpreting how women are perceived in society. I have basically been diverting the culpability to my own subjectivity. Every time I watched a movie and detected a misogynistic scene (mostly in every movie), I first blamed myself for thinking that way, and second, I secretly hated the director for being sexist. The next step was stopping considering myself wrong, and actually accepting the fact that the film industry is male-dominated as is the advertising industry; these two are to blame for the misogynistic representations, which are then reproduced by most people.
The day I read in the renowned Spanish dictionary "La Real Academia Española" that women are considered as the weak sex, I realized that I had to accept the fact that not only the most powerful industries in shaping the role of women to the public eye are misogynistic, but also are dictionaries and in consequence language itself, ergo society. I then started wondering about the meaning of objectivity and its relationship with what we consider natural or normal in society. Who controls those parameters, how are they reproduced, and how does that impact on our perceptions in daily life? And most importantly, how can I fight back?
I searched on Google dictionary the definition for "man", and analyzed its content, length, the number of examples, the words chosen and their connotations.
I did the same with the definition of "woman": the length is shockingly shorter, as the number of examples, and the connotation are horrifically negative and offensive.
After accepting these facts, I decided to break this binary conception of humanity and focus on the problematics of the definition of the word "woman". I started doing some research on the definitions of "woman" in different current online dictionaries and in different languages.
In Google's dictionary, for example, the word "woman" is defined as follows:
noun: woman; plural noun: women
an adult human female.
"a jury of seven women and five men"
synonyms: lady, girl, member of the fair/gentle sex, female; matron, dowager; lass, lassie; colleen; yorga; informal chick, girlie, filly, biddy; informal bird, bint, popsy; informal besom, wifie; informal dame, broad, gal, jane, sister; informal sheila; informal Judy; informal frail; humorous the female of the species; derogatory piece, bit, mare, baggage; offensive bitch; literary maid, maiden, damsel, demoiselle; archaic wench; archaic gentlewoman, petticoat
"a car drew up and two women got out"
. a female person associated with a particular place, activity, or occupation.
"one of his sophisticated London women"
. a peremptory form of address to a woman.
"don't be daft, woman!"
. a female worker or employee.
. a man's wife, girlfriend, or lover.
"he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him"
synonyms: girlfriend, girl, sweetheart, partner, significant other, inamorata, fiancée; wife, spouse, helpmate, helpmeet, consort; lover, mistress, paramour; informal bird, fancy woman, old lady, missus, missis, better half, other half, WAGs (wives and girlfriends), POSSLQ (person of the opposite sex sharing living quarters), queen; informal Dutch, her indoors, girlf; informal mot; informal squeeze, patootie; informal dona; informal bibi; rhyming slang trouble and strife; dated lady friend, lady love, young lady, lady, lady wife; archaic leman, doxy, concubine
"apparently he's found himself a new woman"
These are some of my observations:
- First of all, sex and gender are mixed, when they are not the same. According to Google's dictionary, female is defined as: "of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) which can be fertilized by male gametes".
Which means that this definition, on one hand, excludes women who have undergone hysterectomy and sex reassignment surgery, menopausal, intersexual and trans women; and on the other hand includes all persons with a
working female reproductive system, but might not consider themselves as women.
Based on my research on sex and gender, the former can be considered biological, as it “refers to a reproductive capacity or potential.” Those bodies that produce sperm are considered male while those that produce eggs are considered female. Moreover, sex can be considered anatomical or morphological. A body that has labia and a clitoris, and/or breasts is considered female, whereas a body that has a penis, testicles, and a flat chest is considered male. However, these conceptions of sex should not be taken to mean that there are only two kinds of bodies (male and female) or that all bodies are either one or the other of only two possible kinds of bodies. Sex can be considered as well as genetics. A person with XX chromosome is female, while a person with an XY chromosome is male; those are the most common combinations, but there are also others. Gender, however, is considered cultural or social, meaning that our ideas about how a man or a woman should act are learned through socialization. Consequently, gender varies depending on temporal, cultural, and geographic contingencies. However, it is important to keep in mind that how a society organizes its members into categories based on their unchosen physical differences is never politically neutral. Moreover, a person’s gender identity and gender performance may not always be consistent. Gender identity is a subjective sense of fit within a particular gender category. People can identify with the “opposite” gender, as trans individuals, or simply not identify with the gender they were assigned. Gender comportment or performance is how one acts out or performs their gender.
"Men and women are metonymic constructions of the heterosexual system of production and reproduction that authorizes the submission of women as a force for sexual work and as a means of reproduction. This exploitation is structural, and the sexual benefits that heterosexual men and women derive from it make it necessary to reduce the erotic surface to the sexual reproductive organs and to privilege the penis as the only mechanical center for the production of the sexual impulse. The sex-gender system is a writing system. The body is a socially constructed text, an organic archive of the history of humanity as a history of sexual reproduction-production, in which certain codes are naturalized, others remain elliptical, and others are systematically iliminated or crossed out. The (hetero) sexuality, far from arising spontaneously of each newborn body, must be re-inscribed or reinstitute through constant operations of repetition and recitation of codes (male and female) socially invested as natural."
Paul B Preciado, Manifiesto contrasexual, 2002.
- Second, most of the synonyms and examples chosen are offensive and objectify women, as "member of the fair/gentle sex", "piece", "baggage", "bitch", "maid", "prostitute" ("maid" and "prostitute" are not necessary offensive, but they should not be synonyms of "woman". The domestic work and the prostitution do not have a specific gender or sex. As long as "prostitute" and "maid" keep on being synonyms of "woman" and not considered jobs, the prostitutes and the maids, will remain marginalized from the system.
- Third, this definition is hetorcentric and patriarchal, meaning that it only includes heterosexual woman, in a relation to man. "A man's wife, girlfriend, or lover", "one of his sophisticated London women", "he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him", "apparently he's found himself a new woman".
Shockingly enough, one of the examples of the definition of "woman" on Google dictionary disappeared from one day to another: "A female who is paid to clean someone's house, and carry out other domestic duties." is not longer part of the definition. (Maybe a proof of that Google is actually listening to us?). This event made me realize that the problematic is not solved by getting the definitions shorter by deleting the offensive contents, but by bringing awareness on the fact that the dictionaries define "woman" in a conservative way.
In my research, I founded that these problems I pointed out are a constant in all the definitions of different countries and times. For example, in Longmans Dictionary, in 1965, from Great Britain, the word "woman" is defined as: human female; to play the woman = show weakness. Other example, Larousse de Poche, Paris, 1954: femme: Compagne de l'homme. Celle que est ou qui a été mariée. (woman: Companion of the man. The one who is or has been married). And "La Real Academia Española", Spain, 2018, refers to a woman as a prostitute, in four examples. "mujer de la calle: prostituta que busca a sus clientes en la calle"; "mujer del partido: prostituta"; "mujer mundana: prostituta"; "mujer pública: prostituta". ("woman of the street: prostitute who looks for her clients in the street"; "woman of the party: prostitute"; "worldly woman: prostitute"; "public woman: prostitute"). In addition, it refers to women as the weaker sex. (sexo débil: Conjunto de las mujeres).
Dictionaries possess a strong authority that people rarely question. Oxford Dictionaries, for example, provide the default dictionary used by Apple and Google apps. Oxford’s authority takes on additional force in a world where the dictionary isn’t just a heavy book but an easily accessed app that is automatically downloaded onto smartphones and tablets. Every time we turn to a dictionary to illustrate a point or to prove that we understand the “true” and “accurate” meaning of a word or phrase, we reinforce the dictionary’s power as a provider of truth. It becomes easy to argue that women conform the weaker sex just because it says so in the dictionary. People seem to perceive dictionaries as being neutral, innocuous and objective, unaffected by cultural attitudes or habits. It is, however, impossible for any text to exist outside of society, as both its creation and its use are colored by cultural expectations, beliefs, and practices. Lexicographers write, edit, read, and interact with the dictionary. The apparently neutral example sentences and phrases reflect what lexicographers perceive to be “normal”. These people make decisions about what it is written in the dictionary, so they have the power to define the boundaries of normality.
In this project, I am compiling various definitions of the word "woman" in printed and online dictionaries from different times and in different languages, to analyze and compare these definitions throughout time. As I mentioned before, all the definitions have something in common: they are all binary, heterocentric, and misogynistic. Dictionaries legitimate certain words and concepts, strengthening a conservative language, and affecting the way we think and conceive the world.
In order to bring awareness to this problematic,
I decided to make an art book with these proofs. I ripped the pages from different printed dictionaries with the definitions of the word "woman", including the copyright page with the name, year and country of the publication, to put the word definition in context. I have covered each ripped page with a white lightweight paper, leaving a gap on the word "woman" definition to focus on its meaning. The lightweight paper covers the other words definitions yet allows it to be seen.
In my handwriting, with a black mine pencil, I have written on the paper my own opinions of each definition. I am not rewriting the definition of the word "woman" because I claim that humans should not be defined, specially by others. I chose the mine pencil because, in one
hand, a mine is precise, so are the ideas I chose to write, and the pencil is easily erased and modified, for the reason that language is in constant transformation. I hope that by bringing awareness, and by opening the conversation, this will no longer be a problem from the future.
Parsons School, Master degree in Design and Technology. Art installation. Paris, 2018. Social Design Project. Rethinking the word "woman" definition on the dictionaries.