May 14, 2017

How language makes us shame women, femininity and trans people

Culture's contempt of women and femininity drives many male to female crossdreamers and trans people back into the closet. Bullying and harassment play important roles, but language itself also shapes the way we think about sex and gender.
Woman as vampire (Edvard Munch)

The reason so many seem to despise male to female gender crossings more than the female to male ones, is that being a woman is understood as something negative. Womanhood is associated with weakness, both physical and mental.

To use the terminology of the day: Women are less privileged than men, and the dream of becoming a woman is therefore a sign of some kind of mental desease or madness. A woman striving for masculine interests and expressions, on the other hand, is reaching for greatness.

There is no factual foundation for such misogynistic beliefs, in the sense that biology gives women more or less the same abilities and temperaments as men. To the extent there are differences, they do not influence women’s abilities to take part in modern society negatively. They are as good as men (and even better if we look at the current enrollment in higher education). Still, even seemingly clear headed people fall back into the pool of stereotypes over and over again.

Internalized misogyny

This has obviously a profound effect on male to female gender variant people, from the occasional male to female (MTF) crossdresser to the transgender woman. They all sense that many people look down upon their identities and choices. This is also why so many male to female crossdreamers and transgender people stay in the closet.

Indeed, you will also see that many MTFs themselves share many of these prejudices, as expressed in fantasies, stories and role playing.

Upbringing and social conditioning

The traditional way of explaining this is that it is an effect of upbringing. If your family, friends and peers tell you that being a male to female transgender person makes you «a sissy» or «a faggot» (terms associated with femininity in men, and by implication the much feared homosexuality) and some kind of mentally ill pervert, it makes sense not to tell anyone.

Still, crossdreamers and transgender people raised in more forgiving environments may also feel shame and embarrassment. One reason for this is that the misogyny and fear of femininity is not always explicit. It is implicit, ingrained in language itself.

Words for woman reflect how society considers women

My wife and I had a brainstorming the other day while out hiking. Getting away from the city center makes it easier to look at everyday life from another angle. We started discussing how terms for male and female carry connotations or associations that are positive or negative.

A often used example in the English language media is how the word for promiscuity among men, «stud», has positive connotations, while the term «slut» is always negative.

We found it very hard to find a Norwegian term for man that was completely negative. The closest we got was gubbe, which means a somewhat pathetic and old guy. We had no problem finding negative words for women, especially if we looked at words used for the last century or so.

There is taus, of course, which the dictionary will tell you is a female servant, but which until quite recently was also used for women in general. The word means «silent». The word taus is related to the word tøs, which means prostitute or slut. No subtlety there.

Then there is the word vekje, which is found in some Norwegian dialects, which is used for girls. The word means «weak». So instead of talking about "boys and girls", they would refer to "boys and weaklings."
Jomfru, tøs and kjerring, the three roles of women.
(Edvard Munch)

This approach to gender – making male the much wanted default, and female a weak and pitiful derivative – is found in an expression often used after a child birth: Vart det ein gut eller eit bonn? («Is it a boy or a child?»)

Hundred years ago one of the most positive words for woman was jomfru, used for young, unmarried women. The parallell to Jomfru Karlsen in English would be Miss Karlsen. But here's the catch: The word jomfru also means "virgin". No one would ever call a young man a virgin. And a young woman with a healthy sexual appetite would be a tøs, a slut.

The word kjerring is derived from Norse karl, meaning "man". The parallel in English would be woman, which originates in wifman, from wif (woman) and man (man). These words for women do not denote them as something unique. Instead, women's identity is derived from and relative to men.

Contemporary Norwegians do not know that the word kjerring is derived from mann, so that connotation is probably lost on them. These days some people may think of it as a neutral word meaning "wife", but common associations are "old", "ugly", "troublesome", "worn out", which is the opposite of a young, unmarried, woman or a lady of the bourgeoisie (who are called damer, "ladies").

But this is the only case we can think of where there are similarly negative words for men: kall (which comes from the term karl explained above) or gubbe as in husband.
Kjerring (T Kittelsen)

On the other hand the word kjerring may also be used to describe a man in the meaning of a coward or a quarrelsome person. He behaves like a woman. Oh dear!

When women become girls

To be sure, many of these expressions are dying out in contemporary Norway, a country dominated by progressive ideas of equality and female liberation.

But even now language twist and turns to allow for new ways of belittling women. The trend now is to use the word jente (girl) for all women, regardless of age.

This could reflect the current desire for eternal youth, but it might also reflect an implicit idea that women are children, psychologically and mentally, til the day they die. You rarely see the same use of gutt («boy») for adult men.

By the way, you see the exact same thing happen in the English language.

The proliferation of negative terms for woman obviously not a phenomenon limited to Norwegian. In the English language you have a wide variety of synonyms for "woman" that is are not meant to be flattering or respectful, like" bag", "battleaxe", "bimbo", "bitch", "broad", "chicken head", "cow", "crone", "dog", "dragon", "fishwife", "fury", "gorgon", "hag", "harpy", "harridan", "ratchet", "she-devil", "shorty", "shrew", "termagant", "trout", "virago", "vixen", "witch" -- it goes on and on.

You will not find a similar number of negative synonyms for men, I can assure you.


  1. Comments are back up.

    (I have been having some problems with the comment section on this blog. Hopefully it works now.)

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  3. A Lesbian friend of mine had a tough upbringing but yet her "manliness" was tolerated because she was aspiring towards the more favorably seen masculinity. Reverse the direction however and a man wanting to express femininity was instantly seen as an aberration worthy of derision and even physical violence. Tomboys were tolerated but sissies were not although this has begun to change.

    Until the role of women in society is properly elevated to equal status we will not truly solve this problem but at least it is far improved from when I was growing up

  4. I grew up with a female prime minister, but even in this country old fashioned ideas about the proper role for men and women exist.

    One of the main problems now, as I see it, is that we have not been able to find a language for (heterosexual) sexuality that is not degrading for both parties. People seem to pretend that sexuality is something rational you may will yourself through, but it is not, and we lack the customs and the rituals needed to make it good. Which is why you will find -- for instance -- femininity both celebrated and ridiculed at the same time.

  5. you are right in this Jack. We try to pin perfect rules of engagement and behavior to something that is by its very nature steeped in irrationality and feeling which is why so many variations exist out there (as Kinsey discovered). As we demystify everything surrounding sexuality and gender we begin to appreciate how malleable it truly is and hopefully permit more tolerance for the way people truly are. I for one will no longer be constrained to live as I am supposed to.

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