Can we reclaim language?

Many liberal feminists believe that women can obtain equality through their actions. They argue that language can be reappropriated if used in a new and empowering context, but how can we be empowered by terms that were once – and in many cases continue to be – used to abuse us? Derogatory terms such as ‘cunt’ seem impossible to reclaim as they are still deeply connected to their pejorative meanings and when slurs like this are used in a positive way it can lead to confusion as many still associate these words with discrimination and disrespect; however, as time has shown, it is possible to take back these terms.

Tony Thorne from Buzzfeed expands on the ways in which the term ‘pussy’ has been transformed into a positive image, noting that it has been reclaimed at least twice: once by the American feminist group ‘Pussy Power’ and again by the Russian girl group ‘Pussy Riot’. The aims of these groups were to challenge patriarchal control and to share their female narrative. Thanks to groups like this, ‘pussy’, a term that once had connotations with weakness and cowardice, can now be associated with strong-willed individuals fighting for their cause.

Similarly, the word bitch has been transformed into a more empowering term through the normalisation of the slur. Heard in pop songs and stamped onto t-shirts, this particular curse word has taken on a new meaning that suggests power and straight-forwardness. Of course, the term can still be used in a misogynistic way, but now it lacks the same power it once held providing us with hope – and proof that – it is possible for language to evolve.

Personally, I would like to see the expletive ‘slut’ transition into a more sex-positive term. Rather than shame women for embracing their sexuality, it is important to acknowledge sex as a human drive and not something to be ashamed of. That is not to say we should have to flaunt our personal lives, of course, but we should at least have the option to do so.

Likewise, we need to challenge derogative phrases such as ‘to mother someone’ and form alternatives that provide equality. For example, ‘mothering’ connects women to their assumed role as primary carer and reinforces the idea that it is a woman’s duty to nurture others. It also disconnects men from the act of parenting and suggests that this is something they are not a part of. These sexist phrases reinforce and encourage stereotypes making it impossible for society to become more progressive.

Interestingly, ‘suffragette’ was originally a derogative term coined by the London Daily Mail to ridicule the feminist movement. In ‘They Are Too Sweet and Angelic to Reason’, Nancy Rohr explains: ‘In 1906 the London Daily Mail referred to the women in a new and insulting manner as Prime Minister Arthur J. Balfour received a deputation of the “Suffragettes.” The newspaper label implied something not genuine, rather diminutive, or even to be ridiculed. The movement was something less than the real thing, as a small kitchen became a kitchenette.’ Nowadays, when you refer to the suffragette’s you instantly think of independent and powerful women further proving it is possible for us to reclaim negative language.

It is possible to reclaim sexist language but – like all things in life – it requires mindfulness and time. In the same way that ‘suffragette’ has become an empowering label as can ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’. Whilst it can be hard to change the way you use language, please try to be more aware of others when using words that can be seen as offensive and communicate with others if you are uncomfortable with the way that they use language. Progress is only possible with clear communication and understanding.

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