Sexism and Language: Don't Call Me Chick!

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By Sarah Peart

When I heard someone yell out "Hey chick!", I calmly turned around prepared to explain to this juvenile male that I don't appreciate being referred to as a fluffy baby chicken. To my shock, I found that it was a feminist woman.

The idea that women can "reclaim" words that have always been sexist is virtually received wisdom in student feminist circles. A quick flick through many magazines and a glance at some TV shows show that it is "geek girls", "riot girls" and "cyber-chicks" who are presented as the strong assertive women of the "post-feminist" era.

Words that have previously been rejected by feminists as sexist are now being promoted by the billionaire makers of pop culture, sold to women as their "road to liberation". The fact that sexist terminology is being adopted by women who believe in and actively campaign for equal rights should ring alarm bells among those of us who want to see the feminist movement making progress.

Pivotal to the argument that one can "reclaim" words is the idea that they can exist outside of a social context or can take on different social meanings in different contexts. For example, a growing number of feminists argue that the consequences for women of a man on a building site calling a woman "chick" are different (i.e., negative) from those of a lesbian woman calling her partner "chick" (i.e., endearing).

While not denying that language is used in different contexts with different intents, we should also recognise the overarching context of the sexist society we live in. Words don't exist in neutral space, from where we grab them as we choose and inject our own meaning into them. The meaning of words — how and why they are generally used by the majority of people — is determined by the social setting.

Even in one's "personal context", the bigger societal context has an impact. For example, in a relationship between an Asian and an Anglo, the latter calling the former "slanty eyes" is unlikely to...
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