“Girl talk: a review of Amanda Montell’s ‘Wordslut’”, by Clare Millar

 
Wordslut (online)_0.jpg
 




When I’m at home and it’s just me and my partner—indeed a man and myself a woman—I don’t notice my gender. Home is where it doesn’t matter, where I can shed that woman I am seen as outside. When I leave the house, gender—and the way it is expressed with language—is everywhere. For the most part, it is what is placed upon me; an ill-fitting frock. I am reminded of philosopher Denise Riley’s musings on being a woman in the world, on the street: “You have indeed been seen ‘as a woman’, and violently reminded that your passage alone can spark off such random sexual attraction-cum-contempt, that you can be a spectacle when the last thing on your mind is your own embodiness.”

~

We can’t escape the perception of gender. We can’t avoid language. These two phenomena collide endlessly in our lives. In Wordslut, Amanda Montell demonstrates the ways in which English (and of course almost every language across the world) can be used, both intentionally and unintentionally, to portray the biases we carry around inside us.

~

Leaving the Arts Centre carpark after a brilliant performance of The Lady in the Van, a man in a car with its windows down yells out “hot mama” as we pass each other at the boom gates.

~

Montell’s book covers a variety of gendered experiences of language: catcalling, swearing, gay lisps, but most importantly, it’s filled with personal examples, because how can we talk about women’s language without talking about our own experiences? Wordslut is a book that shows us, forces us to see, how language conveys misogyny and just how much the world is set up to favour the language of men. So long as women (and nonbinary people) are hated, considered weaker and worse versions of men, there will be language to exploit that view.

~

In a job as an educational publishing assistant, I was told my emails came across too harshly. A few men had responded – how dare I tell them what to do. I’d ask for documents signed and scanned, for writers to take on board constructive feedback from independent reviewers. I was never rude, and I had stuck to the form emails that my (male) colleague had used the year before. After being asked to complete the task to his contract, one man shouted at me over the phone; another would not make the required changes to his work. I had to rewrite my emails, hyper-polite: “it would be great if you would be able to”, “would you mind”. My male colleagues’ emails remained to the point.

~

From the moment I was told I needed to change the way I wrote my emails, I knew it was gendered. But it wasn’t until reading Wordslut that I saw it play out across the double-bind:

She could phrase her email with a straightforward tone and no-frills punctuation—“The project needs to be done by tomorrow at 3 p.m. Thanks.”—but, because we have certain expectations of how women are supposed to communicate (politely, indirectly), that might earn her a reputation as a cold bitch. On the other hand, she could pepper her email with hedges, exclamation points, and emoji—If you could possibly have the project finished by tomorrow at 3 p.m., that’d be AMAZING. Thank you so much!! :)”—but, because we have certain expectations of how bosses are supposed to communicate (bluntly, directly), that might make her seem jumpy and unfit to lead. 

But what is the solution? Others have suggested we need to rebuild English (and any other language that is male-centred, which is most) to better reflect women’s discourse. But that is of course, an impossible task, and one that is wrongly directed. Forcing language change alone would not necessarily change attitudes about women – and would perhaps only make those attitudes more disguised. However, listening to how language is currently used to judge women or to express that sexism is the necessary first step that Montell offers her readers.    

~

On Christmas Eve last year, working in a bookshop, an older man asks me why I am not helping customers, as that this is my only job. In fact, in that moment, my job was to check in with a colleague about a transaction. He stands tall over me with his stack of books he wants wrapped, protruding into my space. I leave to de-escalate. Another colleague refers to the way this man was looking at me: predatorily. He had assumed authority over me, in my workplace. Later, my boss tells me I can always ask people to leave, a reassurance I haven’t had before. Over the next few months, I dream new versions of this scene: men buying feminist books but refusing to listen to the women in the precarious space that is retail.

~

Montell says, “Think about policing women’s voices—their intonation, their syntax, their word choice—in the same way we think about policing women’s appearance”, and it makes sense. Policing women is the job of the patriarchy. That means appearance, language, opinions—if we get to voice them—reproduction, work. Language was meant to be men’s language, to be about themselves.

Analysing the cliff wife meme (in which a man recorded his wife tumbling down a hill, saying that “your whole world can change in a matter of seconds”) in the Guardian, Naaman Zhou states that in “any wife guy story, it is somehow the guy who becomes the real focus, not his wife”. But is this not always the case under patriarchy? That anything we do as women comes up against men, who’d rather record our failures than help us succeed.

“What did you do before you became a wife?” a solar panel specialist recently asked my mum. She was an engineer, then a careers counsellor, and is now training to be a family mediator.

~

Perhaps because my mum was a careers counsellor, I grew up knowing I could do anything I wanted, with the understanding that there are many pathways into any career, and that most people don’t know what they want to do, least of all when they leave school. When I was five, I wanted to be an author and a cat breeder. I’ve since realised adopting pets is far more ethical, but I’m working on the writing part. That’s never changed. I don’t recall, however, a sense that work was gendered. I know my mother works hard to dispel this idea. In all the careers aptitude assessments I did, both at home and at school, never did I consider my femaleness a component of a job or career, nor did I think it would inhibit any choice I could make. Writing, publishing and bookselling—my current work—are overwhelmingly female, however. When I hear Jane Caro saying that Australia has one of the most gender-segregated workforces in the world, I know we still have a long way to go.

Perhaps one of the most pertinent arguments in Wordslut is that everything is individual to women. Some women like feminised suffixes for career titles, others do not. Should we say comedienne? Should I specify that I saw a female doctor, or did I just see a doctor? Am I a writer or a female writer? Even when we allow for gender neutral or all-encompassing terms such as chairperson, firefighter and police officer, these terms are more likely to be interpreted as indicating a woman, with the male terms still in use for men. Twitter user @ThaJawn posted a gender-neutral guide: fireman = firefighter; policeman = policefighter; mailman = mailfighter; fisherman = fisherfighter. And indeed, aren’t we all fighting the patriarchy?  

~

When I open mail addressed to Miss Clare Millar, it feels like it’s not for me. It feels like someone addressing the child—the girl—I was long ago. It’s from someone refusing to accept me as an adult. Often, to change to Ms is quite easy. But for my phone bills, I have to go to a store in person, like I couldn’t possibly be an adult woman without someone verifying, someone seeing.

~

There are many parts to linguistics. Syntax (the rules of language, grammar) and phonetics (sounds and how they are produced) are two major elements. There are also many different ways of working as a linguist: many are academics, some of whom work in anthropology departments; some work with the law as forensic linguists; some might work on dictionaries; some might become speech therapists. Montell is something a little different – she is a sociolinguistist. This combines how people use language with what it tells us about people. Wordslut is a book that draws together many high-profile sociolinguists and draws out what we’ve suspected all along: that English is a language warped by the sexism of those who use it.

“The noun form of female is almost never used in a positive context”, Montell states. For a long time, I had thought that female was grammatically correct as an adjective, as opposed to woman, thinking of woman artist, woman lawyer (and that we would tend to say male nurse rather than man nurse). But through research with Deborah Cameron, Montell shows that female is general to all animals and refers to sex – the chromosomes and genitalia, method of reproduction. Woman, however, is only for humans. When female is flung about instead of woman, it is because the speaker is suggesting the woman’s biology is responsible for her (supposed) failings as an intellectual being.

~

I started an aerial circus class last week. A woman in the class mentioned that another woman from a different class had just proposed to her boyfriend. My male instructor said, “I don’t like that”. I keep quiet about my own engagement.

 ~

French philosopher, psychoanalyst, feminist and linguist Luce Irigaray argues that there is a “perpetually unrecognised law [that] regulates all operations carried out in language(s), all production of discourse, and all constitution of language according to the necessities of one perspective, one point of view, and one economy: that of men, who supposedly represent the human race”. Men’s voices are considered the universal voice; the only view that matters. It is this that we challenge when we want fair pay, childcare, access to abortion, even just to be taken seriously as women. There is something so strikingly confident in the man’s voice that tells me women shouldn’t propose, women shouldn’t have control over bringing about marriage. A confidence that keeps me quiet, even when I loudly disagree.  

Australian feminist Dale Spender argued in the 1980s that “it is that both language and material resources have been used by the dominant group to structure women’s oppression”. It was never about just language, or just access to education or reproductive healthcare. It’s everything together. When men use language, it reinforces their own power, often at the silencing of women. As Spender says, “in a society where women are devalued it is not surprising that their language should be devalued”.  

“Young women’s periods can be painful. It’s normal,” a GP once said to me, after I disclosed my symptoms and family history of disease. A few months later I was diagnosed with endometriosis. Research on endometriosis shows that it takes an average of seven-to-ten years for diagnosis. I was luckier, if only because I was assertive. Montell quotes Beth A. Quinn, showing that for men to perform masculinity—to project that strength into the world —they must disregard a woman’s pain. Empathy is seen to be a feminine trait, and “men’s moral stance vis-à-vis women is attenuated by this lack of empathy”.

~

Young women are innovators of language. Teen girls are mocked for their speech: for saying like too much (even though, as Montell discovers, there are many different meanings to this and those objecting to it are unaware of its complexities); using vocal fry (creaky voice, which used to be a desirable trait in men’s speech); and uptalk (ending sentences with a rising intonation, like a question). And yet, none of these actually demonstrate any linguistic or intellectual failings in today’s teens. Instead, Montell finds that “young women use the linguistic features that they do, not as mindless affectations, but as power tools for establishing and strengthening relationships”.

It is of course not just young women and teen girls who speak with these features. But it is again the double bind that Montell presents so frequently. Women are told to be more professional, to stop speaking like girls and get rid of all those likes, but once that happens, along comes criticism of being too harsh, too bossy, too cold. Speaking as we wish leads to the deep irritation that we aren’t sounding like men who know what they’re talking about – that we aren’t men.

~

For Mother’s Day in 2019, Michael Hill Jewellers ran an ad suggesting that men should “celebrate all [their] mums”. The ad on the back of a bus, with a pink background, shows a man in the middle of two women, one labelled as his mum, the other his ‘work mum’.

~

Early in 2019, a company surfaced producing men’s make up. Only it couldn’t be called that; instead it was ‘War Paint’. Once something becomes associated with women, it can no longer be good or strong. Montell demonstrates this as a process called ‘pejoration’, where words “eventually devolve into something negative”, and it is often a positive term becoming a sexualised slur for women. Madam, mistress, sissy and pussy are all examples of words that have changed over time to inherit negative qualities: that of women.  

In Man Made Language, Dale Spender argues that names also experience this divide between male-good, female-bad. Once a name shifts towards being given to girls, it does not go back. Names such as Ashley, Gale, Kelly, Kim, Lesley, Madison are just a few that have moved to almost 100% female in birth records of the twenty-first century. Even my own name, Clare, used to be a male name.  

These examples, of products and names, are of course not the most egregious things happening to women across the world, or even Australia. But the fascinating thing that Montell does in Wordslut is to show us how language works to carry all of this information, both of being the medium of sexism and misogyny, and one of the endless ways that women are judged in this world. She hopes Wordslut is a book that people interested in feminism but not linguistics will pick up, and people interested in linguistics but not feminism would read too.

Women, and every gender other than male, carry the burden of a world that dislikes us, that talks down to us, that tries to take away our strength by saying we speak too high-pitched, with too many likes, and simply too much. But there is nothing wrong with how we speak, and wordsluts like Montell are, like, here to show us that.



Clare Millar is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and bookseller. She edits poetry for Voiceworks and is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn. She has been published in Overland, Kill Your Darlings, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and Books+Publishing. She is completing a Bachelor of Arts (Professional) at Swinburne University. She tweets @claresmillar.