[ed.note: this is a short post to make up for not posting last night]
In conversation last night, I was grasping for the female equivalent of emasculate. When a guy has his masculinity taken from him, it removes his strength, his power. There’s no equivalent word for women; defeminize doesn’t have the same connotations of disempowerment. We found this imbalance interesting. It implies that masculinity is strength, but femininity is not; that men have power, but women don’t. Our language enforces power differentials by not even providing words for the same concepts for each gender. It’s insidious in that way.
Another example of a word that has no opposite gender equivalent is wiles. The phrase is “feminine wiles”. “Masculine wiles” sounds wrong and ridiculous. The word wiles implies treachery, cunning and deceit. This conception of femininity is built into the language. In some people’s conceptions, it goes all the way back to Eve’s association with the deceitful serpent. To the present day, some men fear the trickery inherent in a woman’s wiles, fearing her sexuality is a strategem to disempower/emasculate them. Men have power, women have wiles, implying that the only way a woman can get power is to trick a man into giving it up.
I was trying to think of other examples of this sort of imbalance this morning. It’s hard because language is so pervasive. It’s hard to think about ideas that aren’t supported in language – our brains may be patterned by the language we use. This is the idea behind the attempts by feminists to restructure the language with terms such as womyn.
I thought all that politically correct stuff was bogus at the time, but as I grow older and more of a relativist, I at least see where they’re coming from. It’s not objective in the hard science sense, as it’s difficult to run a good experiment with controls, but there’s definitely some interesting stuff here. We can’t even talk about certain concepts because our language does not provide the words to do so. Cultural conceptions are embedded into the language, which reinforces those conceptions. These assumptions are hard to see and articulate, especially for privileged bastards like myself. But every now and then, I stumble across them, as when I was searching for a word last night, and am fascinated by the subtleties of language.