To set up the situation: some female acquaintances of mine were discussing how pitiful the stats are in their area for plays being produced which are written by, directed by, and/or with good roles for women. The usual. So they decided to drive change and produce their own female-driven theater festival. They named it — branded it — put it out there for the world to see as “WTF: Women’s Theater Festival.” Yes, the acronym fits the name. But it’s also the acronym for a three-letter phrase including a curse word. We most often use it to denote confusion about a statement or action that clearly goes against general common sense. In this specific case, the American populace is 51% female, so why are only 22% of plays produced in America ones written by women? I mean: WTF. It’s not even a question.
Now, naturally, there was a backlash on social media. I wasn’t in the room when the name was announced but people who were said the use of the acronym was a deliberate provocation to get people talking about the pitiful statistics. The naysayers pointed out that using a curse word — or the common euphemism, in this case — was going to turn people away from being involved or even listening to the message in the first place.
This discussion started me thinking about language and gender parity. Does how we talk about our movement, either between ourselves or with men, have anything to do with the rate of change we are seeing and where? That is, if we are only seeing significant change in places with female leadership, where we can use language suited to our actual feelings, are we hampered by language rules when it comes to places with male leadership?Wrote Robin Tolmach Lakoff, in her seminal 1975 sociolinguistic text Language and Woman’s Place:
Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-world imbalances and inequities. They are clues that some external situation needs changing, rather than items that one should seek to change directly.
It is well-known that those who have power in any given situation are the ones to make up the rules, in this case, rules about what can be said and by whom. We’ll harken back to the Victorians who made the rules for a lot of what we consider etiquette today: crass vulgar language was restricted to men and to members of lower classes. Remember the scene in My Fair Lady when Eliza Doolittle breaks character at the Ascot Race and shouts “Move your bloomin’ arse!” People fainted.
“Allowing men stronger means of expression than are open to women further reinforces men’s position of strength in the real world: for surely we listen with more attention the more strongly and forcefully someone expresses opinions, and a speaker unable — for whatever reason — to be forceful in stating his views is much less likely to be taken seriously.” wrote Lakoff.
Ability to use strong particles like ‘shit’ and ‘hell’ is, of course, only incidental to the inequity that exists rather than its cause. But once again, apparently accidental linguistic usage suggests that women are denied equality partially for linguistic reasons, and that an examination of language points up precisely an area in which inequity exists. Further, if someone is allowed to show emotions, and consequently does, others may well be able to view him as a real individual in his own right, as they could not if he never showed emotion. Here again, then, the behavior a woman learns as “correct” prevents her from being taken seriously as an individual, and further is considered “correct” and necessary for a woman precisely because society does not consider her seriously as an individual.
So women are in what is known as a double-bind situation. Ah, the irony: we’re damned if we do use curse words because we violate societal norms, but we’re damned if we don’t because using any other language doesn’t get across our frustrations about the lack of gender parity.
One of my favorite stories from my theater management days is working on a production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. At intermission, one of our patrons, a long-time season subscriber, donor, sweet old lady, said to the artistic director, “I don’t understand why you felt you had to add all those curse words.” He assured her he did not add those words; indeed, Mamet himself had written them into his triple-prize-winning play. Much has been made of Mamet’s use of vulgar language: it is a language of the people, it gets across what can’t be emotionally communicated otherwise, and it’s his style. Because that’s what taboo language does and why we use it.
“Reasons for using or not using taboo words depend on the conversational goals of the speaker. Swearing is like using the horn on your car, which can be used to signify a number of emotions, like anger, frustration, joy, or surprise,” writes Timothy Jay in “The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words,” published by the Association for Psychological Science. “Taboo words can be used to achieve a variety of personal and interpersonal outcomes that may be positive, negative, or inconsequential in terms of their impact on others… ” Jay goes on to state that “two-thirds of our swearing data are linked to … expressions of anger and frustration, which seem to be the main reason for swearing.”
Back to women’s double-bind. One of the categories of women’s language Lakoff defines thus: “Superpolite forms. This is the point alluded to earlier: women are supposed to speak more politely than men. This is related to their hypercorrectness in grammar, of course, since it’s considered more mannerly in middle-class society to speak “properly.” [pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We listen with more attention the more forcefully someone expresses opinions.[/pullquote]But it goes deeper: women don’t use off-color or indelicate expressions; women are the experts at euphemism; more positively, women are the repositories of tact and know the right things to say to other people, while men carelessly blurt out whatever they are thinking. Women are supposed to be particularly careful to say “please” and “thank you” and to uphold the other social conventions; certainly a woman who fails at these tasks is apt to be in more trouble than a man who does so: in a man it’s “just like a man,” and indulgently overlooked unless his behavior is really boorish. In a woman, it’s social death in conventional circles to refuse to go by the rules.”
So what are we to do when talking about gender parity? Are we to play by the rules of the power structure, which is what keeps us at 30%? Is it likely at the theater festival just completed in Washington DC, that the inclusion of “Voices” in the title was a deliberate insertion to keep the acronym from being judged vulgar? Does stepping outside of these artificial boundaries, using stronger language to provoke and communicate frustration, mean we will lose audiences?
We have to think of context. To choose to always use the rules and language set up by those in power does not provide the emotional charge that calls out the needed change. To never use them, though, creates an easy dismissal of critical issues because we didn’t “talk right.” Art is meant to provoke change, whether positive or negative. If we are going to win the revolution of gender parity, we need to use all the weapons we have available, including our words.