Pay Attention to Words, or They’ll Control Your Life

A girl (me) and five guys walked into a bar. (It was a video game raid, but why quibble about words.) The joke ends there. I was expecting to have a fun evening with friends and earn game currency to buy the grenade launcher to beat all grenade launchers. Instead, I ended up playing with a couple of knuckle heads more inept than I am and had to slap down misogynistic drivel. Loving words and hating misogyny, I wrote about the incident and shared it with my gaming friends.

Months later, I’m still considering the feedback. 

When he started reading my blog post, my friend said, he thought it was about the game and the mechanics of the boss fight but found it was about sexism instead (a stealth attack). The editor in me thought that was a good point. Usually, you want the beginning of a blog post to give the reader an idea of your topic. I should revise! 

“Wait!” the writer in me thought, “That’s what I wanted him to feel.” It’s what I experienced. I thought I was going to play a game and got partially gender trolled? (I don’t know what to call it.)

The issue of setting boundaries in response to trolling is worth repeating: There is nothing acceptable about calling an AI-controlled, female character in a video game a cunt or suggesting that having a vagina is its defining characteristic. 

In the incident I wrote about, after I told the troll, “That’s enough,” the whole fireteam (me too) fell silent. By writing about that silence, my friend said, I put my male teammates on the spot. Calling out another male for using sexist language is fraught. If a guy calls it out, they are less than manly. If they don’t call it out, they let me, their teammate, down. 

Except, I didn’t write about feeling let down. My teammates did not join in the misogyny. To me, that’s a good enough place to start changing the world. Do I set the bar too low? 

My friend and I have different frames of reference. How could we not? I’m female, he’s male, and we have different life experiences because of that. It’s sad and true.

He ended his comments by saying that focusing on words was trivial when we have so many serious gender problems to address. After all, men call each other “dicks” all the time. 

Who gets to decide what is trivial? And when do male norms apply? This gets to the core of the matter.

True, men often call each other dick. Most of the time they mean the other man is being some kind of idiot. It’s not exactly an insult and doesn’t objectify. Most of the time it doesn’t refer to anatomy. 

What does it mean to call a woman a cunt or a vagina (no one really says that)? Can you make that comparison here? The words aren’t in the same ballpark. One is a crude way of talking about a male person’s actions or attitude. The other objectifies women. (At least in the U.S. British people use the word cunt in a way that has a different tone.)

A few weeks later, another male friend and I were talking in a Discord lounge. He was playing a competitive game, and when he lost to an opponent, called him a pussy. He knows I’m a writer and interested in language, so he asked, “Do you want to know why I called him a pussy? It’s emasculating.” Right.

I was surprised by how self-aware and reflective he was and simultaneously oblivious.

Is gender-biased language trivial compared to problems like women earning less money for the same work a man does? Compared to how the police and legal system handle domestic violence and rape? Compared to sexual harassment and worse? Compared to laws that force women to continue pregnancies that might be detrimental to their long-term health and economic prospects? Compared to the way women don’t get paid for most of the work they do, like childcare, transportation, and emotional care-taking—these are a sample; the list of “women’s work” is long. 

Language isn’t trivial. Gender-biased language is another facet of gender bias and related problems in our society. 

Words—language—frame how we see the world and influence what we see. Women have struggled with gender bias, including in language, for years. Women in the 1960s earned no more than $.60 compared to a dollar that men earned for the same work. Today, women earn $.82 to a dollar that men earn for the same work. That’s a 22 cent raise over 60 years. Wow.

When women run for political office, the media spends time discussing their clothes. The only thing comparable I can think of is the criticism levied at Barak Obama for wearing a tan suit. And that just reflects another type of bias.

When Hillary Clinton cried during a campaign stop in the 2016 presidential race, she was overly emotional and too unstable to be president. When Brett Kavanaugh cried during his confirmation hearing for a seat on the Supreme Court, few (no?) reporters noted that he was unstable, hysterical, or unhinged. 

Women are most often quoted in articles about lifestyle. You can guess where men are quoted more often than women: business, sports, financial news, and politics—pretty much the rest of life.1 Outspoken, strong women are shrill. Men are authoritative. 

Words matter. They weave how we see the world. They convey our thoughts with a certain texture and frame our experiences. 

If you want to make progress addressing misogyny and sexism—and any other bias—you can begin by minding your words.

The best recent example of the power of words I can think of occurred during the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. The presiding judge forbade prosecuting attorneys from using the word victim to describe the individuals Rittenhouse killed. Defense attorneys, however, could call the individuals rioters, provided they could substantiate the claim. This was not a case of judicial bias but a case in which the judge knew the application of the relevant laws. Calling the individuals victims would frame the situation as murder, which assumes the verdict is “guilty.” Determining whether murder had occurred was the point of the case. Under the relevant laws, whether or not we approve of them, the jury decided that Rittenhouse did not commit murder so there were no victims. 

A similar logic applies with sexist language. If language that objectifies women is acceptable—that is, it’s okay to call females cunts—we won’t make progress toward embedding equal rights into the social fabric. Objects don’t have rights. Well, you can grant objects with property rights, but let’s not go there.

I’ll leave you with a challenge. For the next month, pay attention to the words you use and that you consume through media. How did those words shape your view of reality?

1. Prashanth Rao and Maite Taboada, “Gender Bias in the News: A Scalable Topic Modelling and Visualization Framework,” Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence, June 16, 2021,

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