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On Gendered Language

[this post was originally posted on Shakesville with the title I Write Letters ]


Dear English-Speaking World:

Pursuant to yesterday’s letter regarding the cessation of your use of the terms “man’s man” and “ladies’ man,” I would also like to request that you jettison the following from your vocabularies: “He’s all boy” and “She’s all girl.”

These terms are used to refer to children, anywhere from infancy to about 10 years of age, who are regarded as conforming nicely to the sex- and gender stereotypes prescribed by The PatriarchyTM. Sometimes, their use is only as pernicious as reinforcing an exclusionary narrative like all male humans like sports or all female humans like fashion.

“I see your son Joe there is playing with a ball.”

“Yes, he’s all boy!”

“I see Jane likes to carry around her mother’s old purse.”

“Yes, she’s all girl!”

Sometimes, however, they are as nefarious as justifying and/or reinforcing negative behaviors typically associated with one sex.

“I see Jane stomps her feet and cries when she doesn’t get what she wants.”

“Yes, she loves to throw tantrums—she’s all girl!”

“I see Joe often breaks his toys almost immediately after getting them out of the box.”

“Yes, he’s so rough and destructive—he’s all boy!”

In either case, the terms (much like “man’s man”) create a tremendously limited definition of both sexes. To inextricably associate being “all boy” with toy trucks and tumult, and being “all girl” with dollies and diffidence, limits both the boys who like trucks and girls who like dollies and the boys and girls who don’t, the latter of whom are not somehow “partially” girl and boy, or not girl and boy at all.

Our insistence on reducing children to these incomplete and hopelessly retrograde definitions of sex and gender does them no favors. And, besides that, it’s about as sophisticated as believing girls really are made of sugar and spice and everything nice and boys of snakes and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. Surely, we’re cleverer than that.

That is not to suggest that, by some combination of nature and nurture, boys and girls are not different creatures, or to argue for androgynous silver unitards that bespeak the superfluity of sex and gender. This is not really a letter about the differences, or sameness, between girls and boys at all. (For that, you can go here.) This letter is about broadening the scope of what is acceptably female and what is acceptably male, by first and foremost not limiting those spectrums in the first place.

This letter is about the idea that a boy who loves his Easy-Bake Oven is all boy, too. And about the idea that a girl who dresses up in her dad’s clothes


—is all girl, too.

It’s also about not defining masculinity in contradistinction to femininity (and vice versa), which can have [trigger warning] disastrous consequences. And it’s about having respect for people who loudly, proudly, aren’t all boy or all girl, but a bit of each, by nature or design, whose bodies or minds or personal aesthetic reject the binary. It’s about rejecting the idea that men are women are so different that we come from different planets, that we are so different we’re practically different species, that we are separate and unequal.

This letter asks you to reject othering language.

All boy, after all, means no girl. And what could be more othering than saying you’re no part of me, and I’m no part of you?

Thank you and have a nice day.

Love,
Liss

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4 comments on “On Gendered Language

  1. [...] Renee at Womanist Musings also has a bunch of links to posts worth checking out. One of them I particularly liked was this one on kids and gendered language. [...]

  2. Oooh, a pet hate of mine. I have boy-girl twins and people LOVE looking for the gender stereotypes they may embody.

  3. I certainly agree that particular behaviours and characteristics should not be defined to each sex.

  4. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I have a 16 month-old son who is ‘all boy’ or ‘a REAL boy’ for loving to be active and being interested in cat sick. Let’s ignore that he hates having stuff stuck to his feet and thinks flies are ‘yuck’…what rot these stereotypes are. I have such trouble knowing how to answer them without ripping people’s heads off. If I had a cent for every time he’d been stuck in a gender box I would already be rich. And I’m trying to raise a pro-feminist man here! Love your whole site :)

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