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Monday, 7 February 2011

Word on the Street

When I was at school I was always told by my English teachers that I should write about what I know. Well, what I knew at fifteen was a deep despair that had no grounding in reality; the cruel stab of unrequited love (and ok, the cheap thrill of being loved but not loving in return) and the endless bore of small town Derbyshire.  Writing what I knew churned out introspective, self-pitying drivel. Sorry for putting you through that Mrs Hannon.

Hopefully, I’ve avoided the same pitfall on my little blog. This week I’ve been struck down with a cold and I’m seeking easy inspiration. Writing about what I know right now would constitute the television (Baking Made Easy is on in the background) and burly, surly teenagers. My last post was about the telly, so teenagers it is.

One of the great things abut working in a secondary school is dealing with people on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out how they’re going to make it all ok for themselves.  Slang plays a huge role in carving out their emerging identities. There are some really interesting examples of teenagers appropriating the language of previous generations. I’m thinking specifically about the rather quaint ‘oh my days’ (although it doesn’t seem quite so quaint when directed at you by a 12 year old rascal.) This phrase reconnects with an identity that could easily be lost. There are, however, plenty examples of slang that, at least to an outsider like me, feels less positive; language that seems to firmly have its origins in misogyny.

Much of this misogyny has its roots in sex (because we all know that female sexuality is a dangerous thing, to be derided and belittled.) There can be no better example than the word ‘beat’, which for those of you who don’t hang-out regularly with south London teenagers, means to have sex.  I have no doubt that to refer to sex through the use of a word that conjures violence, dominance and pain reveals a deeply misogynistic culture. I’ve challenged some of my students on this point (because if I don’t as their English teacher, who will?) and of course they defend themselves by claiming they are not using it with the same associations that I place upon the word. Probe a little deeper and they reveal that they wouldn’t say beat to refer to a long-term girlfriend: even on their own terms there is an acknowledgement of a lack of respect in the word and in the act.

Then there’s moist. It has it’s roots in sex too, a sort reference to the ever ready woman. Yup. That gross. And it’s usage? I’ve not had a decent explanation from a student but the general consensus is you don’t want to find yourself being called moist – you’d be branded a bit of an idiot.  So again, women and their sexuality are placed in the position of weakness and disdain.

You could say that these examples are merely words but if you did I’d give you a whole lecture on the social and cultural significance of language, what it reveals about our identities and biases, and you’d regret you’d said anything. And besides, the misogyny behind this language manifests itself in all sorts of ways.  Many boys are quick to interpret the female characters they encounter in the English classroom  as slags and if she’s not  a slag then she’s frigid, obviously.

I worry that this sort of language betrays a society that almost celebrates a violent and scornful outlook towards women. I worry what kind of partners and fathers these men will make, growing up in such a culture.

And so I’ll continue to question their interpretations and I’ll continue to challenge their use of misogynistic language, even if it feels like smacking my head against a very thick brick wall.



  1. I am sure Mrs Hannon would love to read what you are writing these days Kate. I admire your writing and your stance on womens rights.
    Keep up the good work.
    Best wishes

  2. Maybe one day your skull will break through the brick wall and some little mouthy 12 year old will become a slightly better and more respectful future partner because of you. I will hold out some hope. :)

  3. Do you also challenge every insult based on male genitalia, and give girls a lecture on how they're reducing men to nothing more than their penis?

    Every time you hear 'You tool!', 'You cock!', 'You prick!', 'You dickhead!' does it make you pitty the poor boys, and make you wonder why on earth people use their manhood to belittle them? Just curious.

  4. Well, for a start, it's mainly boys themselves that use such insults to each other, so it's not as simple as girls belittling boys on gender grounds, as you suggest.

    Secondly, I would challenge any use of language that was insulting and inappropriate in my classroom - from girls or boys, so in answer to your question, yes I do challenge such insults.

    Thirdly, I don't pity anyone. This blog is certainly not about pity. And I don't lecture boys on their use of language either - I open up a dialogue. And yes, I would do exactly the same with any girls using pejorative language towards boys.

    I think you've misunderstood a great deal in this post. I make no apologies for being unashamdely bias towards women's issues - I state this clearly in my overview. A focus on women does not mean a hatred for or ignorance towards men. In fact, in many of my posts, I am very supportive of men.