Othering women through language

The passive voice renders women as passive objects and not active subjects. This leaves men to be the sole protagonist and the story to be his alone: as hero, warrior, wanderer, rebel, bloodthirsty avenger, adventurer, seeker. The female on the other hand becomes the sidekick, the conquest, the independent “fighting fucktoy,” the damsel-in-distress. Women are treated as things to be experienced, to be acted upon.

Many language critics discourage against use of the passive voice in English, but that does not stop us from using it to render women passive or to avoid naming the agent of violence.

As an example: She was raped. The feminist version would be: She was raped by a male.

Another example: Most women are the victims of abuse in domestic relationships. By who? And so the feminist version puts it into clear context: Most women are the victims of abuse at the hands of males in domestic relationships.

The media is not immune from this and is keen on using euphemisms to understate the gravity of the crime. Rape becomes “sexual assault.” Child sex trafficking or rape victims become “child sex workers” (the same for sex-industry advocates). The agent is never named. While I’d like to think it’s because they don’t want to jump ahead and name a suspect who has not been convicted, the majority of perpetrators of violence are male and one of the first things a victim remembers is whether or not the perp was a male or female. And that’s something they never forget.

Western colonialism is based on the idea of “human exceptionalism” in which God gives the earth and – by extension  women for men to conquer and possess. Hence men believe themselves to be “gods” or rulers of the earth. We see this all the time in MRA rhetoric: they believe men did all the really important things, fixed things, took care of business and saved women and children while women apparently sat on their asses at home doing nothing, living a life of luxury.

Given the unique brand of colonialism in the West we can see the sexual objectification of women seen not only in gender roles but in the gendering of language. Subjection creates an inferior, second-class status and men are forever busy trying to justify why women are “naturally” inferior with every strain of thought from religion to evopsych. They anthropomorphize things and attribute gender to them so by association women get lumped in with objects, deying their personhood. This is reflected in the language men use to refer to things they own and inhabit: the earth (“mother” earth), cars, ships, houses, nations, guitars and so on are all “she,” but “she” is almost always the gender used if the choice is taken to attribute gender to them.

Hence the objects, like women, serve as status symbols; alternately, the objects as in a position similar to women in the feminine role. Another aspect is that women get called “fat cows” and “sows” and “bitch” (female dogs) and so they are lumped in with non-human animals. Wild animals and livestock, when their sex is unknown, are also referred to as “she” by default. More importantly, like animals and the earth, women are reduced to commodities or resources to be exploited for men’s use and comfort; in their case, for emotional, sexual, reproductive and domestic labor.

On the other hand, “he” is a default pronoun and still considered gender-neutral even though it’s not – like people arguing that God is really neuter and not male or masculine. While this is a topic for reformist groups wanting to interpret differently, throughout history God has been considered male as evoked by his preferred beings who are closest to him in character – men. And God, ironically, has tended to agree with the beliefs of men.

“Women are described in animal terms as pets, cows, sows, foxes, chicks, serpents, bitches, beavers, old bats, old hens, mother hens, pussycats, cats, cheetahs, bird-brains, and hare-brains…‘Mother Nature’ is raped, mastered, conquered, mined; her secrets are ‘penetrated,’ her ‘womb’ is to be put into the service of the ‘man of science.’ Virgin timber is felled, cut down; fertile soil is tilled, and land that lies ‘fallow’ is ‘barren,’ useless. The exploitation of nature and animals is justified by feminizing them; the exploitation of women is justified by naturalizing them.”

— Karen J. Warren, Ecological Feminism

All of this is part of the process of Othering, in which males and females must be rendered opposites in every way imaginable: dress, speech, behavior, nature, even in the concept of “soul.” In Christianity, the word of God, the Logos, created everything. This is a reversal of real life in which women are the ones who give birth. Every other creation story where there is a sole male father-god that creates everything is based on the same concept, but a little more explicit: the god creates everything with his sperm. Alternately, such as in the Greek myths, gods spontaneously give birth from themselves; Zeus’ children were birthed from his head.

“There were no religious images in the churches or synagogues of our childhood that celebrated the birthing powers of women. According to religion’s myths, the world was brought into being by a male God, and woman was created from man. This reversal of biological process went unchallenged. Most of us didn’t even notice the absence of the mother. Although we may not have been consciously aware of her absence in bible stories and sermons, her absence was absorbed into our being. And its painful influence was intensified as we observed the design of our parents’ relationship and the treatment of our mothers by our fathers and brothers. Our families mirrored the hierarchical reality of the heavens. In a society that worships a male God, the father’s life is more valuable than the mother’s. The activities of a man’s life are more vital and necessary than the mother’s intimate connections with the origins of life. The father is God.”

— Patricia Lynn Reilly, Be Full of Yourself

To this day, this sperm-centric phallocentric thinking remains: in mystical thought, sperm represents the Logos. The masculine is creative, but also rational and conqueror, in control and possession of all.  The masculine is also Soul because its association with godhood, and the phallus is the immortal principle. Some people have said regarding the phallus,”Phallus refers constantly to the procreative life-urge of all things including the individual Will of each person whether male or female and is often represented by the sun conjoined with the moon (male & female, lingam-yoni, etc etc.).”

However, this attempt to redefine our automatic association of the phallus with penis fails because there is no historical or collective precedent for it. Every depiction of a “phallus” – including staff and wand – has penile implications, and masculinity is associated with being male. The only way a phallus represents the union of both lingam and yoni is in sexual intercourse so there is no consideration of the yoni in its own right. And under patriarchy, men (the males) are by default considered good and rational by nature, as well as people – fully human.

So where does this leave women? Women are the Other. Women are the “Not-I.” They serve as vessels and mediums for male sperm and Will, not being the whole and beloved first-created.  They do not have souls, either, since they are empty and passive. Their femininity is not based on actual femaleness or “female nature” but on stereotypes assigned to them and reinforced through conditioning. And Freudian thought supported this with the idea that women were “castrated men” and everything about them was bad and due to not having a penis. It isn’t true, but it does not need to be true to be believed in. Only enough people and enough strength of belief is needed for it to be accepted implicitly.

“To decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal—this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste. Man-the-sovereign will provide woman-the-liege with material protection and will undertake the moral justification of her existence; thus she can evade at once both economic risk and the metaphysical risk of a liberty in which ends and means must be contrived without assistance. Indeed, along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become a thing. This is an inauspicious road, for he who takes it—passive, lost, ruined—becomes henceforth the creature of another’s will, frustrated in his transcendence and deprived of every value. But it is an easy road; on it one avoids the strain involved in undertaking an authentic existence. When man makes of woman the Other, he may, then, expect her to manifest deep-seated tendencies toward complicity. Thus woman may fail to lay claim to the status of subject because she lacks definite resources, because she feels the necessary bond that ties her to man regardless of reciprocity, and because she is often very well pleased with her role as Other.”
– Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex 

Treating “woman” as a metaphysical concept or essence that exists in the abstract, seemingly invincible and exalted, is superficially empowering. But “othering” women becomes the slope that leads to dehumanization, objectification, degradation, rape and abuse. All exist on a spectrum, not a binary. And while it seems like a great idea to “unite with the Other” (or with anyone who is “different” for that matter) such a task would not be necessary to begin with if women weren’t Othered in the first place, their physical and material reality denied as having any objective truth.

We see this thinking enacted politically: Women are denied the ability to make decisions that involve their bodies in reproductive rights, their bodies accepted to be inevitably colonized by men at will under the pretense of “choice” to align with male interests. Men claim ownership of and entitlement to women reproductively and sexually per the sexual contract which includes the marriage contract and the prostitution contract, and the enforcement of the contract depends on various forms of power over women (condign, compensatory, coercive force).  Some scientists claim there is such a thing as a “female brain” which is as sexist as “scientific inferiority of non-whites” is racist. Additionally, males claim to know the female body, womanhood and “what’s best for women” better than females know themselves. There is no option to “opt-out” of these things without dire social and economic consequences. Of course, they are the ones who thought up the idea of property and ownership and by association, self-ownership because self-ownership (oneself as property) means that if you don’t own yourself, then someone else must. Under such a view women have bodies that they own, not bodies which they inhabit and experience life through as active subjects.

This is a severing of the mind-body connection which is typical of Western thought. As a result women as Other are also the evil temptresses, out to enslave and ruin men. It is just another reversal of patriarchal truths.

“The desire that a man sexually repressed feels for a strong woman is not the product of eros, but the expression of thanatos [death]. The man subjected under the tyranny of religious morality wants the possession of a free woman, not to free himself, but to put her in a cage with him. Male fantasies, suffocated by the authority of sin, focus on the powerful female sexuality not to seek communion. but to express violence and control in a practical and symbolic meaning….”

– Vanessa Rivera on Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality

As a kind of rebellion against the patriarchy in terms of spirituality and religion, there were a bunch of women and goddess-centered religions such as Wicca in the neopagan movement which followed the feminism of the 60s and 70s. Suddenly, just as with feminism, women were told that it was hateful, too extreme and that balance was needed. Funny, that — the same men didn’t think the destroyer-phallic values of patriarchy weren’t a big deal.

“The women’s spirituality movement overlaps the neo-Pagan movement, but particularly emphasizes the study of goddesses and of historical women. Groups often limit membership to women only. Studies and practices coming from women’s spirituality groups have deeply affected academic research into goddesses and into the lives of ancient women, and have also affected theologians in all religions, who struggle with the revival of feminine aspects of deity.”

— Brandy Williams, The Woman Magician

While women-only spiritual groups are a wonderful thing to have, it is just one part of the female struggle against oppression. Feminist views extend from the spiritual to the political. If feminists were to limit themselves to spiritual groups alone they would be closed-off from doing anything politically outside of them. Those in power would believe it is at least better to cordon off groups where they can’t be seen and heard by anyone else. I know as well as anyone that spirituality does affect our lives but so does politics and social justice issues. If you cannot survive at a minimum by getting your needs met you cannot even think about a serious undertaking of spiritual practice. Suffice it to say, it is not always about oneself either, but about other women, too.

Although some people will continue to conflate sex and gender, gender essentialism is morally and scientifically bunk: the former is a biological reality, the latter is a social construct. While it attests to the power of belief and how people act and treat others based on that belief it does not get to the root of the problem: the othering itself. Not all types of socialization are negative, but this type has the effect of pitting people against each other. As a result, women are divided even against each other in a social competition. We are conditioned into it, but it also possible to undo that conditioning. Women are able to assert their physical experiences and reality so here it is not a question of being able to do so, but to be able to have a voice which is heard, collectively. That way they can ensure their experiences as active subjects are at the center of their lives, both individually and as a whole.


About Cammy

Self-employed freelance writer
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