Category Archives: Sexism in language and other feminist things

My favourite collections of words

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Here are my five favourite sentences/lines from children’s books (the topic for Writers’ Bootcamp for today is Your Five Favourite Words, but I’ve exercised a bit of artistic licence here).

1. “That very night in Max’s room, a forest grew … and grew … and grew, until the ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”

The assonance and alliteration in that part of the sentence, the way it rolls around in your mouth, is just a tiny part of the late Maurice Sendak’s genius.

From Where the Wild Things Are, or, as Lil A calls it, simply “Max”.

2. “Night came with many stars.”

I never read Sylvester and the Magic Pebble as a kid. Lil A got it from an American cousin and every time I read it to her, it breaks my heart. That one sentence conveys so much desolation and beauty, wrapped in such a simple little package.

3. “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?'”

There are so many lovely little gems in Winnie the Pooh. On Lil A’s bookshelf is a copy of the first version of Winnie the Pooh ever published. It used to be mine when I was little. It’s written in AA Milne’s own voice, addressed to his son Christopher Robin, who has a beloved bear called Edward. Even before he became known as Pooh Bear, the sense of exactly which kind of bear he’d go on to be is right there in that very first book.

On a trip to New York a few years ago, I spent a lot of time staring at the original Winnie the Pooh toys at the Public Library. They’re all faded and their fur has been loved off – whether by time or Christopher Robin, it’s hard to say – which made them even more charming than they are rendered in fiction. They were real toys. And despite the Disneyfication of the “brand”, I like remembering that it all started as a real story told to a little boy by his Dad, about his favourite bear.

4. “The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way.”

Miss Rumphius is another favourite from an American cousin that I had not read myself as a child. The watercolours are gorgeous, for one thing, but I also really love how it carries so many truths about old age that children are usually shielded from in books and pop culture. It’s about an old lady who is not a witch – which is unique in itself. But further to that, it’s about an old lady who used to be a little girl. These sentences capture that idea very neatly, and I think it’s an important thing for all of us to remember on a visceral level. As adults, we all know intellectually that the elderly were not always elderly, but I know that I forget at times that not very long ago, they were exactly like me.

5. “I know a bear and when it is sunny, we go for a picnic with brown bread and honey.”

This might sound like another line from Winnie the Pooh, but it’s from Lil A’s favourite book, I Know A Rhino. I bought this book for her because the main character is maybe a boy, maybe a girl. He or she is equally happy playing in the mud and dressing up in a tutu. Their gender doesn’t matter, which is unusual for a children’s book. So I bought it more for the pictures than the words, but now I love this sentence about the bear. It always makes me hungry and seems like a good way to live. When it’s sunny, we go for a picnic. Yes.

And, as added value, here are some great resources on feminist-y children’s books. You’re welcome.

  • A Mighty Girl’s guide to cool picture books for little ones
  • A Mighty Girl’s favourite fairy tales
  • This Guardian article from 2009 (yes, pretty old, but does include Pippi Longstocking, of which I wholly approve)
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Is there such a thing as a girl brain?

Spoiler alert: no. Well, not from birth, in any case.

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My two-year-old has become obsessed with the idea of babies in tummies. We’ve got four good friends who are pregnant enough to be showing and since hearing that so-and-so has a baby in her tummy, Lil A has started saying that basically everybody has a baby in their tummy: she’s got one, one of the expectant fathers has one (which, as I’m sure you can imagine, he loves).

This obsession raised the question round drinks recently: is Lil A “programmed” to be interested in babies? Would a little boy be as intrigued?

I expected my feminist husband to jump in as soon as I started saying “She’s only interested because we put a lot of emphasis on it, and we might not if she were a boy,” and “Even if boys and girls were programmed to feel a certain way about babies and modes of transport and sport, which I’m convinced they are not, she’s two years old and I doubt there’d be any reproductive hardwiring kicking in yet,” and “You’re joking, right?”. But he didn’t.

My husband has thought of himself as a feminist for years, since we were in university and I was still scared of the term, and didn’t like its connotations (until my best friend told me to stop being insane and that to not be a feminist was not far off being a racist and I realised what feminism actually means). But when it comes to the physiology of the brain, my husband admitted to believing that those of men and women were necessarily different. And not just because of experience – because of the way they were created in the womb. The way they were wired.

And so I realised that if my pretty progressive, “enlightened” husband thought that, pretty much everybody else did as well.

So, here’s my PSA. There are no “hardwired” differences between male and female brains from birth. Except these, of course. The only differences that are at all meaningful have been created by individuals’ experience. If studies show that same-hemisphere connections are stronger in male than female brains, while women’s brains show stronger cross-brain connections, making them able to multitask and “be good hostesses”, it’s not because they were born that way. It’s because those men had been praised for being singularly focused on a task at hand since they were little boys (and probably because their fathers made a special effort to teach them how to read maps, for example). It’s because the female participants were encouraged to be able to multitask by watching their mothers help with homework while supervising a toddler in the kitchen and making dinner when they were young girls – because that’s what was expected of mothers; because their social connections were emphasised by the women’s parents and teachers while they were growing up.

And so, basically, the reason Lil A is so interested in babies in tummies is that it’s something we pay a lot of attention to when our pregnant friends are around, and she is shaped by what she sees. And also because, ew – it’s a weird thing, when you think about it. A little baby. In an adult’s body. Did I mention how broody I am, by the way?

And there’s the nod to Writers’ Bootcamp, Day 1. Even if you know me well, you probably don’t know this: that I’m finally ready for another baby.

The second birthday party

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It’s two days until this little light of mine turns two. And the consensus (particularly on Pinterest) seems to be that the best way to let your little light shine when they reach the age of two is to throw him or her an incredible birthday party.

And fundamental to the incredible-ness of the party is the theme. This should be based on something that your little light just loves. If that’s a character from popular culture, even better. Colours can work as well, as long as they’re either pink or blue, and are used responsibly (no pink for boys, please).

Once you’ve picked your theme, the rest is easy. All you’ve got left to do to make the party absolutely incredible is to hire someone to make a cake plus a few trays of cupcakes that reflect the theme (or bake it yourself if you’re a professional baker or chef), make the bunting, put together the party packs in accordance with the theme for the other little lights to dig into at the party, make their take-home party packs, and make at least two visits to your local party shop/plastics-and-or-glass warehouse/packaging goods warehouse/online party store to purchase mason jars (for drinks, obvz), paper straws, paper plates, serviettes, tablecloths, streamers and banners to bring your theme through to every element of the party. Of course, the professional photographer will know exactly how to capture the little flags you stick into the cupcakes and the handwritten names you’ve glued onto the party packs so that even people who weren’t on the 30-strong guestlist will be able to see how much work you’ve put into everything and what a supermom you are; and even though that’s definitely not the reason for these little touches in the first place, it’s nice to get some recognition.

I’m not even going into the entertainment factor – because of course you’ll have hired the jumping castle and will have arranged for different game/activity stations all around different parts of your house and garden. You’ll probably also have custom-made a treasure hunt, because that’s incredible fun and has never led to any frustration or tears (in parents or their progeny), ever.

It’s a piece of cake, really. Cake without any nuts or sugar or eggs or dairy, it goes without saying. And all the planning and preparation and shopping is just going to make you so happy that you won’t even care if things don’t go off properly, or kids rub buttercream icing into your carpet or pour their mason-jar freshly squeezed fruit juice in-between your couch cushions, or don’t want to play games and would rather sit on their mom’s laps and eat everything in their take-home party pack because actually they’re only two years old, and your little light bursts into tears and refuses to blow out her special themed candles on her special themed cake because she’s a bit scared of all the people crowding around her because actually she’s only two years old … because the late-night cutting and sticking and baking and wrapping and lunch-breaks spent trawling through shop after shop to find Princess-themed items in the exact nuance of princessiness have just made you so unbearably happy in and of themselves.

But none of this applies if you are like me, and:

a) have a child who loves many things but nothing in particular, and certainly nothing that fits into a prepackaged idea of what a two-year-old girl should like – who loves cars and guitars and trucks and bikes and bunnies and dolls and hats and birds and cats and Rastamouse and lights and pinecones and stars and hearts and trees and swings and honey and buttons and cuddles and chairs and balls and other people’s eyelashes.

b) want to get in one last birthday party that your child won’t remember, in other words, a party that’s a way of celebrating with your child’s father that you made it through the baby years with some degree of aplomb and to drink too much champagne in the company of all your doting relatives who can babysit your child while you are drinking said champagne.

c) believe that the fewer other children the better at birthday parties, and if you can’t get that number down to zero, at least make sure that there are no more children at the party than there are number of years in your child’s age.

d) hate shopping and also crafts.

But I do love baking. I’m not entirely without value as a mother. I’m baking these cookies and also these, and these cupcakes, and my mother-in-law is making her carrot cake as the birthday cake, and my arty sister-in-law has promised to decorate it with stars and hearts (because they are the only shapes Lil A can identify and because Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was the first song she learned to garble/”sing”, and because I couldn’t have wished for a better kid if I’d wished on every single star in the Noordhoek sky – and there are lots of those, and because she makes my whole heart so full).

And when the relatives have gone home and Lil A is in bed after an exhausting day of being doted on and given stuff, I will think about how much I love her and everything she is, and probably have a little cry, on my lovely clean buttercream-and-juice-free couch.

Guys and … dolls?

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So, men (or boys) can be “guys”. But what can women be? I need a cool, de rigueur female equivalent for “guys” for an article in a lifestyle magazine. Here are my options so far.

  • Gals. Never in my life have I heard someone actually say this word, unless they’re doing it ironically and/or are from the American south.
  • Ladies. This is a hugely problematic one. I’m sure you all understand why I can’t use it, but I’ll try to explain it – I was recently in a situation where an editor said, “Well, we can’t use it because how do we know if our readers are all ladies?”. So – the word “ladies” connotes a set of ideals that women need to ascribe to in order to be worthy of respect and admiration. It is not the equivalent of “gentleman”. Men don’t have to be “gentlemanly” to be liked or respected, but women come under a lot of (often very subtle) pressure to be ladylike. The word “lady” implies vulnerability, being soft-spoken and polite, inoffensive; it brings to mind things like correct comportment, tidy hair and not eating with your fingers – all things which are ascribed to women as a way to make them weaker, less threatening and just, well, less. I don’t want to buy into this set of ideals and don’t want to perpetuate a word which I think is, albeit in a very small way, quite damaging to feminism. Also, “ladies” just makes me think of savoury tarts and doilies, none of which I want to convey in my trendy, hip lifestyle article (though I’m sure by using the words “trendy” and “hip” I have exposed my untrendy unhipness).
  • Dudettes. No, because the 80s.
  • Females. This is not a police report or anthropological study, so no.
  • Girls. I do not want to infantilise my reader, even if it’s something women do to themselves (why it’s a common thing to refer to your friends as young/insubstantial/vulnerable creatures, I’ll never understand). Men might do it too – “C’mon, boys!” (man to TV screen while rugby is on) – but “boys” has the connotations of fun, rough and tumble wildness, while “girls” brings to mind a group of people who need to be coddled and protected.
  • Chicks. Is it just me, or is this very 90s? I’m also not convinced it does anything to remove the connotations of women being vulnerable.
  • Women. Sounds too formal and too statistic-y and news-report-y (yes, these are the official magazine-y terms).

Right.

So, basically, I’m screwed.