Insidious Adjectives: How the Gender Debate is Twisting Powerful Parts of Speech

gender debateThere’s a new insidiousness to the gender debate, and it’s all about adjectives: It’s gradual, it’s oh so very subtle, but it’s also incredibly harmful. In essence, the debate about gender roles has been minimized to just a few, “petty” parts of speech…harmless, until you read past the diction and really start thinking about what these parts of speech really mean to the future of male vs. female.

In any well-thought out argument, the main thing you focus on (if you wan’t to convince anyone of anything) is facts. Appeals to logic and reason with a little stab at emotion fill most of your argument. Fill up your persuasive argument assignment in first-year undergrad speech class with emotional appeals and there will be big fat red comments scrawling across every margin of your hard copy: “Cut the flowery language, the emotional appeals, the adjectives.” I know because I was an English major, I fought with my professors over my love for adjectives and every time I lost. I loved those little guys, they were so…so…well, descriptive. There was always just one more I could throw in, one more that I thought captured precisely what I wanted to say…it was perfect, it was…too much. The issue with adjectives, by their own definition of their function, is that they’re modifiers, they’re add-ons that carry with them subjective value judgments–not any real, concrete information like nouns and verbs. A movie isn’t a bad or boring movie until you throw an adjective in front of it. A person is really just a person until you describe them with adjectives: beautiful, smart, dull, annoying, fun…Ask Voltaire or Twain about those modifiers and you’ll find they agree with me. Voltaire said adjectives are the “enemy” of the noun, and Twain? He wasn’t so subtle of course: “If you catch an adjective, kill it.”gender debate

What’s the big deal? Adjectives are important, but they’re also dangerous because they aren’t facts or actions that are unchanging or unchangeable. They are descriptions that fluctuate and rely upon the person who is using them to garner their value. I may describe The Notebook as a stupid film because that’s my personal judgment value of it, but I know most of the female gender would vehemently disagree with me, and they can because adjectives are just descriptions–not truths. So, how does all of this grammar nit-picking relate to the gender debate? You may not have noticed it because that’s the whole point of an insidious attack, but the gender debaters have taken a step back from their bleeding heart podiums and resorted to just whispering subtleties into the audience’s ears. What are they whispering? They’re whispering that certain descriptive, modifying words to describe men are greater than adjectives describing many women and unless women show a marked interest and achievement in justifying that these adjectives also describe themselves—well, then they are failing as a modern woman. They’re attributing negative value judgments on typically female adjectives, while making male adjectives a thing of value, presenting their adjective-packed argument as poignant proof women need to start not only “leaning in,” but by gosh, throwing a punch and climbing on top as well. Just listen:

Leslie Bennetts is a writer who has spent much of her working life interviewing famous women. She is also a wife and working mum, writing for Vanity Fair, Elle, The New York Times, as well as publishing her own book, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? (which, you can purchase new and used for $1.99 btw on Amazon–I didn’t know you could buy a book for two dollars but apparently Bennetts made it happen!) If you can’t tell from her book title, she isn’t much of a supporter of the “you can’t have it all so choose a path” stance for women juggling modern, manic life. Her article “The Scarlet A: Why Women Don’t Say They’re Ambitious” is all about the phenomenon she began to notice throughout her career interviewing wildly successful women: That is, that ladies don’t really like describing themselves as “ambitious.”

She cites many examples: Condoleeza Rice refusing to admit she was smart in an interview with Oprah, Oprah herself underscoring her ranking as one of the richest women in America with her comment “I don’t think of myself a businesswoman,” and even Hilary Clinton’s self-professed, shock and disbelief when she heard she was to be appointed to secretary of state under Obama’s administration. You could see their subtlety about describing their own success as humble, you could describe it positively as hard-working, industrious, even admirable, or modest, but Bennetts chooses to describe them as passive, reactive, and overly self-effacing–negative adjectives = negative behavior = negative personality types. She says women have been trained to believe that power, ambition, and a take-charge attitude desexualizes them. But have we ever stopped to think why ambitious, powerful, and zealous are adjectives greater than humility, selflessness, and hardworking? Because, after all, all of those words are just adjectives. They’re all value judgments with no real truth behind them beside the value the speaker/writer gives them. Perhaps the issue is not that women aren’t stepping up, it’s that the way culture is describing where women are now has merely created the appearance that women have anywhere to step up from. I didn’t think Condoleeza Rice, Oprah, or Hilary Clinton’s positions could exactly be called “underdogs.” That is, I didn’t think so until Bennetts began to describe them as such.

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Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood seemed rather horrified at why women are “failing” at pronouncing their pride, shouting their success, acknowledging their ambition, and taking over: Quoted in Bennetts article, Feldt says there is really “no law or formal barrier…keeping us [women] from achieving equality and justice except our own unwillingness to ‘just take them.'” Unable to believe that women don’t want these “powerful” adjectives to describe themselves, Feldt can hardly contain her disgust: “Millions of dollars are being spent to help recruit, train, and support women to get elected, and yet they’ve [women] scarcely moved the dial at all…the problem [is] not that the doors [are] not open. The problem [is] that women [are] not walking through those doors and that just blew me away” Feldt said. I still don’t see a problem though, maybe the majority of women have figured out the real truth, that adjectives like ambitious, and powerful  aren’t really any greater than the adjectives they currently embody (like humble, selfless, modest) and they’re actually perfectly okay with it.

Because many women believe power, or the admittance of having power desexualizes them, Bennetts says that many of those women choose to gain their power sort of second-hand–through a marriage. She warns that such an abdication of personal power can only end in being let down, for, Bennetts highlights, when we rely on other people (specifically spouses or children) to give us power, we risk everything on someone we cannot control. Her case in point? Grace Kelly. Bennetts interviewed Kelly twenty years after her marriage to The Prince of Monaco. Thinking she was going to interview a real-life fairy-tale story, Bennetts was shocked to discover Grace Kelly was instead a woman wrought with “sadness and regret.” Kelly regretted the loss of her acting career, the loss of “command[ing] respect for her own work, earn[ing] her own keep, and [being] acclaimed for her own efforts.” Bennetts highlights Kelly because her life is something of a posterchild for the argument women should chase those “better,” usually ‘male” adjectives. Male adjectives give you autonomy, power, a sense of self, pride, direction, while female adjectives, Bennetts says, make you passive, reactive, self-effacing, powerless. A pretty good argument for self-empowerment, yes? Yet, Bennetts missed that Grace Kelly, in all her regret for giving up her career to “rely on someone else,” was still relying on something outside of herself for her sense of power and happiness. No, it wasn’t a someone (i.e. her husband, children) it was a something: her acting career– and the loss of which concluded in the same result of regret and sadness.gender debate

So, what’s the answer? If male and female adjectives both get you nowhere, what do you do? You don’t listen to this insidious new attack, because “adjectives are frail; don’t ask them to do more work than they should.” How you describe yourself with whatever adjectives you choose still misses a very important part of speech, that is the noun: you. Who you are is what really matters. Being powerful and ambitious isn’t greater than any other way you could describe yourself–those adjectives are just modifiers to whatever you really are. If you’re modest, humble, selfless, and happy about it, that’s far, far more powerful than the most ambitious person in the world who is content at nothing, proclaims his/her own glory at every turn, and in the end will lose him/herself when the next ambitious self comes along to trump their grandeur. Relying on ambition and power is just as dangerous as relying on a person. Don’t believe the lie that any one adjective is better, pay more attention to the nouns that embody the adjectives. And, if you need something to glean your power from, I would much rather rely on someone I love and who will love me back than something that merely describes me.

– <3 A. 

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