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.

gender debate

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. 

How Women Work

play the gameFrom kindergarten through high school, teachers and administrators spend their days catering to different learning styles. There’s post-graduate degrees about it, there’s studies on it, volumes and volumes of ideas to assist it, there’s seminars for it, and there’s real truth to it: Some kids learn slower, some need a quick run around the lower left play-field before they can settle down to math, some need to work on their own, some need you right there to guide them. It’s openly acknowledged that boys are slower to develop, (they officially reach adolescence at age 12 while girls reach it at 10) and, generally, most teachers would probably admit that their gentlemen students need more frequent breaks to blast out some energy on the playground. So, boys and girls are different. Yep, got that. It’s not that expectations of the end goal are different, it’s that the paths that students take to reach a level of achievement can be, and are, very diverse–and educators are all about meeting these needs. Yet, after we all move on from elementary, middle, high school, and perhaps careen through college, we arrive at the workplace where everyone is expected to work in the same way. More then that, expected to want to work in the same way.

In her article “Women are at the Table, so Now What?” writer Anand Giridharadas asks the question, “how would everything in the world be different if the female half of humanity had not been more or less locked out of its design?” Focusing on the workplace, she’s in essence asking how work, meeting structure, and office-life would be different had men not been the main imagineers behind its infrastructure. In the next breath however, she describes the premise behind her question is a dangerous one, for, “to suggest that women have a distinct way of thinking  is…to flirt with the kind of logic that held them down.” Its interesting that though “distinct ways of thinking” are celebrated, catered to, and studied among children, once we sign on as employees of a workplace, our gender differences are supposed to be ignored, probably sued if acknowledged, and frowned upon if exploited–at times for very good reasons. Yet, the differences remain. Boys and girls are different, and so are men and women, and somehow acknowledging the distinctions behind our genders is nothing to be celebrated, noticed, or examined. Now that women have generally been included where we were once excluded however, Giridharadas proposes that though women are late “in coming…to the modern work force,” perhaps we are better “able to see what’s amiss” with it with our fresh (and might I add uniquely female) perspectives. The idea that something is “amiss” is not just a female perspective however, though women may be leading the search for a more balanced life within and without of the office. In her article, Giridharadas notes that last month, a number of high-powered female (and male) executives met in New York to discuss this idea of a new sort of workplace. Among the meeting-goers, the overwhelming thought “was that the culture of work in general is in a bad way, and that women’s struggles to find balance are only glimpses of a larger problem…there was widespread agreement that the culture of…white-collar American professionals bathing in the pride of being ‘crazy busy’ are pervasive and harmful” notions. Further, that “technology, in bringing the office calendar and whiteboard into bed with you, only worsens things.” In short, Giridharadas exposes what has become a burgeoning new feeling that, since women have arrived at the “table” of corporate America, we don’t really like what we see.

This whole “new” movement is almost humorously ironic. Historically, that’s why women were shut out: because, on the whole, women have been labeled as more emotional, we have more ups and downs, and we have never been able to shake the stereotype of the fickle, female heart and never being satisfied. I guess we could have seen this coming then. But all that aside, now that women are here and we don’t like what we see, how do we propose to change it? Giridharadas says that John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods questioned that exact thing in the Manhattan-meeting-of-the-corporate-minds. Mackey says that “men’s metaphors for business have tended to derive from sports, war, and Darwinian ideas,” so what would women’s business metaphors be? How would we re-imagine it? Maybe it doesn’t need to be re-imagined though, maybe women just need to be able to be women, not to strive to “make it in a man’s world” but to “make” it how they define it and let men have their world if they let us have ours. Differences: its ok, they’re a good thing. In any good sports team, coaches and managers know to play to the unique strengths of individuals players. Sure they’re a team, but distinctions are just as important. Pitchers can’t play as often as a first baseman. Their shoulders need rest and days to recover or else they risk injury and burnout. Shortstops have to be quick, catchers usually are strong and stocky. They train different, work different, and perform to their unique strengths. If that’s the business metaphor we’re working off of then, how come we’re all trying to be pitchers?

Giridharadas questions if women can “simultaneously argue for their ability to work as hard as men and suggest that no one should work that hard,” but I wonder why it has taken this long for us all to figure out that while women can do it, maybe doing it isn’t the best thing for women, men, or our families, and doing it in the way that men established for themselves is definitely not the right way for us. Ability is not in question here, it’s health, happiness, and using individual strengths and natural gifts in the proper way. Giridharadas ends her article by mentioning some strategies that the Manhattan corporates came up with as new visions for a future, better workplace. The ideas (flex hours, “digital detox days,” etc.) are labeled as “performance enhancers,” strategies that strive to appear, above all else, to be “gender-neutral.” But I have to wonder if they’re missing the exact thing they almost uncovered: that is, that we’re DIFFERENT, that neutrality won’t work just as much as workin’ like a dog man hasn’t worked for women. So why skirt around the primary issue? Why not celebrate “that women have a distinct way of thinking,” and thus can work in distinct ways? Why does distinction suddenly bring out the less-than symbol? And why is removing all distinctions the answer? “I’m very definitely a woman and I enjoy it” (Marilyn Monroe) and I have no interest in making it in a man’s world, nor do I have any interest in both of us working in a gender-neutral environment. If men want to work like men, let them, and let women work like women.

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– <3 A. 

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