Feminist language: 5 terms you need to know
The film star Emma Watson gave a speech at the United Nations this September to launch “He For She” — a campaign asking men to get involved in the fight for gender equality. The speech drew approbation and ire in equal measure. Vanity Fair called it a “game changer” but fourth wave feminists were less convinced. They accused Watson of all sorts of crimes, most particularly that her speech was heteronormative and lacked an awareness of intersectionality. Commentators suggested that Watson need to check her privilege, because as a wealthy, white, able-bodied, and cisgender woman, her experiences did not reflect those of many — if not most — women worldwide. The UN initiative itself was greeted with scepticism by some — men are welcome to get involved, they said, but only as long as they don’t expect cookies.
We’ll skip over the ghastly name of the UN initiative, which is apt to make any language-lover shudder, and have a look at the lexicon of fourth wave or contemporary feminism instead. You will be familiar with many of these words, but in a feminist context they mean something slightly different.
1. Check your privilege
In most cases, privilege is a verb meaning to grant a right, licence, or legal power, or to treat with special benefit. The word dates back to the 14th century, but the phrase check your privilege has a far shorter history. In 1998, American feminist and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In McIntosh’s sense, privilege is a set of special provisions that a person acquires — or doesn’t — because of their identity. If you are a rich, white, heterosexual man, then in the UK you’ll have an easier ride through life than a working-class, lesbian, woman of colour. The exhortation to check your privilege became popular on internet blogs dealing with social justice themes as a reminder that we are not all dealt the same hand in life.
2. Intersectionality and axes of oppression
The idea of privilege is central to intersectionality. Intersectional means “existing or prevailing between sections” and intersectionality theory is much the same. The theory was formalized by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 and is the study of how different systems of oppression interact with — and may reinforce — one another. Our working-class, lesbian, woman of colour is unprivileged along four intersecting axes of oppression — gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. Fourth wave intersectional feminism aims to correct the imbalances in mainstream feminist activism, which is criticized for being heteronormative and overly concerned with the needs of white, able-bodied, cisgender women.
Let’s take a quick look at these terms. Ableism is a relatively new word. It originated in the United States in the early 1980s and is “discrimination in favour of able-bodied people; prejudice against or disregard of the needs of disabled people.”
Heteronormative is another recent word. It was coined by the writer and academic Marina Warner in 1991. You probably could take a decent stab at its meaning by separating hetero from normative. It means “a world view which regards gender roles as fixed to biological sex and heterosexuality as the normal and preferred sexual orientation.” If you take a look at my picture you’ll see I have long hair and am wearing lipstick. If you have a heteronormative worldview, these visual cues may lead you to conclude that I am a straight, cisgender woman. You may be right, you may be wrong — I’m not telling!
Cisgender is a fairly recent addition to OxfordDictionaries.com. The prefix cis comes from the Latin cis, and means “on this side of.” Cis is the opposite of trans or ultra, which means “across or beyond.” Cisgender is thus the opposite of transgender, meaning “denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender.” If you are cisgender, your biological sex and gender identity match.
5. Cookies, anyone?
That’s all very well you may say, but what does any of this have to do with cookies? I’m glad you asked! A cookie, as I am sure you know, was originally what a plain baker’s bun was called in Scotland. In the United States, it is a “small flat sweet cake” — or as they are better known on this side of the pond, a biscuit. In modern feminist parlance, however, a cookie is a reward or special commendation for being a decent human being. If a man expects to be feted for not being a terrible misogynist, your average feminist is likely to look at him askance, asking if he thinks he deserves a cookie. There’s not much chance he’ll get one, unless he bakes them himself.
‘Not my Nigel’ and more
There are plenty of other words and phrases you are likely to come across in modern feminist circles. These include agency, androcentrism, male gaze, othering, radfem, rape culture, victim-blaming, and my particular favourite, not my Nigel. But like cookies, feminist jargon should be handed out sparingly so you don’t ruin your appetite.
Anne Sexton is best known for the popular ‘Sexed Up’ column in Hot Press magazine, an incisive and often irreverent take on contemporary sexuality. She has appeared as a guest on a number of Irish television shows and is a regular guest on Irish radio. Her work has appeared in several Irish newspapers including the Irish Examiner, the Irish Independent, and the Evening Herald.