"Telling someone they are weak is not very constructive, but based on anatomical design, it would be more fitting to call someone a “testicle” or a “ball” instead of a pussy."
- Cliona Elliott
A few months ago I promised I would never call someone a “pussy” again. By “pussy” I don’t mean a small fluffy cat, but the word commonly used for vagina. Vaginas have acquired an extensive and dubious list of euphemisms, and pussy is definitely one of the better words on that list. People throw the word "pussy" around without thinking about what it means, and while it’s mostly used in light-hearted banter - “Oh, go on. Don’t be a pussy!” - it is a derogatory term that implies someone is weak and cowardly. Calling someone a pussy should actually be a compliment, because let’s not forget that vaginas push actual baby humans into the world. That may be one of the most obvious facts of life, but I still think it’s absolutely amazing. Not only do they give life, but they have a whole organ functioning purely for pleasure, and they are self-healing and self-cleaning. If a pussy isn’t the epitome of strength, power and endurance then I don’t know what is.
Telling someone they are weak is not very constructive, but based on anatomical design, it would be more fitting to call someone a “testicle” or a “ball” instead of a pussy. Balls are the most sensitive and vulnerable part of a male body, and men are just one kick or accidental knock away from what they describe as the most crippling pain. However, we should just leave the names of all genitalia alone and stop using them as derogatory and sexist terms. Language is one of the most powerful tools in constructing gender biases. In most cultures, balls are not metaphorically weak at all, they are the epitome of strength. Apparently having a pair of literal or figurative balls between your legs makes you more equipped to handle difficult situations. If you are scared or nervous about something, someone might tell you to “strap on a pair”, “grow some balls” or be more “ballsy”. You may also be told to “man up” and get on with it. This language isn’t just locker room talk among men, because women use it with other women. It’s interwoven so tightly in our culture that I often have to stop myself in my verbal tracks before blurting out a statement like, “I don’t have the balls to do that”. There is so much strength to be found in vulnerability and expressing how we really feel is one of the bravest things we can do. The traditional and rigid stereotype of a “real man” or a “man’s man” excludes weakness and vulnerability from its mould. Regardless of our gender, sometimes we need to put on a brave face and be headstrong when we feel like we’re crumbling, and sometimes we need to ask for help. Suicide is the main cause of death among young people aged between twenty and thirty-four in the UK, and men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women. Telling someone to grow a pair is not the sole factor behind this statistic, but it’s certainly not the solution.
Children internalise gender biases through language from a young age. I doubt you would hear gender-derogatory remarks in schools now, but I remember teachers making comments like, “you throw like a girl” or “don’t run like a girl”. This “like a girl” phrase is disempowering and encourages girls, and boys, to think girls are lesser and weaker than their male counterparts. In 2015 the brand Always ran a campaign to redefine the “like a girl” phrase and challenge the stereotypes of women being weaker, less skilled and less confident than men. But the “like a girl” phrase is still bouncing around. Just recently, I heard a guy call a half push up (the modified version of a push up with your knees resting on the ground), a “girly push up”. He denied it was sexist and said it’s what he has always known them to be called. He then remarked, “but women are weaker”. Yes, women are biologically different to men, but anyone is capable of doing a full push up if they have the body strength; it’s irrelevant to gender. There is absolutely no need to conflate women with weakness by attaching the word “girly” to a modified and somewhat easier version of an exercise. What about a man who can only do a “girly” push up? Does it make him less of a man? This language feeds into toxic gender narratives and reinforces the idea of women being inferior to men.
The term “toxic masculinity” has become a bit of buzzword over the past few years, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Toxic masculinity is not a concept conjured up by angry feminists. The term was coined by professor Shepherd Bliss during the mythopoetic men’s movement in the 1980’s, which aimed to remove the limited archetypes of masculinity. Toxic masculinity refers to the pressure on boys and men to conform to gender norms and certain behaviours associated with traditional masculinity or “real man” stereotype, like aggression, repressed emotions and dominance. Toxic masculinity is not an attack on masculinity itself, nor does it imply that all men display toxic behaviour. In January, the razor brand Gillette released a campaign called We Believe: The Best Men Can Be to stand against toxic masculinity. The brand spun their time-honoured slogan, “The Best a Man Can Get” to question the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man today. The ad highlights issues including sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying and the #MeToo movement. It encourages men to help other men do better by acting against “boys will be boys” behaviour, and to call other men out on toxic behaviour such as catcalling and derogatory behaviour towards women.
Boys will be boys behaviour is harmful because it means certain behaviour from boys and men is to be expected and tolerated. It removes the responsibility and accountability for someone’s actions just because they are male. Toxic masculinity can subtly teach young boys that it’s not OK to cry, and that they must suppress their feelings in order to fit in. Although Gillette’s campaign was widely praised for addressing an important issue, it was also heavily criticised and “#boycottGillette” quickly spread through social media. Journalist Piers Morgan said the ad was “absurd” and tweeted, “Let boys be damn boys. Let men be damn men”. The brand was also slated for being “anti-men”. Gillette’s campaign is by no means anti-men, nor does it imply that men should apologise for being men. Gillette have simply opened up space for a conversation that has been bypassed for too long. It may be a heated and divisive conversation, but it has an overdue and well-deserved place in society as we strive for gender equality.
Gender is multifaceted and complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all mould for femininity, masculinity or any gender for that matter. So, no more calling people pussies (unless you’re telling someone how amazing and powerful, they are), or telling people to grow a pair or man up. Let’s ditch the language that underpins the pillars of gender inequality.