My son wrote his first short story yesterday. It was pretty sexist, to be honest. Actually, it was basically pornographic. It went:
“SECSI BOIS UNT SECSI GOELS DNSING NAKIT IN DE STRIT WIV DER MUSCHIS UNT BOOBIS UNT VILIS.” In case you need me to translate this for you, it means: “sexy boys and sexy girls, dancing naked, in the street, with their Muschis and boobies and willies”. As you can imagine, I’m dead proud.
Anyways, it got me thinking about sexist language in general. It’s quite interesting to compare what’s considered sexist language in Germany with what’s considered sexist in the English-speaking world.
The main difference is grammatical. English is basically a gender-neutral language. Most of our jobs – doctor or pilot, say – have always been gender-neutral and probably always will be, I’d reckon. Most jobs which used to have female forms – authoress, sculptress, poetess – lost them a long time ago, i.e., in the Olden Days, when people still had butlers and stuff.
Others lost them more recently – it was still quite normal for people to say manageress until the late 1980s, and comedienne didn’t officially die out until, say, exactly seven months ago. Actress and stewardess are still in the process of dying out, and I’d guess that’s because we all secretly think they’re such achingly sexy, glamorously feminine jobs, but, mark my words, they are dying out. The Guardian even had a headline with the words ‘female actors’ in it a few months back.
The weird thing is, it’s a totally different situation when you’re speaking German. You always know whether the person you’re talking about is a boy or a girl. A Mitbewohnerin has to be a female roommate, a Therapeut is blatantly a male shrink, your Nachbarin has to be your female neighbour and your Frauenarzt is not, as I once thought, a lady doctor, but a male gynaecologist.
So, a few years ago, people started adding “-innen” onto the end of, well, everything – basically, just to make it clear they were talking about both men and women. “Liebe Studentinnen und Studenten,” for example, or “Hartz-IV-Empfängerinnen und Empfänger“. There’s a fairly sarky but very entertaining article (in German) from Bastian Sick explaining the whole business over on Spiegel Online, if you’re interested. It’s a good article to read if you want to get to grips with the whole thing.
But after that, you should go and buy this month’s issue of feminist magazine Emma. They’ve got an interesting – but slightly snide – article by a Wessi feminist, moaning and whingeing and grumbling and bitching about the fact that Ossi women don’t really get into the whole “-innen” thing. Apparently, at this lecture at some uni in former East Germany, the lecturer asked a group of thirty or so female students how many of them would feel insulted if they were called “Studenten” instead of “Studenten und Studentinnen” – and the only people who put their hands up were the three Wessis. So, the Wessi started laying into the Ossi, and explaining the significance of sexist language, etc, etc.
Well, despite my famous feminist principles, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit on the Ossi side. Just as some people have the right to get offended by sexist language, others have the right, surely, not to. Right? But maybe it’s just hard – or almost impossible – to really understand the “-innen” debate when you come from an Anglo-Saxon country, where the epitome of politically correct language is to call firemen “firefighters” and stewardesses “flight attendants”.
“What I really hate,” my German friend Jan told me one day, “is when they put a capital I in the middle of the word, like that. God, that’s ugly. That really annoys me.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “When they write ‘MitbewohnerIn gesucht,’ it’s just totally annoying. They’re just trying to be totally PC.”
“But that means they really, really want a female roommate, doesn’t it?” I asked, faintly puzzled. This is what I had genuinely thought, up to that point. I’d thought that all those ads for MitbewohnerIns really, really, really wanted a female roommate, so much so that they had to emphasize the fact with a capital.
“No, it means male or female.”
“But I thought the slash meant male or female.”
“Yeah, you can do a slash, or you can just capitalize it – to save space, I suppose. But it looks really stupid.”
I mulled over what he’d said to me carefully.
“You know why you hate that capital I, Jan?” I told him, after a few seconds’ thought. “It’s because you think it represents an erect penis. And you think that women are, like, snipping off your erect penis and using it themselves, inappropriately, in the middle of a word, like a giant strap-on.”
Jan started laughing, but I could tell he was really annoyed, like you know how you sometimes can, when German boys laugh at something.
“Oh, Jacinta,” he said, disapprovingly. “Sometimes I’m glad you’re not friends with Alice Schwarzer. I think you two, you’d be really bad influences on each other.”
And you know what? He’s probably right.