One of the things I try to do when referring to something that is a stereotype is to acknowledge that I am talking about a stereotype, rather than about actual characteristics of real groups of people. So, my conditioner doesn’t smell like old lady, it smells like “stereotypical old lady”. If I wanted to be really precise (since the phrase “stereotypical old lady” suggests that there are a group of people who are stereotypical old ladies), I should really probably be saying that my conditioner smells “like what we stereotype old ladies as smelling like”, but that’s a little too cumbersome even for me.
Anyway, I was thinking about this in the shower today (hence the conditioner example, natch) and I’m now wondering if this trick I have of acknowledging my use of stereotypes isn’t problematic in itself. I mean, as long as I’m still depending on stereotypes to help me describe real things in the world, I’m still perpetuating those stereotypes – my description of the scent of my conditioner a “stereotypical old lady” is only meaningful as long as I am in a society that stereotypes older women as having a particular smell, and by conjuring up that stereotype, I reinforce it to some extent.
This just brings me back to a larger frustration that a friend of mine was recently voicing: so much of our everyday language and the ways we talk about the world are steeped in racism, sexism, ageism, and -ism you could possibly think of. And yes, it can be tiring to try to avoid phrases that you know will make your meaning quickly and easily understandable to your audience, but that are also rooted in bigotry. And I get that it can be frustrating, or jarring, or otherwise unpleasant to be informed that a phrase you use, whose origins and meaning you’ve never really thought about, is in fact, racist. (Common examples are talking about getting “gypped”, which is an aspersion on Roma people, or gypsies, and using “cotton-picking” as a place-holder in situations where swearing is inappropriate – seriously, considering the history of cotton-picking and cotton-pickers in North America, using “cotton-picking” essentially as a synonym for “bad” is just not cool, you guys).
And I get it. I get the frustration, and I get the feeling of being limited – the proportion of commonly used language that is problematic is pretty huge. But here’s the thing; it doesn’t make sense to be frustrated with the person who told you that thing you said was messed up. It doesn’t even really make sense to be annoyed that now x phrase is tainted for you – it was already tainted, the only thing that’s changed is that you know it now, which is really a good thing. The real target of your frustration should be with the generations who came before us who infested the language with phrases bred in an atmosphere of casual bigotry, where describing things with respect to supposedly essential characteristics of groups of people seemed reasonable and right. That energy doesn’t have to be bottled up solely in censoring and altering your modes of expression; it can be directed at the systems and hierarchies that continue to persist in our society and continue to make this kind of language use ok (I mean, a generation ago, “gay” wasn’t really used in the pejorative way it is today – the language is still being used in new casually bigoted ways all the time).
We need to realize and consciously acknowledge that these instances of casual linguistic bigotry are symptoms of a much larger problem. We need to work on helping people to stop thinking about in each other in these rigid categories, with defined sets of characteristics applied to each. Only then will these casual instances of bigotry start to fade away. Only then will such dumb, seemingly innocuous phrases like “old lady smell”* cease to have any real meaning (“What do you mean, old lady smell? Doesn’t everyone smell different?”)
I want to live in a world where phrases like “old lady smell,” “throws like a girl,” or “that’s so gay” have no material meaning, because people don’t walk around thinking that there’s only one narrative that goes along with being old, or a girl, or gay. I want people to really understand that each individual’s experience is made up of so much more than their group allegiances and labels. I want there to be room for people to define for themselves what it means to be [insert label here].
Is that really so much to ask?
*Seemingly innocuous, yeah. But I mean, really, characterizing older people as smelling gross or cloying does an incredible disservice to a whole lot of badass, intelligent, and accomplished people. The idea of old person smell in general contributes to a culture that devalues the collective experience and wisdom of the older members of its population, and deprives younger people of amazing relationships.