HYPOAGENCY – “Pussy”, “bitch”, “harpy” and “girl”

The behavior of the terms “pussy”, “bitch”, “harpy” and “girl” in the language, including cultural strictures on their use, shows how deeply attached people are to female hypoagency, even those who insist they reject this patriarchal gender norm.

There are pejorative uses, in descending degrees of pejoration, of all four terms – for instance “girl” is a powerful racial shibboleth – but the first two are as active in the language as denucniations of hyopagency and weakness as they are of anything else. Thus it is odd to find feminists and other self-identified progressvie-minded people objecting to them.

 

Language is a mirror into cultural assumptions and attitudes. Words are labels for semantically defined categories in the language and culture, and if you can identify the criteria for inclusion of an item in a specific category, you can define that category accurately.

The only empirically valid way to do this is to look at actual usage in the language. It’s not rigorous to ask this or that native speaker what he thinks the word means, although that is a good starting place. But looking at how the word is actually used will yield insights that even a really competent native-speaker will miss. For instance how many native speakers will be able to tell you right off why the word “bill” is used both for a dollar “bill” and the gas “bill”, or a legislative “bill? (See the answer at the bottom.)

There are a couple of ways to identify these categorization criteria. One method is to catalog the environments where the word occurs, and compare it to the environments where it does not occur. A subset of this method is to look for similarities and differences between members of the category. A second method is to simply catalog various sub-categories of items that are included in the category and then look for common features. These two tools enable us to identify the specific criteria for inclusion in a category or exclusion – the semantic shape of the word.

Let’s use the first method to look at “kill”, “murder” and “assassinate”. “Kill” can be used very generally to refer to the act of making something die. “Murder” is not so widely applicable. The killing has to be illegal and in most jurisdictions it has to be intentional; in other words there are selection criteria pertaining to the manner of killing. “Assassinate” refers to killing someone socially or politically prominent; in other words there are selection criteria on the patient of the act. Here we see how adding criteria restricts the scope of the category the word labels.

Let’s use the first method again to look at what identifies something as a “stool” rather than a “chair”. We find that everything in the “stool” category has a platform to sit on held up by some kind of support, typically at least three legs. We find that to be a chair always has a structure you can rest your back on. This is the feature that distinguishes a “stool” from a “chair”. Well, not quite. Let’s use the second method to look at “stool” again. Now we find it can also refer to feces. Wow. What possible connection is there? Well, people used to sit on special stools to shit and this connection licensed to the word to take in this second meaning. This is actually quite common. There is a whole load of words that refer both the container and the contents – “casserole” for both the pot and the food inside, “board” for bother the table and the people who sit at it, and so on.

With these two tools we are ready to look into the terms “pussy”, “bitch” and “girl” and how they fit into the culture – when they are used, which are proscribed and when – and then we may be able to identify which semantic features are eliciting negative reactions.

Let’s just list the categories of referents these words apply to:

“PUSSY”
– Female sexual parts, specifically human

– A cat, felis domesticus. The word has an interesting etymology. Discussion below.
.- A weakling (usually of a male)
– An over-sensitive person, a complainer (usually of a male)

“BITCH”
– A female dog
– Something unpleasant – “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”
– A combative, belligerent woman; a woman who says cutting things
– Someone subservient or dominated; a loser, a weakling – “You play like a bitch!” “That’s my bitch…. hey bitch, bring me a Coke!”
– And combining the last two, someone who is underhandedly belligerent; passive-aggressive

“HARPY”:
– A combative, belligerent woman
– A woman who says cutting things

“GIRL”
– A young female; young and therefore low on the dominance hierarchy, thus subservient or dominated
– A general affectionate term for a grown woman “- “Just us girls!”

Now let’s look at which terms are considered offensive and which acceptable and why. It’s pretty uncontroversial that most speakers find “pussy” and “bitch” objectionable, especially when applied to women, in fact so objectionable that that objectionable meaning is driving out all the others and displacing these words from polite speech. (This is the same process affecting “ass” and “niggardly”. It is a form of word taboo.) And likewise “harpy” is considered pretty objectionable. Oddly enough “girl” is not. It is not uncommon to hear grown women breezily addressing each other as “girls”.

Taken together the pattern we see is that terms that refer to sex or belligerence are considered objectionable but the one term that is purely hypoagentive is not. That means it’s unlikely that the hypoagentivity of “pussy” or “bitch” is what makes these terms objectionable. The problem must be the belligerence and genitality of the terms. And indeed these traits do fall outside the traditional female gender norm, and we can expect traditionalists to take exception to them.

In fact the pejorative use of these terms is an attack on female hypoagency through shaming language. That sounds pretty gender-iconoclastic to me.

So since the hyperagency/hypoagency binary lies at the heart of traditional or patriarchal gender roles, one would expect feminists bent on doing the Patriarchy down to use any tool at their disposal to accomplish that. One would expect them to use terms like ‘pussy” and “bitch” to denounce women who reinforced these roles with the same relish they used “pig” to denounce men who reinforced the patriarchal masculine role. That they don’t says a lot about their actual dedication to their stated ideology and goals.

Maybe there really is no discrepancy here at all. Maybe it’s just traditionalist being traditionalist.

 

 

Bill
The modern-day core meaning of “bill” is “sheet of paper.” The other meanings are semantic extensions. The original core meaning was “slat of wood”, dating from before the easy availability of paper. A related word is “billet” – 1) ticket, 2) lodging (obtained by showing a lodging ticket), 3) organizational slot requiring the person to hold a security clearance (by extension from “lodging”). Etc.

Bast, Ubaste, Bastet – Cats in heat engage in group sex and they were a symbol of fertility in Egypt and of witchy sluttiness in midieval Europe. Many were killed as familiars of witches.

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  • Will

    This book looks extremely important. I think it should be reviewed in great depth with many quotes of the passages she uses as evidence in order for the argument to look credible:

    http://www.wendymcelroy.com/articles/heterophobia.html

  • Ginkgo

    Will, I have seen that elsewhere and it is very, very interesting. I find a lot to disagree with McElroy about, but Daphnes Patai always is worth listening to.

  • http://thedamnedoldeman.com TDOM

    I would think that the prohibition on the word “pussy” is due to the usage and not the support for hypoagency. I think there is little doubt that men labeled as “pussies” are labeled as such because of the reference to female genitalia (the opposite of saying he has “balls”). Since it denotes weakness through association with being female, its use becomes demeaning to women. Since the basis for feminism is supposed to be equailty (and often superiority), the association of the female genitalia with weakness undermines this basic assumption. Therefore, the taboo is not inconsistent with feminism. However, one would expect to find a similar taboo on the use of the word “balls,” especially in the sense that it associates masculinity wiht courage and strength, but there is no such taboo and I often hear women proclaiming to “have balls.”