As I stand at my door, greeting the students who are slowly trickling in. One female enters, wearing a pair of heels, a skirt that falls an inch or two above her knees and a top that isn’t too tight but certainly isn’t loose. Her best friend, another female student, says, “damn, girl. Looking professional during the day but turning into a hoe at night!” They both laugh and take their seats.
When the young woman, simultaneously called professional and a hoe, stands up to get a tissue two minutes later, one of the male students says, “go and get it, hoe!” This time she’s offended and tells him that he has no right to call her that. She walks to her seat angry, feeling like she’s experienced verbal harassment and spends the rest of class ready to defend herself if necessary.
When I ask her why she’s upset, she says, “don’t you see? He called me a hoe and that’s really offensive.” Yes, it is highly offensive, I assure her. Let’s be real – being called a hoe in front of an entire English class is not something that most teenage gurls really want. But when I ask her the difference between her best friend calling her a hoe and the male student calling her a hoe, she says, “my friend didn’t mean it like that. He probably did.”
When I ask the male student why he called her a hoe, he says, “her friend called her one. I was kidding like her friend. Why can she say it, but I can’t?”
I’ve been teaching high school for two years, watching students interact in the halls through small groups and class discussion. One thing I’ve come to know as true is that the way young women talk to each other affects the way young men talk to them too. It’s a cycle. Time after time, a young woman has called another young woman a “bitch” or “slut,” and within minutes, a male student feels he has the right to call her a bitch or slut too. He doesn’t, of course. No male ever has the right to say something derogatory toward females, no matter the age or the intent of “just joking.” However, these situations always make me ask the question, ‘why do young women and, even some grown women, think it’s okay to call each other derogatory names?’ The young women I work with every day have learned that it’s not a problem to insult other each other and to only be offended when their male peers call them these names. They don’t realize a lot of their male peers are just mirroring their ways of talking.
It’s time for a change in the way females, particularly teenage gurls, talk to each other. We can’t demand respect and then talk to each other without it. What kind of message does that send? We need to redefine our rules for female discussion so that our young adult women can have a healthy self-esteem, instead of accepting being insulted as a norm. It only hurts them and our future generations to see themselves as not being worthy of high levels of respect.
We can’t do this overnight. We need to step up now more than ever and show future young women how to talk to each other in a way that demands respect and dignity. They’ll never learn unless we show them why it’s important to stop talking to each other like we’re not all on the same team. It’s unrealistic to expect all our grown women to like each other and want to be friends with each other, but it’s also unrealistic to tell them that their communication with each other doesn’t impact males’ communication with them.
Whether you have kids of your own or work with kids in some way, it’s crucial we spread a message that expresses the importance of choice in language. We’ve got to change “she’s such a bitch” to “she’s not the person I want to associate with.” Instead of “you’re a slut,” we can assert, “your standards aren’t the same as mine.” These phrases may not have the same impact, but they’re certainly going to force males to change the way they look at females. If we change words like “bitch” or “slut,” it becomes much easier to call young men out when they use these words. It allows us to unite as empowered women who are ready to change our entire methods of communication.
Tina Fey, Mean Girl’s screenplay writer, was on to something when her character said, “you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.” Preach, Tina Fey.