Friday, June 6, 2014

The Anatomy of Courage

On Thursday morning, I woke to the sound of ten teenagers whispering and giggling as they stole downstairs in search of breakfast after a sleepover celebrating the end of their final exams. But my smile faded as I turned on the radio in search of the morning's news and heard of Vladimir Putin's sexist jabs at former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. As reported in the Huffington Post, Putin's comments came in reaction to questions from French journalists about statements Clinton reportedly made comparing Putin's aggressive policies toward Ukraine to Hitler's imperial tactics during the 1930s. Putin's response to being compared to Hitler: call his opponent a girl. As reported in HP:

What Hilary is thinking:
"What? You're a sexist pig? I think the world
already knows..."
"It's better not to argue with women," Putin said, per a transcript of the interview posted online by the Kremlin. "But Ms. Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements.... When weak people push boundaries too far, it's not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman."

As much as I'd like to embrace the fantasy that such obviously sexist statements are only made by dictatorial leaders of countries with clear anti-American sentiments, my week has been far too filled with everyday examples of how men's bodies, in particular the two ellipsoid glands constituting the sperm-secreting organs, so often function as stand-ins for strength or courage. And how often women and their bodies end up on the weaker end of the binary of strong/weak.

Exhibit A: A post on the Lady Smut blog on strong women in romance entitled "Women with Balls," in which Elizabeth Shore notes:

In romance novels, self-assured strong women are alternately described as fierce, independent, headstrong, strong-willed, or plucky. Yeah, I'm not a fan of that last one, either. But for this post, I'm going with balls. It's an all-in-one kinda word that sums up so much of what I love in women like Pat [Benatar]. Women who don't take any shit, who can kick ass when needed, who have courage and confidence and heart but whose feminine side and kind side remain front and center. They are sexy femme fatales, these ballsy women, and I'd sure love to be in the club.

Exhibit B: Serena Bell's "Loveswept" romance, Hold on Tight, which I very much enjoyed reading, with one niggling exception. In the midst of a secret-baby story, we have a heroine who is clearly on a feminist mission—to build a world for herself and her son "where bossy men didn't tell her what to do or what to feel" (Loc 1185). And it is equally clear that our hero, an alpha male soldier struggling to come to terms with a war injury that cost him a leg, respects her and her desire for independence and self-determination. But, perhaps not surprisingly given the potential elision between loss of leg to loss of penis/masculinity, said hero continually uses gendered body terms when he thinks about strength and weakness:

She's going to kill me, Jake thought, and then Really? I must have left my balls in Afghanistan. (Loc 902)

This was a situation that called for him to be a grown man with big balls who stuck to the program" (Loc 1092)

Mira could figure it out. Handle it. God, she could handle anything. She could take life by the balls ten times over, and she pretty much had. (Loc 3334) much as he wanted to run and hide, he hated that man. Soldiers engaged, and even if he wasn't one anymore, he wasn't going to be a fucking wuss. (Loc 1427)    [FYI, the OED reports that the origins of "wuss" are uncertain, but are perhaps a blend of "wimp" and "puss"].

Exhibit C: A discussion on the Self-Publishing list-serv about whether an author should feel mean if she refuses to allow her agent a cut of her self-publishing income, which included the following reply from an author

[Author refused permission for me to include said quote, even if I removed her name from it...]

While there's a huge difference between the examples I've cited and the overt sexism of Vladimir Putin, I can't help but be struck by how often we, as well as those kids who woke me up this morning, find ourselves surrounded by images of testicles (males) as strength, pussies (females) as weakness. It's not such a simple thing, as the author of the quote from Exhibit C points out when she notes how gender norms (whether socially or biologically constructed) teach women to be less forceful than men if they want to be thought to be "nice" or "good" or "feminine," often much to their detriment. And as the examples above demonstrate, testicular imagery can and is often used to praise women, as well as men.

Blogger FatGirl vs. World's proposed award:
because "female" = FE (iron) + male
But even when women are cheered for being "ballsy," the usage still echoes of male privilege, at least to my ear. An echo I wish those eight girls and two boys who spent the night sprawled out on the floor of my daughter's room did not have to be confronted with each and every day.

Does your sexism radar beep when you come across "balls" and "pussy" wording/imagery in a romance novel?  Or does it not bother you, if the book is not sexist in other regards?

Photo credits:
Clinton and Putin: The Wire
Iron ovaries: FatGirl vs. World


  1. I prefer brave to ballsy. I've never gotten past the inherent biological irony of that. I mean, when *I* played baseball, I didn't have to wear a cup.

    Also interesting that to call someone a dick is an insult.

    Anyway, what about the origins of pussy? Is it a reference to female anatomy or is it a shortening of pussycat? Does it make a difference?

    1. Elisabeth:

      Ah, love the baseball irony!

      The OED says pussy stems from puss, from the Dutch poesje, kitten. The cat usage dates from the mid 1500s. Used to refer to a woman's genitals, earliest print example dates from 1699. Also used to refer to an effeminate man since the turn of the 20th century, a cowardly man since the mid-20th century. Interesting to watch how additional gendered meanings get attached to certain words at certain points in historical time...

  2. I think one of the things holding feminism back is the social acceptability of women who display stereotypically masculine qualities (fierce, independent, headstrong, etc.), versus a man who displays feminine qualities being relentlessly mocked. I believe you've done a post about that situation before, Jackie. Everyone wants to run to the masculine end of the behavior spectrum, since it has higher social status. I just think so many social problems would disappear if qualities like nurturing, gentleness, and sensitivity were given as much respect as assertiveness, strength, and confidence. And also if none of those things were metaphorically linked to anyone's genitals.

    I wish that I had some idea of how to go about doing that. Maybe the tide is slowly turning, though. There seems to be a growing acceptance for boys who play with dolls and like pink. Nursing is becoming a socially acceptable career choice for men.

    1. Vicky:

      Totally agree with your point. Do you have any favorite romance novels that feature nurturing heroes?

    2. I was having a really hard time with this question. I could think of several discrete instances of nurturing by male characters in romances. For instance there are several books where the hero cooks breakfast for the heroine, and there is a scene in the book Key of Light by Nora Roberts where Malory is sick, so Flynn puts her to bed and feeds her soup. But I wouldn't characterize any of these heroes as having a nurturing personality.

      Then I thought of one! The name of the book is Daggerstar by Elizabeth Vaughan. This is a fantasy romance rather than the traditional contemporary or historical romance genres. I really enjoyed both the romance, and the way the author plays with the 'Chosen One' trope. I feel disappointed that it took me this long to come up with even one example.

  3. Generally speaking, I don't react to these terms. Language is language. I think you have to change the ideas and reality, and the language goes afterwards. I'm not one those feminists active in the 'pollitically correct language' war. I don't care if I find this kind of words in a novel or in reality. It really doesn't bother me, if it's just a way of speaking and the person is not really sexist. I can use that language myself.

    It's not something that happens only in English. In Spanish we say 'cojonudo' (a word that cames from the male balls) when something is good and 'coñazo' (that comes from 'pussy') to mean that something is boring. But when something is very very good you use the rather vulgar expression 'de puta madre' (literally 'of a mother whore' - I know it has no sense in English; it can be translated as 'fucking A' or 'great, fantastic, brilliant').

    But when you talk specifically about courage, although we say that person (a man or a woman) 'tiene huevos' (again huevo=egg=balls), we do also say, when it's a woman, that she 'tiene ovarios' (=has ovaries), o le echó 'ovarios' (=put her ovaries in it), o bien 'olé sus ovarios' (=bravo for her ovaries). It's not so frequent but it is used, as well.

    In a sad way, that Putin/Clinton controversy is funny, b/c it reminds me of a recent controversy here, in Spain. During the recent campaign for the European Parlament elections, the right wing candidate lost the TV debate with the left wing candidate, a woman. He said -afterwards- that he felt forced to hold back in the debate because his opponent was female. That he could not give himself a perfect score because he had not been able to be himself against her. 'A debate between a man and woman is very complicated, b/c if you abuse your intellectual superiority, you end up looking like a male chauvinist who is cornering a defenceless woman'.

    There were news about this in international newspapers. For instance, The Guardian -

  4. "Balls" doesn't bother me as much as "pussy" (in the sense of "wimp") does because the latter is an example of how everything female and feminine (whatever that means) is denigrated. How does this even make sense when we all know that a man's balls are vulnerable to pain and attack, whereas a woman's pussy (in the other sense) can see a lot of action without injury? I'm thinking here of stories like that of Empress Messalilna, who wore out and won a contest with a prostitute to see who could bed the most men.

    While I agree with Bona that it's the social structures that matter and language that follows, the existence of sexist language itself becomes a barrier. It's not all a one-way street. As for political debate, Bona's story reminds of Hillary Clinton's first run for the Senate. During a debate, her opponent got (literally) in her face, which was perceived as demeaning and bullying. And probably actually was. So she won the debate. But in my experience, male politicians are unnerved in the face of confident, well-prepared women, and the latter can then run rings around them, because the men are so used to dealing with others who use the same rhetorical tricks and toss around the same line of BS as they do.

  5. I like Clarissa Pinkola Estes way of saying that women have not balls but ovaries - like Bona Caballero said - ovarios. It's very unusual in English but I say it sometimes with my girlfriends. It's where our generative strength comes from.I don't have sperm sacs, I have eggs. I don't think I agree about language coming afterwards. A lot of social structures are expressed through language are they not? Interesting though.

  6. Oh, I love this discussion!

    The odd thing is, I feel a bit out of it, because I haven't read in a book recently using that language, and I haven't heard it since I was in high school--a good eon ago now. Why I say odd is because my day job is as a military historian, more specifically I'm a researcher. I'm around military men all the time. I am usually the only woman in a room full of the guys. I have worked for former admirals to more recently a Green Beret who had eight tours in Afghanistan. And all of the men I've worked with I would consider nurturing, with only two exceptions. And I do mean nurturing, often giving me more support and encouragement than my female friends. Anyway, in all the time I've been a researcher a conversation of balls or pussy has never come up. At least not in my earshot. Who knows what they say when I'm out of the room, right?

    Oh, as an aside, I read an article that is fascinating about gendered language within the treaties between colonials/British government and Native American tribes, most notably the Iroquois Nations. As time progressed, from 1630s to 1763, the Native Americans used more and more language that inferred women were weak. The historian of the piece believes why this language in the treaties comes to be is because of an attempt to sound more English. As in, since the English say such things, the Native American are making the attempt to be better understood, not necessarily agreeing that women are weaker. However, the historian also notes that as the language progresses (women are weak, etc.) then domestic violence also increases. Gosh, now I'm going to have to find that article.
    Thanks for the wonderful post!