Thursday, March 26, 2015

Words Matter: The Female Question

In the comments section of our last Words Matter post, reader Mel C posed an interesting question: 
Should we let our students get away with calling women, females? (other than the fact it's grammatically incorrect). 
My answer to Mel was twofold. On the one hand, it's perfectly acceptable--and, in fact, preferable--to use "female" in writing about biological, social, or sexual difference, especially in the sciences. As Yateendra Joshi explains, the general rule is that writers should "use female only when the biological distinction is relevant or needs to be preserved, as in female secondary sexual characteristics, female preferences that govern the choice of a mate, or calories required by nursing females." In these examples, using the word female doesn't only work to make the writer's meaning clear; it also ensures that the scientific information relayed isn't too personal. But if you're writing outside of the sciences, that lack of personal sentiment can be off-putting. As Linguist Deborah Tannen explains, she avoids using "female" because "it feels more like describing an animal than a person." Maeve Maddox's reasoning behind avoiding "female" is similar: "as a noun, female has no place in ordinary conversation unless one is speaking of an animal species." So, if you're writing something where double-x lady parts (as opposed to the social connotations different cultures ascribe to said lady parts) matter, or in the fields, like biology, where writers observe and describe humans in much the same way they do animals, feel free to female it up.   

But there are times when using the word female to refer to women is more problematic. It's particularly problematic in one of the discourse communities that I'm a member of (and, I think, the one Mel C was referring to in her original question): speakers of African-American Vernacular English or AAVE. Just like any other dialect of English (like Cajun English, the "Brahmin" dialect of upper-class Bostonians, or the "Engfish" of academic circles), AAVE has its own grammatical and phonological systems as well as its own vocabulary and, though there's a lot of crossover between AAVE and Standard American English (what many people describe as the kind of English that doesn't have an accent, like what newscasters often speak or what many Midwesterners sound like--though in actuality, even the Midwestern accent-that's-not-an-accent has its own particularisms), there are some particular differences. One such difference is the use of the word "female."

In many varieties of AAVE, "female" isn't reserved for scientific or clinical communication. Instead, it's used in casual, everyday communication in quite a few different ways--and none of them are appropriate in academic writing. 

So, what are some of the different ways AAVE speakers use the word female? Because this blog is PG-13, I won't be providing examples here (though if you're interested, a quick search of "females" on Twitter should give you an idea of some of the different usages). Suffice it to say that, as it's used by many AAVE speakers, the word "female" comes with negative, often sexualized connotations. Miss Glamtastic breaks users of "female" in this particular way down into two categories: men who want to demean or denegrate women and use the word female "because it doesn't sound as nasty (but still carries the same sentiment and tone) as calling her something profane" and women who want to "[endear] themselves to men" or put down other women. The Root's Demetria Lucas D'Oyley and Jezebel's Kara Brown both go into more detail about it.

But, if you're an AAVE speaker, how can you check to be sure that your usage of female in academic writing is appropriate? And, if you're a tutor or an instructor who's not an AAVE speaker, how can you tell if an AAVE client or student's usage of "female" is a problematic one? Try Miss Glamtastic's replacement test:

If you can replace the word "female" with the word "b!$$%", or, actually, any other defamatory term used to refer to a woman that is displeasing in some way, and the feeling of the sentence is the same, then be offended [or, in the case of writing, revise to use another word]. If the tone of the sentence hasn't drastically changed, though a profane word is being used instead of "female," then you know what the person is REALLY trying to say.
Or you can do what I do: The Chris Brown Test. On one of my favorite radio stations from home, the radio edit for Chris Brown's 2014 song "Loyal"--with its oh-so-catchy but bothersomely misogynistic refrain--changed the lyric "these hoes ain't loyal" to a more user-friendly one: "females ain't loyal." If the use of "female" in question fits in the song, you've got a problem and need to revise.

So, what's the TL;DR answer to Mel's original question? "Female" can be okay to use in academic writing, but only when it's used thoughtfully and appropriately. Because words matter.


  1. Well, well. Okay. I am certainly learning something new today. I didn't even know the word female was problematic for some of us. I guess I got sidetracked by the b-word and its ever-growing, wildly-favored popularity. I’ll admit, the embracing of terms and concepts of ownership especially as they relate to words that I find far more troublesome, e.g., slut(walk), keep me from even paying attention to those words that are sometimes said with a tinge condescension such that it bristles the hairs of us who are more than like already rubbed raw.
    To be kind to my dear sisters, I'll keep in mind that female may be fingernails across the chalkboard for some. In the future, I'll look over both shoulder before saying it. (Pinky swear).
    But, I must say, I am not comfortable with always being so on the defensive because a few of us are so concerned with hegemony and giving the patriarchal system a good pounding that we cannot just be females/girls/ladies/women folk/honeys/darlings/ and other sweet (and strong) what have yous.
    Seriously, have we lost all our chill? Honestly, intent still counts for a lot. Are we really resorting to just striking through words without examining the motivations of the individuals speaking/using them? Doesn't that make us just as oppressive and narrow-sighted as the people/structures/systems we're fighting against? Now, the n-word and other derogatory racial terms, strike them down! But female, she's been good to me. I'm a bit more inclined to stand up for her virtues and not shame her into the realm of the profane.

    1. I definitely hear you, and my goal isn't to police language so heavily that we have no chill left. But, as you said, intention matters. So I think it's important that we use language intentionally. And, I think, the way we (and here my "we" is users of AAVE) sometimes use the word female in academic writing is perhaps related to a lack of intention--a lack of thoughtfulness.

      Also, re: the n-word--
      One thing I didn't mention in the post is that, at least as it's used in my particular AAVE community (that is, by millennial black people in an urban center) "female" can be a parallel term for the n-word. And, regardless of how we feel about using those words in general, it's def not appropriate in scholarly writing.

  2. Big ups to Terri for keeping it academic and fair and balanced. :-)

    1. TC: sophistiratchet blackademic for life!

      (And thanks!)

  3. Thank you for pointing out the particularisms of SAE (I'm thinking, in particular, of the abuse of "a" sounds).

    But as someone with a fairly thick accent myself, I'm mostly kidding. Mostly.

    Anyway, I've had this discussion a lot lately and IN FACT it ultimately let to the very timely death of a recent romantic liaison. Words do matter! Power analysis deserves a place at this roundtable!

    Another good one, Terri.

    1. ALSO ALSO one more thought on the topic is the inequity of calling women females and men... men. I have had this conversation with more than a few men where they never stopped to think about how dehumanizing that is.

      And I am fairly loose with language. I definitely try to keep my chill. But it's hard sometimes, ya know.