I have flatted with the same two women for five and a half years now; they're my closest friends.
These facts are merely background to the point of this post, which is about language.
So David Cameron told Shadow Minister Angela Eagle to "Calm down, love" in the middle of a heated Parliamentary debate. And I can't remember who it was or where I read it, but some MP asked another (male) MP whether he had PMS.
Is this sexist, the papers ask?
In a word: yes.
This is because words have meanings, and those meanings are contextual.
A story about my flat:
We cook together, and thus we grocery shop together. This one time a couple of years ago, I started crying completely out of the blue in the middle of the cat food aisle.
I get PMS. I have a couple of days every month where I am consumed with impotent rage, usually directionless and a bit feeble. This month I spent a day ratty and ill-tempered at everyone I had any contact with (and some people who I didn't), and every third thought I had was "Heaven forfend you should have to [do X]."
And so on that ill-fated shopping expedition, my cycle was at its peak of rage, and I cried. I was aware at the time that the whole situation was completely absurd, so I was kind of laughing and wailing at the same time; I'm really glad the supermarket was pretty empty.
"Crying in the cat aisle" is now an in-joke in my flat for PMS-related things (and amongst a few other close friends too).
I'm totally down with this. It's an in-joke because it was so uncontrollable and random and ridiculous; and because I love these people I live with; and because we all go through PMS-related ragetastic moments; and because we're careful with it.
Meaning is contextual, man. I get to make PMS jokes and explanations because it's my body and my hormones and my anger, and I know better than anyone what my cycle is about and what I'm angry about and whether my anger is at an unusual (for me) level and whether that anger is, in my opinion, justified.
Close friends get to ask me whether I'm PMS-ing because they know me well and they know a bit about my body and my hormones and my anger, and they can call me out about if they like, and I can argue with them if I like.
Acquaintances don't. Random strangers don't. Because they don't know me or those things about me, and they don't get to ever fucking determine how I should choose to frame the discussion I am having.
Why it's sexist and offensive: because a query about PMS isn't just a question about my ovarian cycle (as if that's not intrusive enough). It's a whole lot of other possible statements, including (but not limited to)—
- that the thing I'm angry about isn't worthy of being angry about
- that I'm overreacting
- that I'm being irrational
- that I'm being ridiculous
And none of these things can lead to a good place for me.
Seriously, if it is PMS then I'm probably well-aware of it already and do not need you to tell me that my body chemistry is screwing with my reason. If it's not—if it's not, then you've just nicely dismissed everything I've been arguing as an overblown rant in a beautiful ad hominem one-liner.
And if you're a dude:
I don't know if you've been living under a rock all this time, but for many many centuries women had very few rights in (English) law and society.* Our assets belonged to our fathers and then our husbands; we couldn't inherit land; it was difficult or impossible to get an education or learn a trade or run a business or, you know, act as fully autonomous human beings. Women in the late Victorian period used to get prescribed hysterectomies and clitorectomies for "hysteria". The legal definition of rape specifically excluded anything that took place within a marriage.
So feminism 101: it's not new to describe women as reactionary, hysterical, ridiculous, and incapable of reason. Those were, in fact, some of the justifications used to perpetuate the treatment of women in our society for centuries.
All that (remember that words have meanings and meanings are contextual? GOOD.) gets imported as subtext when a man tells a woman to calm down, love, or asks whether she's PMSing.
And those general societal contexts sometimes get trumped by other contexts, such as that of close friendship and grocery shopping. So, yeah, you do have to be aware of the language you're using about a group you're not part of, even if they throw those words around themselves.
But, you say, some people are totally down with being asked whether they're PMSing. The way I figure it, there's a range of possible reactions if it's a stranger or the opposition doing the asking:
- at one end, always finding it offensive and hurtful
- thinking the asker is a bit of a dick, in a bad way
- thinking the asker is a bit of a dick, in a good way
- finding it funny
- and at the other end, not seeing the problem
(I think you have to be aware that it's problematic (or at least that some people would find it so) to find it funny.)
And given that you're asking someone whether they're PMSing in an argument during which presumably you are the other side, and you're presumably doing so for the purpose of point-scoring, you've got to be aware that there is a point to score at all: so you at least are aware that it's problematic.
How the hell are you surprised when they get annoyed? Nice going, asshole.
* Which is what I know about, so is what I'm talking about.