I found myself referring to someone as a ‘schoolgirl’ the other day. Nothing strange about that, you might think. After all, the papers routinely refer to ‘murdered schoolgirl’ this and ‘plucky schoolgirl’ that. Which is precisely what worried me. Like finding yourself in agreement with Melanie Phillips, you know that’s a sign that you haven’t properly understood the argument and need to think again.
Surely the ‘school’ bit of ‘schoolgirl’ is redundant? Ah yes, well it would be, but we are so often referring to women as ‘girls’ that the qualifier is necessary. So much is so familiar. But there’s another gendered word on my radar with a definite whiff of disapproval about it.
That word is ‘man’.
I blame man-flu. I don’t know what man-flu is, though I am a man and I have had the influenza virus twice in my life. I suspect that man-flu doesn’t have anything to do with the virus though (it put me on my back for a week each time and was no laughing matter). It’s to do with men having colds and calling it ‘flu and whinging. I can’t claim to speak on behalf of my sex, but it ain’t our fault. ‘Flu is now one of those illnesses that it’s quite acceptable to claim to have without having it. In 1919, influenza killed about 17million people across Europe. Yes, killed. If a hot drink of lemon and crushed paracetemol could fix it, it probably wouldn’t have been so devastating. What you have sunshine, is a cold. Yes a cold. Colds are horrible, but they’re not ‘flu. What you’re talking about is a different condition. The idea that anyone would get ‘flu on a regular basis is a marketing gimmick dreamed up by the lemon drink people. What next? Chocolate for the cancerous? Crisps for Ebola?
I had a cold once. I said I had a cold. ‘Do you mean man-flu?’ I was asked. Well, no, as I’ve come to work, got on with things quietly and kept out of everyone’s way so they don’t catch it, no, I don’t have man-flu. I am allowed to be ill, you know, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, and it doesn’t give you permission to call me a wimp. I don’t think that’s what the sexual revolution was about.
The prefix ‘man’ has taken on a life of its own. Anorexia used to be a good, straightforward, deadly psychiatric illness. Now papers are routinely referring to ‘manoraxia’ just to give it that presumably necessary twinge of disparity. I’m sure that’s exactly what anorexic men need. I read an article about David Cameron on holiday, wearing shorts and therefore showing his ‘mankles’. Now I know there are differences between the sexes, but I wouldn’t look to the joint between foot and shin to make a first decision.
I know women have had the rough end of gendered language over the years, but can we agree to stop all of it? Can we they to remember that we’re people before we divvy ourselves up?