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A Tale of Two Sexisms

“Progress ahoy!” I exclaimed when I came across some Spanish speaking media reporting of The Manual for the Non-sexist Use of Language recently distributed to government offices across Mexico. The manual seeks to reduce comments that enforce gender stereotypes, as well as the default use of the masculine form in the Spanish language. This pervasive use of masculine in Spanish permeates our entire culture. So, I celebrated the small victory, especially because a body devoted specifically to gender matters, the National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence Against Women, wrote it.

Laura Carrera Lugo, the head of the Commission spoke at a press conference during the presentation and said (Spanish text, translation mine) “There are times when we need to exaggerate certain matters until we reach a middle ground; right now it is important to address how we change people’s minds”.

The manual is meant as “a tool to familiarize federal public workers with the use of non-sexist strategies in the Spanish language”. It discourages the use of phrases such as: “If you want to work, why did you have children,” and: “You are prettier when you keep quiet”.

It also advises against referring to women as possessions, in commonly used phrases such as “Pedro’s woman” or another usual form of referring to one’s wife as “my old woman” (I could probably write a book about the many instances my Argentinean grandfather used that one). So, I thought, you know, a step in the right direction.

Then I came across English language (American, to be more specific) media reporting on it, and this is what I found, courtesy of New York Daily News:

That Mexican civil servants even need such a guide speaks volumes about the dire situation of women in a socially conservative country that has been racked by a raging drug war.

Which is funny (not HA HA funny, but more WTF Funny) considering a moment earlier, I had just read a review of Tameron Keyes’ memoir of her days working in Wall Street at Forbes (yes, the Wall Street located at the same New York City that the New York Daily News reports about):

Keyes’ story is hard to read at times; a fact which makes you wonder what it was like to actually live with unrelenting prejudice described. A case in point, as Keyes is walking down the hallway one day, a male colleague calls out aggressively in front of a number of other workers, “Hey Tameron, I could f*** you so hard you’d have to hold your guts in with a 2 by 4.”

And then I became pretty upset because this othering transparently executed by New York Daily News of the specific Mexican situation is not just racism disguised as inane cultural commentary. It’s more than that because through this othering, this alienation, it also hurts American women by implying that it’s the Mexicans that have a problem and American women do not have to deal with the same kind of noxious, damaging culture. By placing the problem within the confines of another country’s borders, media does not need to address the very similar circumstances that affect people in their own local environments.

Do I believe a manual will solve the many cultural problems affecting women in Mexico? Not by a long shot. But I also believe that by addressing the use of language, at least there is an attempt to bring these issues to the surface, putting them in the public’s minds. Which is certainly more than I can say about the way most mainstream media reports on the pervasive sexism and misogyny that affect women everywhere.


  1. Melodie wrote:

    Yeah, it pisses me off sometimes to read “progressive” papers take things out of context and pretend like America has it all figured out and typecasting other countries as backwards and third-world. Rather than praising the effort, they make fun of it… to sell papers. Bc that is a statement I would expect to read in US or People magazine, dumb, dumb, dumb

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  2. alanna wrote:

    …I am still trying to figure out how you hold your guts in with a two-by-four. Just… what?

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  3. Diana wrote:

    Ooh, trying to peg down Mexicans as a backwards, sexist, nasty group of people… that is just great.

    I’ve heard a lot of “calladita se ve mas bonita” in my days, but one thing I can say about Latin-America that I can’t say about the U.S. is that they GET the sexism they live by. Even if they don’t oppose it, they know it – they don’t dedicate themselves to denying it like we do here.

    The word “femicide” if I recall correctly, was coined by a white woman but it didn’t catch on quickly because people were like, “…isn’t that just murder?” It’s all over Latin-America though since the word struck a chord with everyone. They know what’s up.

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  4. Sally wrote:

    Having grown up on the border and now living in the Midwest, I can tell you that sexist language is pervasive in both areas and it’s surprisingly similar, though there is a different tone. As one commenter notes, Spanish-speakers have a different understanding of what they are saying while Americans just like to pretend we’re past all of that. That said, it’s also very similar. I’ve been told I don’t have a sense of humor in both Spanish and English, in America and Mexico, when I point out sexist language.

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  5. Diana, what you say is very true. I actually learned the word femicide in Spanish (femicidio) a good 8 years or so ago, way before it entered any kind of mainstream feminist discourse in English.

    I believe it was the women who were already working on the Ciudad Juarez cases who started using it regularly and writing about it. I believe that it does come from English language, but the Mexican women started to use it in a more pervasive manner.

    Still today, as I type this comment, the word is not recognized by spell checkers and I am suggested to change it to “feminine” instead.

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  6. fannie wrote:

    American liberal and “progressive” misogynists love pointing out misogynistic Other men are and Other cultures are. I think they think importing Girls Gone Wild! into Backwards Conservative Cultures(tm) would be a big feminist success story.

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  7. Magular wrote:

    This reminds me of A) The recent Bill Maher episode where he argued with Tavis Smiley about Western women’s rights vs. “the Other” (Muslim) women’s rights.

    And B) when people in the Northern part of the United States make comments about Southern racism. How it distances themselves from the problem.

    Great article!

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Kate wrote:

    This reminds me so much of conversations with my mother who is always so quick to point out how all brown people everywhere just HATE “their women” while in the same breath telling me not to eat that cookie because I’ll look like a cow and that maybe I should go running instead. Right, Mom.
    The points that Diana and Sally make, that both cultures are rife with sexism but one acknowledges it and the other pretends it doesn’t exist are well-taken, and something I’m sure many of us are all-too familiar with.
    Awesome first post. I’m looking to forward to reading your future contributions!

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  9. Catherine wrote:

    It’s hard to believe that any currently-working journalist has never seen one of the many guides to non-sexist English usage. A quick Amazon search turns up about ten of them, all published during the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t see them as often now as I used to because some of the ideas have become more mainstream usage, but in the 90s it seemed like everyone who wrote professionally had one lying around.

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  10. Winnow wrote:

    “There are times when we need to exaggerate certain matters until we reach a middle ground…”

    This is my new favourite quote. (although I’m pretty sure what I love about it isn’t exactly what she meant, but still)

    “Progress ahoy” indeed! I think this is a fantastic initiative. Rooting out the covert and overt sexism from language is an essential step in addressing entrenched patriarchal attitudes. I swear, if american (& canadian) culture would just acknowledge that there is a problem (i.e. sexism) just for one day, I could die happy. Fuck you NY Daily News.

    Also, as an armchair linguiphile, I’m off to find a guide to non-sexist English usage to go next to my Fowler’s! Woohoo!

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink
  11. Winnow wrote:


    That’s embarrassing.

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  12. Sally wrote:

    Regarding the word femicide, I think Diana Washington Valdez did a lot to promote that word in her initial reporting on Ciudad Juarez and the murder of women. Her book The Killing Fields, if a little choppy, is a great perspective on this and she does talk some about why she chooses that word. It’s also important to recognize that the border region is hugely bilingual with English words flowing into Spanish and vice/versa so it would make perfect sense to use an English suffix that perfectly captures the focused killing of a particular group of people if it’s less effective in Spanish.

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  13. Sally, actually the word femicide makes a lot of sense in Spanish as well.

    Feminine in Spanish is “femenino” and homicide is “homicidio”, so pretty much like in English when you put the two together you get femicide/ femicidio.

    Friday, March 25, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  14. Gnatalby wrote:

    Great inaugural post! Looking forward to reading more!

    Whenever I see those types of stories– for me it’s usually to do with patriarchal middle eastern cultures (as opposed to our american lady paradise obvi)– I want to apply the principle think globally, act locally.

    Once you’ve sorted out the sexism in your own culture you can feel free to move on to other people. But as long as things are still terrible for women in America it’s time to stop acting like brown people are savages who don’t know how to not be brutish to women.

    Saturday, March 26, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink
  15. copcher wrote:

    Great article. I think the idea that some people don’t need training in being less sexist/racist/homophobic/classist/ablist/oppressive in some other way (because they already get it) is what prevents a lot of people from actually becoming less sexist/racist/homophobic/classist/ablist/oppressive.

    Saturday, March 26, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Permalink
  16. Miss_Moss wrote:

    Flavia, thanks for posting this. I found a copy of the actual manual via this website: My husband is intermediate-level in learning Spanish, and he will be very interested. (I’m hoping to learn it, too, after I retire and can give it the attention it deserves.)

    Sunday, March 27, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  17. aravind wrote:

    Oh man, what Gnatalby said times a thousand. These stories seem to be a dime a dozen, with stocks for just about any culture whose members are predominantly people of color. Us Americans are definitely not beyond the whole “black men will take our women” argument.

    I think the most recent one before this was the reporting on Lara Logan which seemed to just turn into a giant pageant of differing scapegoats (main contenders – women and Middle Easterners)

    Sunday, March 27, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Permalink
  18. a.b. wrote:

    Even if a user of sexist language in the US understands that sexism still exists here, they will rationalize that if other women (of other nations) have it worse, then we should stop complaining. And the assumption that they do have it worse, may just be a defense mechanism for their own prejudice? What a big lump of awful.

    Signing off, from my post-feminist one-woman bunker a mile beneath the earth’s crust. Oh wait, I have internalized misogyny in here with me. Nope, there is no place that is post-feminist yet.


    Monday, March 28, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  19. Rebecca wrote:

    Thanks for this post–I came to your blog after reading your fantastic piece about Sucker Punch in the Atlantic. Your writing is great.

    Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  20. Sady wrote:

    @Rebecca: Thanks! But this is by Flavia, and the Sucker Punch article was by me, Sady.

    Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  21. This is fantastic, Flavia.

    My Trans Studies class last night was having a discussion about rights discourses, and how legislation can actually hurt instead of help because people can point to it and say, “Look, you people already have rights, quit whining!”

    The self-congratulatory attitude in the Daily News strikes me as exactly the same thing. The “look how equal and perfect America is (compared to that backwards Mexico)” is hugely racist, obviously, but it also builds on a long history of people, particularly MRAs, pointing to America’s legislation in order to shut women up. “I mean, god, you guys can already wear pants and vote and shit, what more do you want?”

    Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink