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The Power of Words (The Handmaid’s Tale)

Last night’s airing of the season 2 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, entitled The Word, has naturally brought forth plenty of rich discussion. But an offhand comment by a poster in a discussion group I belong to opened up an issue I hadn’t really thought about.

How do we refer to women in conversation?

One poster opened up a can of worms when, during a discussion of the Gilead government’s opposition to teaching females (and, indeed, all their children) to read, she said this:

“They don’t want females reading in general.” 

On the face of it, that’s a confirmed truth in the fictional world of Gilead. Then one of the group’s admins replied,

“Please don’t call human women and girls ‘females.'”

The original poster didn’t see the problem with it, and she immediately posted a standard dictionary definition for the word “female.”

So let’s unpack this.

Words mean things, sure. But words aren’t always what they seem to be on their face. As we humans make use of language, our words are prone to acquiring layers of connotation.

One of the things that cults (such as The Sons of Jacob in The Handmaid’s Tale) consistently do is to redefine words so that they have coded meanings that are only recognized by their people on the inside. This is referred to in the cult studies mileu as loading the language.

commanders handmaids tale

(Photo: MGM Television)

Now, it’s not just people in religious or secular ideological cults that do that. This happens with cults of personality too. And it happens on broader levels in society too. Just the fact that English (and other languages too) contain idioms and that there’s an urban dictionary online testifies to this fact.

We can gut-check ourselves about the language we use. That gut-checking includes questions such as these:

  • Are we using language to humanize or dehumanize?
  • Are we using language to empower or disempower?
  • Are we using language to “associate” or “disassociate”? 
  • Are we using language to imprison people’s minds, or to set them free?

These questions have deep implications for how we view every issue in life. The seeds of Gilead are in us–right at this very moment.

The admin in the group where this happened posted a link that I hadn’t seen before, one that explains from a certain perspective why it’s problematic to call women “females.”

“This is why context matters. Because experience has taught many of us that the type of person (men and women) who regularly refers to men as ‘men’ and women as ‘females’ is often the type of person who also has some pretty backward beliefs about women. The word ‘female’ strips a woman of her humanity, reducing her to her sexual parts, and people who use “female” tend to view women through that lens…

It’s basically a polite way of saying ‘bitches.’ And not in an ironic sense, but in a ‘bitches ain’t shit but hos and tricks’ sense.”

I spent some time in a Bible-based cult from 1989-1994, so I had, once upon a time, a vested interest in learning how language is used to manipulate thoughts. During my cult recovery period, Noam Chomsky‘s work about manufacturing consent was a real eye-opener for me. I found that those concepts applied to religious economy as well as to political economy.

Something I learned during my cult recovery period is that if you can’t agree with people about what words mean, you can never come to any sort of agreement with them. So while starting with a dictionary definition is always appropriate, it’s also wise to go further and think critically about the connotations attached to words.

“Female,” to me, has a connotation that can be pretty clinical and dehumanizing. If you’re working in a biology lab it might be contextually appropriate to refer to a “female,” but even in that context it’s problematic.

(Photo: Pascal Goetgheluck/Science Source)

(Photo: Pascal Goetgheluck/Science Source)

Here’s the thing: “Distancing language” detaches you from your subject so that your empathy doesn’t get triggered.

And humans without empathy tend to hurt other beings, human or not, because a small, subtle linguistic trick convinces those folks that harming the subject of the designation incurs no consequences; indeed, that using language to dehumanize, disempower, and disassociate us from what’s going on right in front of our noses has both financial and social benefits.


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