Why do most languages have something like a word that sounds like mama that means mother? Etymology, the study of the history of language and words, tells us part of the story, but biology tells us the other part. And we really can figure out why some things come to stand for other things, like a mmmmm sound for the one who birthed you and feeds your from her breast and for a while in a child’s life is indistinguishable from the child’s self. A pretty good article all about this can be found in the Atlantic.
We naturally make sounds before we can consciously shape the mouth, tongue and lips. Unclasping the lips from nursing and releasing a breath makes something akin to a ma or na sound. The mother reinforces the baby making that sound and the baby emulates her words and the positive experience. And wah lah we have a pretty damn near universal word recreates with every generation. Me beginning with the same sound as ma is not universal but is an Eurasian phenomenon.
This month I said I was working with iconic imagery that is associated with the essential or elemental feminine. Mama is one of the words that truly meets the criteria of iconic. Everyone has a mother. The woman, food, comfort, love, and a state of contentment are components of a preverbal association laid down in our earliest experience. In this way a mother, and as a universal experience, the mother truly stands for a concept in such a way such that it is more than simple representation, and that the icon embodies the concept.
The inverse is also true; we come to include the child’s response of naming Mama as part of this essential and symbolic element of this primordial relationship. Messing with icons breaks all cultural rules. This is also why creepy dolls who say, “Mama” are the subject of horror stories.
I offer this A to Z entry up as a roll out for Mother’s Day posts.
For most of history, anonymous was a woman.
It seems fitting to start out a month of 26 posts, from A to Z, and centered on the topic of The Iconic Feminine with a look at feminine anonymity. This exercise is prompted by the annual April A to Z Blogging Challenge which gives me a chance to flesh out a topic that I might otherwise skitter around but which is a significant part of understanding the legacy of women.
The language of gender is the language with which we define femininity. Being male or female, a condition of sexuality, has very little to do with femininity. Sex is a biological state. Gender is a cultural construction.
I will not belabor the distinction in the three types of signs defined in contemporary linguistic and semiotic understanding, but icons are but one type of a sign. Other aspects of signs delve far deeper into qualities, actualities, and potentialities in representation.
- Icons physically resemble what they stand for.
- Indexes, or indices, point to what what they stand for.
- Symbols logically stand for something because of a rule or norm.
So this entire month of discussion of the topic of femininity is problematic because of sloppy linguistic use of personal, political or religious concepts in contemporary culture.
Femininity is often used as a symbol even though it is called an icon. Feminine qualities described as “traditional” have no relation to the physical traits. Items that point to behavioral attributes considered feminine are indexical and not iconic.
We need to understand how we construct meaning before we attempt to purposively change definitions or assign proscriptive meanings.
All this may fly right past people’s radar screens, but when small groups of people explicitly try to redefine basic elements of culture linguistically, this needs to be called out as an attempt to impose one groups beliefs one everyone. Attempts to control language are quite Orwellian.
What Virginia Woolf was saying was that women’s words have been stripped of all signs of being spoken by a woman. But there is hope, in the last century the iconic elements of women’s words have regained the richness of context through connected image and sound.
Please follow along as we look at iconic feminine images, memes, and more, through time and around the world beginning April 1st, no fooling.
This time of year makes me think of gifts and what women are giving to the next generation.
This year, 2017, has been an extremely tumultuous time. To use a kitchen and baking metaphor our cultural batter is being is being whipped up, over-beaten, into a flat mess that may have a difficult time rising to the occasion.
I like to incorporate “homey” historic language into writing about current descriptions of our lives and culture because collective memory is built from language. Our society is attempting to cope with a degree of change and an influx of information that is unheralded in human history. In times such as these, in unstable times, we humans have a tendency to cling to what is familiar. So if baking analogies seem quaint, please bear with me, I do it to draw our complex, heavily compartmentalized, split into silos information culture back to a common ground.
And such plain language is neither cornball or quaint. It reflects a far better nature behind word choice than using violent words of war and turns of phrase such as
- attack a problem
- declare a victory
- wage a war
- collateral damage
- target a competitor
So much of what we see and feel around us these days can seem alien. We can shift away from alienation through our words. Women are great communicators and we can draw out the commonality, the uniting threads of all that is transpiring around us. Inclusive language need not seem like a lecture from a women’s studies course, inclusive language can come from slowing down, simplifying, and reframing the what of which we speak through the how of the words with we choose to use.
Some of the best gifts we can give our children cannot be boxed and wrapped. The stories of strong women can be framed with anecdotes from our own family and history.
Language is powerful. Language constructs and supports power. I will leave the interpretation up to you, but Merriam Webster has announced that the word of the year for 2017 is feminism.
One of the strongest messages I intend to personally construct and convey in the next couple of years is how close we are in time to the period when women lacked the right to vote. My mother was born before the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified. . I am one generation away from political exclusion. My mom was a small girl when women were granted suffrage. I hope to make sure my daughter, step-daughter, and grand daughters all understand how that moment in history relates personally to my life and to their family history.
What do you want to make sure others know about women from your personal history?
More In-depth Reading on these Ideas
- Military Terminology and the English Language
- Reframing Feminism
- Word choice: Hidden meanings can influence our judgment
I absolutely loved the Semiotic, Non-verbal Communication, and Linguistic Anthropology courses I took as an Undergraduate and Graduate Student with Myrdene Anderson and the late, great O. Micheal Watson. This summer, after I found out O. Michael was in hospice due to esophageal cancer, I tried to compose a very short note to send to him, and I did. I did compose it. It said, “Hi Mike, I just want to say hello, and thank you for all you taught me. Everything I ever write or do professionally is and will be influenced by your work on paper, film, in the classroom, and by the conversations we had through the decades.” He passed away before I got it to him. Strike while the iron is hot. I know that and I continue to learn painful lessons that bring adages to life.
I learned so many complexities from Mike; healthy irreverence, skepticism, laughter, and turning things on their heads can only happen in an enlightening or illustrative manner after lots and lots of reading, research, more reading, critical observation, analysis and discussion. Comedy takes talent, jest takes training. “Meme-ing” takes resonance with an iconic cultural element.
The cultural icon called up by the gaffs made by Romney is the impersonal, unconnected, and cruel boss. Mitt Romney is Ebenezer Scrooge without the visits of the reflective and instructive Ghosts.Beyond that basic semiotic truth we can deconstruct meaning unintentionally, we presume, carried by word choice. The language we use contains “libraries stuffed with binders full of personal information” about us. So today I am looking at several of Mitt’s phrases turned meme.
Binder Full of Women
Romney: “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks,” and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
In fact, Romney did not direct women’s groups to bring him female candidates, Boston Phoenix reporter David Bernstein points out. A non-partisan collaboration of women’s groups called Massachusetts Government Appointments Project (MassGAP) was responsible for the effort in 2002, when the group’s leaders realized that women held only 30 percent of the top appointed positions in the state. From: HuffPo
The hub bub over the last day about binders has taken on a life of its own. But what Romney said is significant, not only because he did not go out in search of women to put in high positions, though he takes credit for it, but that this sort of expanded ego blurs the distinction between what happens around him and the actions for which he is actually responsible. In a world where all your needs are met, and religious practice and privilege has sent you to France rather than Vietnam, you have never had to worry about money, and your Church tells you that you are better than others and in fact have risen to a church leadership position where he could excommunicate people and make decisions that could not be questioned. It is easy to see how you could come to expect deferential treatment and see situations involving others in the abstract, The “women in binders” literally betrays the fact that Romney sees people as numbers, as statistics. This is probably related to what has been termed, “entitled Mormon male syndrome.”
If you take nothing else from this post, watch this video that discusses lots of issues that those folks who have not lived among Mormons might have. Thought there wasn’t time to discuss it, The White Horse Prophecy is also worth knowing about. Media certainly gave huge amounts of coverage to wacko theories about Obama, yet fails to discuss real questions that people would have if they knew about Mormonism and what many believe to be Romney’s motive for wanting to be President. If Obama had to show his birth certificate, I would certainly like to hear Romney answer the question as to whether he feels he would be fulfilling prophecy, if not doctrine – which White Horse is not, as a President.
Kill Big Bird
Romney: ““I’m sorry, Jim—I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to—I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it. That’s No. 1.”
Again, Romney is showing that he believes that as an upper class male, socio-economically and religiously (that he is entitled to make decisions for everyone else. He doesn’t say, “I do not think it would be prudent for the U.S. to continue general educational programming on television.” He says, “I’m not going to keep on spending money…” That, to me, seems to be a very dangerous attitude. It is grandiose and perhaps narcissistic. The country’s money would not be his to spend, when and if he should he become President, as this statement seems to reflect.
He is a man who had the authority over, as the stake president, over and advised an LDS member woman, who happened to be his children’s nanny, and who was not married, that if she did not give her child up for adoption, that he would excommunicate her. He would have no problem axing Big Bird.
47 Per Cent
Romney: “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
Again, he is seeing people as statistics, and his generalizations do not fit with the facts. But he tells his backers what they want to hear.
Mitt Romney was wrong when he said the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income taxes are “dependent on the government.” Most of them are working people who simply do not earn very much money.
I Like to Fire People
Romney: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to get someone else to provide this service to me.’”
That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? He enjoys his power. “The good service I need” is quite distinct from “good service.” Again it is all about what is going on in his head.
His phraseology exposes a gigantic, ego-centered world where he is inherently correct. Such an ego would be extraordinarily dangerous in as President of the United States.
When something goes viral, it does so for a reason. The deep cultural reason will probably not be evident to the people engaged in replication of the meme, but thankfully there is an intelligence that resides below conscious level and above the level of the individual. It may be a perverse sort of serendipity that Romney’s foot in mouth and the memes it engenders, while it does not show any semiotic savvy on his part, does give us another chance to examine the man, the mind, the ego – Mitt Romney.