November 08, 2009

Storm in a T-Cup & The Language of Experience

PENELOPE TRUNK CAUSED A tremendous controversy when she Tweeted about her miscarriage (and the fact that she was glad she didn’t have to wait for an abortion, which is difficult to get in her part of the USA). I found the controversy ridiculous on many levels – after all, many people share personal information online as a way of life and this was no different, and the criticism of pro-choice women as lacking compassion is simply unconvincing – and I am glad that Trunk has written this brilliant rebuttal in The Guardian.

One phrase from her rebuttal is particularly striking: I believe that the history of women can be seen, in some ways, as a history of language. Language, of course, is more than just words – it’s phrasing, intonation and intent as well as vocabulary. The uproar over Trunk’s tweet went well beyond shock that she had reacted with relief to the miscarriage – it was really more about the fact that she had trespassed some code of conduct by which women are expected to speak, or keep silent about, certain things. And even the way we’re expected to feel those things.

What the controversy throws light on is how in spite of many taboos about speaking about personal experience becoming obsolete, how they are discussed can still scandalize and shame the speaker/writer. If Trunk had tweeted, for instance, that she was devastated, or returned after a few tweetless days and sadly and diffidently “confessed” that the miscarriage had put her out of action, it’s almost impossible that such a storm would have brewed. The problem was honesty about an experience, outside the fray of acceptable understandings and acceptable retellings of such experiences.

Nobody is above bias, and we both judge and are judged. I considered what this means in my own life. On the one hand, what this means is that (with big thanks to Eve Ensler) I can say “vagina”, and not have anyone bat an eyelid, but if I say “cunt”, my own preferred word in both conversation and writing, I get nothing but disgusted looks – instantly, my upbringing, intelligence and feminism are questionable. It means that if I ask that someone dismiss my cattiness as PMS, it’s okay, but if I write a poem about how I love the experience of menstruation (as I did some years ago, to horrified reactions), something’s wrong. On the other hand, however, if someone uses the phrase, “that female” to refer to a woman or girl, my hackles get raised, indifferent to the fact that in India, the usage is not derogatory. Similarly, I am sanctimonious about people who define sex in heteronormative or phallocentric terms, in spite of knowing that they may have never been exposed to alternate paradigms of thought.

What about you? How are you limited – whether by your own expectations or by others’ – by the notion of singular ways to experience or express certain things? How does it affect your experiences as, or viewpoints towards, women?

Of relevance is Chimamanda Adichie’s speech about “the dangers of the single story”, which you can watch here.

11 comments to Storm in a T-Cup & The Language of Experience

  • […] Ultra Violet » Storm in a T-Cup & The Language of Experience. […]

  • Pickles

    “people who define sex in heteronormative or phallocentric terms” – i don’t understand what this means. what other ways are there to define it?

    otherwise, very interesting article

  • Love this post. I wish I spent more time discussing language like this. You make me love the blogosphere today 🙂
    Your examples of socially limiting language are great – each made me think of how I subconsciously limit myself.


  • Desi Girl

    @Pickles. I believe she means when sexual relations between humans is defined only in terms of sex between a man and a woman and/or a man’s point of view. So something that should be widely defined (i.e. sex) becomes a narrow construct.

    The problem with such narrow definitions is that it excludes the points of view of the lesbians, the gays, the people who like sex with beasts, and other such anomalies.

    So even your question “What other ways are there to define it?” reveals that you can only imagine sex in one possible configuration. When in truth there are millions of configurations.

    Thus, instead of saying “I would like to masturbate my penis” one should use more universal less-loaded language – such as “I would like to masturbate my genital region/or I would like to masturbate my vagina”.

    Or to combat the bias towards heterosexuality in language: instead of saying “I would like to sleep with her” one could say, “I would like to sleep with it.” The second statement is less contentious and more gender neutral.

    I hope I’ve helped clear this up for you Pickles! Language usage is very much an indicator of power-relations in a society. One can help in little ways to change unequal power relations by adopting speech like I have suggested above.

  • @Pickles — To put it simply, how many acts would you consider “sex”, and how many would you consider “foreplay” or “sexual acts” but not “real sex”? The most narrow definition is that sex is intercourse involving penile penetration of the vagina. But this discounts the sexual behaviours of many people — and not just gay people, but also those of any orientation who prefer other acts over intercourse for reasons of disability, illness or personal liking. For example, someone who can get off on manual stimulation but not intercourse, or a person paralysed below the waist who performs oral sex on their partner but does not receive (why I said phallocentric — does sex always have to involve a penis? Think about it). It shouldn’t be up to anyone else to judge how a person’s or couple’s experience of sexuality and pleasure is not “real” or “complete”.

    @Penelope — Thank you so much! I am glad you enjoyed the post, and just as glad you found it — you should know how much support you have! 🙂

    @Desi Girl — No, I have explained above concisely what I mean.

  • Pickles

    @Sharanya – Thank you, for that explanation. It makes it a bit clearer for me.

    @Desi Girl – Thank you also for trying to clear it up for me.

  • Desi Girl

    @Sharanya Perhaps…perhaps…but you must admit that your usage of these terms is atypical, and that you don’t situate them in a context where their meanings might be more easily and accurately extracted.

    To use the terms heteronormative or phallocentric with regards to sex is most widely understood to mean, the defining of sexual relations from a male and/or heterosexual standpoint. Your, rather idiosyncratic, take on the matter is to focus on the mechanics of the deed and not the narrative through which that deed is understood.

    To put it plainly, a heteronormative take on sex would be to define it exclusively in terms of sexual relations between a man and a woman. This, unfairly, excludes the gays, the lesbians, sex with beasts, and other abnormal forms of sex.

    Now, if I understand you correctly, and I think I do, a heteronormative take on sexual acts would be to accord primacy to, say, the act of a penis penetrating the vagina.

    What about other sexual acts?, the anti-heteronormative under your definition, asks. What about folks who get off, admittedly absurd, penetrating newspapers with their penises or inserting noses into their vaginas.

    The issue is surely about the narrative and not mechanics.

    Btw. Lacan would love this discussion.

  • Desi Girl — Why do you and Pickles have the exact same email and IP addresses? Those details are visible to the authors of this blog, you know. If you’re looking for some trolling fun, please look elsewhere.

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    Your line about PMS and cattiness jumped out at me because I wrote a post about it just yesterday. Will put it up here soon. 🙂
    Semantics that annoy me are the “wearing bangles” remark, usually flung in Hindi/Gujarati, to indicate femininity and hence weakness. And the “She talks too much” comment, even if said fondly, because apparently woman must zip it. My first (and probably only) concern about Penelope Trunk’s miscarriage was for her physical condition, because for a moment I believed it was happening in the board room during the meeting and wondered why she wasn’t seeking medical intervention. I can anticipate (though not entirely understand) pro-lifers going ballistic about an abortion, but a furore over someone’s feelings about their own bodily experience is ridiculous. I’m glad that instead of toeing the line, women have begun to erase it. More power to our feet and voices.

  • re-sister

    Great post. love this blog. First, that was funny with pickles and desi girl. Do trolls really do that? hilarious.

    Secondly, to answer your question on how language my experience or expression… I find that my experiences and my capacity to speak about them with words(since I am much more comfortable with intellectual and rational discourse than more creative, word-less expressive modes) are completely inter-related. If I have no words, I seem to erase and render invisible the experience and to others. And it becomes a struggle to even reclaim the memory.

    Let me explain.

    I grew up in India, and although I learnt and developed my politics and values through many avenues, after a certain age, I primarily engaged with ideas through English. That too, a narrow, coloniser’s euro-centric English as well as a method of understanding things. This has resulted in me unable to articulate even to myself parts of the my experiences growing up and how they have shaped my identity and politics.

    Again, moving to the North American continent as a young adult, and slowly becoming racialized here has been an experience which I do not yet fully comprehend, largely because I cannot find the words to describe it. In fact, if I hadn’t discovered Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks and other black writers, I would not have even the minimal understanding and vocabulary to make sense of my life here.

  • Anindita

    Nice post, Shar. Yes, the hushed tones around menstruation, abortion and motherhood annoy me terribly. Why should people expect these feelings / experiences to be the same for all women? I’m glad more women are talking about it elsewhere. In India, we’re quite a way off though, no? We can’t even talk about some of these things in public, let alone choose how we want to talk about them.

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