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Words have meanings: hysteria

Blog of the week: Screaming in All Caps

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Words Have Meanings is a recurring feature that examines how certain terms and phrases are commonly used in incorrect, problematic and/or sexist ways.

 

A couple of weeks ago, Time ran an essay titled, It's Time to End 'Rape Culture' Hysteria (scare quotes not mine).

The article is a boob punch on an enormous scale.

Here's the closing paragraph (spoiler alert) so you can get the gist:

"Moral panic over rape culture helps no one," writes Caroline Kitchens, "least of all, survivors of sexual assault. College leaders, women's groups and the White House have a choice. They can side with the thought police of the feminist blogosphere who are declaring war on Robin Thicke, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, male statues and Barbie." (Hey, I've declared war on almost all those things! I AM THE THOUGHT POLICE.) "Or they can listen to the sane council of RAINN." (RAINN, of course, being America's Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which disappointingly denounced the concept of rape culture.)

For my part, I believe rape culture is very, very real, and I've written about it a lot here. In fact, much to my despair, we have a whole section on this blog dedicated to rape culture.

While the article is a sweaty garbage party, I actually want to take a quick sec to unpack that headline. BECAUSE IT IS A DOOZY.

At the risk of sounding like a lazy valedictorian, the Oxford English Dictionary defines hysteria as "exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement."

Of course, working under that definition, all humans can become hysterical, but for a long time -- and we're talking thousands of years, here -- hysteria was believed to be the sole province of women. Derived from the Greek hystera (uterus), hysteria was a medical condition believed to be caused by a displaced uterus -- see the (absolutely f ing terrifying) wandering womb theory.

But just as vaginas don't have teeth -- oh you women, with your mysterious bodies! -- science has since proven that uteri don't run amok in our abdomens messing stuff up. And female hysteria is no longer accepted as a medical diagnosis.

And yet, the term "hysterical" is STILL routinely employed in sexist ways.

While its modern definition as written above reads as genderless, it's almost exclusively used to describe women in an effort to belittle them, to cut them mouthy bitches down to size. (As a woman, the number of times I've been told to "relax" or "chill" is rivaled only by the number of times I've been told to smile at bus stops.)

Veronica Mars star/noted sloth enthusiast Kristen Bell was recently told she "sounded hysterical" for wanting to protect her daughter from the paparazzi. The word choice was deliberate; her husband Dax was not, at any point, told he sounded hysterical.

See, men are rarely ever waved off as being hysterical -- no matter how red-faced, sweaty and unintelligible they become (I'm throwing some shade your way, Fox News pundits). No, they get to be described as passionate. Or fired up. Or angry. Or any other strong emotion women aren't afforded because our lady parts turn us into shrill harpies that can't possibly be taken seriously.

To that end, calling visceral outrage and frustration over a society that demonstrably condones sexual violence by accepting it as inevitable hysteria is not only incredibly dismissive, it's also troubling.

Considering that fewer than half of all rapes are reported -- and that survivors of sexual assault are already reticent about coming forward for fear they won't be believed -- can we, as a society, really afford to write off any more women as hysterical?

You need proof rape culture exists? Look no further than that headline.

 

SCREAMING IN ALL CAPS looks at popular culture through a feminist lens. We scream about things that piss us off. In all caps. You know, because women are shrill. Follow us at screaminginallcaps.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2014 A12

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