In recent decades we, as a society, have made progress in removing many of the vestiges of sexist behavior and thought from our society. For many of us it’s not enough progress, to be certain, just as for those groups that decry “political correctness” and “cancel culture” we’ve gone too far. Yet, it is progress. We have increasingly made it clear that many forms of verbal and physical violence that once were ignored, and too often approved of, will no longer be automatically tolerated. Those who use their position or status to intimidate or belittle or assault others will not always be exonerated in the ways they were in the past. The amount of social privilege held and misused by individuals based on their group membership is also being challenged and, in many cases, reduced. Again, this is not always true, nor nearly often enough, and we should continue to create change. Yet, we have seen progress.
There is forward movement on the level of sociocultural imagery as well, for example, in the scenes portrayed in advertising and in our assumptions about gender roles. We have commercials on television in which husbands do the dishes and change diapers and otherwise act like responsible parents. The work balance at home still needs to be improved, and there have recently been pandemic-related set-backs in which far more women than men left their jobs to provide childcare. Access to women’s health care has also been significantly curtailed, but our cultural reality has not yet been turned back entirely to what it was before the 1970s. Despite significant backlash, we have seen progress.
There is, however, one element of language in which we don’t seem to have progressed at all. It may be a seemingly small item, but one that looms large against the progress we have made. It is in the use of one set of phrases that seems to be as popular as it has ever been, a retrograde sexist usage that nobody seems to be concerned about, one that may be every bit as common among woke young progressives as it is among patriarchal conservatives. As one example, this month I was listening to a discussion on a National Public Radio program in which a female commentator was interviewing Scotland’s First Minister, a woman named Nicola Sturgeon. The question came up, as it always seems to in interviews of successful female legislators, about whether Sturgeon had attained her position by mimicking the actions and attitudes of her colleagues. That is, did she behave like a typical alpha male? We can briefly note, under the rubric of lack of progress, that there are concerns regarding why only women are asked such questions. More on that, perhaps, in another post. In this interview Sturgeon replied that, at first, “Unconsciously and unknowingly I started to behave in a way that was about conforming and fitting in with the people that I was surrounded by.” That is, she continued, she acted in ways that were “adversarial and aggressive.” As a result, she was considered “bossy and strident” and given the nickname “nippy sweetie,” a phrase that implied that her behavior was anti-social and that simultaneously belittled her as a person.
Such reactions from her make colleagues could have been expected. Sexism is still the norm. However, what surprised me in this interview was the way the NPR representative worded the question. She asked, directly, if Sturgeon had acted “ballsy.” The First Minister replied that her behavior had not often been referred to as ballsy, but instead had received the Scottish label “nippy,” which is somewhat similar, but negative in tone (i.e., adversarial and aggressive). Now, NPR is not exactly the most progressive or woke outlet in the media universe, but they have made efforts to limit sexist content, and their overall careful socially centrist approach has earned them the label “liberal media” even though they as often skew conservative in their programming. Somehow the term “ballsy” had slipped through into a discussion between two women on this relatively aware radio outlet. Are they maybe not aware enough?
The lesson is that even mindful individuals, even those who are generally regarded as feminist or feminist-leaning, including liberal comedians and politicians and other public figures, often use such cliches as “he lacks the balls to do that” or, ignoring the obvious physical contradictions, “she really showed some balls this time.” In some ways this is similar to a common rebuke used to encourage an indecisive or hesitant individual, advising them to “put on their big boy pants.” Like “ballsy,” this odd phrase is also often incongruously used in reference to women. I presume it means to act like an adult. The implication, though, is that only “big boys” are true adults. Perhaps big boy pants come with a pair of balls? That would be a logical interpretation.
Of course, in literal terms only men can have balls. The use of phrases such as “he lacks the balls,” however, goes beyond any literal reality. It implies that even though all men literally have balls, only “real men” really have them. Other men, along with women and anyone else deemed inferior, are advised to “grow a pair.” It is, therefore, the ultimate in gender stereotyping, the direct identification of specific positive behaviors with male anatomy. The only way that someone can satisfy such behavioral demands is, literally, to become a male. And these are behaviors that are regarded as valuable and desirable. So what about the female body? Men who fail to display ballsy behavior, those who are not forceful and domineering enough, have often been referred to as “pussies.” That demeaning reference has somewhat fallen out of favor in recent decades, thanks in large part to the spread of feminist thought, but it is still in use. Which means, again, we have made progress, but it is still incomplete.
Now, to answer one obvious objection, I fully recognize that the whole “balls” thing is a metaphor. It is, in that sense, indirect sexism. It is possible that those who use the related cliches aren’t even thinking about the literal, physical reference. Even so, this is a metaphor that celebrates traditional masculine roles and behaviors, the overconfident, pushy, domineering, mansplaining type of masculinity. In many ways it celebrates what has become correctly identified as toxic masculinity; it is “ballsy” to take charge and to move forward without subtlety, to disregard the feelings and opinions of others. It is even “ballsy” to do stupid and destructive things, and somehow the use of this terminology manages to put a positive spin on those activities, too, even if the consequences are, and could have been predicted to be, mostly negative and anti-social. It is why some truck owners hang an oversized metal bull scrotum from their trailer hitch. Examples of crazy “ballsy” behavior are ubiquitous in click bait videos on social media. If an activity demonstrates that the person “has balls,” it implies that that is a good thing, no matter how dangerous or anti-social the behavior is.
This may sound to some like a minor problem. This is, after all, only one word among thousands, representing one set of sexist assumptions among the many that we’ve been changing. But in its ubiquity and casual acceptance, “balls” is a clear demonstration of social intersectionality and the ways in which sexism manifests itself in sometimes unrecognized subtle interactions. Not that the use of “balls” itself is all that subtle, but it represents a much broader body of social dynamics, the corrosive hidden assumptions under the visible surface. It stands as an icon of how far we still have to go in countering the sexism within everyday life. We need to identify such items and replace them with more positive cliches to express the types of behavior we want people to emulate … and to apply them with more care.