language

For Babies and Puppies — not Grown Ups

In an age where diversity is defined as relations between the races and women’s struggles are thought of being long over, I raise a hand in dispute. I constantly have to draw my own boundaries and define myself – not allowing others the permission to apply other words, particularly a word so ineffective as cuteness. The fact of the matter is, cute is not an innocent word.  Hold on, you’re saying. Hold on. I like cute things. Okay – let’s play this game, then. Describe the cute things you like.

Kittens you say. Kittens are cute. And puppies. I just adore puppies. Yes, I agree. Kittens, as well as puppies and babies are cute – adorable even.

But women are not. At least not those who want to be taken seriously.

Language, it is a powerful force; it is the ability to name and describe someone. Words are as central to our ability to communicate as humans and distinguish us from all other types of animals. When words like cute are applied to grown women or even little girls, they cease to be innocent. Name the last time a tall broad shoulder man, dressed in an Armani suit, silk tie, and was described as cute. A red carpet fashionistas would never describe Daniel Craig as adorable. We don’t use cute to describe serious male actors, or anything masculine because, rationale sputters, they aren’t cute. Right. Men aren’t cute – that’s reserved for small animals, children, and women.

It’s troubling that an adult human can fall into the same category as two other beings with little agency or self-sufficiency and in constant need of attention.  The essence of cuteness is that it defines our understanding of gender roles and how they function in our perceptions of ourselves and others. Cuteness will never allow a female student to achieve her full potential in a classroom or any other arena. After all, she has her achievement. She’s cute.

As a working woman from the age of twenty one, and holding a full time position while finishing a Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature, cute was perhaps one of the most dismissive words to reduce my work and me, to rubble. Being young often added to this dimension of being a non-adult; the entire first year of my doctoral program I constantly found older students asking me if I was starting my Masters or even worse, a first year student. Celebrate your youth, you say: you may wish you looked this young.

Cuteness doesn’t only function as a limiting gendered term. Cuteness also covers ethnocentrism and a failure to understand products and people of other cultures.  The politics of cuteness negotiates our reaction to things, people, and places that are outside our normal frame of reference.  Since the normal frame of reference is usually a Eurocentric model, this means cuteness defines those things that are non-western by infusing them with an inability to be taken seriously.

Being a woman of a stature that in most cultures is considered small, (I stand at 5” 1’) little often directly translates into belittle. During the course of office repartee, my forays are noted by other staff members as coming from, “the smallest person in the department,” changed my conception of cuteness. It was a category that continuously defined me, constantly changing to shadow my scholarly work, my professional profile. This was a not-so-subtle form of discrimination dodging my steps.

Maybe my sensitivity is derived from a lifetime of being near a 4’ 11” woman: my mother. I laughingly describe myself as the fat giant of the family – I tower over my mother and sister, neither weighing over 100 pounds. People’s reactions to my mother illustrate the inherent problems with this language.

“Mohana,” they say. There’s a glimmer in the eye. “Mohana, you’re mother is so little.”

This is often said in an almost whisper as if it’s a secret. I nod and try to smile, a plastic tightening of my lips. Then a triumphant, “I’m taller than her!” as if this is a considerable achievement rather than an accident of nature. Then, almost without fail, as if on cue from some invisible script: men, women, even teenagers.

“She’s so cute!”

It often bursts out, head shaking in amazement, as if it never occurred to people that a body that small could birth three children.

It was no secret my mother has felt the pressure of cuteness her whole life; it would boil over in every family fight we had.

“You’re not listening to me because I’m small!”

There the accusation would hang and at about eight, I sighed and gave up trying to explain that it in fact was not because she was small. It was because she was our mother. But for her, the cuteness that pervaded her life diminished her in the world’s eyes. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school and learned expressive words such as performativity and subjectivity that I understood what was happening to my mother – and why I resisted the word cute when it applied to me. As a result of her height, people ascribed cuteness to my mother, which resulted in a one dimensional construction of her identity both as a person and as a woman.  My mother’s understanding of herself and her status as person, her subjectivity, was informed by this primary idea that she was different from other people, and that her cuteness led to not being taken as seriously as others.

Yet while resenting it, she performs this identity of cuteness in her interactions with other people. She answers the phone in a shy girlish voice, whenever she laughs it’s really a tiny giggle but she covers her mouth, she lets my father dominate social situations even though she loves meeting new people.  Cuteness constructs and defines my mother’s understanding of who she is and who other people expect her to be.

We undermine the meaning of women, and strip the meaning from beings when we place non-descriptive and unempowering adjectives like ‘cute’ onto them. Other words that fit into this category include ‘sweet’, ‘nice’ and I think we covered ‘adorable.’ To battle against this insidious form of discrimination, awareness, time and introspection are the keys to reprogramming these often visceral responses.

Now I pause when describing people and consider the adjectives used and think on them. Perhaps a question to ask yourself: would I feel empowered if this were used to describe me? And a follow up: the next time you do use one of those adjectives, ask yourself, what was it about that person/thing/place that I was glossing over? What didn’t I want to understand/appreciate/think about? Rather than label something in an effort to give it value, however well intentioned, ask a question instead. “Wow, that’s beautiful. Does that pattern have significance?” goes a lot further toward building bridges than, “I just love that fabric! It’s so nice.”

I am now in my thirties, a young mother, and happily married woman who refuses to let anyone dismiss me because of my age or appearance. In order to be taken seriously, I take others seriously and also work really hard. It doesn’t take long before people find out that I am someone they can rely on, trust, and confide in. Any one of those qualities they would take over someone who is known for being aesthetically cute.

 

- 6 hours of Arabic a day

I’m back to my ordinary surroundings and slightly startled to realize I felt more Arab in Syria for five weeks than I have living in the Gulf for the last four years.

Part of it is that Doha is such a multiethnic capital. I’m back to being just one in a sea of South Asians – not like Damascus where I often felt like the only brown person for kilometers. In such multiethnic places English runs the show.

Another part of it is that I am out of class and no longer around Arabic speakers like my teacher who insisted even on explaining the finer points of grammar to us via Arabic.

I’m not walking everywhere either as I did just a week ago and could see all the women in their various interpertations of hijab, so perhaps all the chrome and glass makes it feel more generic.

Dissecting it doesn’t make it any easier to avoid the honest truth of why I went to Syria in the first place: Arabic is hard to find here and I’ve got to be inventive if I want to keep making progress.

Luckily I don’t have to look very far. At a meeting yesterday when I said I wanted to do as much as I could in Arabic, the dear woman obligied. And it was really wonderful to hear and speak it again after two days of English.

Now to find a tutor…

If you’ve lost your way in Syria then just ask

Last week I was in London and raving about the street cleaners knowledge of their city. This week I’m in Damascus, Syria – yes, my friends all give me a hard time about the ‘jet setter’ that I am – to learn Arabic over the next five weeks. And this morning it was a street cleaner who took me, along with his cart, to the building where I was having my Arabic lesson.

Everyone here – admittedly the men – is really friendly and willing to help with directions. The reason I chose Damascus over other Arab capitals such as Cairo and Beirut was two fold. I had never been and I also heard Syrians are proud to speak Arabic, even with foreigners who stumble, get the masculine/feminine/pronoun endings of verbs wrong and generally confuse the listener while being confused themselves. And my first four days have proven this to be true.

Today I had a hilarious trudge through the souk to meet up with my fellow classmates, realizing only halfway through that I had inadvertently switched from asking for directions to the garden to asking how to get to the handbag. The three of us, the two men selling water and I, had a good laugh.

Hopefully I won’t make that mistake again soon.

Stop victimization

Given current events, you might think this is a subjective piece, for or against one side of the unfolding conflict. But this is actually a plea for objectivity. I was driving to work today and shocked at the language the journalists were using on the radio news. As long as countries consider themselves victims and others the enemy, this language promotes entrenched conflict. If you want to stop being taken advantage of, this oppositional, or as cultural theory says, binary opposition (two bipolar perspectives) then this language must stop.

Before we can see a solution to this conflict – the same one that causes people to throw up their hands and say, "it’ll never end or change" – we have to change the language we use. Everyone. Politicians, the media, everyday citizens.

Then we’ll pull aside this smokescreen of conflict to deal with real problems.

Like where does the money go that’s donated to these ‘victims"? And how can a democractially elected government take action that is so harmful to its people? Or where is the boundary between defense and aggression?

Your thoughts? What can we do to see a different pattern of behavior in the occupied territory?

All in all, a scary way to start 2009.
 

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