Imago produces thought-provoking works, which reflect women’s voices and stories of our times.
I was first attracted to Imago’s mandate three years ago and it has glued me to the company ever since. It is vital to crank up the volume on under-represented voices and I feel passionately about the powerful, transformative stories this company chooses to stage. Since Imago strives to provide a platform for women’s voices, our conversations often include this vocabulary – woman, female and feminine – which we use interchangeably. For example, Imago’s youth mentorship program, Artista, aims “to empower Montreal’s female youth in need and support them through the early stages of their careers.” An upcoming Imago event, Her Side of the Story, aims to “explore the feminine perspective on stage,” and women’s voices are the focus of the company mandate.
We at Imago see all these words as positive, empowering and inclusive. Recently, however, I started questioning the word female: in this PC-conscious world, is female what we mean? And if female is up for consideration, what are the connotations carried by woman and feminine?
These were my initial questions:
If the definition of female is limited to physical anatomy, does it exclude individuals who self-identify as women?
Men don’t get referred to simply as ‘males.’ Rarely. Male Nurses. That’s all I can think of. So then why are women so often qualified as female?
Female and women are used to prefix occupations historically / generally dominated by men, for example, women senators / members of parliament, female bodybuilders, female judges, female CEOs, women’s hockey…Imago continues this trend and specifies the female perspective so that audiences appreciate the under-representation of women’s voices on our stages. Imago addresses an absence and aims to fill it. And evidently, if the above occupations still have to be specified when filled by women, women continue to be underrepresented in these jobs.
This reminds me of a comment my boss, Micheline, received when she directed the all female play, Top Girls, at the Segal Center in 2014. A man in the audience expressed how unusual it was to see an all women cast, especially when dealing with the business world. Micheline responded, “Well, you’re just not used to it.” Isn’t that the truth? We’re still not used to it.
Here are the most easily-found definitions of female, woman and feminine, with notable and surprising bits in bold.
fe·male - fēˌmāl / adjective
1.of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) that can be fertilized by male gametes.
“a herd of female deer”
1.a female person, animal, or plant.
wom·an - wo͝om′ən / noun
1. An adult female human.
2. Women considered as a group; womankind: “Woman feels the invidious distinctions of sex exactly as the black man does those of color” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton).
3. An adult female human belonging to a specified occupation, group, nationality, or other category. Often used in combination: an Englishwoman; congresswoman; a saleswoman.
4. A female servant or subordinate.
a. A wife.
b. A female lover or sweetheart.
fem·i·nine - ˈfemənən/ Adjective
1.having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness.
“a feminine frilled blouse”
synonyms: womanly, ladylike;
of or denoting a gender of nouns and adjectives, conventionally regarded as female.
These conventional definitions contain diminutive connotations. I am most offended by woman as a female servant or subordinate. The history of patriarchy and men’s societal dominance has shaped many languages and these connotations are hard to shake. My upbringing in extremely chauvinist Venezuela reminds me that when Venezuelans refer to ‘la mujer’ or ‘la muchacha,’ (the woman, the girl), they are talking about their maid. And you can rarely walk down the street without getting cat-called, ‘¡Mami! ¡Ven pa’ ‘qui!’ (Mommy! Come over here!). Women’s titles, both there and here, carry sexual and belittling connotations. Isn’t this archaic, not to say boring? If the above definitions are the first ones that pop up when typed into google, why don’t we strike from them the subordinate vocabulary so we can, at least on google, stop propagating the idea that women are the ‘weaker sex’ or are simply inferior?
The connotations words carry are the history the word has experienced blended with our personal and societal associations. For example:
Woman’s perspective > a feminist perspective > feminist > butch lesbians > aggressive bra burners > man haters
This train of thought is irrational, but these images come to mind nonetheless. We can strike the diminutive, isolating language from the written definitions above, but does that do anything to change the word’s connotations?
con·no·ta·tion ˌkänəˈtāSH(ə)n / Noun
an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning.
the abstract meaning or intension of a term, which forms a principle determining which objects or concepts it applies to.
Is it possible to strike feeling from words?
The words a company uses in its mandate are integral to its identity. Imago strives to be as inclusive and diverse as possible. This is a learning process, and examining the vocabulary we use is part of that process. So we’d like to hear from you – what do you think is the most inclusive way of talking about the female perspective? How do we move beyond connotation to become more inclusive and empowered ans still be transparent and specific? With Imago’s next project Her Side of the Story | An Encounter coming up, we are eager to mull over these questions with you.
To further the conversation, check out this Radio Canada segment on Feminism, a conversation that took place as a reaction to the use of the word by key Quebec government figures. I found it compelling and quite serendipitous…
Note: The top google searches for male, men and masculine, are binary too. ‘Male’ is defined anatomically as is ‘female,’ and ‘masculine’ plays the strong, aggressive counterpart to ‘feminine’s’ delicate beauty. However, our collective storytelling and representation have favoured men’s stories, so while picking this vocabulary apart is an interesting exercise, it is not the focus of this blog conversation. In a future post, I would love to get explore ‘masculinity’ to better understand what propagates normative ‘manliness.’ I am of the opinion that both conversations need to take place in order to create empowering change for all people.