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Do Words Mean Anything Anymore?
As we transform radical, clinical, and academic language to become more casual, we not only lessen the value of our vocabulary but actively harm marginalized communities.
Male gaze. Gatekeeping. Dissociating. Manic. Hyper-fixate. Queer-baiting. Intrusive thoughts. This is a short list of words that once held specific meanings now dissolved into the amalgamation of online discourse.
Words change meaning and usage over time. This is nothing new. Our language is living, it evolves, definitions change, new words come about, others diminish in usage. Such is the nature of linguistics. I tend to take a connotative approach to language; that is to say, if a word is used and understood a certain way, that is what it “means”, even if a dictionary definition is more rigid or contrary. The word “literally” can be used to mean “figuratively” (e.g. “this pasta will literally knock your socks off”)… this usage is not “wrong” because it is widely understood and effectively communicates an idea. These changes in meaning are natural, organic, and a simple aspect of the passage of time.
Social media discourse, an extension of popular discourse, often takes rhetoric from academic and philosophical discourse and presents it in a diluted, simplified way. This makes sense—not everyone wants to (or has to) parse through graduate-level papers and books to feel in touch with the world around them. However, as we simplify concepts for popular usage, we often inadvertently—and at times, advertantly—redefine academic language to better fit a streamlined, simplified discourse.
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Take, for example, gatekeeping. Its literal usage is ancient: one who guards and monitors a physical gate. Its cultural usage is far newer—I first encountered the term in mid-2010s Tumblr to describe how nerd and countercultures systemically discouraged the participation of women. Oh, you’re wearing a Nirvana t-shirt? Name five songs. Oh, you like comic books? What happened in Chapter 3 of Issue #89 of the Wonderboy Spin-Off series? This definition, in which someone with a high volume of knowledge seeks to hold onto their authority over that knowledge (producing a “gate” that they regulate), is itself a distillation of the 20th century use of the term “gatekeeping”, which refers to the notion that news and politics are communicated in popular terms by the media and journalists, who have the power to decide what they think the public should know. Now, it seems the popular definition of “gatekeeping” is just “withholding”. You can be accused of gatekeeping if you fail to inform an audience what brand of clothes you are wearing. I saw a recipe video in which the cook stated that the purpose of his videos is “to gatekeep your money at the grocery store during the week so you can have more money on the weekends.” …What?
The transformation of “gatekeeping” is, altogether, relatively benign, if not a little frustrating. But many of these linguistic changes create actual harm, especially as many of our watered-down words relate to identifying and challenging power.
It seems like every couple of years, there is an internet diagnosis-du-jour; a condition first brought to the public eye with awareness-raising, then followed by “did you know that X is a symptom of Y?”, then suddenly appearing in the bios and profiles and emojis of swaths of internet users. In the mid-2010s, it was depression and anxiety. In the late 2010s, it was Borderline Personality Disorder. In the early 2020s, it was ADHD. Today, I think it’s autism, though Dissociative Identity Disorder certainly had its moment. And let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with advocacy or raising awareness about potential symptoms. I don’t particularly care to weigh in on the self-diagnosis debate. If a social media post spoke to you and prompted you to look into a condition you now know you have, that’s great. But for every person who receives a life-changing or validating diagnosis, there are fifty infographics asserting that not being able to perfectly recall your childhood is a surefire sign of PTSD or that feeling differently on different days makes you bipolar.
And as we expand our digital diagnostic criteria for mental illnesses, we water down clinical, medical terms to become easily-relatable phrases to describe universal experiences. I heard someone say they were “hyper-fixating” on a salad recipe because they had made it twice in one week; a far cry from the usage of the term that used to mean an encyclopedic-level of knowledge or an emotionally significant routine most common in people with autism or ADHD. Not only do our misuses and redefinitions take away the necessary language people with mental illness use to describe their unique experiences, but they also actively hurt people with these conditions.
I have intrusive thoughts. I’ve given up on picking a diagnosis or list of diagnoses to describe what separates my experiences from the general public, but it’s something very severe and very present. In the last five years, I’ve taken nine different psychiatric medications, seen seven doctors and countless nurses, psychologists, and therapists, and spent time in involuntary treatment.
When I sit on the train on a Saturday afternoon, I see the train car crushed, the luggage and suitcases ripped open and strewn about, and the graphically mutilated bodies of my fellow passengers contorted around me. When I see a pair of scissors meant for opening pasta packages sitting peacefully on my kitchen counter, I see myself jamming them into my eyeball. Sometimes when I have sex with my kind, sweet partner, all I can see is the head of my cat, Taiyaki, who is my best friend and biggest comfort, accidentally slammed in the car door, his sweet skull crushed like an eggshell. I see myself tortured, battered, and raped by the people I wholly trust and love. These aren’t thoughts and “what-ifs”, but technicolor scenes playing on unending loops. These visions are immediate, unyielding, and constant. I know that they aren’t real. That does not stop them. Sometimes this leaves me with a wide-eyed, disoriented stare, other times I close my eyes as hard as I can and ball up my fists to try and shut them out. I often look crazy—not wacky, not silly—in public.
Cultural commentator (and my brilliant, kind friend) Rayne, opened up on Tik Tok about her own intrusive thoughts. We know that these feelings, which make a “normal life” feel impossible, are the result of faulty brain chemistry attacking ourselves, trying to destabilize the most important and sacred things in our lives. She was met with many kind words and people sharing similar feelings, the types of feelings that don’t make their way into cushy Instagram posts and pastel infographics. She was also met with far less kind words from people that “also have intrusive thoughts” who believe that the worst and darkest pathologies that people with mental illness have are a direct personal failing.
Some posts made with #intrusivethoughts include a someone giving themselves a haircut, having unspoken judgmental thoughts about strangers, and someone reflecting how hot they think they would look when pregnant. Even thoughts like “what if I slapped this person sitting next to me?” (the bulk of Tik Tok content made with this hashtag) isn’t a clinical sign of any sort of mental illness, just a normal place for a wandering mind to end up.
We have expanded our definitions of many clinical terms to include almost all normal human behavior, terms like intrusive thoughts and mania and dissociation (often misspoken as disassociation). We have confused “normalization” for “universalization” when it comes to clinical terminology, taking diagnostic criteria and symptoms and morphing their meaning to become everyday descriptors of everyday behavior. Not only have we failed to normalize the most uncomfortable aspects of mental illness, but we have actively othered them—if anyone can say they have “intrusive thoughts” or “hyperfixations” or “manic episodes”, then the full, actual realities of these symptoms seem like an overextension of otherwise normal behavior rather than a medical response to a neuropsychological illness. This does not challenge any preconceived notions we hold about ableism and it certainly does not help the mentally ill.
What does it mean to reject the male gaze? It means Julia Fox bleaching her eyebrows and losing 20 pounds.
That was a joke. Ha ha. This is not what it means to reject the male gaze. The meaning of “male gaze” seems to be completely and utterly lost.
The phrase “male gaze” was coined by art historian John Berger in his mid-1970s book and TV series, Ways of Seeing. Berger’s powerful and important work on how women are represented—both in media and within themselves—remains poignant and powerful and serves as the basis for the works of authors like Margaret Atwood and Laura Mulvey. How he managed to capture and describe such an intangible truth of female life, I do not know, all I know is that he managed to do it. Berger writes,
“To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it. That part of a woman's self which is the surveyor treats the part which is the surveyed so as to demonstrate to others how her whole self would like to be treated. And this exemplary treatment of herself by herself constitutes her presence. Every woman's presence regulates what is and is not 'permissible' within her presence. Every one of her actions - whatever its direct purpose or motivation - is also read as an indication of how she would like to be treated. If a woman throws a glass on the floor, this is an example of how she treats her own emotion of anger and so of how she would wish it to be treated by others. If a man does the same, his action is only read as an expression of his anger. If a woman makes a good joke this is an example of how she treats the joker in herself and accordingly of how she as a joker-woman would like to be treated by others. Only a man can make a good joke for its own sake.
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
Contemporary usage of the term “male gaze” suggests that it is simply the tastes of men, and specifically a 1950s, Americana taste. What Berger expressed was the idea that women must be continually conscious of how they appear to men, that they have not only their own individual gaze but carry with them the male gaze which is largely inescapable, and that they are never assumed to act or think for themselves but instead are motivated by the potential for male interaction.
Margaret Atwood mirrored this sentiment in her 1998 novel, The Robber Bride,
“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
Both Berger and Atwood capture the idea that the male gaze is not a system of aesthetics or images or tastes, but instead the idea that all actions performed by women are viewed as actions taken for men. Despite the Tik Toks and Tweets and Pinterest boards to the contrary, the man-hating feminist rebel is as much a male fantasy as the trad wife.
The shift in the meaning of “male gaze” is not only a misinterpretation of its original usage but actively serves to undermine its meaning. There is no way of dress or speech or action that can reject the male gaze because it is not a material condition, but a psychological one. To “reject” the male gaze is two-fold: not only must men stop assuming that women’s lives are performances on their behalf, women must also deconstruct their own socialization to rid themselves of this voyeur. This task, as Berger points out, is nearly impossible: women who interiorize the male gaze have more control over how they are seen, and thus, how they are treated. Our contemporary usage of “male gaze” does not ask us to unpack generationally embedded pyschologies, but instead to buy certain clothes or wear certain makeup to appear oppositional: yet another male fantasy.1
We make and invent words to describe the world around us. But we also change the world around us because of the language we use. If “intrusive thoughts” are just “random ideas that pop into our heads” rather than “an upsetting symptom of a debilitating condition”, then we see the behavior of the mentally ill as a personal lack of control. If mentally ill people are seen as failures of “normal” behavior, they (we) are subject to increasing violence from a hostile medical system and a deepened feeling of communal isolation. If the “male gaze” is “things boys like”, then rejecting it becomes shopping for things we believe men (as some sort of monolithic, homogenous group) do not like.
Is there some sort of Language Factory where businessmen in suits and ties decide how teenagers on Tik Tok are going to use terms related to marginalization and power to undermine their radical potential? Probably not. But is it mere coincidence that these terms move further away from their specific usage and towards a neutered, politically neutral meaning? No. In Terry Eagleton’s Ideology: An Introduction, he writes that we live in
"a sealed world of ideological stability, which repels the disruptive, decentered forces of language in the name of an imaginary unity. Signs are ranked by a certain covert violence into rigidly hierarchical order. . . . The process of forging ‘representations’ always involves this arbitrary closing of the signifying chain, constricting the free play of the signifier to a spuriously determinate meaning which can then be received by the subject as natural and inevitable."
To define something is to confine it within a word or a phrase. It takes power to create definitions and so the power to define becomes important to both dominating and marginalizing populations. The academic and radical language of power defines a subjugated group or behaviour and posits it against a dominating force. If we soften our definitions to become all-encompassing, then they fail to oppose power in any meaningful way—often, they can become tools to support the powers we wish to dismantle.
We can find power in choosing our words carefully, using specific language when it’s meant to be used, and understanding the inherent discomfort of speaking about uncomfortable things. When we speak thoughtfully, considerately, meaningfully, we allow ourselves to connect with each other, to share and articulate our pain and struggles, and to call into question the systems that enable that suffering.
If the question is “well, then what do we do?”, I offer this answer: I don’t know.