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Category: Art and Entertainment, Girls

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones

| October 10, 2008

Words matter. From caregivers to teenagers to journalists, use of biased language, often unconsciously, can cause measurable harm, new studies show. The Ad Council, with PSAs featuring Hilary Duff among others, addresses one part of the problem in a campaign launched today.

Is it true that, as the proverb goes, words can never hurt us? Not according to two reports that came out this week. The first, reported October 6 in the New York Times, addressed “elderspeak”—a belittling form of address commonly used with older people, such as “sweetie,” “dear,” and “young lady,” as well as speaking loudly to elderly people, and discussing them with someone else in their presence.

“That’s So Gay” PSA The Advertising Council campaign created with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network is launching today (October 10) at GLSEN’s annual Respect Awards. Unveiled by actress Hilary Duff, the TV spots include her “That’s So Gay” PSA, already a huge hit with bloggers. Another spot features comedian Wanda Sykes. Simultaneously, GLSEN is releasing its 2007 National School Climate Survey of middle and high school students, which reports that 75 percent of LGBT teens frequently hear such slurs as “faggot” or “dyke” at school, and 86 percent experienced harassment at school in the past year.

Researchers have now concluded that “elderspeak” sends messages that the person being addressed is incompetent, has difficulty hearing and/or understanding, is childlike and dependent. This, in turn, can lead to a decrease in self-esteem, withdrawal and the kind of dependent behavior that the speaker already assumes the older person adopts. In addition, the insults can have health consequences, especially if people mutely accept the attitudes behind them. Dr. Becca Levy of Yale found that older people who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those who did not.

Two days later, in the Times Business Section,  “A Push to Curb the Casual Use of Ugly Phrases” profiled a campaign by the Advertising Council—which directs and coordinates public service campaigns on behalf of the media industry—that is backed by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to “end using derogatory language, particularly labeling anything negative or unpleasant as ‘so gay.’” Mary Conlen, president of the council, commented that “this would be a fabulous campaign to take on because it’s surprising how pervasive this language is.” The campaign is targeted to young people in particular, the premise being that hateful language leads to “kids learning that it’s O.K. to disrespect people,” said Kevin Jennings, GISEN founder and executive director.

One of the ads, which has been a hit on the blogosphere this week, shows three young women shopping and features Hilary Duff asking a friend whether she realized what she said when she described a blouse as “so gay.” She tells the speaker to “knock it off,” in a way that points up the hurtfulness of the comment without talking down to or lecturing young people.

Casual slurs are pervasive, and often go unremarked. “He throws like a girl” is never perceived by a boy as a compliment, nor is it ever meant as one. What can be worse than calling a guy a “pussy”? Call him a “prick” and you give him a certain amount of grudging respect. And who could forget Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger’s “girlie-man”?

I must admit, though, that it came as something of a surprise to read Frank Rich’s comment in his Times Op-Ed this week. He wrote that, in making fun of hurt feelings over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s bailout statement, “[Barney] Frank was ridiculing the House G.O.P. as a bunch of sulking teenage girls.” I heard Congressman Frank’s statement; he said nothing about teenaged girls. I doubt that the Democrat, who had been slurred as “Barney Fag” in the 1990s, would do that. Why did Rich? Why didn’t he refer to “sulking teenagers”? And why was there not a single comment published about his misogynist slur? Was mine the only letter sent? Most importantly, what kind of message does using “girl” and “women” to define negative behavior or attributes send to girls and women? How does it affect their/our self-image and self-esteem?

The Advertising Council has presented ads promoting gender equality, such as one urging, “Expect the best from a girl and that’s what you’ll get.” Perhaps, given the ample sexist language in media coverage of the national election battles this year, it’s time for a public service campaign that sensitizes people, particularly young people, to the fact that sexist language can have a negative impact on the mental and physical health of women. One th