International Women's Day: why language is key

In this blog, Deputy President Victoria Vyvyan calls for an end to the tacit acceptance of sexist language

The other day, when having a grown-up discussion about the environmental damage of the fast fashion industry, a clothing company called ‘PrettyLittleThing’ came up. I mean, you have to hand it to the researcher who came up with that one. Not one, but two pieces of arrant condescension, followed by an insult - ‘Thing’. I’d like to say you couldn’t make it up, but there it is in 15-foot-high letters, outside Victoria Station. Surrounded by unicorns. In pink. I haven’t the time to unpack the phallic semiotics of unicorns – ‘makeless maidens’ etc., but we all know they’re there.

Would it be better, I asked myself if it really was a company for little girls? Answer: No. Is it ironic? I’m sure that’s what the company would say. I’d assume they’d argue that empowered women are reclaiming the language. In my personal view, there’s nothing ironic or empowering about clothing that retails at £4 an item. So, it seems to me that quite a lot of women are at risk of being exploited by fashion brands– from the fabric to manufacturing, to the embedded carbon in moving clothes around the world, and finally to the consumer who, via influencers and marketing, is being made complicit in the whole mess.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I want to do something. Were I to be an utter hypocrite I could spend a lot of time virtue signalling and talking about embracing slow fashion. First off, if I’ve never heard of PrettyLittleThing - I don't think they’re exactly going to miss my business; second, it might make you feel mildly hysterical to put Victoria Vyvyan and the “BRIGHT BLUE SHORT SLEEVE V BAR CUT OUT SLINKY BODYCON DRESS £12” in the same thought space; and finally the reality is that I wear my clothes until they are so disgraceful that even the dogs won't sleep on them. Very slow fashion.

So, I’d like to put it out there that gendered language use is an outdated pain in the backside and it’s time to call the whole sorry episode of tacit acceptance to a close. It is mostly awkward and sometimes embarrassing, but it is nonetheless the right thing to do.

Sometimes I will get a bit bored and take off the sash and lay down the placard and go off and do something different, but in general, I will keep a close eye on where I put them. And when they are needed, I will put on one, pick up the other and suppressing an exasperated sigh, I will, in the nicest possible way, patiently and clearly explain that words, like onions and clothes, have layers.

Why bother? I mean really, they’re just words. Sticks and stones and all that.

Well, it’s because in my (slightly too earnest) view it matters. And hey, these broad shoulders are probably, but by no means always, up to the weight. But mostly it’s because I think slighting, demeaning and condescending language is a form of bullying and the cries of, ‘it’s ironic (stupid!)’ don't fool me one little bit.

I know that when I try politely to take my stand, some people will get it but others may feel accused and a bit offended and then of course they may be hostile. I think quite a lot about what my face will look like if the response is, ‘but I like women’, or ‘but I have daughters.’ Are they about to tell me that some of their best friends are women? ‘Some words’, I say ‘and indeed collections of words’, I continue, ‘are expressions of attitudes towards women that are demeaning or belittling or condescending.’ And I’ll start with PrettyLittleThing and if they don’t get it, I’ll move onto the symbolism of horns and watch them run for cover.