Words by Helena (she/her), 20 QLD
Every woman has known the torment of getting up to speak. Her heart racing, at times entirely lost for words, ground and language slipping away. That’s how daring a feat, how great a transgression it is for a woman to speak in public.
As explored by writer and literary critic Helene Cixous in her profoundly compelling essay quoted above, The Laugh of Medusa, a woman’s speech is an act of defiance.
Our present culture reverberates with the effects of centuries spent smothering and mutilating women’s voices. Women throughout history have been systematically silenced through apparatuses of humiliation and dismissal, a phenomenon which perseveres.
Oftentimes, to dare to speak is to invite attack. A woman’s speech is something that opens her up, leaves her vulnerable, exposed. For if she does muster courage enough to transgress, her words will often fall upon the deaf male ear, which hears in language only that which he speaks – the masculine. From this, the feminine perspective is frequently disregarded and trivialised, with silencing most notably achieved in this contemporary setting through the use of labels.
The label of ‘Karen’ is most currently pervasive. It originated as a method of identifying and criticising the faux vulnerability of white women, women who use white femininity to present themselves as a victim when they are actually an aggressor.
In its appropriation by white men, this term has since been detached from its original context as an indictment of racial privilege and has become a shroud for casual misogyny. It is frequently used to shame women for speech – Karen has become synonymous with woman, amongst those who consider woman an insult.
‘Snowflake’ is another label used to target the younger generation of women who dare to speak. Theoretically, it is used to describe any person who is overly sensitive or easily offended. In practice, it is used as a weapon of dismissal, most often employed by men of the right-wing who seek to silence the socio-political critiques of young women.
There are a plethora of other labels used to attack women for speech – ‘Debbie downer’, ‘negative Nancy’, ‘nervous Nellie’, to name a few. These epithets linked to women have a pattern of becoming misogynistic insults. They are always negative, always feminised.
Defamation suits are yet another tactic being increasingly employed, both silencing and punishing women for speech in the most literal and tangible of ways. These suits are becoming a routine tool of revenge and retaliation for men who have been accused of assault or abuse, with accusers sued over their disclosure.
Johnny Depp’s defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard saw this phenomenon take the world stage. After publishing an op-ed speaking about her experiences with domestic abuse, Heard was taken to trial where she was publicly shamed and humiliated for her act of speech over the course of a gruesome seven weeks.
The act of speech is necessary above all else, and the social power of privileging voice within marginalised and disempowered groups cannot be overstated. It is vital we are able to both recognise and denounce the multiple apparatuses used to separate women from their voices, fostering a society in which women are heard and understood.
We must all appraise the language we use to describe women and their speech, engaging with our own personal analyses of what we say and why – we must not take up words or follow trends blindly. We must think critically about narratives fed to us by the media, most notably about particular women or groups being ‘difficult’ or liars. We must not only listen but actually hear the words of women before formulating response, and engage in discourse and critique with a respect and openness. We must amplify the voices of women around us, ensuring they reach the ears of the many.
To be rendered voiceless is to be divorced from one’s humanity. In the words of Cixous, a woman’s voice “cannot fail to be subversive. It is a space that serves as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.”
Silence is what allows suffering without recourse, allows lies to prosper unimpeded, crimes to go unpunished. We owe centuries of social transformation to the voices of women who came before us, those who dared to speak in the face of a system designed to silence them. A society in which women are heard is one imbued with the power to transform.