In honor of International Women’s Day I’ve decided to write an article in the defense of “20-Something” women. This is not a defense of 20 specific women, but rather a defense of women who, like myself, are currently between the ages of 20 and 29. I try to keep my socio-political rants within the realm of real-life, face-to-face discussions. But lately I’ve seen a series of Facebook posts that use language that I find incredibly disparaging to young women. These posts were particularly disheartening to me because they were posted, almost exclusively by strong, successful, empowered middle-aged women who have most certainly endured both latent and manifest acts of sexism. These are the women whom I respect so much for crashing through ceilings, helping to plant big dreams in my imagination, and making those dreams more achievable. So imagine my dismay when these trailblazers were calling me and my fellow 20-something women “vile,” “annoying,” “dim,” “90% twits,” and disparaging us for the way we dress (like sluts) and speak (like dim valley girls).
In Defense of How We Dress: As a native Texan living in New York, who works in documentary, my style falls somewhere along the lines of chic, bohemian cowgirl (although this description probably give me more style credit than my wardrobe merits). A style, I imagine, that would be acceptable to men and women across most generations. And, I must confess, when I’m out on a Saturday night and see fellow twenty-somethings covered by less cloth than me, I too sometimes have to fight my instinct to give them my coat and to warn them that they’re dressing for the male gaze. But then I remember it is also men who ask women to go to the other chaste extreme and show no skin. So the only reasonable solution amidst so much male-imposed social pressure, it seems, is to trust young women to dress the way they feel most empowered and to not discredit them for the freedom of style they execute.
Furthermore, one of the things feminist movements of the past fought for is the right for women to dress and to express themselves how they choose. Now, with that freedom will inevitably come choices that offend us or even feel counter to the forward momentum that was so hard fought to gain. But, remember, in the end it is an exercise of freedom and by criticizing it or projecting a negative generalization about all young women, you’re subjecting us to the same discrimination you fought against and, as fellow women, grant social permission for other subgroups of people to join in the women-bashing. Please abstain.
In Defense of How We Speak: The second major criticism of young women I encountered was directed at the way we speak. Based on the nuances of their complaints, I gathered they were specifically annoyed by what linguists popularly refer to as “up speak” (the tendency to raise our pitch/inflection at the end of sentences) and vocal fry (the tendency to draw out the end of words or sentences with a low, creaky voice). These spoken-language trends have actually been the subject of more academic research than you might imagine. Researchers have found that women tend to be trend-setters for newly emerging vocal patterns and adopt them half a generation sooner on average than men of the same age and one to two decades sooner than older generations. A couple of the theories about why this is true include the idea that society gives women more free-range to speak flamboyantly than they do men or that our increased sensitivity to social interactions allows us use of a wider range of vocal cues. Regardless of the why, my takeaway from this research is two-fold: 1) Young women are linguistic innovators 2) When men of our same generation and, eventually, people of older generations adopt the same trends they move into the realm of social normalcy. In fact, vocal fry and up speak have been around long enough that they have been widely adopted by male and female 20-somethings alike, and yet I do not see Facebook posts decrying the crackles at the end of men’s sentences. This discrepancy in the criticisms alone makes what I read about myself and other young women feel particularly discriminatory.
Despite it being many people’s instinct to cringe when they hear this type of speaking, I do take a certain amount of pride in the fact that young women are trendsetters for something as monumental as spoken language. What’s more disappointing to me is that these female-driven innovations are consistently seen as the deterioration, not evolution, of linguistics- until they’re adopted by the masses, that is. Just as art, technology, fashion, architecture, etc evolve, so does language. And, just like these other platforms for expression, not everyone likes every emerging trend. They can be jarring. I am certain that in 20 years I will also be startled by whatever the new linguistic trends are. Whether I find them annoying or not, however, I hope it’s still women who are the pioneers in the ever-evolving linguistic realm.
A Request From a 20-Something Woman to Women Who are Older than 20-Something: I am not blind to the fact that most of the posts I read likely came from a place of concern, rather than one of overt sexism. When you feel you’ve spent more than half of an average person’s life fighting for a cause, I imagine it can be scary to see women dressing or speaking or acting in ways that at first glance feel in opposition to the ground you helped the feminist cause gain. But I suppose I would ask you to look a little deeper than a glance and fight the social trap of making negative generalizations about us as a whole. Generalizations done in mass can only result in one of three things 1) Compounding already existing discrimination 2) Deepening generational divides and conflict within a society that is already far too divisive 3) Making people feel lesser than.
You call for young women to monitor the way we speak. I suppose I ask you to consider what you actually say. I would argue that doing the latter will have a deeper impact on furthering our generationally shared commitment to gender equality.
A Celebration of 20-Something Women: Lastly, rather than disparaging the state of young women on social media, I encourage you to celebrate the specific young women who impress and inspire you. Happy international women’s day everyone!