The Psychological Power Of Reclaiming Oppressive Language

How #shepersisted went from political putdown to feminist battle cry.
HuffPost Women

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s words ― used to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren this week as she challenged Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general ― were transformed into a viral meme almost the moment they left his mouth.

Women across the internet quickly turned the demeaning (but somewhat poetic) language on its head, adopting it as their own motto ― a call for strong women to continue standing up in the face of adversity, and demand that their voices be heard.

“Mitch McConnell, bless his heart, has coined a new feminist rally cry,” the Chicago Tribune wrote.

The phrase was repeated in countless memes, often accompanied by photos of bold and heroic women, from Rosa Parks to Malala Yousafsi to Beyoncé. Warren, too, took the opportunity to show that she wouldn’t be silenced.

“Nevertheless, she persisted” ― which took over Twitter and showed up on T-shirts and iPhone cases within a matter of hours ― is only the most recent weaponized meme to emerge from what began as oppressive language.

It’s an online phenomenon that became familiar in the presidential campaign. “Such a nasty woman” exploded as a viral meme and became the rallying cry of anti-Donald Trump women, and “Grab ‘em by the pussy” was reclaimed in the form of the infamous pussy hat. “Bad hombre,” of course, had its moment, too. And it’s not just the liberals: Conservatives have done it, too, reclaiming “deplorable” as their own, after Hillary Clinton characterized Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”

A new twist on linguistic appropriation

Weaponized memes are a modern variation on the practice of linguistic appropriation, which means to take possession of language once controlled by another.

Reclaiming words can play an important role in cultivating identity and facilitating conversations about rights. A 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that people felt more powerful after self-labeling with a derogatory term like “queer” or “bitch.” This sense of enhanced power also led people to view the term less negatively.

“Instead of passively accepting the negative connotative meanings of the label, ... [one] rejects those damaging meanings and through reappropriation imbued the label with positive connotations,” a team of psychologists wrote in the journal Identity Issues in Groups in 2003.

Tony Thorne, a linguist and slang specialist at King’s College London, said this type of reversal can be a very effective means of shifting meanings and perceptions associated with certain language.

“To take words used as slurs by Trump or Trumpists, like ‘nasty woman’ or ‘bad hombre,’ and use them as your own identity label ― especially in the context of memes or tweets where savage sarcasm and irony are rife ― is effective, amusing and gets a message across,” Thorne told The Huffington Post.

Thorne added that the term “pussy” has in recent years been reclaimed at least twice, “in the feminist activist ‘pussy power’ in the U.S., and Vladimir Putin’s nemesis girl group Pussy Riot.”

Draining words and actions of their negative power

Just as a word can be reappropriated, so too can a phrase, image or even an action. For instance, during the civil rights movement, black activists reclaimed the act of getting arrested, turning it from something criminal into something heroic.

Perhaps it’s also the case that being vocal and persistent ― something McConnell and like-minded older male senators seem to view as an affront ― is being reclaimed by a new generation of women.

The act of reclaiming racist, sexist or otherwise degrading and oppressive language has a long history. Take the word “queer,” for example. Originally used in the late 19th century as a slur against homosexuals, the term was reclaimed by the gay community to signify a broad and inclusive celebration of human sexuality.

“Queerness is the final, completely obvious contemporary acceptance and understanding that this enormous world of beauty, sexuality, identity, lust, feeling, excitement, and love isn’t just black and white,” musician Michael Stipe wrote in The Guardian.

However, Thorne noted that language reappropriation does carry a risk misunderstanding and confusion ― particularly in the case of loaded terms, or words still commonly used in a demeaning manner.

“There have been attempts to reclaim ‘bitch,’ just like ‘queer,’ ‘dyke,’ or ‘n****r,’” Thorne said. “But unlike queer or dyke, bitch (and the N-word) are still very much in use and very much associated with its very strong pejorative value. So I think attempts to reclaim it by feminists, while laudable, can only be partly successful.”

Memes can avoid these sorts of issues, Thorne argued. Turning a phrase like McConnell’s on its head is a fast, powerful way to immediately subvert its meaning and drain the statement of its negative power.

Call it the persistence.

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