What People Think about Women: A Bilingual Edition

Translation update – Oct. 28, 2013Thanks to the careful attention and comment of one of my readers (Lu Cero), I learned about the “terrible mysoginic message” in the search results “Las mujeres necesitan soluciones, lo hombres también pero al revés”. When I initially wrote this post, I focused mainly on the fact that different results could be obtained simply by searching in different languages; I thought that long phrase was a bit odd, but didn’t really investigate it further. Lu Cero tells me: “It’s a known pun: ‘Soluciones’ backwards [“al reves”] is ‘senoiculos’, or in other words “seno y culos” which means boob and asses.”  Thank you for making this non-native speaker aware of this “awful” play on words!

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This recent post, “What People Really Think about Men, Women, and Feminists,” from one of my favorite blogs, Sociological Images, caught my eye for a number or reasons. To start, it was the first I had heard of the United Nations’ campaign to raise awareness for women’s rights. These UN ads creatively incorporate Google searches and the accompanying auto-complete (based on the most popular search phrases) to draw attention to the need for empowering women worldwide. Here is a sample ad:

Secondly, I particularly appreciated Prof. Lisa Wade’s efforts to provide and compare equivalent searches for men. What I found most fascinating about these side-by-side examples was the fact that, in general, the searches for what women “need…, should…, should not…, or cannot” do were very clearly disempowering: women should not work, preach, leave the home, etc.  And while some similar results turned up for men (apparently neither women nor men “can be trusted”!), the male results did not exhibit the same condescending sentiment towards masculinity or men in general. On the contrary, these searches about men further displayed an anti-feminine, even anti-woman, tendency: men should not wear shorts; wear make-up; get married, etc. Thus, the anti-woman sentiment is visible within both search results. Below are Wade’s results for “Women/Men shouldn’t.”

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Finally, I was struck by the fact that these were all English-language searches. As a professor of Spanish language and literature at an American institution (and also a native speaker of English), I pay close attention to the vocabulary used by both Spanish and English writers, journalists, and public speakers. Language is one of the most powerful manifestations of cultural values, ideas, and biases. Given that Spanish is the most spoken non-English language in the United States – that is, the second most-used language – and given that the number of Spanish speakers in the US will continue to increase in future decades, it is crucial that we recognize the power of linguistic diversity. This is especially true for educators and scholars who teach at institutions with diverse student populations. Dr. Wade, for example, teaches at Occidental College, a Hispanic-serving institution where about 36% of the surrounding Los Angeles area also speaks Spanish (the percentage is likely higher if we consider heritage speakers and those individuals who understand Spanish, but might not speak it fluently).

Thus, I wondered what a Spanish-language search might reveal about the attitudes towards men and women (and subsequently masculinity and femininity) in different cultural contexts. So I performed the same search in Spanish, at www.google.es“women/men should; should not; cannot; need…” These results, like Wade’s English results for men, both fascinated and disturbed me. Here is what I found:

Women/Men should…      Las mujeres/Los hombres deben…

Women should: be submissive / shave their pubic hair / use-wear a veil / preach

Women should: be submissive / shave their pubic hair / use-wear a veil / preach

Men should: Take folic acid / pee sitting-down / remove hair / remove pubic hair

Men should: Take folic acid / urinate sitting-down / remove hair / remove pubic hair

Women/Men should NOT…      Las mujeres/Los hombres no deben…

Women should not: drive / be enlightened or educated in any form / preach / work

Women should not: drive / be enlightened or educated in any form / preach / work

Men should not: cry / cry Pedro Fernandez / cry lyrics / cry Alejandro Fernandez -- apparently the idea of men holding back tears has been immortalized in several popular songs, skewing these search results *just a bit*!

Men should not: cry / cry Pedro Fernandez / cry lyrics / cry Alejandro Fernandez — apparently the idea of men holding back tears has been immortalized in several popular songs, skewing these search results *just a bit*!

Women/Men can’t…      Las mujeres/Los hombres no pueden…

Women cannot: drive / be color-blind / preach / be pastors

Women cannot: drive / be color-blind / preach / be pastors

Men cannot: do two things at once / be alone / solve this / have female friends

Men cannot: do two things at once / be alone / solve this / have female friends

Women/Men need…      Las mujeres/Los hombres necesitan…

Women need: to feel desired / solutions / solutions, men also but the other way around / to sleep more

Women need: to feel desired / solutions / solutions, men also but the other way around / to sleep more

Men need: to distance themselves; move away / their space / women / calcium

Men need: to distance themselves; move away / their space / women / calcium

After performing these searches and organizing my own results, these are the things that I found most intriguing:

  1. In the Spanish language searches, the negative, disempowering, connotations in searches on women tended to appear in religious contexts (preaching; being a pastor).  Since these words appears in both the should and should not categories, we might take this as a sign that traditional gender roles within the church are being challenged or reconsidered.
  2. The anti-woman sentiment that we observe in both the “men” and “women” English searches does not appear to be quite as overt in the Spanish examples. While it is certainly still visible (“women should not drive/work/be educated”), the attitude that comes across in the Spanish searches is more consistent with machismo – the celebration of dominant, typically masculine traits associated with men as superior, and the corresponding labeling as inferior of passive, typically feminine traits associated with women. Academic studies aside, machismo is characterized by a strong sense of (often exaggerated) masculine pride. In this context, men should not cry or show too much affection, and women are expected to be quiet, submissive care-givers. While I’m certainly not suggesting that these types of results are in any way “better,” or that machismo is a justifiable, legitimate gender ideology, I do think it’s important to recognize that the Spanish-language search search results reveal assumptions about men and women that are more closely related to notions of masculinity and femininity than to men and women directly. In my estimation, the Spanish search-results might be classified as more anti-feminine than anti-woman.
  3. Concerns about health and well-being factored into these searches – calcium, folic acid, more sleep… color-blindness(?)… hair removal(?). I’m not sure what this might imply.
  4. Spanish speakers are much more concerned about the appearance and/or existence of men’s and women’s pubic hair…!!!!

So what can we take from these samples? We clearly cannot make definitive conclusions or generalizations about any population based on these fill-in-the-blank Google searches… and I’m not suggesting that we do. In fact, perhaps the entire exercise is simply a silly game of internet-chance, as many of Sociological Images’ commentators were quick to point out. We can have “fun” playing with Google’s auto-complete for all sorts of phrases – even our own names! Regardless, in this context of feminism and women’s rights, I strongly believe that it is worth contemplating the different results obtained from different language searches, especially when searching for the same concept. A one-to-one translation does not turn up the same one-to-one search results. The implications of this disparity are fascinating for what they reveal about language as a unique and powerful manifestation of diverse cultural values. Moreover, if students rely on the internet to supplement a classroom assignment, for example, bilingual students might come to class with entirely different understandings or conclusions regarding the topic at hand, since top search results clearly vary across languages.

As a final exercise, I also performed Wade’s searches for “Feminists” in Spanish. The search results for “Feminists are…” were the most depressing by far:

“Feminists are…     Las feministas son…” Feminists are: Ugly / Feminists until they're married / bitter /

Feminists are: Ugly / Feminists until they’re married / bitter / “hembristas” – think women are better than, superior to men

Clearly, there is still a need for feminism – and the need to dispel stereotypes about feminists and feminism – in both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking cultures!

What else do you notice about the Spanish search results, that I haven’t addressed? What about French, Italian, Chinese, Arabic results? What might the similarities and differences in these searches reveal about the attitudes, values, or trends towards men and women, and towards masculinity and femininity, in each of these cultures?

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About rebeccambs

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Language, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What People Think about Women: A Bilingual Edition

  1. Anna Jobin says:

    Thanks for a very interesting article. Based in a multi-lingual country – 4 official(!) languages – I am extremely sensitive to how language expresses meaning and how divergent social meanings may be embedded in language and potentially reinforced by technological uniformization (it is actually part of my phd research). Therefore I salute your call for pluri- or translinguistic studies.
    That said: let’s not forget that although it DOES reflect parts of our reality, Google is not the mirror it pretends to be. My thoughts, inspired by the UN Women campaign: Google’s autocompletion: algorithms, stereotypes and accountability. Even if the suggested autocompletions may reflect a sexist, stereotyped world we recognize, they are not a “neutral witness” of our society.

    • rebeccambs says:

      absolutely! which is why I like to think of it as an interesting, even “fun” experiment, but with some real implications regarding the power of language in our society (rather than as a mirror). You’re 100% correct – and I wanted to express that same idea suggesting we can google ANYTHING and read into the results…. What I wanted to demonstrate with my “experiment” is precisely how these results vary (and are thus not a “mirror”) depending on what language one is searching in.
      Thanks for the feedback – I’ll be checking out your post as well! 🙂

  2. Lu Cero says:

    Hi, It seems you missed the terrible mysoginic message in “Las mujeres necesitan soluciones, lo hombres también pero al revés”. It’s a known pun: “Soluciones” backwards is “senoiculos”, or in other words “seno y culos” which means boob and asses.

    • rebeccambs says:

      oh wow, muchas gracias! That’s what happens when you’re not a native speaker; I’m glad you explained it to me (and I’m surprised none of my spanish-speaking friends noticed it!). I’m not sure if I’m excited to know that or further disturbed by the misogynist message it represents! I DID think that was an odd search-result, but I was eager to get my post written, and since I was focusing simply on different results in different languages, I didn’t think to look into it any further.
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

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