Is it time we dropped ‘balls’?

Caitlin Kendal doesn’t think testicles are a pre-requisite for courage.


Even the smartest and most open-minded individuals amongst us still use the word ‘balls’ to mean ‘courage’. Recently, a star struck Rita Ora confessed, “I haven’t got the balls to go up to [producer Pharrell Williams].” Closer to home, the same usage of ‘balls’ made a brief appearance in at least one SRC ticket’s policy statement in the lead up to this semester’s student elections.

By using ‘balls’ in this context, we equate a positive character trait – courage – with male genitalia. As quickly as this association is invoked, the speaker perpetuates the gender stereotype of women as weak and men as strong: testicles become a pre-requisite for possessing courage. 51% of the population automatically disqualify.

But perhaps ‘balls’ has simply lost its gender-specific connotations, like the word ‘seminar’, which is from the Latin ‘seed’ or ‘semen’. Although I am sure many female university students would gladly attend more tutorials in lieu of this overcrowded delivery format, the word ‘seminar’ is never really used in English today as a way to exclude or belittle one gender. On the other hand, consider the slang used to denote those without courage: ‘pussy’. ‘Pussy’ is still specifically used as a term for vagina, even without the added connotations of weakness and cowardice.  Then, consider also our identical use of the Spanish word for testicles, ‘cojones’. In 2010, Sarah Palin declared that President Obama lacked the ‘cojones’ to reform immigration law. The same double meaning again occurs in French with ‘couilles’, in Italian with ‘cogolini’, and in Bosnian, Macedonian, Serbian and Croatian with the term ‘muda’. Indeed, rather than a word that has lost its original connotations and entered our non-gendered lexicon, this cross-lingual survey and the word’s persistent use in binary opposition to anything female suggests quite the opposite. The gendered nature of the word evidently lingers.

Why, then, do we continue to invoke this association?

Men evidently seek to gain from invoking such slang: it helps them retain positions of power in a patriarchal society that naturally values masculinity over femininity. In 2010, former Liberal leader John Hewson told Sky News that Peter Costello “never had the balls to challenge John Howard.” In August, Tony Abbott asked Kevin Rudd if he was “man enough” to tell the Greens he’d put them last. Without using ‘balls’, Abbott invoked this association in voters’ minds. And he achieved the same goal as Hewson – to belittle his opponent’s masculinity – just in a more polite way.

American philosopher Dr Helen Longino argues that all pornography demeans women, even when men are depicted in subordinate positions, because such men merely invoke the traditionally understood female role and stereotype, which reinforces the subordinate status of women. This same harm may occur when alpha males hurl insults at non-alpha males, casting their opponent in a subordinate and distinctly feminine light. Put differently, negatively charged gendered language harms women even when women are not on the receiving end of the comment, because it implies that masculine traits are the desired norm. Considering Hewson’s and Abbott’s implication that two sizable testicles and a whiff of testosterone-inspired aggression are requirements for political office, no wonder Julia Gillard – despite being the most productive PM in Australia’s history (by legislation passed per day) – was given the boot. (And no wonder Abbott struggled to find women ‘qualified’ for his cabinet). The situation is even more alienating for trans* individuals, who may fall entirely outside the rigid hetero-normative binary invoked by such sexist slang.

But observing that many conservative men lag behind on gender equality is neither a new nor interesting cultural insight. Nor is female exclusion from politics the sole consequence of this discourse. Dr Sherryl Kleinman, a University of North Carolina sociologist, claims that no matter who uses it, sexist slang gives power to men, and takes power away from women. By casting women as deviations from the ideal, it reinforces the idea that women are subhuman. And we already know that sexism feeds into attitudes that make violence against women easier to perpetrate, justify and normalise.

Considering these harms, why do ambitious and empowered women, like Rita Ora, or even Sarah Palin – who self-identified as a victim of media sexism during the 2008 election campaign – continue to invoke a binary that denigrates their own gender? As Dr Kleinman explains, “‘man’ is a high status term, and women want to be included in the ‘better’ group.” Kleinman argues that adopting slang that perpetuates male superiority may make women feel included in this group – whether this feeling of inclusion is achieved by a throwaway remark suggesting that President Obama “doesn’t have the cojones,” or in simply referring to other women as “you guys.” But this is only ever a guise of inclusion. True acceptance, Kleinman suggests, would not require women to have their gender disappear by making them “one of the guys.”

Moreover, when you consider the potential harm this language causes to the status of women, avoiding this word needn’t be an act of hyper political correctness. Neither should it be seen as an opposition to profanity, or an argument for censorship. Rather, resisting language that denigrates the status of women – even if unintentionally – may upon reflection simply appear desirable to students at a progressive university like Sydney. Whether it’s a Friday night conversation at the pub, a 140-characters-or-fewer tweet, or even a well-considered policy statement by student politicians, it seems that the time has come to make a conscious attempt to steer clear of sexist slang. We could start by dropping ‘balls’. Kicking the habit of using this word might be difficult, but when considered in the wider picture, and compared to the harms of perpetuating this gendered narrative, it may present only a minor inconvenience. And those with a penchant for anatomical vocabulary could always try ‘guts’ or ‘backbone’ instead.

Lily Allen’s new song, “Hard Out There” demands that we do more than simply reject this misleading and denigrating testicle-courage association: “Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits,” she urges her male listeners. And she has a point. There’s no truth in the association of strength with testicles anyway. Although testicles play a role in the production of testosterone, scientific studies causally link this hormone to aggression, but never to courage. More importantly, testicles are very sensitive, and relatively weak. Perhaps that’s why the comedian Sheng Wang gives his audiences the following advice: “If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.”