Hook Research has conducted semiotic analysis for the UK’s leading media brands, digging into the core messages of everything from specialist music scenes to political news. We are fascinated by the underlying meaning of emerging trends. In this blog, Lucy (one of our semiotic specialists) briefly explores how semiotics can be used to understand the changing language around gender identity in the UK.
What’s in a letter? Goldsmiths University Student Union recently announced the replacement of ‘women’ with ‘womxn’, so why the change?
Womxn, symbolises a move away from the definition of woman (being ‘of men’) to a more inclusive definition, opening the term up to include transwomxn, womxn of colour and non-binary individuals, who previously may have not felt included in historical definitions of womanhood.
But how can simple change from E to X symbolise this? And why ‘Womxn’ and not previously used alternatives like Womyn or Wimmin?
To understand this you need to look at how signs (like letters, colours, shapes) can signify broader cultural meanings – particularly, in this case, the fascinating space of ‘X’ in our collective, cultural conversation around things that refuse to be defined…
WHEN X MEANS MORE THAN X
X has a complicated history – signifying everything from the number 10, in roman numerals, to kisses in text messaging.
However, there are two key values X has come to symbolize in recent years: neutrality and radicalism.
The idea of X communicating neutrality stems from several key areas of global culture.
First of all the use of x in algebra is for a value that is not yet known or assigned. But also X commonly in stories and popular culture is symbolises the unknown – i.e. in X files, and adventures where X on a map promises unknown treasure.
This notion of X symbolising something unknown has been incorporated into our language: in an example clearly mirroring the one we’re exploring in this blog, Latinx has come to replace gendered pronouns like Latina and Latino to describe people of Latin American descent.
X also has a long history of signifying radicalism and a rejection of broad societal norms. This goes all the way to the 1700s when pirates used the skull and cross bones and can be seen through the punk movement, with bands like Generation X and songs like ‘X Offender’ (Blondie).
When civil rights activist Malcom Little changed his name to Malcolm X (symbolising a rejection of a name given to him through slavery and colonialism) this recast the X within a more civil resistance mindset which has carried through into 2019: Today we can see X incorporated into many protest movements, with Extinction Rebellion (known as XR) being the most noteworthy.
WOMXN DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES
X can mean something even more visceral.
When we want to remove an image or a word, we are taught to cross it out often using the shape of an X. In the case of Womxn, the X symbolises the removal of men from the definition of women.
X, more than any other letter, fits with the message Goldsmiths University is trying to communicate – a message of inclusivity and radicalism. By changing women to womxn they are communicating a resistance against previous, more patriarchal definitions womanhood, while creating a more neutral, unspecified definition of what it means to be a woman.
Enjoy this blog? You might want to check out our blog comparing Millennials and Gen X’ers (the differences aren’t as clear as you might think) or just sign up for our media newsletter to get thoughts like these delivered straight to your inbox each month!