No balls for me, thank you.
January 21, 2007 9:53 AM   Subscribe

I think telling women to "get some balls" is offensive. Am I too sensitive?

In the past couple of years the practice of telling women to "grow a pair" "sack up" "get some balls" and so forth has become more prevalent. I see it everywhere including Ask Me. My husband and I are split on this: he thinks it is equivalent to telling somebody to have some guts, I think it is ridiculously pro-male, anti-female. To me, telling a woman she needs balls means:
a) testicles are very desirable even if you are a woman
b) being a man is very desirable even if you are a woman
c) the only way to be courageous is to be masculine.

Would men find it offensive to be told to get some ovaries or grow a womb?

Am I being too sensitive? Is there another way of looking at this?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy to Society & Culture (116 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Balls are figurative, not literal.
posted by tkolar at 9:55 AM on January 21, 2007


You are not being too sensitive. It's offensive and, worse, it's intellectually lazy.

And now, I give you everyone disagreeing with me:
posted by poweredbybeard at 9:56 AM on January 21, 2007 [6 favorites]


I care a little more about pay inequity than my metaphorical (albeit societally-dictated) balls ...

I'm guess I'm telling you to sack up.
posted by shownomercy at 10:01 AM on January 21, 2007


There's a phrase is Spanish,
Estoy hasta los huevos, o hasta los cojones ............
or me toca los huevos where huevos & cojones means balls.
I was fascinated by the reactions when I changed it to Estoy hasta los ovarios....., people did not like it one bit.
it turned out that "los huevos or los cojones" is just an accepted figure of speech and people don't like you fucking with figures of speech, especially if by fucking around with them you draw attention to their inherent and essentailly masculune identity.

Just saying
posted by Wilder at 10:01 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's a figure of speech and I think considering it anti-woman is rather extreme. Then again, I'm a huge fan of Aristocrats-type humor. Everyone will answer this according to their own taste and sensitivity level.
posted by look busy at 10:03 AM on January 21, 2007


It might be metaphorical, like calling someone a dick. So, don't have such a hard-on about this.
posted by found missing at 10:05 AM on January 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Don't sweat the disagreement, beard. After all, everyone has an answer and everyone's answer is equally valid (and SLoG was kind enough to get us started). Oh, and there's no specific goal to be accomplished.

Is there another way of looking at this? Yes--as chatfilter.

To answer your other question, SL--I'm a man, and I would decide whether to be offended by 'get a womb' by context. If one of my pals is making fun of my inability to bear children, then nope, it doesn't seem offensive. If 'grow a womb' is spoken to me by a senator, and preceded by 'We'll never appoint your kind, you dick. The Supreme Court is woman-only, putz,' well, then that's offensive.
posted by box at 10:06 AM on January 21, 2007


I've definitely started seeing "Get some ovaries" or "Wow, that woman's got ovaries" popping up on feminist discussion boards. (Though I totally love "Grow a womb" and will start using it immediately.)

Turn it around on people. Not in a meta way -- don't say "Would you find it appropriate if I told you to grow some ovaries?" -- just in a natural, everyday sort of way. Someone says, "Get some balls," and you just respond "Yeah, grow a pair of ovaries!" It will, at the very least, amuse you; it might, at best, show people how ridiculous the phrase is when applied indiscriminitely.

(For the record, I think the "get some balls" references tend to be strangely charming when people are advising men on relationship matters. There, it seems appropriate, given the sexual context. Everywhere else, I don't find it offensive, just lazy.)
posted by occhiblu at 10:07 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think it's pretty sexist. It implies that courage is a masculine virtue, tied to male anatomy. And there are plenty of gender-neutral ways of expressing the same sentiment.
posted by craichead at 10:08 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Also, I'm really really sick of people telling me to get in touch with my feminine side, where "feminine == long list of qualities that men supposedly don't possess".

I suppose instead of telling you to grow a pair, people could just tell you to get in touch with your masculine side.
posted by tkolar at 10:08 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think it's intellectually lazy, but I don't see it as "be like a man, don't be like a woman" (like the phrase "he throws like a girl" is, for example). I see it as a one-gender-fits-all response to what people perceive as weakness. That is, I think people say it to other people, regardless of the other person's gender. It's not just a way to tell women to be more manly and less female, it's more like saying "you need this desirable trait that manly men have." said to either men or women. It think it's a pretty dumb thing to say to women when there are a lot of perfectly decent non-gendered alternatives like "show a little backbone" etc.

Also, telling the OP in this thread to "sack up" or the equivalent is a lame way to address her question, please don't do that.
posted by jessamyn at 10:08 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


(Though I totally love "Grow a womb" and will start using it immediately.)
I'd worry that I'd said something insensitive to someone who had had a hysterectomy! Especially since you can't tell whether someone online is a man or a woman.
posted by craichead at 10:11 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think that the phrase can carry those connotations, even if the speaker doesn't mean it that way. If it bothers you, it bothers you.

For what it's worth, while I'm a great fan of the male form, I don't think that the testicles are exactly the most aesthetically pleasing part of the body. When someone tells me to "grow a pair," my first thought is always, "Ew."
posted by christinetheslp at 10:12 AM on January 21, 2007


Well at some level it is just an expression even among men, so the fact that it somehow applies less to women is not really a great reason to find it upsetting. The crudity of the expression implies that it might not be suitable for most situations, and it is something of a silly thing to say to a woman, but if you're going to be offended, be offended because it's kind of a gross thing to say anyway, not because it's being used to a woman.
posted by frieze at 10:16 AM on January 21, 2007


Would men find it offensive to be told to get some ovaries or grow a womb?


No, just weird, as it doesn't make sense. Grow a balls is pretty well understood and can apply physically, socially, mentally etc, etc where as grow some ovaries or a womb is more muddled. Seriously, what the hell does that even mean?

Am I being too sensitive?
Probably, but you have some legitimate points. I think it's more promale as opposed to anti-female as I know plenty of guys who would use the term as compliment for a ballsy women.

Is there another way of looking at this?
Listen your husband on this one, he pretty much nailed it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:17 AM on January 21, 2007


I think it's offensive to say it to anyone, male or female.
posted by empath at 10:23 AM on January 21, 2007


Figurative or not, it's sexist. Whether the exclaimer means it that way or not, the conceptual root of the phrase is suggesting that balls are the source of courage and that men, and men's physiology, are more desirable than women(s). Stuff like this is all around us.
cf. "Pussy"
posted by exlotuseater at 10:25 AM on January 21, 2007 [3 favorites]


It may be just me, but I think you should be put off by the gratuitous crudity in the first place, not because the phrase is mysoginist particularly but just because it's a dumbing down reference to sexual organs. Words like 'courage' or 'determination' or 'assertiveness' are all more potentially informative and nuanced - and bonus: gender-neutral.
posted by scheptech at 10:25 AM on January 21, 2007


Of course it's offensive. It's like calling a guy a pussy. It's suggeston is that not being male is to be weak and that women can never be strong.

That said, I doubt my or your opinion on the matter matters.
posted by dobbs at 10:26 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Back when women became more numerous in the workforce and in politics (1970's) it was a compliment (she's got some balls on her, she's one ballsy woman.) I found this mildly irritating (subtext: male behavior is better.) Now it has become an admonition (subtext: stop acting like a woman and start acting like a man.)

Balls are figurative, not literal.

That doesn't make it less offensive-- it makes it more offensive because the symbol for courage is a male-only trait.

I care a little more about pay inequity than my metaphorical (albeit societally-dictated) balls ...

I can care about both. Speech patterns reveal a lot about society.

Is there another way of looking at this? Yes--as chatfilter.

My husband and I so frequently see eye-to-eye on such a wide variety of subjects that when we differ I always double check my stance.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:26 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Grow a balls is pretty well understood and can apply physically, socially, mentally etc, etc where as grow some ovaries or a womb is more muddled. Seriously, what the hell does that even mean?

But that's rather exactly the point. We're lauding supposedly masculine traits to the point of giving them specific body parts (that only men have) where such traits reside, while similar supposedly feminine traits are not revered to the same degree. So that telling people to "act like a woman!" is either an insult or simply confusing.

Given how grueling childbirth is, "Grow a womb" would seem to be the perfect counterpart -- "develop a strong enough will and enough courage to create new life and push out into the world, using nothing but your pelvic muscles." That's bad ass. Testicles certainly don't physically possess such strength and power; I mean, seriously, it's the most vulnerable part of a guy's body.

And yet we think the meaning of "get a pair" is somehow self-evident. We think that because we're accustomed to thinking of men as strong, and so these emblems of their anatomy are supposed to contain and embody this strength. It is sexist. Whether it's worth getting worked up about is, I think, the issue.
posted by occhiblu at 10:26 AM on January 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


I think it is offensive. Who wants to be like a man? Men are pretty afraid to confront their own emotions. I think facing up to one's own feelings is more courageous than not. And men aren't known to be strong in that sense. Men who are confrontational are only so in the aggressive sense of the word. Am I wrong? A man with balls means what? What's a ballsy man? A guy willing to fight? Yell? Throw a tantrum? Loser.
posted by onepapertiger at 10:33 AM on January 21, 2007


Hrm, well, you could look at it from another angle: we know it isn't literal (at least, I hope everyone knows that), so the association of balls with courage/toughness/whathaveyou has transcended a merely masculine concept. That is, because it is being aimed at women now, too, the concept has been liberated from a strictly male interpretation - now anyone can have "balls."

Or you could go for the minority crowd and mention how insensitive it is to men with hypogonadism, undescended testes, surgical (or accidental) castration. However, I can find something offensive about just about anything, so ...

And I'm sure men would get around to being offended by "get a womb," but I think we've got a lot of being offended by every! frickin'! sitcom! ever! having the Mildly Retarded Dad and the Much Smarter Mom to get through, first.
posted by adipocere at 10:34 AM on January 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


To quote L7: "Got so much clit, she don't need no balls."

But yeah, it's stupid. Usually not deliberately sexist, I think -- just plain old dumb, in a "aren't I bold and transgressive!" way. Very Howard Stern.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:34 AM on January 21, 2007


Depends on context. I think it's a presumptious and intentionally baiting thing to say in the context of, say, some AskMe threads. It's not something I'd throw out to a stranger.

Among female friends, it's quite a different story (and part of the same context that can permit me to say that I've got a hard-on for something/someone when that's the most accurate description, metaphorically.)

It's a legit personal preference to not like the "growing a pair" slang, though. Just give the WTF look and say "um, can we a different term?"
posted by desuetude at 10:35 AM on January 21, 2007


My flatmate and I routinely use the expression with 'ovaries' substituted for 'balls'.

The roots of the expression are obviously deeply patriarchal. What people disagree on is whether it's allowable to use it for its metaphorical content while disregarding the misogyny of the wording.
I would say no, no it's not acceptable. Not for people who know better.

So your husband and you are both right. The meaning of the expression is of course that someone needs to have some guts, but the wording is misogynist.

a) testicles are very desirable even if you are a woman
b) being a man is very desirable even if you are a woman
c) the only way to be courageous is to be masculine.

It is c which is the real problem here. Phrases like this are a product of a culture which requires people to fit into fairly strict gender roles.

Would men find it offensive to be told to get some ovaries or grow a womb?

I suspect that most people would be puzzled by this at first before becoming uncomfortable.
Puzzled, because the phrase is nonsense. So is telling someone to 'get some balls', of course, but the latter is a known figure of speech. In fact, the only reason people would even understand 'get some ovaries' is because they relate it to 'grow some balls'.
This is why men will become uncomfortable or angry. Privileged people, especially in a country with egalitarianism so central in its national mythology, do not enjoy having their privilege thrown in their faces.

On preview, everything that occhiblu said.
posted by atrazine at 10:35 AM on January 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


I don't think you are being too sensitive. It is a sexist and crude remark. But, your husband has it I think. It's just a figure of speech.

I sometimes enjoy saying: 'I'm just busting your balls', or 'stop busting my balls' to my sister, mom, husband, and other close family members or friends. I picked it up from my husband. He occasionally continuously pleads with me to stop busting his balls. I find this remark amusing for some reason, and I consider myself a feminist.
posted by LoriFLA at 10:37 AM on January 21, 2007


If you're offended, you're offended.

But I go by the intent of the speaker. If the intent is "your femininity is a disadvantage" then be offended.

However if the intent is "Quit being spineless and take action" then there is no reason to be offended.

Frankly I feel that taking offense is wasted effort unless the speak has truly evil intent.
posted by Ookseer at 10:37 AM on January 21, 2007


I think the phrase itself is pretty offensive, but the way in which people use it is not, the original meaning is crass and implies masculine superiority, but has strayed so far from it's root that it is harmless in most cases. If you do find it being used in an offensive manner, it is generally being used by the kind of person who uses many many more things in an offensive way, and you can pick them up on that without fear of appearing over-sensitive
posted by Iananan at 10:39 AM on January 21, 2007


It's not a phrase I use to anyone because there are plenty of people in the world possessing the appendage in question that entirely fail to display any sort of courage or moral fortitude. As far as I'm concerned, you might as well say "grow a foot, loser!"
Am I offended if someone says it to me? No. But I do admit to calling people of both genders "pussy" because it's such a ridiculously grade-school thing to say.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:42 AM on January 21, 2007


Would men find it offensive to be told to get some ovaries or grow a womb?

I was going to say this is not a big deal, but actually, I would hate that. It's like saying "you're inadequate, and you'll always be inadequate because of what you are". Not that I would ever have told a woman to get some balls in the first place.
posted by teleskiving at 10:47 AM on January 21, 2007


I think it's just a figure of speech and not necessarily offensive. Are you offended, for instance, if someone tells you to "buck up?"
posted by ludwig_van at 10:51 AM on January 21, 2007


You are being too sensitive.

Grow a pair or don't, just grow a thicker skin.
posted by Willie0248 at 10:51 AM on January 21, 2007


"Grow some balls" seems offensive to me, however, and relatively unintelligent, so I don't use it. However, I have a very, very hard time saying whether or not it's sexist.

Humans tend to associate masculinity with aggressiveness. Is that sexist? Or realistic?
posted by koeselitz at 10:55 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


however
posted by koeselitz at 10:55 AM on January 21, 2007


What does "it is offensive" mean?

I'm not trying to be a smart aleck. I really don't understand how a phrase can BE offensive.

People can be offended by a phrase, so I supposed a meaningful re-wording of your question might be, "If I told a lot of women to 'get some balls' would a significant number of them get offended?"

People can attempt to give offense by using a phrase, so another meaningful re-wording might be, "If someone tells a woman to 'get some balls,' is it likely that he's trying to offend her? Or is it likely that he is being consciously or unconsciously sexist?"

Surely there are no universals here. Not ALL women will be offended by the phrase. In fact, I have female friends (who I don't think are self-loathing) use the phrase. And not all people who use the phrase intend offense. And not all people who use the phrase are sexist. Though I'm sure that some are.

As it stands, this question is similar to "Is blue a pretty or an ugly color?"
posted by grumblebee at 10:58 AM on January 21, 2007


It actually just occurred to me that telling a guy to grow a pair is probably the larger problem -- telling a guy that unless he acts in a certain manner he's not a real man is likely much stronger reinforcement of patriarchal sexist gender norms than telling a woman she should be more like a man.

That is, impugning my masculinity because I'm not acting a certain way is bad, but at this point in time (depending on context), possibly shrug-off-able. It reinforces the idea that men are better than women, but it doesn't strike at the core of my own gender identity. Impugning a guy's masculinity is, unfortunately, still more likely to change his behavior, I think, and it's explicitly designed to strike at the core of his gender identity, and to make him fall in line with traditional models of masculine behavior.
posted by occhiblu at 11:00 AM on January 21, 2007


By the way, I really like the phrase. I've never used it, and I doubt I ever will, because I am aware that some might take offense. But I like it because it conjures a powerful image. It's a sharp metaphor.
posted by grumblebee at 11:01 AM on January 21, 2007


Given how grueling childbirth is, "Grow a womb" would seem to be the perfect counterpart -- "develop a strong enough will and enough courage to create new life and push out into the world, using nothing but your pelvic muscles."

Doesn't make sense. It's just a biological function, reduced down to reflex. Hell lots of woman get pregnant by accident, lots have abortions and it's what woman were designed for so it's hardly courage.

and yes, a lot of this can be applied to males also.

In the end, this comparison is flawed 'cause it's trying to compete on the male level which is based on physical strength and men, on average, are just stronger than woman. Of course that doesn't mean better. But if you want to get all into patriarchal systems and how oppressive they are and whatnot, then having a woman trying to show how great she is while competing in male terms still means the male viewpoint is king, yes?

That's bad ass. Testicles certainly don't physically possess such strength and power; I mean, seriously, it's the most vulnerable part of a guy's body.

and yet without it, that womb of your is just extra baggage.

These sorts of comparisons can go back and forth all day long. There's the old "woman are more sensitive 'cause they have things put inside them, while men are invaders" shtick.

or is it that men produce while woman consume?

or that men extend while woman surround?

or that men produce kids, while woman just carry them?


I don't know, but I'm getting bored, yet horny with all this talk, so I'm gonna go make a booty call.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:05 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


"It reinforces the idea that men are better than women..." I'm not picking on you, occhiblu, but I'd like to examine this statement further, because I've heard variations of it for years and have also probably said things like this in the past.

But what does it mean? I assume it means that...

1. Many people believe that men are better than women, but there's a possibility that they may change their mind or that we might be able to stop them from bringing other people over to their "dark side."

2. When people say "get some balls," the utterance of that phrase causes the "dark side people" to be less likely to become enlightened and -- worse -- it furthers their cause and helps them recruit new people.

All of this is possible, but ... evidence?

When I have discussed this with people, they often say things like, "Well, I believe the words we use matter!" But they never define "matter" or explain how they matter. In general, these people seem to be uttering a sort of vague, quasi-religious feeling about words.

I'm not claiming that words don't matter or don't have the power to change people. I'm fairly agnostic about it. I'm waiting for the evidence to appear and so far -- to the best of my knowledge -- it hasn't.

Sexism is a really complex problem, and I'm sure that all sorts of things lead to it and affect it. And any claim we make that "such-and-such specific thing leads to it" is likely to be wrong or overly simplistic.

My pop-psych feeling about discussions like this is that the "magic" words become a symbol for everyone involved. Sexism is a horrible thing, and many of us want to fight it. It's hard to always do this in practical ways. We can -- and do -- fight for equal pay for women (and the like), but such fights take years and sometimes we just want something simple to rally around and shout about RIGHT NOW. At that point, we usually start arguing about words. I don't think it does any harm. It gives people a chance to vent. But I also don't think such discussions stand up to close scrutiny.
posted by grumblebee at 11:12 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


No the point is that "Get a pair" should, physically, translate to "Develop a body part that's soft, vulnerable, and an easy target to unscrupulous adversaries." Yet we ascribe those things to the heart; why? I have no explanation that's not rooted in the idea that manliness=strength, and the stronger you are, the more manly you are. Which... is sexist crap.
posted by occhiblu at 11:14 AM on January 21, 2007


I'll grow a pair and fess up to being a very feminist woman who uses that expression. There's something deliciously crude about it, (and terms like pussy and cunt, as in don't be such a pussy, what a total cunt) that I like, because to me it's very working class, but you know what?

None of the justification I can write matters, because sometimes I just get sick and tired of the feminist "establishment" telling me what to say and who to say it to. I love being a feminist, but sometimes white, middle-class, middle-aged, academically-elite Western women need to blow me.
posted by lychee at 11:14 AM on January 21, 2007 [7 favorites]


I have used "ovaries" as the counterpart since sometime in college, which is ten years ago now, and I remember it being fairly popular in grrl-centric communities, esp back when drag king culture was having its moment... Someone complimented me a few weeks ago by saying I had balls for a position I took in a meeting, and I corrected him as to the nature of my gonads, but generally knew what he meant and wasn't offended (it gave me the opportunity for some playful banter, basically).

When "balls" refers to outrageous self-aggrandizement rather than resoluteness, "thatchers" is workable and a chance to reference everyone's favorite fake pundit.

"grow a pair" could be considered neutral, since ovaries are a pair, too.
posted by mdn at 11:15 AM on January 21, 2007


(The above was to Brandon)

grumblebee: As I said, I don't think this is a huge life-altering example of sexism. It's just an example, and one that (I think) demonstrates how pervasive these ideas are, but not something whose eradication would end the patriarchy. I'm not making any of the claims you're talking about.
posted by occhiblu at 11:16 AM on January 21, 2007


OP: Am I too sensitive?

No, lots of people feel this way. For me, I agree with those who think it's a crude and intellectually lazy thing to say. FWIW, testosterone comes from both the testes and the ovaries, but it's not necessarily linked to aggression.

Of course, it's a colorful metaphor, but there better and more effective ways to tell someone to be more assertive.

OP: Would men find it offensive to be told to get some ovaries or grow a womb?

Speaking as a man, for me it depends on how you say it and what you mean. I'd probably be confused, unless you put it in context.
posted by Robert Angelo at 11:26 AM on January 21, 2007


The phrase is politically (that is, publicly, broadly contextually, & re: power) problematic, ie. misogynist and generally frakked up. Personally (that is, regarding intent & context on a smaller scale) I think it's stupid and boring and demonstrates that the speaker either doesn't think language is an important part of feminist practice (unlikely) or doesn't think about feminist practice at all (more likely). Either way, forget them!

And though men may personally find the counterpart ("grow a womb, some eggs/ovaries") annoying or hateful, these phrases can never carry the immense political weight that misogyny does.

I think we may get more traction thinking about the loss of body parts instead: I like "lose some balls" to mean "stop being such an arrogant jerk." You know, stop carrying that vulnerable, oft-uncomfortable sack around that makes you feel like the world owes you something.

And no discussion of this would be complete without the Pussy Manifesto:

Manifest this Muthafucka #3:
I'm sick of my genitalia being used as an insult. Are you? It's time to let my labia rip and rearrange this. Here we go:
"That was so Pussy of you to help me move to my new place! Especially since I'm living on the 13th floor. You've really made this a Pussy move!"

….

Manifest this Muthefucka #5:
The Egg says, "Don't forget me, Muddafucka!"
The Egg must not be understated. Let the Egg be the symbol of all courage!
Here we go:
"Honey, that took Eggs for you to tell your customer off for not tipping you 20%!"
The Egg, like courage, is a delicate intricate shell surrounding ever-changing nutritious life!
Let the Egg be the teacher and the Pussy be its nest.

-- Bitch_and_Animal">Bitch and Animal

ps. because it is sometimes important to identify in conversations such as this: I AM A D00D.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:29 AM on January 21, 2007


Language is incredibly important and the words that we use shape our expectations of and understanding about our culture, ourselves and our world.

By using a phrase that admonishes women for not having male physical attributes or accuses men of lacking the same, we're directly equating masculine physignomy with the virtues of directness and assertiveness. It's strange to me that anyone can avoid seeing how sexist a phrase like that is.

It's a crude and pointless sort of thing to say.
posted by winna at 11:30 AM on January 21, 2007


"Get a pair" should, physically, translate to "Develop a body part that's soft, vulnerable, and an easy target to unscrupulous adversaries." Yet we ascribe those things to the heart; why?

This makes no sense. The testes are responsible for producing sperm and testosterone. Sperm fertilizes eggs, leading to reproduction, while testosterone is related to strength, libido, and aggression. Your symbolization of testicles as something soft, vulnerable, etc. is just as subjective/abstract/meaningless as using them as a symbol of strength and assertiveness.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:31 AM on January 21, 2007


No, just weird, as it doesn't make sense. Grow a balls is pretty well understood and can apply physically, socially, mentally etc, etc where as grow some ovaries or a womb is more muddled. Seriously, what the hell does that even mean?

Seriously, what the hell does "grow some balls" even mean? Inhere in oneself the ability to produce semen? To what end? There's nothing that can't be solved by a little bukkake?

Dude, check your head. "Grow balls" cannot "apply physically, socially, mentally, etc" if the person you're talking to is a woman. If that makes sense, so does grow an ovary. (Which, by the way, is a body part.)

But I go by the intent of the speaker. If the intent is "your femininity is a disadvantage" then be offended.

However if the intent is "Quit being spineless and take action" then there is no reason to be offended.


That's simply not true. Regardless of their intent, they're still transmitting this belief that courage = male. Most harmful traditions and institutions are perpetuated by people who didn't think much about them either way; intent matters very little in the end when it comes to the status quo.

As a species, socially, we are what we speak. Language is a virus and all that.

I agree someone isn't necessarily a bad person for using that phrase. But unless they've thought about the phrase (as some apparently have), I tend to take it as a sign of laziness and thoughtlessness at the least.
posted by poweredbybeard at 11:34 AM on January 21, 2007


occhiblu, I hope you didn't think I was singling you out. You just happened to (casually) bring something up that I often think about, so I used it as a springboard.

And now -- sorry -- I'm going to do it again: "it ... demonstrates how pervasive these ideas are..."

This is a fascinating claim, and it may be true. Or maybe not.

I'm one of those people who writes things like, "If someone wants to come over to my house, he should call first." I do this, because I hate all the other alternatives: "they" is grammatically incorrect; "he or she" is ugly; "she" seems like I'm purposefully trying to be non-sexist which distracts from the point I'm trying to make, etc.

Maybe I'm unconsciously sexist; or maybe I'm a well-meaning idiot who is unknowingly contributing an evil in the world. MAYBE.

And MAYBE the relationship between words and ideas is more complex and mysterious that we understand it to be.

I know that when I write, what's always in the forefront in my mind is the goal of being as evocative as possible -- to make things clear and sensual, so that my words communicate my ideas in a sharp, penetrating way.

I can easily imagine myself unhappy with "be brave." It's not sensual. And I can imagine replacing it with "grow some balls." It's stronger, because (a) the verb "grow" is easy to visualize, and (b) so are balls.

I would use it in the same spirit that I'd use, "he felt cornered, as if he was trapped in a cage of lions." An animal-rights activist might complain that I'm contributing to fear of lions, and he MIGHT be right. But I'm not ready to back away from the phrase until I see more hard evidence.

If I felt that my words seriously offended a great many people (or deeply hurt a small number of people), I would (reluctantly) change them. But that's because I don't like hurting people's feelings. It's not because my intention was to hurt; nor is it because I think that my words somehow create more sexism or reveal the hidden sexist inside me.
posted by grumblebee at 11:35 AM on January 21, 2007


To me, telling a woman she needs balls means ... testicles are very desirable even if you are a woman, being a man is very desirable even if you are a woman, and the only way to be courageous is to be masculine.

I'm not sure there is a clear answer to your query. This isn't a situation where there is a right answer, this seems to be a situation where you're wondering about how where your personal interpretations of this societal idiom lies on the spectrum of people's interpretation of the selfsame societal idiom. I think that this interpretation is a little extremist, personally. I've also not seen this idiom ever before as saying that a woman needs balls, I've seen it in a complimentary and appreciative fashion, when a woman has displayed an act of courage. "Man, does she have a pair on her!" Sexist? Perhaps. But I'm not sure that there is an idiom well-distributed and well-known amongst most of society that is a female interpretation of courage. Were one to be available, well-known, and natural (not manufactured, but organically grown), I think it would probably be commonly referred to and utilized.
posted by WCityMike at 11:37 AM on January 21, 2007


The words that we use shape our expectations of and understanding about our culture, ourselves and our world.

Is this a "faith-based" statement or do you have some evidence for it?
posted by grumblebee at 11:39 AM on January 21, 2007


I think it is offensive. Who wants to be like a man?

Approximately half of humanity wants to be exactly like a man, and many of these poor souls are succeeding.

Seriously, this is funny, not offensive. At the risk of ruining the joke by explaining it, nobody can literally grow a pair, and so being told to do so is absurd on its face. It's doubly absurd because if you did, it'd look ridiculous because, well, first, balls look pretty ridiculous to begin with, and plus, you're a woman, so they'd be totally out of place! Not to mention you don't have the genetic predisposition for them to begin with, so if you were going to grow a pair, you already would have. And then there is the irony that others have mentioned, that balls are actually soft and vulnerable. Absurdity is funny on its own (c.f. Douglas Adams or Monty Python) but there's absurdity piled on absurdity here. The proper response is to laugh, and explain to anyone who asks why you're laughing that it's because you think it's hilarious that the speaker thinks such a thing is even possible or desirable.

By the way, you are not your gonads. Just so we're clear 'bout that.
posted by kindall at 11:41 AM on January 21, 2007


If you're going to get offended, get offended that they're calling you a coward. Getting caught up in the specific words people use to express ideas is as useful as killing the messenger, sometimes.
posted by Hildago at 11:42 AM on January 21, 2007


I also substitued "ovaries" for "balls" in such phrases during high school ...
"I froze my ovaries off on the way in from the car"
"I'd give my left ovary for a car like that!!"
etc...
It just doesn't seem to work quite as well.
Also, as far as sexism goes, well, I think that there are worse things to worry about than someone telling me to grow a pair of balls. It seems that whenever I've heard the phrase used, it's been in a self-aware, "Yeah nobody believes that the presence or size of testicles has shit to do with how assertive an individual is; but it's a nice metaphor which gets the point across in a colorful and effective way".
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:42 AM on January 21, 2007


what's always in the forefront in my mind is the goal of being as evocative as possible

Heaven forfend our ability to evoke being impugned by considerations of equality.

If this isn't about gender stereotypes, then someone needs to explain to me why I can pretty much guarantee that complimenting some guy's act of courage by telling him "He's got quite a pair of tits" would evoke anger in most cases.
posted by poweredbybeard at 11:43 AM on January 21, 2007


I could see being offended by it because it's a crude remark about genitalia, and lots of people are offended by crude remarks about genitalia.

For the common uses of these phrases -- gather yourself up and do whatever needs doing -- there are perfectly good alternatives. Suck it up and use them. Or, if you're feeling allusion-y, gird your loins and actually think about what you're writing.

But the reasons SLoG gave seem like an insistence on spelling it "womyn."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:44 AM on January 21, 2007


what's always in the forefront in my mind is the goal of being as evocative as possible

Heaven forfend our ability to evoke being impugned by considerations of equality.


Sorry, I must have been unclear.

I don't think "being evocative" is more important than "being fair." Being fair is more important.

My point was that because being evocative IS very important to me, I might use a phrase for that reason -- without actually being sexist or intending offense. Some people might get offended, but the fact that someone gets offended doesn't mean that the speaker/writer intended to cause offense.

complimenting some guy's act of courage by telling him "He's got quite a pair of tits" would evoke anger in most cases.

I don't know any guy who would be offended by that; but I do know many men (and women) who wouldn't know what you were talking about.
posted by grumblebee at 11:50 AM on January 21, 2007


Well, here's the devil's advocate position: men have been telling each other variations on this phrase since the dawn of history (and probably language). That women's equality has advanced to the point where men now feel comfortable saying it to women, too, is an astonishing indicator of progress.

Here's what I really think, though: balls are linked with testosterone and the classically masculine behavioral traits that it, in actuality, does confer to a greater or lesser degree in a given individual. There are situations in which those traits are a help and situations in which they are a hindrance - the statement basically is indicating that this situation is one requiring those traits, and that the target needs to start exhibiting them. It may be guttural and indicative of low character on the part of the speaker, but it conveys the point and delivers some rebuke in one extremely concise phrase.

If you look at it from a detached perspective, it doesn't actually say that classical masculine traits are better, just you need to demonstrate some right here, right now.
posted by Ryvar at 11:55 AM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Read the Laches, with the understanding that courage in Greek is literally 'manliness.' Then ask, again, what is really being recommended in that "sack up." Can we ever have a conception of courage that is not characteristically militant and aggressive? If not, then why should you or I want to be courageous? If so, then what is this non-aggressive model of courage, and what anatomical features does it correspond to?
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:00 PM on January 21, 2007


Oops I borked my hyperzlinck!

The closest thing I can think of that would hit a man where it smarts would be calling him a bitch. Whiny? Needy? Submissive? An asshole? All in ways that are particular to women? But we all stopped saying THAT a long time ago, why is this any different? (wait … oooooohhhhhhhhh)
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:23 PM on January 21, 2007


Can we ever have a conception of courage that is not characteristically militant and aggressive?

Courage is simply overcoming one's own fear. There's nothing militant or aggressive about that per se.
posted by kindall at 12:24 PM on January 21, 2007


I might use a phrase for that reason -- without actually being sexist or intending offense. Some people might get offended, but the fact that someone gets offended doesn't mean that the speaker/writer intended to cause offense.

All sorts of things happen without people intending them to.

The general response is that people should learn from their mistakes or the unintended consequences of their actions.
posted by poweredbybeard at 12:26 PM on January 21, 2007


While I don't tend to use such phrases and generally find them pretty "jockish" (how's that for a negative gender stereotype?), at least they do make some degree of sense -- males castrated before puberty are commonly known to not develop much body/facial hair and don't build muscle mass nearly as well as men who were not castrated. This is not to say of course that eunuchs (or women!) can't be aggressive or forward or any of the other traits people mean when they say "manly".

The substitution of "ovaries" is unappealing to me, though. I'm not sure how not having ovaries during puberty affects females (anybody wanna fill me in?), but a woman lacking ovaries certainly doesn't have the cultural association with submissiveness that a man lacking testicles does. So it seems even more absurd, enough to push it past humorousness or ironicalness into non-sensicality, for me, at least.

Additionally, the "feel" of the imagery evoked is significantly different: while the image of a man lacking testicles is an image of a man lacking something that, interestingly, our culture both reveres and considers humorous, the image of a woman lacking ovaries is associated for me with a medical issue, either from a hysterectomy or a birth abnormality. I think more than a little of this feeling comes from the externality of testicles while ovaries are generally invisible due to internalness. Rather than something that people keep covered because of cultural shame or propriety, ovaries are concealed because if they're not, there's something very dangerous going on -- either a medical procedure or some sort of accident. "Freezing my balls off" sounds humorous to me, "freezing my ovaries off" sounds more grotesque. This could certainly just be me, though.

In summary, it's a stupid phrase, but substituting a more stupid phrase for it isn't the right solution.
posted by BaxterG4 at 12:32 PM on January 21, 2007


As a woman who considers herself a feminist, it doesn't offend me linguistically at all, since I just consider it a metaphor, and one that will probably die out over time. It might offend me because someone has just called me a coward, however.

Everyone feels offended by different things, so if someone says it to you, just tell them that you find that turn of phrase offensive, and move on. Perhaps they had never thought about it before. Maybe they will continue to use it anyway, but you never know, you might change a mind or two :)
posted by Joh at 12:32 PM on January 21, 2007


The "ovaries" subsitution doesn't work the same way simply because of the sound of the word. There's a reason the common expression is "grow some balls" rather than "grow some testicles." Come up with a catchy, mono-syllabic nickname for ovaries and then maybe there will be progress on that front.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:35 PM on January 21, 2007


Ahh, very good point, ludwig_van. I think that is also a significant factor in my dislike of that substitution.
posted by BaxterG4 at 12:42 PM on January 21, 2007


people should learn from their mistakes or the unintended consequences of their actions.

I agree. Was there something I said that made you think I didn't?

I think we're talking apples and oranges.

You're saying that if you discover that your actions -- well-meaning or not -- have caused someone pain, you should re-think those actions in the future. I agree 100%.

But my claims have nothing to do with that. I'm arguing that (a) unless you believe that words have magical powers, they can't be offensive in and of themselves; so (b) they only way "is X offensive?" makes sense is if it's asking whether the speaker INTENDED to cause offense or whether the listener FELT offended.

But there isn't just one speaker or one listener. There are many -- and each has a unique intent and/or response.

So the best we can do is take a survey. Raise your hand if you were offended. We can then ARBITRARILY decide that if -- say -- 50% were offended, we can label the phrase as offensive.

Look at it this way: what if there was a huge rally for African Americans, and they took a vote about whether or not the word "nigger" was offensive? Imagine that 90% of them said that it wasn't. I know that wouldn't really happen, but this is a thought experiment.

Imagine that it became common for both white and black people to refer to black people as niggers.

Imagine that just one black guy -- Fred -- is deeply offended by the word.

Is it offensive?

Such labels are arbitrary. They depend on how much stock you put in "the majority."

My answer would simply be that "nigger" is offensive to Fred and it isn't offensive to other people. But that's because I don't feel the need to definitively categorize a word.
posted by grumblebee at 12:42 PM on January 21, 2007


+1 wemayfreeze's point about the connotations of calling a man a bitch. Let's not pretend that these expressions are taken to be gender-neutral in meaning.

Green Eyed Monster: I always used 'tits' in the instances you reference, if feeling the need to be colorfully crude.

The problem with substituting ovaries for testicles is that ovaries are inside, and thus are not as concrete a reference, even if you have 'em. Breasts, on the other hand, are more analogous to testicles -- the source of much power, but physically somewhat delicate.
posted by desuetude at 12:45 PM on January 21, 2007


It's a sexist and intellectualy lazy cliché, as many have said, but it's disingenuous to be offended by it. You know what people really mean when they say it: if they really do mean that you should behave more like a man, then you're entitled to think they're idiots, but mostly I'm sure you understand that they are just saying that a little bit of courage or toughness is needed in a particular situation. I think you know that usually people who use the phrase are not genuinely suggesting that you attempt to grow testes.
If you choose to take offence because of the literal meaning of the phrase, that's your decision, but if you do that kind of thing you'll spend your life being pointlessly offended and people will laugh at you. You could be offended by the alternatives people have suggested, such as "show a little backbone" which is inconsiderate towards those with spinal injuries or deformities, if you so chose.
I suggest that it is wise to accept that our society, and many of the phrases and idioms in the English language, are inherently sexist. You can waste your energy in a politically correct rage being offended by this, or you can look past the words that people use and deal with what they actually mean by them. It's a choice.
posted by nowonmai at 12:49 PM on January 21, 2007


[a few comments removed, feel free to take up metaconcerns in the existing metatalk thread.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:50 PM on January 21, 2007


I reckon the term originated as advice from a man to another man and it just spread from there tp be universal. Personally, I think you're being far too sensitive and there must be better things to spend your energy on.
posted by razzman at 12:50 PM on January 21, 2007


"Grow a pair" and its equivalents have become really popular, and they're used by people who tend to use popular expressions. The speakers aren't thinking about the meaning; they just want to sound... cool? ....edgy? They end up sounding, as poweredbybeard said earlier, lazy.

I'd like to think that the first few people who said it to a woman did so with humor, and with full awareness of the irony or the incongruity of the phrase. Anyone who now tells me or any other woman to get some balls? Just as lazy, unfunny, and harmless as the millionth person ever to say, "Get a life." Their motive has everything to do with themselves, and nothing to do with me.
posted by wryly at 1:05 PM on January 21, 2007


Balls are responsible to the hormones that cause guys to among other things more gutsy. Its the best body part if you are going to be growing something that would make you do something you otherwise woudn't do.
posted by magikker at 1:20 PM on January 21, 2007


I think that a better response, rather than taking offense, would be to say to the guy who tells you to "get some balls" or similar: "Sure! Can I have yours, seeing as how you're not using them?"

Now, if it's a woman who says it to you, then I think you should just give her a look that says "What the hell are you talking about?"
posted by cerebus19 at 1:25 PM on January 21, 2007


I think "grow a pair" or "sack up" rates up there with "you're too sensitive" as useless and aggressive terms of speech. My personal preference in responding to these things in a business context, is to just look at the person in disbelief. What's the point in discussing it with them? There's no way they're going to get it. In a social context, I might call them on it, but only if I was looking to get some satisfacation by impaling them on the blade of my wit. (As you might expect, a rare and interesting event, usually fueled by alcohol and the company of dimwits).

I wonder that more men don't find "grow a pair" to be offensive. It seems almost deliberately designed to be so.
posted by b33j at 1:53 PM on January 21, 2007


Courage is simply overcoming one's own fear.

Is it courage to overcome one's fear in all things, or must we sometimes head our fears to prevent us from acting? For instance, is it courage to overcome one's fear of illness and avoid going to doctor? Is foolish bravado courage?
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:53 PM on January 21, 2007


head = heed
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:54 PM on January 21, 2007


Balls are responsible to the hormones that cause guys to among other things more gutsy.

Riiiight. Thus explaining why Amelia Earhart was known to consume the ballsacks of her vanquished foes.

Testosterone = "gutsiness"?

Wrong. And, again, lazy.

And, grumblebee:

I apologize for attibruting to you any beliefs you don't hold. I'll just close by saying that appeals to popularity aren't always the best way to determine whether something is actually ethical.

And I'll back off now, I'm getting too worked up.
posted by poweredbybeard at 2:00 PM on January 21, 2007


I do think it's sexist, although not all that offensive on the scale of these things. I've taken it to mean, "Be a grownup. Be an adult." There are frequently connotations of courage, as well, but I've personally thought of it as referencing a symbol of adulthood. I've used it, to my knowledge, once, in that way, and I suggested that some folk "Grow a pair, breasts or balls, it doesn't matter to me which."
posted by OmieWise at 2:01 PM on January 21, 2007


cerebus19, that's a good way to be intentionally offensive. I suppose if you like the idea of responding to intellectually laziness with insults, it's a good response.
posted by wierdo at 2:13 PM on January 21, 2007


I tend to respond to that particular sentence by paraphrasing a quote by some famous person I can't remember:

"I have balls, they're just further up."
posted by aclevername at 2:29 PM on January 21, 2007


My feeling is that when talking about women, you should say "lady balls", which can be interpreted as ovaries, or whatever the listener wants. It's both more sexist, and less sexist at the same time, forcing the listener to consider the sexist nature of "balls" as a stand in for strength and resolve.
posted by delmoi at 2:30 PM on January 21, 2007


"grow a pair" could be considered neutral, since ovaries are a pair, too.

I was going to say the same thing.

I don't usually use the term "grow some balls" in daily conversation, but it has occurred to me that the gender-neutral "get some gonads" is pretty awesome and I'm going to start adding it to my repetoire because "gonads" is a damn fine word that's not used nearly often enough.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:41 PM on January 21, 2007


Why must we use such an unclear and divisive euphemism instead of actually saying what we mean? What's the problem with saying, "I think you would be better off if you took action in this situation rather than tolerating what's going on." Or whatever you mean. Why must you refer to genitals and risk being misunderstood?

Oh and I understand "grow up", "wake up to yourself" and other phrases to be deliberately derogatory, even without a gender bias. It's putting the listener down, and is meant to be offensive. I count "grow a pair" in there as well. (The exception to the rule is when you're speaking to a close friend who you joke with in that fashion).

Leave my gonads out of it, and I'll leave your gonads alone too.
posted by b33j at 3:13 PM on January 21, 2007


Everyone will answer this according to their own taste and sensitivity level.

Absolutely true. I tend to sort of agree with you, though I don't feel as strongly as you do, but this is one of those things where you're never going to change the world and it's not really worth fighting over, so you might as well just get used to it. It's not like pay/power differentials; it's just a stupid expression that reveals the same mindset that brings about the differentials. But I love the feminist responses in this thread!

"they" is grammatically incorrect

No, it's not. Seriously. Singular "they" has been used throughout the history of (post-Old) English; I'm surprised that someone who is so reluctant to take the word of a not statistically significant number of women that a usage is "offensive" is so ready to take the word of a few self-appointed grammar mavens that a perfectly good usage is "ungrammatical." I don't want to derail the thread further, but if you're interested please write me and I'll send you as many confirmatory references/links as you need.
posted by languagehat at 3:42 PM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


The words that we use shape our expectations of and understanding about our culture, ourselves and our world...
***
Is this a "faith-based" statement or do you have some evidence for it?


The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is worth taking a look at.

Maybe Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Lingustics too? Just as a jumping off point for how language is theorized to operate.
posted by exlotuseater at 4:04 PM on January 21, 2007


It's crude and stupid, and people are often crude and stupid. But getting offended by something like this is the wrong response, I think: you learn something about the speaker when they say crude and stupid things. It's annoying and off-putting when people do it, true, but it's an effective way to winnow out the people you don't want to be around (after mentioning coolly to them that they are both crude and stupid, of course).

Oh, and I'm a man, but if someone I didn't consider friendly told me to 'grow a pair' or the equivalent, in a tone that wasn't self-mockingly joking, I'd consider punching them.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:15 PM on January 21, 2007


In my class I use the phrase 'intestinal fortitude' or the word 'gumption'. Both are analogous to 'grow a pair'.
posted by maxpower at 4:41 PM on January 21, 2007


exlotuseater's links are good, and I'd also add that the work of Michel Foucault and Lacan's interpretation of de Saussure is also valuable.

The notion that language shapes our perception of reality is not that controversial- if you look at the thread you'll see a number of posters who have accepted it in the course of their arguments.
posted by winna at 5:34 PM on January 21, 2007


Whenever I hear or see this phrase it makes me angry. To this point in my life, no other male has said this to my face, and if any man had, I would have made it a memorable day for him.

What makes it most offensive in my opinion, is the attempt it constitutes to deny a plain truth men who use it lack the courage and intellectual integrity to confront: men are extremely prone to line up behind authority, to follow orders and to submit themselves mind body and spirit to dominant ideologies and dominant men, no matter how corrupt or vicious these may be; in fact, the more corrupt and vicious, the more abject and enthusiastic the submission is generally likely to be.

It's striking and peculiar that these acts of submission refer as often as they do to the genitals of the dominator. Anyone who believes I am overstating this might find it instructive to peruse the last month or so of Metatalk and count the number of references to mathowie's.

When a man addresses a woman with this, he instantly identifies himself as a low status male desperately seeking someone to whom he can feel superior-- an act at once pathetic and contemptible. And he identifies himself as one of those men who think any woman (or man) who is willing to have sex with him can only be an inferior upon whom he is working his will.
posted by jamjam at 6:07 PM on January 21, 2007


My feeling is that when talking about women, you should say "lady balls", which can be interpreted as ovaries, or whatever the listener wants. It's both more sexist, and less sexist at the same time, forcing the listener to consider the sexist nature of "balls" as a stand in for strength and resolve.

Splendid, delmoi, I'll be sure to try that on the next recalcitrant female I encounter- chances are they could use a small lesson in potentially misogynist language as well as a bucking up.

I shall also tell guys to "grow some man-titties". For educational purposes, of course.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:40 PM on January 21, 2007


As a woman who considers herself a feminist, it doesn't offend me linguistically at all, since I just consider it a metaphor, and one that will probably die out over time.

As many others have said, it depends on context whether or not to get upset, but then again, the "context" will be different for different people.

I think for many people it is a metaphor similar to Welshing on a bet or He gypped me, both originally slurs, but nobody thinks of them as slurs any more. So if the person says "get some balls," and you ascertain that he means it NOT as a metaphor, then it is probably offensive, but if someone says it as a figure of speech, like gyp, or welsh, and doesn't even realize the connection until pointed out, then, probably not.

Its hard to decide what is offensive, what *should be * offensive and when to tell the difference. As a Jew, if someone said "Don't Jew me" I'd likely be offended, but I am sure in some parts of the country, the phrase "to Jew down" is as divorced from the original slur as to gyp or to get some balls.

PS I've never heard the term "sack up" until this thread, great phrase.
posted by xetere at 6:43 PM on January 21, 2007


I'm surprised no one has mentioned Joan Jett's famous quote, "Girls have got balls. They're just a little higher up, thats all."
posted by subtle_squid at 7:03 PM on January 21, 2007


Yes, it's sexist. It's an explicit reference to the balls as the source of testosterone, masculinity, and all traits desirable related to manhood. And, yes, it's deeply ingrained and unimaginative.

You don't ask how to respond, but my recommendation is a calm, cool stare, with the response "No, thanks, I won't be needing any."
posted by theora55 at 7:39 PM on January 21, 2007


Singular "they" has been used throughout the history of (post-Old) English

I'm sure you're right. And now that I think about it, I've read about this before. I have to admit -- it still bothers me. I can't hear the word "they" without thinking of multiple people. So hearing, "When someone comes home, they like to relax" creates a really ugly disjoint in my head. But that's probably just my quirky problem.

I'm surprised that someone who is so reluctant to take the word of a not statistically significant number of women that a usage is "offensive" is so ready to take the word of a few self-appointed grammar mavens...

I'm having a very hard time expressing myself, and perhaps I should quit, but I'll try one more time: I DO take the word of those women. They are claiming that they're offended and I believe that -- yes -- they are offended.

I can't go that extra step and agree that the phrase is offensive.

That's not because I discount them. In fact (as I've said), I wouldn't use the phrase myself because I wouldn't want to offend them. But I can't agree that the phrase is offensive, because I don't think a phrase can be intrinsically offensive. I think words and phrases are neutral -- sort of like Rorschach Tests. Different people will read different things into them.

In my first post, I suggested that this question is meaningless and I stand by that statement. Similar questions: are cats better than dogs? Is Rap music bad? Is it okay to be a Democrat?

The notion that language shapes our perception of reality is not that controversial- if you look at the thread you'll see a number of posters who have accepted it in the course of their arguments.

I never claimed it was controversial. I claimed that many people keep saying this but they're not providing any evidence for their claim. You and I both agree that "a number of posters ... have accepted it." I think this assumption is worth questioning.

I'll just close by saying that appeals to popularity aren't always the best way to determine whether something is actually ethical.

I'm confused. When am I appealing to popularity?

Do you think I'm suggesting that we should decide what's ethical by polling people? I'm not. I'm suggesting that it's impossible to determine if a word or phrase is offensive. That's like trying to determine if a rock is happy or jealous. Rocks don't have feelings; words are sounds (or markings on paper/screens). They can't "be" offensive, though people can be offended by them.

If we really must classify a work as offensive, I see no other way of doing it besides polling. Saying that a word is offensive is then a kind of shorthand which means that a lot of people are offended by it. I'm disquieted by that for the same reasons you are. I'm not happy with using polling to drive ethics. Fairly recently in my country, polls would have shown that a significant number of people were offended by black people sitting in the front of the bus.
posted by grumblebee at 8:21 PM on January 21, 2007


Like many idioms, this one is used to convey an idea that cannot be succinctly and clearly expressed in another way, which is why the abbreviated version is popular to begin with.

'Get some balls' does not mean 'too bad you don't have any balls,' or 'I'm calling into question the existence of your balls.'

What it translates to, roughly, is this: 'Summon forth the part of your psyche that gives you a clarity of drive and obstinancy of purpose, to do the thing that you want to do.'

Yes, that mentality is not exclusive to men, and there are other ways of expressing it, but here we have a convenient shorthand. Like all metaphors, it asks the reader/listener to make a little jump; the relation between signifier and signified is not crystal clear, and a political defense of the metaphor cannot be built into every use of it; but that does not mean that it should be interpreted in the basest, most literal and unimaginative way.

In terms of whether or not you are too sensitive. Well, it all depends. Too sensitive for what? If you mean 'too sensitive to have a reasonable discourse with the majority of human beings with whom you might have reason to interact,' then yes, you are. If you plan to interact only with people who see the world exactly as you do from here on out, then no, you are not.
posted by bingo at 8:46 PM on January 21, 2007


Am I being too sensitive?

Nope, I think asking a woman to grow a pair is kind of insulting, no matter how the sayer intended it to be meant, unless it was said by a close friend in a moment of jest or some other tom-foolery.
I don’t know—I guess I’m as sensitive as you are on this issue, and I’m a guy. (For what it’s worth—if someone told me to grow a womb/some ovaries… I don’t know—it just doesn’t have the same aspect, but I’m not sure how receptive I’d be to the whole idea…)
posted by hadjiboy at 9:26 PM on January 21, 2007


It's offensive because it presumes one's interlocutor is wanting in courage, a martial virtue.

It has not been so many years since frankly stating an opinion of this sort committed you to either a duel or a humiliating public retraction.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:51 PM on January 21, 2007


When offense is not intended, and it's given in the usual spirit (ie this is guy-talk, but we figure in this new enlightened society it's ok to include you and speak our language to you), or in a humorous spirit, then it is being too sensitive to take offense.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:38 PM on January 21, 2007


Am I being too sensitive?

999 out of 1000 times, the answer to this question is "yes". The answer to this question is "OMG yes!"

You know what the expression means. Invent whatever "anti-woman" subtext you want to look for, it can't put those meanings into the mind of someone if they weren't already there.

Doesn't anyone worry that this nonsense distracts from real gender issues? Christ, women get screwed all the time for real, you want to worry about idiom etymology?
posted by spaltavian at 1:14 AM on January 22, 2007


It actually just occurred to me that telling a guy to grow a pair is probably the larger problem -- telling a guy that unless he acts in a certain manner he's not a real man is likely much stronger reinforcement of patriarchal sexist gender norms than telling a woman she should be more like a man.

There isn’t anything wrong with that in itself—I mean using the phrase as criticism of the other’s behaviour, and independently in the context of what is masculine and what isn't. As criticism, well, no-one's going to argue that everyone should stop saying ‘don't be an idiot’ to their friends, and I think that sort of interjection can be useful and clarifying. (It can also be mindless and ill-considered—depends on the speaker and context.)

As to the other, what people seem to miss now and then is that (straight) men need to have some social idea, some orientation as to what is masculine behaviour. Because like it or not, (straight) women use those as cues for their own attraction, as indeed lesbian women seem to. And courage is a much more positive trait to that end than Peter Griffin/Doug Heffernan idiocy, or Mick Jagger adultery and hedonism, or Eminem’s interest in violence and misogyny.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 1:24 AM on January 22, 2007


words are sounds (or markings on paper/screens). They can't "be" offensive, though people can be offended by them.

come on - if this were true then your entire post was just ei9bpk dimee ki8mbvv vjk jh opppw, kdh nblk cvudlw ;;asoo. Obviously words are not "just" markings or sounds. They are expressions of ideas. They are shared concepts, articulations of our perceptions and interpretations of the world. You may not care all that much what other people think, and therefore not be easily offended by other people's ideas, but clearly words represent what people are thinking.

I think there are two levels of possible offense that this phrase may trigger. First of all there is the more visceral fact of a direct insult, ie, the simple meaning of "you are weak and need to toughen up." This could be expressed by other phrases: get over it, grow a thicker hide - and the level of offensiveness may depend largely on how it is delivered. Secondly, there is the sexist component; we can separate this by considering whether the phrase used in a complimentary way would still be considered offensive (ie, if someone congratulated you for "having the balls" to stand up for something). The offense here is a larger social picture that men are more likely to be courageous or stand up for things. This is an ancient stereotype (quite literally - plato & aristotle talk about the virtue of "andreas" which is usually translated "courage" but basically means "manliness"). It can be taken as a positive or a negative: men are thought to be more likely to be brave and heroic, but also to be rash, presumptuous and looking to start a fight.

The first part isn't really a worthwhile question - sure, it's an insult to insult someone. So the question really is, are stereotypes insulting, specifically the stereotype that men are "manly"... and honestly I think we're living at a kind of interesting time for this question. I think the rise of nerdiness & metrosexuality have altered what traits are valued in men, and 30 years of feminism has given women a lot more room for interpreting their own gender. There is a mini-movement trying to revitalize "manliness" but I think that's primarily because it's been recognized as kind of an outdated notion. Colbert's constant jokes about having balls references the empty promise here: I have balls on TV means I'm loud and aggressive when sitting in a climate controlled highly secured and supervised studio. In the modern world, testosterone is just not that relevant.

Basically, I wouldn't get that upset over it, because I think the phrase has only come back into play because of ironic or reactive use. Respond in kind.
and if we all try to live in a manner which displays the right balance between courage and prudence, perhaps we can come to see all gonads as created equal. If you tend to be too meek, work on being brave; if you tend to be too rash, work on being careful. We can all moderate ourselves toward an ideal, wherever our unchecked hormones might initially direct us.
posted by mdn at 5:48 AM on January 22, 2007


I have balls on TV means I'm loud and aggressive when sitting in a climate controlled highly secured and supervised studio. In the modern world, testosterone is just not that relevant.

mdn, while I agree with much of what you said, this part is a severe oversimplification, and I think the question of whether or not that simplification is reasonable is pretty much the core of this issue.

The fact that testosterone is no longer providing men with the aggression they need to slaughter boars or fend off cougars doesn't mean that it's no longer being used for anything. We might *survive* without testosterone, but that doesn't make the fact that we have it irrelevant, and it doesn't make the fact that men generally possess more of it than women irrelevant either. Don't get me wrong; women generally have more estrogen than men do, and men generally have more testosterone than women do, and it's ridiculous to say that either way is better by some objective standard. But we all have chemicals pumping through our bodies that, for better or worse, have an influence on our attitudes and temperaments. Our attitudes and temperaments, in turn, impact the way we deal with competition and desire and the yearning to leave something behind when we die, even if that competition is not for a limited supply of food, and that desire is not for the only available mate, and that thing we're leaving behind is not a child, but a business, or a school of thought, or a work of art.
posted by bingo at 9:07 AM on January 22, 2007


As to the other, what people seem to miss now and then is that (straight) men need to have some social idea, some orientation as to what is masculine behaviour. Because like it or not, (straight) women use those as cues for their own attraction

Yes, see, this is the exact problem I'm talking about, the idea that only one rigidly defined set of behaviors is allowed for men, because otherwise girls won't like you. It's the exact counterpart of "You must wear high heels, and act dumb, and let him open doors for you and pay for your dinner, and coo over babies, otherwise you're not a real girl and boys won't like you" that women have been fighting for decades.

Reinforcing stereotypically masculine behavior by telling men or boys that not engaging in it means they're not "real men" (that is, that they don't have balls) tells them that they must prioritize displays of courage or strength over their own feelings, that they must never display doubt, that doing so is "girly." These sorts of commands specifically penalize boys and men for breaking out of sexist stereotyped roles and trying to engage in more complex behavior.
posted by occhiblu at 10:26 AM on January 22, 2007


I don't see it as particularly any more offensive (and it is only a wee bit offensive) said to a women than said to a man. The first comment in this thread is spot on.
posted by caddis at 11:04 AM on January 22, 2007


"I think it is ridiculously pro-male, anti-female"

It's not. You're overreacting. It's a figure of speech used by those that can't seem to remember the phrase "grow a spine."
posted by drstein at 11:14 AM on January 22, 2007


So then is it also offensive to say "grow a spine," as many people have already said in this thread? Because, I mean, there's plenty of people who have non-functioning spines, and are courageous risk takers who have all the qualities that those of us with functioning vertebrae have.

(I just find it very revealing about some of the posters who are saying that "grow some balls is anti-female" in the same breath that they are suggesting "grow a spine" as an alternative.)

But really...

Some things offend you, some don't. If you're offended, fine, but please keep in mind that many types of people use this expression in many different ways. As George Carlin is often quoted as saying, it's all about context.

Maybe what's more important is to look at who is saying it and what their intention is, rather than simply trying to paint things as black and white, offensive or not.

Also, are you planning to take any of the "advice" offered in this thread? Judging by the title of this post, "No balls for me, thank you," your mind is already made up, but I've been happy to join in the frenzy here.
posted by dead_ at 12:58 PM on January 22, 2007


clearly words represent what people are thinking.

Sort of.

My base assumption is that psychic abilities do not exist. Since they don't, your mind can not directly link to my mind. So, when I have an idea, I have to use words to get it across.

My idea generates words. Those words aren't linked to my idea, which is only in my brain. But HOPEFULLY, since we come from the same (or similar) cultures, when you hear my words, a similar idea will be triggered in your brain. You're basically reverse-engineering the words into an idea. And you're assuming that idea was the same one that was originally in my head.

Generally, this works well. Partly this is due to cultural similarities I brought up earlier; Partly it's due to the fact that it probably won't kill (or even hinder in any obvious way) the conversation if your translation (or my communication) is slightly off the mark.

For instance, let's say I'm imagining the 300 room mansion I grew up in. I might say, "I grew up in a really large house." When you hear those words, you might reverse-engineer them into an image of me in a 25-room house, which is big but not big on the scale of my original idea.

We may never learn about this disparity, because a vague idea of bigness may be all that's needed for the conversation to be satisfying to both of us. (Though it would be odd if, years later, you visited my childhood home. You'd have that jarring sensation of "Wow! I was totally off the mark when we talked!")

I maintain that these misunderstandings happen constantly. If two people talk for an hour, there are probably hundreds of incorrect -- but unimportant -- mistranslations that happen.

But they become important when we start asking questions like, "is X an offensive word?"

And here -- over a hundred comments into this thread -- we still haven't defined what it means for a word (or group of words) to be offensive. How can we possibly answer this question meaningfully without doing that?

Is X offensive if 9 out of 10 people are offended by it? (What bout 4 out of 10?)

Is X offensive if, when I say it, I mean to hurt your feelings, but your feeling are NOT hurt?

Is X offensive because certain words have a property that makes them, by nature, offensive? Like the tree falling in the forrest, would X be offensive if it happened to be formed out of twigs whipped randomly into the shape of X's letters? Would it be offensive if no one saw it?

Let's say you agree with one of these possibilities. Then the next questions is: so what? YOU may think that if 4 our of 10 people are offended it makes sense to label X as offensive, but why should we go with your definition? How is your definition beneficial to the world at large?

Re: the 4 out of 10 or 9 out of 10 thing. I'm an atheist. Many people (in certain areas) are offended by atheism. They get upset if they even hear the word. So if I'm around them, and I use the word, there's no question as to whether or not I'm offending them. I AM offending them. Does that mean that the word "atheism" IS offensive?

Is it not offensive because those people are stupid or backward or intolerant? Do only us "smart people" get to decide what's genuinely offensive?
posted by grumblebee at 1:10 PM on January 22, 2007


Yes, see, this is the exact problem I'm talking about, the idea that only one rigidly defined set of behaviors is allowed for men, because otherwise girls won't like you.

I didn’t write only one rigidly defined set of behaviours is allowed for men. There is no shortage of successful men, in every field of human endeavour, and they have had a rich variety in their personal lives.

No-one with any curiosity about the world in general can fail to notice that of those men who did awesome work, who changed the world for the better and generally had no problems finding women who liked them while they were at it—because, yes, actually, dying alone and cranky is a bad thing, paying attention to how the sex you’re interested in functions is worthwhile—precious few lived their lives according to the norms of male behaviour in an anti-intellectual rural Ireland (my background) or a blue-collar US (what I imagine you’re talking about).

People pick and choose how they live, they always have. But one consideration in that always will be what the wider social norms for their sex are. A cultural value of ‘men being courageous are better as men’ is a good thing. And it is a distinct thing from ‘men must prioritize displays of courage or strength over their own feelings, [they] must never display doubt,’ despite what you write, and I think anyone who tries to confuse the two in adolescent minds is doing them a disservice. (Also, once you hit sixteen or so, pace Arnold, the jibe is more ‘are you men or [Momma’s] boys?’)

Also, in every recorded society, historical or modern—including modern Scandinavia, where the proportions are different from the rest of the first world but not changing further—you have activities and patterns of behaviour that are disproportionately of one sex or the other. You are always going to have some cultural perceptions that flow from these. What a society could choose would be to jettison the others, of which ‘a courageous man is better as a man’ is one, to my knowledge. But I don’t believe, all other things being equal, that a society without that belief would be a better place than one with it.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 1:20 PM on January 22, 2007


Because cavemen told each other to "grow a pair" when faced with mammoths?

I think there's a difference between saying there are advantages to qualities that we think of as masculine, and telling men who aren't currently displaying those qualities, regardless of whether the situation warrants it, that they aren't real men. "Grow a pair" is not generally said to men about to jump into unknown feats of humanitarianism. "Get some balls" is not the epitome of hard-won knowledge compassionately shared from father to son. "Stop being such a mama's boy" is hardly what MLK told his followers when telling them to stand up to injustice.

Courage, daring, and strength are wonderful things. We couldn't survive as a society without them. They are things that women also possess, and I hope that in most men they are tempered by wisdom, thought, and gentleness. All of these qualities are good things, but someone who displays the latter on occasion should not have to defend his manhood against schoolyard taunts. "Being a man" should mean more than conforming to stereotype.

As for what women think, the best I can say is that most feminists will tell you that any guy who can't handle a woman who thinks for herself, is financially independent, and has equal social, legal, and financial rights as he does, doesn't deserve her. I would like to see the same extended to men, where a man can be who he wants to be without having to conform to rigid stereotypes, and if that cuts down his pool of potential mates, well so be it -- they didn't deserve him. But taunts like "Grow a pair" are specifically designed to work against that goal, to teach boys that they are not men unless they conform to certain stereotypes, and that a man is not something they are but something they must do. I think that attitude is harmful.
posted by occhiblu at 4:23 PM on January 22, 2007


grumblebee, I basically agree with your assessment of the mechanics of language, but that doesn't really alter the issue here; it only allows for a misunderstanding of reference (in yr example "large house" refers to a 300 room house rather than a 25 room house).

But in this example, everyone understands what "balls" refers to (we'll presume). There are no notably ambiguous terms in this exchange, and though on a philosophic level I agree that transmission of meaning is always approximate, the real difficulty in this case is regarding the comfort with assumptions about male vs female traits, not the specific details of the referent itself. Someone who uses the phrase straightforwardly is

mdn, while I agree with much of what you said, this part is a severe oversimplification, and I think the question of whether or not that simplification is reasonable is pretty much the core of this issue.

The fact that testosterone is no longer providing men with the aggression they need to slaughter boars or fend off cougars doesn't mean that it's no longer being used for anything. We might *survive* without testosterone, but that doesn't make the fact that we have it irrelevant... we all have chemicals pumping through our bodies that, for better or worse, have an influence on our attitudes and temperaments.


sure, but we have many more chemicals than just the ones which determine gender, and it seems as if differences are greater among individuals than between the sexes, so whether or not you have balls does not necessarily give you all that much information about your capacities as a person.

But yes, I suppose this is the key issue: does being male make you actually more able to attain a certain kind of virtue, so that men should be expected to live up to it more readily, and women should be forgiven for not living up to it more easily? If so, then telling a man to "grow a pair" is saying, look, for you being brave should be available, because you are chemically endowed with a source of bravery. However, in this case, telling a women the same thing would be nonsensical.
posted by mdn at 5:50 PM on January 22, 2007


I think there's a difference between saying there are advantages to qualities that we think of as masculine, and telling men who aren't currently displaying those qualities, regardless of whether the situation warrants it, that they aren't real men. "Grow a pair" is not generally said to men about to jump into unknown feats of humanitarianism. "Get some balls" is not the epitome of hard-won knowledge compassionately shared from father to son. "Stop being such a mama's boy" is hardly what MLK told his followers when telling them to stand up to injustice.

Well said, and this raises a point that has perhaps gotten lost in this debate. "Grow a pair" is a taunt disguised as advice. It doesn't mean "be more brave", it means "You're being a pussy." (I mean "pussy" In the commonly-understood pejoritive sense of "weakling," of course, not in the "awesome power that causes men to abandon all reason for hope of it" sense.)
posted by desuetude at 6:23 PM on January 22, 2007


But yes, I suppose this is the key issue: does being male make you actually more able to attain a certain kind of virtue, so that men should be expected to live up to it more readily, and women should be forgiven for not living up to it more easily?

That's not what I was trying to say, especially since you're bringing 'bravery' and 'virtue' into it, and thus making it a moral issue.

We all have the capacities within us to do many different things at any moment, some of which come less naturally to some of us than others. There are different types of bravery, and different types of strength.

'Get some balls,' to me, means 'get in touch with the part of yourself that is most proverbially male, i.e. destructive, aggressive, craving dominance.' Whether you actually believe that men tend to have these traits more than women is really not the issue. The amount of testosterone that the person hearing this actually has is not the issue either. The reference is to an idea; even if you are a seventeen year-old male from a long line of warrior cheiftains, you still don't come with a switch that says "turn aggression on." Hence the imperative: get some, grow some, find some, whatever. The implication, backhanded as it may be, is that it's possible for the person listening to embrace, summon forth, or even fake the primal drive needed to get through the situation at hand. What exactly you have to do - tap into your anger, imagine the face of your worst enemy, or merely imitate an attitude that may not come naturally to you at all - male or female - depends on the individual. Some people without much testosterone are able to effectively act as if they have quite a bit of it when they need to.
posted by bingo at 8:10 AM on January 23, 2007


Thank you everyone for your input; I knew I could rely on MeFites for thoughtful answers and there was quite a spectrum. I tried very hard to be open to all your ideas and not necessarily seize on the answers that reflected my own opinion (such as craichead 's)

While WCityMike summed up the situation perfectly, it was Ryver's post that really resonated with me. At the end of the day I kept thinking about this:
men have been telling each other variations on this phrase since the dawn of history (and probably language). That women's equality has advanced to the point where men now feel comfortable saying it to women, too, is an astonishing indicator of progress.
It is not something you would have heard men saying to women in the 50's!


Also, are you planning to take any of the "advice" offered in this thread? Judging by the title of this post, "No balls for me, thank you," your mind is already made up, but I've been happy to join in the frenzy here.
posted by dead_ at 3:58 PM EST on January 22

I originally started thinking about this after an on-line discussion of the Jim/Pam romance on the Office where posters repeatedly told Pam to grow a pair. It struck me as odd and even a little humorous, but the more I thought about it the more irritated I became. I began seeing this strange advice to women in other places as well, however, up until this AskMe post no one had ever told me to grow a pair. So while I still don't want an actual pair of balls, I promise to be less outraged by the metaphor in the future.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:51 AM on January 23, 2007


Well, looks like my other comment got deleted (probably because it was a little ambiguous coming from such a noob), but I do think it's interesting to compare the use and acceptance of "grow some balls" with the colloquial use of "gay" as a general pejorative. Is "grow a pair" acceptable where "that's gay" isn't because it's more descriptive of a certain behavior type? They both seem to spring from a similar preconception about the "right" way to be (hetero/male).

Growing a set of balls is never (in my experience) used to describe negative "male-type" behavior ("Why did you go and grow those balls last night? You got us thrown out of the bar!") Rather, it describes taking what most people would agree is the right course of action (being confident and assertive, not getting taken advantage of), but it defines that course of action as the male thing to do, and suggests that the person being told needs to be more male in order to do the right thing. "Getting in touch with your feminine side" is less crude, but just as lame in my opinion.

I don't think either idiom is bad enough that I'd interrupt somebody to call them out over it, but it would certainly color my opinion of the person I was talking to, and tell me that their view of gender identity might be pretty different from mine. Strong men also cry. Sensitive women also kick ass. Heterosexuals also are, uh, whatever "gay" means when you use it like that.

Also, hi folks! Nothing like decloaking right into a train wreck.
posted by contraption at 12:10 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


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