Pretty and Witty and Gay: Labels are for People (and Soup Cans)


Pretty and Witty and Gay

Mac Ploetz

When I was in middle school, I was really into a Facebook application called “Pieces of Flair.” In this application, users were able to find digital buttons with photos or slogans on them to display on a digital corkboard. It was a healthy way to express myself, especially since many of the buttons had positive messages. One such message (which I thoroughly enjoyed at the time) was particularly common: Labels are for soup cans.

It’s unsurprising that this ideation has permeated many interactions I’ve had with my peers. After all, once you realize that language is entirely socially constructed, it’s easy to dismiss the uses of labels. Popular adult-life iterations of this sentiment are, among others, as follows: “I don’t care if you’re black, white, purple, green, etc.,” or “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight,” or “We all bleed red,” or “We are all human.”

Just because something is socially constructed does not mean it is meaningless

This general thought–that labels are an ultimate hindrance on the movement for total social equality–is incredibly flawed.

The most common defense I’ve heard of this sentiment is that language and social roles are constructed. This is true, yes, but just because something is socially constructed does not mean it is meaningless. Our first names are constructed–does this mean our names don’t matter? There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what social construction means in these cases, which is frustrating particularly because by dismissing the meaning of social difference, one can easily ignore inequity.

Someone who says they don’t see color is ignoring a national history of institutional racism. They tout themselves as post-race, but the reality is that race still very much matters. Race is a construct, but that construct has been used to disenfranchise and oppress people of color.

I have the awesome privilege of watching so many folks understand and define their own identities for, maybe, the first time in their lives. When someone claims a label, they are claiming a community. They claim power in their marginalization. Sure, someone may not have to say they are gay to be gay, but when people are still losing their jobs and homes for their sexuality, naming that label may be empowering.

Finally, the ignorance of labels is a privilege within itself. If you don’t have to think about your identities, labels may seem silly, but for folks who do think about it, it matters. Labels are on soup cans, yes, but they’re for people, too.