2016: the bad, the bad and the ugly

Once again tis the season to look back on the last twelve months, and since we’re talking about 2016, that may not make for uplifting reading (unless your heroes are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and President-Elect Donald Trump). If the Words of the Year chosen by dictionaries are any guide, the mood among English-speakers is darker than it was a year ago. Whereas Oxford’s choice in 2015 was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji, in 2016 it has gone for ‘post-truth’; other dictionaries’ selections have included ‘paranoid’, ‘surreal’ and ‘xenophobia’.

The reasons why this year sucked were not primarily to do with language, but language played a part—in some cases quite a prominent part. So, this review will be more about the lowlights than the highlights. Here are six of the worst:

Bantering bigots. In my 2015 annual round-up I named ‘banter’ as the word I’d most like to ban (if banning words were either feasible or desirable, which IMHO it isn’t). But banter continued to be exchanged in 2016, and the word ‘banter’, and variations thereon, continued to be used to wave away accusations of misogyny and bigotry. Both these tendencies peaked in October with the release of a 2005 tape in which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump engaged in what he and his defenders called ‘locker room talk’. He was elected just a few weeks later.

Relentlessly sexist commentary on female politicians, often focusing (most notably in the case of Hillary Clinton) on their voices and style of speaking. All the familiar word-weapons—‘shrill’, ‘harsh’, ‘grating’, ‘aggressive’—were deployed by all the usual suspects.

If you’re thinking, ‘but surely there was plenty of critical commentary on Donald Trump’s language too’, you’re not wrong, but the comparison is instructive. When negative judgments are made on the speech of a female politician, her alleged failings are typically presented as the failings of her sex in general. Trump’s failings, on the other hand, were presented as his alone. They were ‘Trumpisms’, not ‘man-isms’ (it was even argued that Trump talks like a woman). The one exception was the ‘locker room talk’, where the idea that this was typical male behaviour got wheeled out not to condemn Trump but to excuse him.

If a female politician is widely acknowledged as an excellent public speaker, you can always accuse her of talking too much. In April, Owen Smith MP (in case you’ve forgotten, he was the man who unsuccessfully challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party leadership) tweeted about his visit to a café in Millport in Scotland. He included two photos, one showing him with his arms around two of the ‘ladies’ (his description) who worked there, and the other showing a jar of old-fashioned gobstoppers. The part of the tweet relating to this second image said: ‘they’ve got the perfect present for @NicolaSturgeon, too’. A gobstopper, geddit? Because Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland (and at the time—before Theresa May became PM—the most powerful female politician in the UK), talks entirely too much and needs a good shutting up.

The continuing war on the word ‘women’. Two of the most popular posts I published this year touched on the question of why ‘women’ now seems to be the hardest word. In April the women’s section of the UK Green Party set off a Twitterstorm with its use of the term ‘non-men’. Across the Atlantic in September we had Planned Parenthood talking about ‘people’ being ‘criminalised for their pregnancy outcomes’. And throughout the autumn there were regular sightings of a new addition to the lexicon of ‘women’-avoidance: ‘menstruators’.

Having rejected sex or gender-based labels as essentialist and exclusionary, promoters of this term apparently felt that bodily function-based labels were the way to go. I, by contrast, feel pretty sure they aren’t. If you don’t want to say ‘women’, OK, I get it, but why not try using your linguistic judgment to find a contextually appropriate alternative? In this case, where the news story was about the removal of sales tax on pads and tampons, ‘sanitary product buyers’ would have worked—or where the report had already made clear what products were being discussed, just ‘customers’. If you’d find it offensive, or just plain weird, to read statements like ‘the recent fall in the price of toilet paper has been welcomed by defecators across the country’, or ‘perspirers have questioned the classification of deodorant as a luxury’, then you shouldn’t be giving house-room to ‘menstruators’ either.

More terrible advice and stupid opinions about women’s speech. This year hasn’t (yet) brought us anything quite as ludicrous as the ‘Just Not Sorry’ app that appeared at the very end of 2015, but bullshit continued to be churned out by the bucketload. It remained a truth universally acknowledged that women apologise too much, and constant criticism of female ‘verbal tics’ was once again presented as empowering rather than underminingAn op-ed piece in the New York Times added ‘I feel like’ to the list of words and phrases women should avoid if they want anyone to take them seriously—while also managing to relate the rise of ‘feeling like’ to Everything That’s Wrong With Our Society Today. (If anyone from the Times is reading this, I’d be happy to advise on what linguistic opinions editors should avoid giving space to if they want anyone to take them seriously.)

Not all bad advice is addressed to women: some of it is advice for men on how to make women’s lives a misery. The example that got most attention this year advised on how to make a woman take off her headphones and PAY ATTENTION. Because it’s part of a woman’s job description to be available to random men who want to converse with her AT ALL TIMES.

Death. It’s become a truism (though maybe not an actual truth) that 2016 brought a bumper harvest for the Grim Reaper. Two posts on this blog reflected that: one was a response to the death of the architect Zaha Hadid and the other was prompted by the murder of Jo Cox MP.

Online misogyny. In 2016 the abuse directed at women online was widely acknowledged as a significant problem, and in Britain it was the subject of a high-profile cross-party campaign—which was launched with a report that managed to blame half of the problem on women. (If you want to read something more sensible on this subject, I can recommend Emma Jane’s new book Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History.)

There were a few small consolations:

Resolution 109. The American Bar Association made the use of patronising endearment terms to women lawyers a breach of professional standards. (Meanwhile in the UK, a female judge responded to a male defendant who called her a cunt by saying ‘you’re a bit of a cunt yourself’.)

Women political speakers kicking ass. In the wake of the referendum that brought us Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon showed once again that few politicians can touch her when it comes to rhetorical skill. The US presidential campaign brought another outstanding female political speaker to the world’s attention: Michelle Obama.

Arrival. Not the best thing I’ve ever seen, but hey, Hollywood made a film about a woman linguist who saves the world!

In real life, of course, linguists don’t save the world: the best someone like me can do is try to make a bit more sense of some of the things that are happening in the world. As ever, my efforts to do that this year have been indebted to the work of many other researchers and/or bloggers, and I’m grateful to everyone I’ve cited/linked to in my posts.

I’ll be back with more feminist guiding in 2017, but in the meantime I thank everyone who reads the stuff I put here (there are a lot more of you than I ever thought there would be when I started this blog in 2015), and I wish you as much peace, love and joy as you can find in these unsettled and discouraging times.

A brief history of ‘gender’


In New York City in 1999, I heard a talk in which Riki Anne Wilchins (self-styled ‘transexual menace’, and described in the Gender Variance Who’s Who as ‘one of the iconic transgender persons of the 1990s’) declared that feminists had no theory of gender. I thought: ‘what is she talking about? Surely feminists invented the concept of gender!’

Fast forward ten years to 2009, when I went to a bookfair in Edinburgh to speak about The Trouble & Strife Reader, a collection of writing from a feminist magazine I’d been involved with since the 1980s. Afterwards, two young women came up to chat. Interesting book, they said, but why is there nothing in it about gender?

From my perspective the book was all about gender—by which I meant, to use Gayle Rubin’s 1975 formulation, ‘the socially-imposed division of the sexes’. Feminists of my generation understood gender as part of the apparatus of patriarchy: a social system, built on the biological foundation of human sexual dimorphism, which allocated different roles, rights and responsibilities to male and female humans. But by 2009 I knew this was no longer what ‘gender’ meant to everyone. To the young women at the bookfair, ‘gender’ meant a form of identity, located in and asserted by individuals rather than imposed on them from outside. It wasn’t just distinct from sex, it had no necessary connection to sex. And it wasn’t a binary division: there were many genders, not just two.

Fast forward again to October 2016, when Pope Francis, during a pastoral visit to Georgia, denounced ‘gender theory’ as a threat to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The correspondent who reported his comments explained:

Gender theory is broadly the concept that while a person may be biologically male or female, they have the right to identify themselves as male, female, both or neither.

I thought: ‘I remember when gender theory threatened the teachings of the Church by suggesting that women’s traditional roles were not ordained by God and nature’. I also thought: ‘OK, this is the tipping point’.

I’m not going to lament the fact that ‘gender’ means different things to different people (though clearly it does, and one consequence is a lot of arguing and talking at cross-purposes). Like everything else in language, word-meaning varies and changes: always has, always will. The question I’m interested in is how we got to where we are. Where did the two competing senses of ‘gender’ come from? When did they start to be used, by whom and in what contexts?

I’ve had many conversations about this, and I’ve often felt as if the world is divided between people who think gender as a theoretical concept was basically invented by Judith Butler in 1990, and people who hold Butler (or queer theorists) responsible for undermining the feminist analysis of gender and distorting the ‘real’ meaning of the word. I’ve never been satisfied with either of these views, and I wanted to see what light I could shed on them, using various sources of information about the history and usage of English words.

One key source I used is the Oxford English Dictionary: fortunately for me, its entry for ‘gender’ has been revised very recently, so it’s as close to fully up to date as historical dictionaries get. I also made use of large text corpora–in this case, collections of American English texts, because the usages I’m interested in were first recorded in the US. I used COHA, a historical corpus which covers the period from 1810 to 2010, and COCA, a contemporary corpus which covers 1990-2015. Dictionaries and corpora typically aim to represent ‘general’ usage, and their coverage of non-mainstream sources can be sparse. So, I also used some 20th century feminist texts to provide supplementary evidence about the way feminists used ‘gender’.

I discovered some things I was expecting, and others that surprised me. For instance: it wasn’t feminists who first made the sex/gender distinction (actually it took a while for them to adopt the term ‘gender’ consistently), and it wasn’t queer theorists who first defined the concept of gender identity. The ‘identity’ meaning of ‘gender’ has only recently become mainstream, but it isn’t new: it’s been around for approximately the same amount of time as the one it now competes with, and both of them were in use well before the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s.

I’ll come back to these points, but first let’s take a very quick look at the earlier history of the English word ‘gender’. You may have heard that it started out as a grammatical term, used in the description of languages where nouns are classified as masculine, feminine and neuter. The usual story is that this grammatical sense got extended later to talk about the distinction between male and female persons. ‘Later’, however, is a relative term: in Norman French, which was where English got the word from, gendre was already being used to mean ‘the quality of being male or female’ by the second half of the 12th century. The first record in the OED of the English form ‘gender’ being used with the ‘male or female’ meaning is dated 1474—a reference to ‘his heirs of the masculine gender’. In short: the ‘male or female’ meaning of ‘gender’ goes back a long way. People have been using it in a way feminists often complain about–that is, as just a fancy word for ‘sex’–for more than 500 years.

When did the sex/gender distinction first get made in English, and who made it? You might imagine its first appearance would be in some feminist text from the late 1960s or the 1970s. But in fact the OED’s earliest illustrative quotation for the relevant sense (‘the state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones’) comes from an article published in 1945 in an academic psychology journal:

in the grade school years, too, gender (which is the socialised obverse of sex) is a fixed line of demarcation, the qualifying terms being ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’.

The same journal is the source of the next quotation [1], dated 1950:

it informs the reader upon ‘gender’ as well as ‘sex’, upon masculine and feminine roles as well as upon male and female and their reproductive functions.

As these examples illustrate, the meaning of ‘gender’ which depends on an explicit or implicit contrast with biological sex was first used by academics in social science disciplines like anthropology, sociology and psychology. The quotations I’ve reproduced suggest that this usage was initially confined to a fairly narrow group of specialists: even when writing for their fellow-academics, the authors evidently didn’t expect all readers to be familiar with it (hence the parenthesis in the first example and the inverted commas in the second).

The earliest quotation in the OED which doesn’t come from an academic source, or treat ‘gender’ as a piece of obscure jargon, is from a 1968 issue of Time magazine. That might imply that by the late 1960s the social scientific concept of gender was beginning to move into the mainstream. But the historical corpus data show that even in the 1960s ‘gender’ (used in any sense) was still an uncommon word. In COHA it is recorded from the 1830s, but until the end of the 1950s its frequency remains low—under one occurrence per million words of text. In the 1960s the frequency rises to (just) over one use per million words, and there’s a further very slight increase in the 1970s. It isn’t until the 1980s that there’s a larger jump to more than five uses per million words.

Does this mean that the story about feminists before 1990 having no theoretical concept of gender might be true after all? That question raises the somewhat tricky issue of what the relationship is between theory and terminology. My reading of early second-wave feminist texts suggests that ‘gender’ during this period (that is, the late 1960s and 1970s) was still largely an academic term: it’s common in feminist academic writing (Gayle Rubin’s 1975 article ‘The traffic in women’, which I quoted earlier, is one example), but it seldom appears in writing by feminists who were politically active outside the academy [2]. However, that doesn’t mean the activists made no distinction between biology and culture: often it’s clear they had the concept of gender, they just expressed it using other terms.

Here’s an example taken from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970):

Just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

Firestone doesn’t use the term ‘gender’, but she does differentiate between the biological markers of sex and what she calls ‘the sex distinction’, by which she evidently means something like Rubin’s ‘socially-imposed division of the sexes’. It’s this, she argues, that feminism aims to eliminate. After the revolution there will still be ‘genital differences between human beings’, but they will ‘no longer matter culturally’.

Shulamith Firestone acknowledged a debt to Simone de Beauvoir, whose observation that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’ has often been hailed as the founding statement of modern anti-essentialist feminism. Beauvoir didn’t use the word ‘gender’ either. In 1949 when The Second Sex first appeared, and indeed for some decades afterwards, French-speakers did not make a linguistic distinction equivalent to the English one between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (though some have recently adopted the term genre to fill the gap). But that obviously didn’t stop French feminists (or feminist speakers of other languages that lacked the distinction) from rejecting biological determinism and developing an analysis of women’s subordination as the product of social forces.

What about the ‘identity’ sense of ‘gender’? When does that start to turn up in the texts sampled for dictionaries and corpora, and what kinds of texts do you find it in? The answer is that it first appears in the 1950s, in texts dealing with the clinical treatment of what were then called ‘hermaphrodites’ (i.e., people with intersex conditions) and ‘transsexuals’. It isn’t entirely clear whether this medical usage developed in parallel with the social science usage or directly from it, but in any case the clinicians soon began to produce a distinctive body of knowledge, which included proposals about the definition of ‘gender’.

There are two names which turn up repeatedly on quotations illustrating the medical usage of ‘gender’ in the mid-20th century. One is that of Robert Stoller, a psychiatrist who was associated from the mid-1950s with the Gender Identity Clinic at UCLA. He was the author of a 1968 book called Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity, and he is often credited with introducing the term ‘gender identity’, meaning more or less what it means in current usage.

I say ‘more or less’ because Stoller’s ideas about gender identity weren’t exactly the ones we’re most familiar with today. He believed there was a biological basis for what he called ‘core gender identity’—defined as an innate sense of being male or female which is normally fixed by the second year of life—but he also wrote extensively about the influence of nurture. As well as having a medical degree, he was trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, and he was interested in the idea that an individual’s sexual desires and behaviours, particularly those defined at the time as ‘perversions’ (including homosexuality, sadomasochism and transvestism), develop in response to childhood events which threaten the individual’s core gender identity.

The other name is that of John Money, the psychologist who founded the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Money was an influential proponent of the view that gender is learned rather than innate: his clinical observations showed, he claimed, that children acquire the gender they’re raised in, even when it’s incongruent with their natal sex. The case study he relied on most heavily to support this claim was later discredited, damaging Money’s reputation and the credibility of his theories. But the work done at Johns Hopkins made a significant contribution to the history of gender—both the concept and the word.

In a 1955 research report, Money and two of his colleagues explained their concept of ‘gender role’, which they defined as

all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. …Gender role is appraised in relation to: general mannerisms, deportment and demeanor; play preferences and recreational interests; spontaneous topics of talk in unprompted conversation and casual comment; content of dreams, daydreams and fantasies; replies to oblique inquiries and projective tests; evidence of erotic practices, and, finally, the person’s own replies to direct inquiry.

‘Gender role’ is conceptualised here in a similar way to gender identity today–as an internal characteristic of individuals, ‘disclosed’ in their behaviour and what they say about themselves. The missing element of the current meaning is the idea that gender isn’t a binary division: this early definition acknowledges only two categories (‘boy or man, girl or woman’). Stoller, too, assumed that a person’s ‘core gender identity’ must be either male or female. The more recent emergence of alternative categories (including ‘nonbinary’ and ‘genderfluid’ identities) may reflect the influence of queer theory; but in all other respects, arguably, today’s understanding of gender as a form of identity owes more to the medical model elaborated by people like Money and Stoller.

I can’t claim to have produced an exhaustive account of the history of ‘gender’, but I’ve still found the exercise revealing. Knowing that the two competing senses have developed from different intellectual traditions (one sense has its roots in the social scientific study of human culture and behaviour, while the other is rooted in the theory and practice of clinicians working with gender-variant individuals) makes it easier to understand why they conflict in the ways they do. And the conflict is profound: if I use ‘gender’ to mean ‘a social status imposed on people by virtue of their sex’, and you use it to mean ‘an innate sense of identity linked to the sex of a person’s brain’ (a now-common understanding which derives from the medical tradition), we may be using the same word, but our conceptual frameworks have almost nothing in common (for instance, your ‘gender’ has a biological basis, whereas the defining feature of my ‘gender’ is that it doesn’t).

This situation particularly annoys those feminists who feel they’ve lost ‘their’ word. But it might be asked how much we really need that word. It didn’t originate in feminist political analysis or grassroots activism: it belonged to an academic register (and is still, according to the corpus evidence, used predominantly in academic contexts). Many classic feminist analyses of the social condition of women (like Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex and Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class) do not use it at all.

In recent years I’ve become more careful about when and how I use ‘gender’, since in some contexts and for some audiences I know it might not be clear which sense I’m using it in. Now I’m asking myself if there are any contexts where I really couldn’t manage without it. As I’ve said, plenty of feminists in the past did manage without it. Maybe what was good enough for Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Davis should be good enough for me.



[1] The ‘it’ referred to in this quotation is the work of the US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mead herself did not use the term ‘gender’, but in her books Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and Male and Female (1949) she gave an account of the variability of men’s and women’s qualities and social roles across cultures which prefigured, and in some cases directly influenced, later discussions of gender among social scientists and feminists. (If you read French, there’s a good short account of Mead’s contribution to this history here).

[2] One academic book which examined both the concepts of sex and gender and the associated terminology in some detail was the sociologist Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society, first published in 1972 and now considered a feminist classic (this year it was reissued in a new edition with a retrospective introduction by the author). The book discusses Margaret Mead’s work, as well as the work of Robert Stoller and John Money. Oakley’s new introduction also briefly alludes to Mathilde Vaerting, a German near-contemporary of Mead who was writing about the way societies constructed men and women as both different and unequal as early as 1921. (There’s some information on Vaerting here.)

Sex, death and aliens: a feminist watches ‘Arrival’


Last week I saw Arrival, the recently-released film with Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the US military to decode the language of some non-humanoid aliens who have unexpectedly arrived on earth. I wasn’t expecting to love it; in fact, when I first heard about it I thought I’d probably give it a miss. For one thing, I’ve never been a great fan of the ‘aliens have landed’ genre; for another, I’d read that Arrival leans heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a 20th century theory which says that your perceptions of reality are influenced—or in the strongest version of the theory, determined—by the characteristics of the language you speak.

People in my line of work tend to approach anything based on this premise with caution. Most linguists rejected the ‘strong’ version of the hypothesis long ago (though ‘weak’ versions continue to be debated), but that hasn’t prevented it from being endlessly recycled in popular culture, often in crassly simplistic ways. Some propositions based on it have been around forever, repeated so often they’ve passed into received wisdom (like the indestructible zombie fact about Eskimos having a lot of words for snow—they don’t, but even if they did, as Geoff Pullum says in his classic debunking piece ‘The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’, why would that be any more significant than printers having a lot of words for fonts?) Others, testifying to its continuing vitality, have popped up more recently (remember the headline-making claim from 2013, that people save more if their language lacks a future tense?)

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has also been of interest to feminists. In 1980 Dale Spender invoked it to support her thesis that women were oppressed by having to view the world through the lens of a ‘man made language’. And a few years later, as I explained in an earlier post, the feminist linguist and sci-fi writer Suzette Haden Elgin made it the premise of a series of novels, for which she also created an alternative ‘women’s language’.

Not all versions of the idea that idea that language determines thought are directly indebted to Sapir and Whorf. Another perennially popular source for it is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. (Orwell was a contemporary of Whorf, though it’s unclear if he knew Whorf’s writing). Though Arrival refers explicitly to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in some ways it seemed closer to the Orwellian tradition. Specifically, it reminded me of a classic piece of feminist writing in that tradition: Carol Cohn’s 1987 article ‘Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals’.

Cohn wrote this article after spending a year at what she refers to as ‘the Center’, an institution devoted to studying the technology and strategic use of nuclear weapons. (She memorably describes herself as ‘a feminist spy in the house of death’.) A critic of US defence policy, she hoped that spending time with ‘defence intellectuals’ would give her politically valuable insights into their thinking. But she gradually became aware of a paradox. To interact with the experts it was necessary to speak their language, since if you didn’t use their specialist terminology they dismissed you as ignorant and naïve. But as Cohn learnt the language she realised her attitudes had changed:

The more conversations I participated in using this language, the less frightened I was of nuclear war.

Why did learning the language have this effect?  Cohn’s answer is that ‘nukespeak’ is designed to make its users feel powerful and in control. By positioning them as knowledgeable, rational agents, planning and overseeing the use of weapons of mass destruction, it insulates them from the emotions they would feel if they identified with the mass of powerless victims.

The most obvious feature of nukespeak which enables it to do this job is abstraction: it’s full of acronyms and obscure nominalisations (like ‘escalation dominance’ and ‘strategic stability’) which are, as Cohn comments,

so bland that they never force the speaker or enable the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust.

But it isn’t all about bland euphemisms. Another way in which users of nukespeak are induced to feel powerful is by imagining weapons as extensions of their masculinity. Cohn reports being both amazed and appalled by the extent to which explicitly sexual imagery pervaded the experts’ discourse:

Lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks—what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump”.

Yet the same weapons could also be imagined as cute animals or harmless pets: one anti-ballistic missile system went by the acronym ‘BAMBI’, and on a tour of a nuclear submarine the visitors were asked if they wanted to ‘pat’ a missile.

Cohn was also struck by what the experts couldn’t talk about. The model that informed their strategic discussions had been developed mainly by mathematicians, and its internal logic excluded the human factors which would be likely to affect any real-world conflict. For instance, discussions of ‘limited nuclear war’ were conducted on the assumption that

Our rational actors would be free of emotional response to being attacked, free of political pressures from the populace, free from madness or despair or any of the myriad other factors that regularly affect human actions and decision making. They would act solely on the basis of a perfectly informed mathematical calculus of megatonnage.

Which brings me back to Arrival, and why it reminded me of Cohn’s article. What I saw in the film was the same opposition Cohn posits between militaristic ‘male’ values (rationality, dominance, destructiveness) and their ‘female’ opposites (emotion, co-operation, nurturance). In Arrival the female values ultimately defeat the male ones. Whether you think that makes it a feminist film will depend on what kind of feminist you are.

What I knew about Arrival before I saw it suggested it would be a feminist film in the more conventional Hollywood sense. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (which requires at least one scene where two named female characters discuss something other than a man), because there’s only one adult female character in it. But that character, Louise Banks, is the main protagonist, and her role in the story is defined by her intellectual and professional achievements. She isn’t just a man’s sidekick or his love interest. She’s smart and brave and she ends up saving the world.

But at a deeper level the narrative is structured by the stereotypical male/female opposition I mentioned earlier. Louise isn’t just a brilliant linguist who happens (like many real-life brilliant linguists) to be a woman. The logic of the film requires her to be a woman—Venus to the military establishment’s Mars. I said before that what defines her role is her profession, but in fact she is also identified, in the opening moments of the film, as a mother—one who (we are led to believe) has suffered the death of a beloved child. And this is not irrelevant. Her success in decoding the aliens’ language is shown to depend not only on her technical skills (which are alluded to more than they are displayed), but also and crucially on her feminine/maternal qualities of empathy, intuition and compassion.

These qualities are especially prominent in the scene where Louise makes her initial breakthrough. She manages to connect with the aliens, before she knows how to communicate with them, when she impulsively abandons the defensive posture required by military protocol, and instead makes herself vulnerable. Defying her orders, she removes her protective gear, walks up to the glass wall that separates the humans from the aliens, and presses her naked palm against the glass—a gesture which the aliens reciprocate, and then follow up by offering the first, all-important evidence of their writing system.

Later on, Louise will apply her emotional intelligence to defusing the threat of global war, which arises because of a conflict among rival human powers (China, Russia, the US and their various satellites) about how to deal with the aliens, and in particular, whether to use force against them. This part of the film is like a textbook illustration of Carol Cohn’s point about the practical irrelevance of defence strategists’ abstract models. The politicians and generals who must decide what to do are clearly not in control, and nor are they making rational decisions. As their terrified populations riot, loot and demand immediate action against the alien menace, these leaders stop trying to figure out whether the aliens are really a threat, shut down communications and focus solipsistically on their own political interests (apparently they reason that it’s better to blow up the world than give up your strategic advantage by sharing intel with your rivals).

As the crisis escalates, the rational, pragmatic army colonel in charge of the US military operation seems to accept that the world is heading for catastrophe. Louise, however—who by now is in touch not only with her own feelings, but also with the aliens’ minds (this is where the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes in: by learning the aliens’ language she has become able to cognize the way they do)—refuses to accept defeat. Disobeying orders one last time, she makes a phone call and averts disaster. (I won’t reveal how she does it, but her strategy is definitely from Venus.)

Louise isn’t exactly a ‘feminist spy in the house of death’, since she appears to have no political convictions of any kind. But she can be seen as a disruptive female force in a world whose rules are made by men, and in the context of the film as a whole I think she does symbolise the old idea that women are the creators and protectors of life, whereas men—or at least the powerful ones—are the bringers of death and destruction.

That was also, of course, an argument used by some feminist peace activists in the 1980s. It’s not my favourite feminist idea; but the popularity of Arrival suggests that, like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it still resonates. And when you look at what’s happening around the world today, perhaps that isn’t hard to understand.

What makes a word a slur?

Content note: this post contains examples of offensive slur-terms. 

Last week, the British edition of Glamour magazine published a column in which Juno Dawson used the term ‘TERF’ to describe feminists (the example she named was Germaine Greer) who ‘steadfastly believe that me—and other trans women—are not women’.  When some readers complained about the use of derogatory language, a spokeswoman for the magazine replied on Twitter that TERF is not derogatory:

Trans-exclusionary radical feminist is a description, and not a misogynistic slur.

Arguments about whether TERF is a neutral descriptive term or a derogatory slur have been rumbling on ever since. They raise a question which linguists and philosophers have found quite tricky to answer (and which they haven’t reached a consensus on): what makes a word a slur?

Before I consider that general question, let’s take a closer look at the meaning and history of TERF. As the Glamour spokeswoman said, it’s an abbreviated form of the phrase ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’; more specifically it’s an acronym, constructed from the initial letters of the words that make up the phrase. Some people have suggested this means it can’t be a slur. I find that argument puzzling, since numerous terms which everyone agrees are slurs are abbreviated forms (examples include ‘Paki’, ‘Jap’, ‘paedo’ and ‘tranny’). But in any case, there’s a question about the status of TERF as an acronym. Clearly it started out as one, but is it still behaving like one now?

To see what I’m getting at, consider an acronym from the 1940s: ‘radar’. Do you know what all the letters stand for? I do, but only because I’ve just looked it up. I’ve been using the word for 50-odd years without realising it meant ‘RAdio Detection And Ranging’—a feat made possible by the fact that ‘radio detection and ranging’ isn’t really what it means any longer. Over time it’s become just an ordinary word, which is used without reference to its origins as an acronym. No one mentally expands the letters R-A-D-A-R into words; no one imagines that ‘gaydar’ must be short for ‘gay detection and ranging’. Also (a trivial but telling sign) no one now writes ‘radar’ in all caps.

I’ve been writing TERF in all caps, but these days you also see it written ‘Terf’ or ‘terf’. That’s one sign it’s going the same way as ‘radar’, becoming a word which can be used without knowing what the letters of the original acronym stand for. Another sign is the way it’s now used to describe people (e.g., men) who don’t fit the original specification, in that they aren’t radical feminists. It looks as if at least some users of the term don’t define it strictly as meaning ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’, but use it with a more generic meaning like ‘transphobic person’.

This kind of change is common in the history of words. Word-meaning is inherently unstable, liable to vary among different groups of users and to change over time, because we don’t learn the meanings of most words by looking them up in some authoritative reference book, we figure them out from our experience of hearing or seeing words used in context.

It’s easy to see how that might shift the meaning of TERF in the way I’ve just suggested. Imagine you hear two of your friends discussing a mutual acquaintance who they refer to as a TERF. You’ve never encountered the term before and you have no way of knowing it’s a short form of a longer phrase (because it’s a true acronym, pronounced not as a series of letters but as a single syllable that rhymes with ‘smurf’).  So you listen to what’s being said about the TERF in question and make the simplest inference compatible with what you’re hearing: that TERF means a transphobic person.

If TERF’s meaning has started to shift that’s actually a sign of its success (words evolve as they spread to new users and contexts). But it makes the argument that TERF is just a neutral descriptive label for a specific group of people less convincing. That argument either takes no account of the way usage has changed over time, or else it’s a version of the etymological fallacy (‘however people actually use a word, its original meaning is the true meaning’).

But the fact that a word isn’t a neutral description doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a slur. We’re back to the question philosophers and semanticists have found so tricky: on what basis can we say that a word is a slur?

As I’ve already mentioned, the people who’ve written on this subject don’t agree on what the answer is. And after reading their various accounts, I’m not sure I believe there’s a single right answer. Rather, I think there are a number of criteria which need to be considered. If we’re in doubt about a word’s status as a slur, we can try asking the following questions, and then looking at the overall balance of the answers.

My first two questions are based on what the philosopher Jennifer Hornsby proposes as the two fundamental features of a derogatory term or slur.

Is the word commonly understood to convey hatred or contempt?

Does the word have a neutral counterpart which denotes the same group without conveying hatred/contempt?

This definition seems to have been constructed using racial/ethnic slurs as a prototype. In these cases it’s generally understood that the slur term, used in preference to a neutral term which denotes the same group of people, communicates hatred/contempt as part of its meaning (that’s the difference between, say, ‘Jew’ and ‘kike’). This doesn’t help us much with terms like TERF whose status as slurs is disputed. TERF is certainly understood by some people to convey hatred and contempt, but others deny it conveys those things.

It’s also unclear whether there’s a neutral term which TERF contrasts with. TERF doesn’t so much refer to a pre-existing group as bring a new category into existence (there was a pre-existing group of radical feminists, but they weren’t defined as a category by the belief that trans women are not women, and in fact they still aren’t, since not all radical feminists hold that belief). So, to decide whether TERF is a slur we need to ask some other questions.

Do the people the word is applied to either use it to describe themselves or accept it when others use it to describe them?

Both parts of this question are important. If a group of people voluntarily use a word to describe themselves, then—on the assumption that people don’t generally slur their own group—you might conclude the word isn’t a slur. However, this does not allow for the possibility that a term might be a marker of identity and solidarity when used within the group, while remaining a slur if it’s used to/about the group by outsiders. (The classic example is the solidary use of the N-word among (some) Black people: it doesn’t make it OK for white people to use it. ‘Dyke’ for ‘lesbian’ is another example: fine if you are a lesbian, suspect if you aren’t. ) There are also jocular, ironic and self-mocking uses which don’t undermine the status of a word as a slur (women friends might refer to themselves in private as ‘sluts’ or ‘bitches’, but they wouldn’t accept being described in those terms in public or by non-intimates).

With TERF, I’d say the answer to both parts of the question is ‘no’. There may be people who use TERF ironically/self-mockingly in private, but I’m not aware of any who publicly define themselves as TERFs, and it’s common for those who are called TERFs by others to reject the label. Note that these observations concern attitudes to the word: there are certainly some feminists who publicly affirm the belief mentioned by Juno Dawson, that trans women are not women, but they may still deny being TERFs. This suggests they see TERF in the same way members of a certain ethnic group might see an ethnic slur: ‘yes, I am a member of the group you mean, but no, I do not accept the implications of the name you’re calling it by’.  Which brings me to the next question:

Do the people the word is applied to regard it as a slur (e.g. do they describe it explicitly as a slur, protest against its use, display offence/distress when it is used)?

For some writers, a ‘yes’ to this question is enough on its own to make a word a slur.  Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore argue that

…no matter what its history, no matter what it means or communicates, no matter who introduces it, regardless of its past associations, once relevant individuals declare a word a slur, it becomes one [emphasis in original]

What these writers are trying to account for is the fact that labels which were previously considered acceptable, or even polite, can get redefined as slurs (examples include ‘Negro’ and ‘coloured’), and the reverse may also happen (‘Black’ was not always acceptable, and ‘queer’ used to be unambiguously a slur). This isn’t a matter of what the term means (the literal meaning of ‘Black’ and ‘Negro’ is the same), but rather depends on the perceptions of ‘relevant individuals’ (members of the target group) at a particular point in time. If they declare a term offensive, then it’s offensive: it’s idle for non-members of the group to tell them they have no business taking offence.

On this criterion, TERF is indisputably a slur.  Many individuals who have been described as TERFs have called it a slur, protested against its use (witness the complaints about Juno Dawson’s column) and explicitly said that it offends them. But I’m reluctant to make that the sole criterion. I agree that for something to be a slur it’s necessary for members of the target group to regard it as offensive, but I’m not sure that’s a sufficient condition (and what do you do about cases where the target group is split? ‘Queer’, for instance, divides opinion in the LGBT community).

As a sociolinguist (unlike the writers I’ve been referencing), I’m also dissatisfied with the implication that members of a group just arbitrarily and randomly decide that, for instance, ‘queer’ has ceased to be a slur or ‘Negro’ has now become one. I think these developments can be related to the changing social and political contexts in which words are used (for instance, the context for the ‘unslurring’ of ‘queer’ was the surge of radical activism prompted by the HIV-AIDS epidemic). Perceptions of words have to be seen in relation to what the words are being used to do, either by the group itself or by its opponents. So another question I would want to ask is,

What speech acts is the word used to perform?

If a word is just a neutral description, you might expect it to be used mainly for the purpose of describing or making claims about states of affairs. If it’s a slur, you’d also expect it to be used for those purposes, but in addition you might expect to see it being used in speech acts expressing hatred and contempt, such as insults, threats and incitements to violence. (By ‘insults’ here, incidentally, I don’t mean statements which are insulting simply because they use the word in question, but statements which say something insulting about the group, e.g. ‘they’re all dirty thieves’.)  

There’s evidence that TERF does appear in insults, threats and incitements. You can read a selection of examples (mostly taken from Twitter, so these were public communications) on this website, which was set up to document the phenomenon. Here are a small number of items from the site to give you a sense of what this discourse looks like:

you vile dirty terf cunts must be fuming you have no power to mess with transfolk any more!

I smell a TERF and they fucking stink

if i ever find out you are a TERF i will fucking kill you every single TERF out there needs to die

why are terfs even allowed to exist round up every terf and all their friends for good measure and slit their throats one by one

if you encounter a terf in the wild deposit them in the nearest dumpster. Remember: Keeping our streets clean is everyone’s responsibility

Precisely because it was set up to document uses of TERF as a slur, this site does not offer a representative sample of all uses of the term, so it can’t tell us whether insulting/threatening/inciting are its dominant functions. It does, however, show that they are among its current functions.  It also points to another relevant question:

What other words does the word tend to co-occur with? 

It’s noticeable that on the website I’ve linked to, TERF quite often shows up in the same tweet as other words whose status as slurs is not disputed, like ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. Other words that occur more than once or twice in these tweets include ‘disgusting’, ‘ugly’, ‘scum’ and a cluster of words implying uncleanness (‘smell’, ‘stink’, ‘garbage’, ‘filth’)—which is also a well-worn theme in racist and anti-Semitic discourse.

One of the clues we use to infer an unfamiliar word’s meaning in context is our understanding of the adjacent, familar words; the result is that over time, recurring patterns of collocation (i.e. the tendency for certain words to appear in proximity to one another) have an influence on the way the word’s meaning evolves. The examples on the website are too small and unrepresentative a sample to generalise from, but if the collocations we see there are common in current uses of TERF, that would not only support the contention that it’s a slur, it might also suggest that the word could become increasingly pejorative.

In summary: TERF does not meet all the criteria that have been proposed for defining a word as a slur, but it does meet most of them at least partially. My personal judgment on the slur question has been particularly influenced by the evidence that TERF is now being used in a kind of discourse which has clear similarities with hate-speech directed at other groups (it makes threats of violence, it includes other slur-terms, it uses metaphors of pollution). Granted, this isn’t the only kind of discourse TERF is used in, and it may not be the main kind. But if a term features in that kind of discourse at all, it seems to me impossible to maintain that it is ‘just a neutral description’.

I believe in open debate on politically controversial issues, so I’m not suggesting the views of either side should be either censored or protected from criticism. My point is that when one of the key terms used in the argument has become a slur, it is no longer fit for any other purpose, and the time has come to look for a replacement.


Donald Trump talks like a woman (and the moon is made of green cheese)

A couple of days ago, Politico magazine published a piece by Julie Sedivy claiming that Donald Trump talks like a woman:

He might be preoccupied with grading women’s looks, penis size and “locker room talk,” but the way he speaks and the actual words he uses make for a distinctly feminine style. In fact, his speaking style is more feminine by far than any other candidate in the 2016 cycle, more feminine than any other presidential candidate since 2004.

A number of people who read my last post, on Trump’s ‘locker room talk’, have asked me what I think of this claim. The answer is well summarised in the title of a response written by the linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, ‘Trump does NOT talk like a woman (BREAKING NEWS: gender continues to be complicated and confusing)‘. If you’re looking for a full explanation of why Sedivy’s analysis does not stand up, this excellent post should be your first port of call. (Some other relevant points are made by John McWhorter here.)  There’s no need for me to duplicate these more detailed critiques, but before I go, let me just highlight a few key points–points which aren’t just relevant to this piece about Donald Trump, but are equally applicable to many other discussions of the linguistic differences between men and women.

First point: the fact that a word is used more frequently by women than men, or vice versa, does not license the conclusion that the word in question is typical of women’s or men’s speech (let alone that the word itself is ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’). As Tyler Schnoebelen points out, a word can be strongly associated with one gender, but only used by a small minority of people of that gender. If that’s the case, you’re not looking at a marker of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ style: more likely it belongs to the style of a particular subset of men or women (e.g. ‘white suburban women under 25’), or maybe it’s typical of a group which is numerically female- or male-dominated, but is actually defined by something other than gender (e.g. being a sports fanatic, or the primary carer for small children). Women and men are not internally homogeneous groups, so we should always be sceptical about any claim which implies that each of them has a single, uniform style of speech.

Second point: statistical findings about language-use need to be interpreted in relation to the context–it makes a difference what people are talking about, to whom and in what situation. A case in point: the research Sedivy cites suggests that women use the pronoun ‘she’ more frequently than men do, and the analysis of Trump’s speech during the presidential debates shows that he also uses ‘she’ quite frequently. But there’s a good reason not to interpret that as evidence of his ‘feminine style’. Political campaigners tend to make repeated reference to their opponents, and Trump has a female opponent. In this context, his use of ‘she’ says precisely nothing about his style.

Third point (and please forgive me for stating the obvious here): communication style isn’t just about words. Even if we leave aside the question of content, what Trump says, the analysis of his ‘distinctly feminine style’ detaches the words he uses from a whole lot of other things that contribute to our perception of him. His aggressive attempts to dominate the floor, for instance, by interrupting and talking over other speakers. The tone and volume of his voice. His body language: gaze, facial expression, posture, the way he prowled around and loomed over his opponent in the second debate. All those aspects of his performance, I would suggest, are distinctly–indeed, cartoonishly–masculine.

When you look at Trump’s performance as a whole, it’s hard to buy the argument that his ‘feminine’ linguistic style is ‘helping to counter the opposition’s portrait of [him] as a domineering misogynist who lacks empathy and concern for others’. And I don’t think we need that argument to explain Trump’s appeal. His support isn’t coming from people who don’t believe or haven’t noticed he’s a domineering misogynist; it’s coming from people who either don’t care that he’s a domineering misogynist or who consider that a positive virtue. We can only hope their view will not prevail.

On banter, bonding and Donald Trump


In my last post I argued that gossip–personal, judgmental talk about absent others–is not the peculiarly female vice our culture would have us believe. Both sexes gossip. But one common form of male gossip, namely sexualised talk about women, is made to look like something different, and more benign, by giving it another name: ‘banter’.

A week after I published that post, along came That Video of Donald Trump doing the very thing I was talking about–and trying to excuse it, predictably, by calling it ‘locker room banter’.

There are many things I don’t want to say on this subject, because they’ve already been said, sometimes very eloquently, in countless tweets and blog posts and columns. I don’t need to repeat that Trump is a misogynist (which we already knew before we heard the tape). I don’t need to upbraid the news media for their mealy-mouthed language (the Washington Post described the recording as containing ‘an extremely lewd conversation’, while the Guardian has referred to it as a ‘sex-boast tape’–as if the issue were the unseemliness of bragging or the vulgarity of using words like ‘tits’). But what I do have something to say about is banter itself: what it does and why it matters.

A lot of the commentary I’ve read about the tape does not, to my mind, get to the heart of what’s going on in it. So, that’s where I want to begin. Here’s a (quick and very basic) transcription of the start of the recorded conversation: Trump, the Hollywood Access host Billy Bush and a third, unidentified man are talking on a bus which is taking them to the set of a soap opera where Trump is making a guest appearance.

THIRD MAN: she used to be great. she’s still very beautiful

TRUMP: you know I moved on her actually you know she was down in Palm Beach and I moved on her and I failed I’ll admit it


TRUMP: I did try to fuck her she was married

THIRD MAN: [laughing] that’s huge news there

TRUMP: and I moved on her very heavily in fact I took her out furniture shopping she wanted to get some furniture and I said I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture. I took her out furniture– I moved on her like a bitch [laughter from other men] but I couldn’t get there and she was married. then all of a sudden I see her and she’s now got the big phony tits and everything she’s totally changed her look

In this sequence Trump is not boasting about having sex: he’s telling a personal anecdote about an occasion when he didn’t manage to have sex (‘I failed I’ll admit it’). He then returns to what seems to be the original topic, how to assess the woman’s physical attractiveness. The first speaker’s turn suggests that this has diminished over time (‘she used to be great’), but whereas he thinks ‘she’s still very beautiful’, Trump’s reference to her ‘big phony tits’ implies that he no longer finds her as desirable.

What’s going on here is gossip. Like the young men’s gossip I discussed in my earlier post, this is judgmental talk about an absent other which serves to reinforce group norms (in this case, for male heterosexual behaviour and for female attractiveness). It’s also male bonding talk: by sharing intimate information about himself–and especially by admitting to a failed attempt at seduction–Trump positions the other men as trusted confidants.

It’s not clear whether the discussion of the woman’s appearance has reached its natural end, but at this point, as the bus nears its destination, Billy Bush intervenes to point out the soap actress Trump is scheduled to meet, and she becomes the next topic.

BUSH: sheesh your girl’s hot as shit. In the purple

THIRD MAN & BUSH: woah! yes! woah!

BUSH: yes the Donald has scored. Woah my man!

TRUMP: look at you. You are a pussy.

[indecipherable simultaneous talk as they get ready to exit the bus]

TRUMP: I better use some tic-tacs in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful–I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet just kiss I don’t even wait [laughter from other men] and when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything

BUSH: whatever you want

TRUMP: grab them by the pussy [laughter]  do anything.

Trump’s contribution to this extract looks more like the ‘sex boast’ of the news headlines. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that this too is an enactment of male bonding. Trump, the alpha male of the group, takes centre stage, but the other men support him throughout with affiliative responses–saying ‘woah’ and ‘yes’, echoing his sentiments (‘Trump: you can do anything’/ ‘Bush: whatever you want’), and above all, greeting his most overtly offensive remarks with laughter. They laugh when he says he doesn’t wait for permission to kiss a woman; they laugh again when he mentions ‘grab[bing] [women] by the pussy’. (You can listen for yourself, but my assessment of this laughter is that it’s appreciative rather than embarrassed, awkward or forced.)

The transgressiveness of sexual banter–its tendency to report markedly offensive acts or desires in deliberately offensive (or in the media’s terms, ‘lewd’) language, is not just accidental, a case of men allowing the mask to slip when they think they’re alone. It’s deliberate, and it’s part of the bonding process. Like the sharing of secrets, the sharing of transgressive desires, acts and words is a token of intimacy and trust. It says, ‘I am showing that I trust you by saying things, and using words, that I wouldn’t want the whole world to hear’. It’s also an invitation to the hearer to reciprocate by offering some kind of affiliative response, whether a token of approval like appreciative laughter, or a matching transgressive comment. (‘I trust you, now show that you trust me’.)

When a private transgressive conversation becomes public, and the speaker who said something misogynist (or racist or homophobic) is publicly named and shamed, he often protests, as Trump did, that it was ‘just banter’, that he is not ‘really’ a bigot, and that his comments have been ‘taken out of context’. And the rest of us marvel at the barefaced cheek of these claims. How, we wonder, can this person disavow his obvious prejudice by insisting that what he said wasn’t, ‘in context’, what he meant?

What I’ve just said about the role of transgressive speech in male bonding suggests an answer (though as I’ll explain in a minute, that’s not the same as an excuse). Public exposure does literally take this kind of conversation out of its original context (the metaphorical ‘locker room’, a private, all-male space). And when the talk is removed from that context, critics will focus on its referential content rather than its interpersonal function. They won’t appreciate (or care) that what’s primarily motivating the boasting, the misogyny, the offensive language and the laughter isn’t so much the speakers’ hatred of women as their investment in their fraternal relationship with each other. They’re like fishermen telling tall tales about their catches, or old soldiers exaggerating their exploits on the battlefield: their goal is to impress their male peers, and the women they insult are just a means to that end.

As I said before, though, that’s not meant to be an excuse: I’m not suggesting that banter isn’t ‘really’ sexist or damaging to women. On the contrary, I’m trying to suggest that it’s more damaging than most critical discussions acknowledge. Banter is not just what commentators on the Trump tape have mostly treated it as–a window into the mind of an individual sexist or misogynist. It’s a ritualised social practice which contributes to the maintenance of structural sexual inequality. This effect does not depend on what the individuals involved ‘really think’ about women. (I have examples of both sexist and homophobic banter where I’m certain that what some speakers say is not what they really think, because they’re gay and everyone involved knows that.) It’s more a case of ‘all that’s needed for evil to flourish is for good men to go along with it for the lolz’.

You might think that in Trump’s case a lot of men have chosen to do the decent thing. Since the tape became public, male politicians have been lining up to condemn it. A formula quickly emerged: after Jeb Bush tweeted that, as a grandfather to girls, he could not condone such degrading talk about women, there followed a steady stream of similar comments from other men proclaiming their respect for their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.

But to me this rings hollow. Some of it is obvious political score-settling, and far too much of it is tainted by what some theorists call ‘benevolent sexism’ (no, Paul Ryan, women should not be ‘revered’, they should be respected as equal and autonomous human beings; and no, they aren’t just deserving of respect because they’re ‘your’ women). But in addition, I’d bet good money that all the men uttering these pious sentiments have at some point participated in similar conversations themselves. When Trump protested that Bill Clinton had said worse things to him on the golf course, I found that entirely plausible (though also irrelevant: Trump can’t seem to grasp that Bill’s behaviour reflects on Bill rather than Hillary). Whatever their actual attitudes to women, as members of the US political elite these men have had to be assiduous in forging fraternal bonds with other powerful men. And wherever there are fraternal bonds there will also be banter.

Feminists generally refer to the social system in which men dominate women as ‘patriarchy’, the rule of the fathers, but some theorists have suggested that in its modern (post-feudal) forms it might more aptly be called ‘fratriarchy’, the rule of the brothers, or in Carole Pateman’s term, ‘fraternal patriarchy’. Banter is fraternal patriarchy’s verbal glue. It strengthens the bonds of solidarity among male peers by excluding, Othering and dehumanising women; and in doing those things it also facilitates sexual violence.

Male peer networks based on fraternal solidarity are a common and effective mechanism for informally excluding women, or consigning them to second-class ‘interloper’ status, in professions and institutions which no longer bar them formally. Whether it’s city bankers socialising with clients in strip clubs, or construction workers adorning the site office with pictures of topless models, men use expressions of heterosexual masculinity–verbal as well as non-verbal, the two generally go together–to claim common ground with one another, while differentiating themselves from women. Sometimes they engage in sexual talk to embarrass and humiliate women who are present; sometimes they spread damaging rumours behind women’s backs. These tactics prevent women from participating on equal terms.

I said earlier that when Trump and his companions on the bus talked about women, the women were not the real point: they were like the fish in a fishing story or the faceless enemy in a war story. But that wasn’t meant to be a consoling thought (‘don’t worry, women, it’s nothing personal, they’re just bonding with each other by talking trash about you’). When you talk about people it should be personal–it should involve the recognition of the other as a human being with human feelings like your own. Heterosexual banter is one of the practices that teach men to withhold that recognition from women, treating them as objects rather than persons.

When you objectify and dehumanise a class of people, it becomes easier to mistreat them without guilt. And when you are part of a tight-knit peer group, it becomes more difficult to resist the collective will. According to the anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday, rape culture arises where both these conditions are fulfilled–where men have strong fraternal loyalties to each other, and at the same time dehumanise women. In her classic study of fraternity gang-rape, Sanday argues that what motivates fraternity brothers or college athletes to commit rape in groups is the desire of the men involved both to prove their manhood and to feel close to one another. These are typically men whose conception of masculinity will not permit them to express their feelings for other men in any way that might raise the spectre of homosexuality, which they equate with effeminacy and unmanliness. Instead they bond through violence against someone who represents the despised feminine Other.

Heterosexual banter is a regular feature of life in many fraternities, and Sanday identifies it (along with homophobia, heavy use of pornography and alcohol) as a factor producing ‘rape-prone’ campus cultures. One man who was interviewed for her study recalled the way it worked in his fraternity, and how it made him feel:

By including me in this perpetual, hysterical banter and sharing laughter with me, they [the fraternity brothers] showed their affection for me. I felt happy, confident, and loved. This really helped my feelings of loneliness and my fear of being sexually unappealing. We managed to give ourselves a satisfying substitute for sexual relations. We acted out all of the sexual tensions between us as brothers on a verbal level. Women, women everywhere, feminists, homosexuality, etc., all provided the material for the jokes.

Of course there’s a difference between ‘acting out on a verbal level’ and committing gang rape. It’s not inevitable that one will lead to the other. But Sanday suggests that one can help to make the other more acceptable, or less unthinkable. What the man quoted above says about the social and psychological rewards of fraternal bonding also helps to explain why men may be prevailed on to join in with a group assault, even if they wouldn’t have initiated it alone; and why they don’t intervene to stop it.

Whenever I talk or write about male sexual banter, I always hear from some men who tell me they’re deeply uncomfortable with it. I believe them. But my response is, ‘it’s not me you need to tell’. They risk nothing by expressing their discomfort to me. What would be risky, and potentially costly, would be for them to put their principles above their fraternal loyalties, stop engaging in banter and challenge their peers to do the same.

Similarly, it’s pretty easy–assuming your politics lean left of fascism–to criticise the behaviour of Donald Trump. But as necessary as that may be in current circumstances, on its own it is not sufficient. We need to acknowledge that the kind of banter Trump has been condemned for is more than just an individual vice: it is a social practice supporting a form of fraternity that stands in the way of women’s liberty and equality.

Personally speaking


Earlier this month, when Andrea Wulf won the Royal Society’s 2016 Science Book prize for The Invention of Nature, a biography of the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the Guardian’s John Dugdale wrote a piece headed ‘Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?’  Um, is it because they’re writing more science books than they used to? Is it because the book prize judges are finally recognising their talents? No: apparently women are being rewarded for making science personal. ‘Female science writers’, says Dugdale,

are more likely to focus on people, while their male counterparts are more likely to address a problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.

Men do the difficult, sciencey stuff, while women concentrate on the human angle. It’s yet another iteration of that ancient cliché, ‘men are interested in ideas and women are interested in people’.

Apart from being sexist, this is fundamentally illogical. Why are ‘ideas’ and ‘people’ presented as mutually exclusive options? Don’t most books about science deal with both?  James Watson’s book The Double Helix certainly did: subtitled ‘A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA’, it’s both a gripping narrative of scientific problem-solving, and a story about, as the blurb on Amazon’s website puts it, ‘brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions and bitter rivalries’. Yet somehow it’s remained an article of faith that men aren’t interested in personal stuff, and that women are interested in nothing else.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being interested in people. What’s wrong is the belief that this is a distinctive and universal female trait. That belief persists because it does ideological work: it naturalises the division of labour that makes women responsible for taking care of others’ needs. It implies that women do this because they want to, and because it’s what they’re naturally good at. It’s an argument that’s been used both to confine women to the domestic sphere and to limit their options in the wider world. Women are good with people, so let them do care work and customer service. If they’re journalists, assign them human interest stories while men report the news. If they’re politicians, give them a ‘soft’ portfolio, like education rather than finance. And so on, ad infinitum.

The same stereotype has pervaded discussions of the way men and women use language.  Women, the story goes, talk about people and in order to make connections with people. Men, by contrast (because there’s always a contrast), talk about objects or concepts, to impart information, solve problems or display knowledge. As Deborah Tannen summed this up in her 1990 bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, men do ‘report talk’ and women do ‘rapport talk’.

Evolutionary psychologists have taken this a step further by declaring that the difference is a product of evolution. According to John Locke’s book Duels and Duets, women’s well-known love of gossip reflects the involvement of their early human ancestors in all-female mutual support networks, where they created ‘feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves’. Men, on the other hand, did not form mutual support networks: rather they were rivals, and their ways of talking reflected that.

Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill.

It’s an axiom of evolutionary psychology that human nature doesn’t change: that’s why modern women still gossip and modern men still fight verbal duels—‘even’, Locke informs us, ‘when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends’.

In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.

So, men duel and women duet; women engage in intimate gossip while men engage in competitive banter. Locke presents this as an absolute divide: no bantering for women and no gossiping for men. ‘Women may denigrate themselves’, he explains, ‘but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously’. (If you’re a woman and you’re thinking ‘WTF?’ I can only say you’re not alone.) Men, conversely, have no use for the female habit of talking about other people behind their backs. ‘If they have something to say to a foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it’.

Well, sorry to spoil a nice neat story, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit.

Back in 1990, a student in one of my classes recorded a couple of hours of casual conversation in the house he shared with four other men (all were straight, white and in their early 20s)*. He wanted to answer the question, ‘what do male friends talk about?’ Some of the answers were much as he’d expected: they talked about sports, drinking and dating. But there was another topic which occupied more time than anything else apart from sport–criticism of other men. To give you the flavour, here’s a chunk of the transcript (which I’ve simplified a bit to make it easier to read):

BRYAN: uh you know that really gay guy in our Age of Revolution class who sits in front of us? he wore shorts again, by the way, it’s like 42 degrees out he wore shorts again [laughter]

ED: That guy

BRYAN: it’s like a speedo, he wears a speedo to class he’s got incredibly skinny legs

ED: it’s worse you know you know like those shorts women volleyball players wear? it’s like those it’s like French cut spandex

BRYAN: you know what’s even more ridiculous? When you wear those shorts and like a parka on […] he’s either got some condition that he’s got to like have his legs exposed at all times or else he’s got really good legs

ED: he’s probably he’s like he’s like at home combing his leg hairs

BRYAN: he doesn’t have any leg hair though

ED: he really likes his legs

BRYAN: yes and oh those ridiculous Reeboks that are always (indeciph) and goofy white socks always striped tube socks

ED: that’s right he’s the antithesis of man

So, OK, what is this? Is it banter, or is it gossip? It does have some features of what Locke describes as typical all-male talk: the two men I’ve called ‘Ed’ and ‘Bryan’ are talking in a way they evidently find amusing, and they’re doing it in front of an audience (the three other men who share the house). But in other respects it doesn’t conform to Locke’s template for male verbal duelling: it’s more of a collaborative duet. The speakers aren’t ‘humorously denigrating’ one another, they’re talking about someone else behind his back. They aren’t expressing conflicting views—on the contrary, what they’re constructing is very much a shared view of the ‘really gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’.

Why would young men gossip? The short answer is, for the same reasons anyone gossips. People who study gossip (they include anthropologists, sociologists, historians and linguists) say it’s ubiquitous in human cultures–despite the fact that most communities claim to disapprove of it–because it serves a number of important social purposes. One of these is circulating personal information, which enables members of a community to keep track of others’ activities and relationships. Another is the one Locke emphasises in his discussion of all-female talk, namely bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information–like a secret or a negative opinion about someone–that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present.

A third purpose gossip serves, especially when it’s critical or judgmental, is to affirm the group’s commitment to particular norms and values. That’s clearly one thing that’s going on in Ed and Bryan’s duet. By describing the absent ‘gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’, they’re also bonding around their own, very different code of properly masculine behaviour.

It may seem paradoxical that the vehicle for this heterosexual male bonding is a kind of talk which is stereotypically associated with women (not to mention that the main subject discussed is the very thing these men claim to have no interest in—other men’s bodies). But it’s only really a paradox if you take the stereotype at face value. The fact is that both sexes gossip: one survey conducted in 2009 found that men reported spending slightly more time on gossip than women. And respondents of both sexes gave the same reason for doing it: they said that gossiping made them feel like ‘part of the gang’.

But if everyone gossips, why has gossip been decried for centuries as a specifically female vice? The historical record is full of injunctions to women to avoid gossip, which was variously denounced as idle, frivolous, anti-social, sinful and even a cover for witchcraft.  Noting that the word ‘gossip’ in early modern English meant a close female companion who stayed with a woman in childbirth, Suzanne Romaine mentions one reason why this role prompted anxiety:

Professions such as midwifery allowed women passage between households, largely free of male control, to exchange …knowledge of intimate matters such as contraception and abortion.

Some historians argue that what really worried men wasn’t so much the sharing of arcane female knowledge as the prospect of women talking about them. They feared their wives would share embarrassing secrets, or spread malicious gossip deliberately to damage their reputations. This fear was not unfounded: at a time when women had very limited access to more public forums, gossip provided an alternative channel for influencing the opinions of others. And in a culture that practised quite extensive sex-segregation, it was one channel men couldn’t control.

But it was never just women who made use of this channel. Men also used gossip as a weapon; they still do. A fair proportion of what men like to call ‘banter’ is sexist and sexualised talk about women, and one of its effects (thanks to the sexual double standard) may be to damage a woman’s or a girl’s reputation by branding her a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’. This kind of so-called ‘banter’ is just gossip by another name. A more forgiving name, too: whereas ‘gossip’ is associated with meanness and malice, ‘banter’ is more often described using terms like ‘good natured’ and ‘light-hearted’.

The idea that women are obsessed with the personal (meaning the trivial, the venial, the commonplace) takes many different forms, and all of them are basically sexist put-downs. They’re a good illustration of the more general principle that whatever women are said to do will be devalued by comparison with whatever men are said to do–even if what they’re doing is essentially the same thing.

*The men involved in this conversation gave me permission to use the recorded data, which I later transcribed and analysed in this article. The names I’ve given them are pseudonyms.