They think it’s all over: football v. sexism

And they’re off! As we move into the Season of Endless Televised Sport (this year centring on the month-long FIFA World Cup), some men have started their own competition to find the Most Unconvincing Reason Why We Shouldn’t Have To Listen To Women Talking About Football. I’m tempted to name this contest the Samuel Johnson Memorial Award for Sexism, in homage to Johnson’s famous remark comparing a woman preacher to a dog walking on its hind legs: ‘it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all’. (It also doesn’t hurt that ‘Johnson’ is a slang term for ‘penis’.)

Simon Kelner made an early splash with his suggestion that asking women like Eni Aluko and Alex Scott to offer expert technical analysis of matches played by men was like ‘getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball’.  Er, not really, Simon: netball and basketball are different sports, whereas women’s football and men’s football…well, the clue’s in the name. Scott, who made 140 appearances for England during her career and played in three World Cups, can hardly be said to lack insight; Aluko’s analysis has been incisive enough to prompt applause from Patrice Evra (a patronising gesture which makes him another leading contender for the Johnson award).

Of course it’s true that unlike Evra, these women have never played in a men’s World Cup. But as someone pointed out on Twitter, if you followed that line of argument to its logical conclusion you’d have to leave expert analysis of the Grand National to a panel of horses. Who but a horse can truly understand the physical and mental challenges of this unique event?

Kelner’s article was really just a lengthy whinge that should have been headed ‘Why I don’t like being expected to pay attention to some bird when I’m watching the football’. Other men who felt the same way came up with different justifications. There were several variations on the complaint made by one Mail reader that ‘male commentators have a better camaraderie and banter’. Football-talk just doesn’t have the same laddish, all-boys-together vibe when there’s a woman in the room. But by far the most popular argument–most often produced with the triumphant air of a magician plucking the rabbit of self-evident truth from the hat of mere disputable opinion–was that no one could be expected to pay attention to what the women were saying, because of (stop me if you’ve heard this before) their annoying high-pitched voices.

The woman who bore the brunt of this tediously familiar complaint was not a player-turned-pundit, but the broadcaster Vicki Sparks, who became the first woman ever to commentate live on a men’s World Cup match. While she was commentating on Portugal v. Morocco, John Terry caused a stir by posting on Instagram that he’d been forced to watch with the sound off. He later clarified that this wasn’t because of the commentary, it was because the sound on his TV wasn’t working. But others had already picked up the ball and were evidently determined to run with it (oops, sorry, wrong game).

Their comments came straight from the Bumper Book of Ancient Clichés About Women’s Speech. Here’s a selection taken from the comments section of a Huffington Post piece. (Incidentally, I chose this piece because it was basically positive, deploring the sexism dished out to Sparks elsewhere. Nevertheless, in the comments section the ratio of negative to positive or neutral judgments was approximately 4:1.)

One day they may find a woman with the right knowledge and gravitas to pull it off but that time has still to arrive.

Whatever next…. the commentary done in the style of nagging I expect.

Women commentators just don’t work. Reason is because of the voice rather than the gender (before I get hate). You’d never get a squeaky guy as a commentator, so why have a squeaky woman

Her voice tone wasn’t clear, difficult to listen to, I missed half of what she said, and yet shrill. Not for me.

Sorry I am all for equality but this is one step too far, what a screeching high pitched annoying voice. Had to turn the sound off, please spare us.

Nice to have a woman, but NOT this one. The voice was just too strident. May be more suited to a boxing match. Sorry, but there is a lot of female talent out there that is more suitable

In the same way that a short person is unlikely to make a good basketball player, it should be accepted that a person with a high, shallow voice does not have the necessary attributes to be a good football commentator.

There are just some things men are better at and women are better at and the roar of a passionate crowd being drowned out by a high pitched voice doesn’t work, be it male or female, thank god I’ve lived through the best days. ‘They think it’s all over, it is now’ RIP Football

What I find striking about these comments is that the tropes they use are exactly the same ones that turn up with monotonous regularity in discussions of female political leaders—especially when the theme is ‘why I’m not going to vote for [insert name of woman]’. There’s a tried and tested formula, which goes something like this:

  1. I’m not a sexist: I’ve got nothing against women/ I’m all for equality, but
  2. This woman is not the right woman. I know she isn’t right because
  3. She has a shrill/ squeaky/ screechy/ strident voice which means she (a) lacks the necessary gravitas and/or (b) is unbearably painful to listen to. And after all,
  4. We shouldn’t put a woman who isn’t the right woman in this position: that would be tokenism/ box-ticking/ political correctness.

This is what was said about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election campaign; now it’s being said about Vicki Sparks in the context of the 2018 World Cup. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Politics and sport may be different in many ways, but they are both symbolically masculine domains, arenas for the cultivation and display of symbolically masculine attributes like power, strength, competitiveness and fraternal loyalty. As such they are seen, at least by some men, as sacred turf which women should not be permitted to profane.

This may help to explain the otherwise puzzling fact that women’s voices only seem to become an insuperable obstacle to equality when women are using them to talk about certain things. You could almost formulate it as a law: the more important a subject is to men, the more they feel it defines them as men, the more likely they will accuse any woman who speaks about it with authority of being ‘shrill’.

Why is this line of criticism, making reference to the fact that women’s voices are higher in pitch than men’s, so popular with sexists? Some would say, because it trades on the idea that men are ‘naturally’ more authoritative speakers. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s good evidence that people tend to associate lower pitch with greater authority, and this has often been explained in terms of the natural relationship between larger bodies and lower-pitched sounds. But we’ve known for a long time that pitch differences between the sexes aren’t entirely explained by physical factors–they also have a social dimension. Research has shown that they vary across cultures, and that they emerge in young children before there’s a physical basis for them. They can also change over time: a number of recent studies done in Europe, North America and Australia suggest that the average pitch of the female voice has fallen quite significantly since the mid-20th century. This has not, however, stemmed the flow of complaints about the high pitch and ‘shrillness’ of women’s speech.

I think there’s a simple explanation for this: the complaints were never really about the way women’s voices sound. That’s just a figleaf, a red herring, a proxy for a different kind of concern about women speaking in certain domains. If the issue were really about acoustics–if female voices were genuinely more unpleasant to listen to and more difficult to understand– we would surely expect to hear the same complaints about every kind of public and broadcast speech. But in reality the criticism is selective, and always has been.

I’m old enough to remember when women weren’t allowed to read the news on the BBC because their light, high voices allegedly lacked gravitas. Today people complain that their voices are too ‘high and shallow’ for football commentary. Meanwhile, there are no such criticisms of the female duos who present Strictly Come Dancing and (until recently) The Great British Bake-Off.  Ballroom dancing and baking are already symbolically feminised activities, so in those domains a female voice of authority (or a flamboyantly gay one, as adopted by Strictly’s two male judges) poses no threat to the existing order. Introducing that voice into football coverage is a different matter: for some people it can only mean that the best days are behind us. ‘RIP Football’.

It’s not only football that these people are in mourning for. In the words of another Huffington Post reader (who probably spoke for quite a few of his peers, even if he himself was being sarcastic):

Wow, a woman commentator, they are getting everywhere (except back in the kitchen)

If women are getting everywhere, where does that leave men? From where I’m standing, not too badly off: in football as in life more generally, they’re still getting the lion’s share of the power, the glory and the money. But some of them are evidently brooding on what they feel they’ve lost. They look back nostalgically to the golden age when each sex had its proper sphere: when a woman’s place was in the kitchen and a man’s was everywhere else.  Sorry-not-sorry, guys. If you think that’s all over, I’m pretty sure you’re right.


Immodesty becomes her?

When the Toronto Globe & Mail announced that in future only medical doctors would be accorded the title ‘Dr’, it probably wasn’t expecting this news to cause much of a stir. But then a historian with a Ph.D objected:


This tweet provoked an avalanche of criticism–directed not to the Globe & Mail‘s new style-rule, but to the arrogance and conceit of Fern Riddell. And as she later told the BBC, she couldn’t help noticing that her critics were mostly men. A lot of men seemed to be outraged by a woman claiming the status of an expert and expecting others to acknowledge her as such. ‘Humility Dr Riddell’, tweeted one. ‘There’s no Ph.D for that’.

But why should women humble themselves when other people are there to do it for them? As I explained in an earlier post, the treatment of women in professional and public settings is demonstrably affected by a ‘gender respect gap’: while this disrespect takes multiple forms, one salient manifestation of it is the withholding of professional and respect titles. It doesn’t just happen in academia: a 2017 study showed that women hospital doctors are less likely than their male counterparts to be referred to by male colleagues with the title ‘Dr’, and  in 2016 women lawyers in the US campaigned for the American Bar Association to make the use of endearment terms like ‘honey’ a breach of professional standards. Meanwhile, British school teachers have complained for decades about the convention whereby men are addressed as ‘sir’ while women of all ages get the rather less respectful ‘miss’.

Among the women who responded to Fern Riddell, a common complaint was that when titles are an issue there’s a relentless focus on women’s marital status. Some said they used their academic title as a way of dodging the dreaded ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ But they also said that the answer ‘Dr’ was often met with a pained look or a sharp intake of breath. One woman tweeted that she had recently attended a ceremony honouring her for her academic work, and found that because her husband has the title ‘Sir’, she’d been listed as ‘Lady X’ rather than ‘Professor X’. Others pointed out that some airlines still won’t let passengers who tick the ‘female’ box select ‘Dr’ from the title menu–though women doctors, both medical and academic, existed long before there were online booking forms.

When women’s professional credentials are so routinely ignored, telling them to pipe down about their Ph.Ds just adds insult to the original injury. But in this case what motivated the insult wasn’t only disrespect: something else was also going on. And there’s a clue to what it was in the hashtag Riddell created as a riposte to the men who attacked her: #ImmodestWomen.

The word ‘immodest’ was an apt choice. What Riddell’s critics found most objectionable clearly wasn’t the fact that she had a Ph.D, it was her insistence on drawing public attention to that fact. Her sin was not to be an expert but to say in so many words, ‘I am an expert’. That was what prompted slap-downs like the sniffy ‘if you need to tell people you’re an expert you probably aren’t’, and the sententious ‘humility, Dr Riddell!’ Lurking behind these comments was the culturally-ingrained belief that a ‘good’ woman is by nature modest. However exceptional her talents, she does not give herself airs or seek applause. Even Marie Curie, noted one commenter, was content to be known as ‘Madame’. Who did Fern Riddell think she was, showing off about her qualifications and demanding to be referred to as ‘Dr’?

Historically modesty has been seen, along with chastity, piety and obedience, as a quintessentially female virtue, a quality women should cultivate not only as evidence of their goodness, but also as a mark of their femininity. Today the concept of modesty is most strongly associated with religious dress-codes, but in the past it regulated every aspect of a woman’s conduct: its demands dictated not only what she wore, where she went and how she spent her time, but also–and for my purposes most significantly–how she spoke.

The association of female speech with immodesty is a theme that goes back to antiquity. Particular concern was expressed about women speaking in public places or to strangers: Plutarch maintained that a virtuous woman ‘should as modestly guard against exposing her voice to outsiders as she would guard against stripping off her clothes’. In many contexts what modesty required of women was silence; if they were called upon to speak they were told to make their contributions brief, quiet, measured, discreet and dignified. Whereas men of high social rank were expected to cultivate eloquence, women were praised for their reticence.

Similar ideas figured prominently in advice books written for bourgeois Protestant readers in early modern England. One popular example, entitled ‘A Godly Forme of Household Gouernment’, instructed husbands to ‘be skillful in talk’ while exhorting their wives to ‘boast of silence’. This commandment, grounded in Biblical authority (notably St Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians to ‘let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak’), would be repeated for the next several centuries. As late as 1837, a group of Christian ministers in Massachusetts issued a pastoral letter denouncing women like the Grimké sisters, abolitionists who lectured publicly on the evils of slavery. Such immodest and unnatural behaviour, the letter warned, could only end in disaster: the women who engaged in it would ‘not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonor into the dust’.

Modern secular advice texts for women, like the etiquette books and ‘guides for brides’ which were widely read during the 20th century, turned away from the religious language of modesty and shame, but they continued to give substantially the same advice: don’t talk too much, don’t talk about yourself, don’t try to compete on men’s turf with ostentatious displays of knowledge or wit. The prevailing wisdom is  summarised succinctly in Emily Post’s bestselling Etiquette, first published in 1922:

The cleverest woman is she who, in talking to a man, makes him seem clever.

To that end, Post suggested that the most appropriate strategy for any woman who found herself making conversation with a man was ‘to ask advice’.  ‘In fact’, she went on, ‘it is sage to ask his opinion on almost anything’.  What we now call ‘mansplaining’ is evidently nothing new: generations of our foremothers were explicitly taught to encourage it.

Emily Post was not the kind of anti-feminist who disputed that women could be clever: her point was rather that a woman who did not 3660635trouble to conceal or downplay her cleverness was failing in her feminine duty to appear modest and self-effacing, and that this failure was socially disruptive. It threw a spanner into the well-oiled machine of ‘social usage’ (that is, the rules and rituals of the educated middle classes) by challenging basic assumptions about the roles of men and women.

When I read some of the comments addressed to Fern Riddell, I couldn’t help thinking about this long tradition–one which flourished for many centuries, and was still going strong during my own teenage years–condemning the immodesty of the woman who refuses to efface herself.  Today the older forms of this advice have become material for comedy (a classic example is Harry Enfield’s 1930s-style parody ‘Women, Know Your Limits’) but in subtler forms its spirit lingers on. And as I also noted in my ‘respect gap’ post, the pressure for women to display humility is no longer coming only from conservatives who feel men’s traditional prerogatives are being threatened: it is also coming from progressive movements, including feminism itself.

Feminists’ reactions to #ImmodestWomen were not uniformly positive. Some accused Riddell of elitism, pointing out that the credentials she was encouraging women to display are not equally available for everyone to earn, and that the knowledge acquired in academic institutions is not the only kind that deserves respect. These feminists saw the addition of ‘Dr’ to women’s Twitter names less as a celebration of women’s collective achievements and more as a flaunting of some women’s privilege. There were also feminists who did add ‘Dr’ to their names, but who noted as they did so that the gesture made them uneasy. Celia Kitzinger, for instance, tweeted:

I feel v uncomfortable at having changed my Twitter name to support #immodestwomen + wondering how long I can hold out before I change it back again! …I was brought up Quaker + learned to address/refer to everyone by first name (+ surname if I didn’t know them well). No titles or honorifics.

Kitzinger included a link to a blog maintained by the Society of Friends to answer questions about Quaker beliefs and practices. In this case the question was whether the Quakers had abandoned their old rule against using titles: having noticed a reference to a ‘Dr Nelson’ in a Quaker publication, the questioner wondered why the writer had departed from the strict egalitarianism of the past.

After acknowledging that this was a hotly debated issue among Quakers themselves, the respondent Chel Avery pointed out that the practice of avoiding titles was not originally, in the modern sense, egalitarian:

“Equality” as a principle was not much on the radar screens of early Friends. They believed in every person’s capacity to be enlivened by the spirit of God, they believed everyone had a soul (even women and non-whites, to the shock of many other Christians) … They also believed in humility as a quality necessary to be at one with the Divine Spirit. So social customs that contained flattery were objectionable to Friends because they were insincere. These customs were also seen as harmful, because to flatter someone would encourage vanity, not a healthy thing for their souls.

The Quaker rejection of titles was more about affirming the spiritual value of humility than the political value of equality—though some early Quakers clearly believed in both, and the second became more important over time. But in any case, as Avery went on to explain, in modern conditions it may be argued that prohibiting titles isn’t always the best way to express a commitment to equality. Consider, for instance, the elderly woman in a nursing home who is constantly addressed by her first name–even by people who have never met her before–because of the habit of treating old people as if they were children. In that situation, would it not be more in keeping with the principle that all humans are equal in worth and dignity to address her as ‘Mrs Peters’ rather than ‘Annie’?

Though they are clearly not identical, there is a parallel between this case and the case of women who want their professional qualifications to be acknowledged. Elderly people and women are both groups whose subordinate status is revealed by, among other things, a systematic tendency to patronise and belittle them. And in both cases one form this takes involves the withholding of linguistic tokens of respect. In that context, it could be argued, asking to be addressed by the title that applies (whether that’s Dr, Mrs, Captain, or whatever) is not an act of self-aggrandisement, and acceding to such a request is not sycophantic. If someone has been routinely disrespected, addressing them with a respect title is not endorsing inequality, but on the contrary, refusing to perpetuate it.

As always, though, the meaning of the gesture depends on the context. I don’t use my own academic title in non-academic settings, because I don’t think my status as a professor should give me an advantage over other people in contexts where that status is irrelevant. But when women with Ph.Ds ask students, colleagues or the media to call them ‘Dr’, what they’re asking for isn’t special treatment, it’s equal treatment. And we’ll know we’re getting closer to that objective when people stop reacting to any mention of a woman’s talents, achievements or qualifications with a lecture on the importance of being modest. If they really believe in the value of humility, perhaps they should try showing some themselves.

Cuntroversy: On Samantha Bee and the C-word

On her show last week, as everyone now knows, Samantha Bee used a word which is Not To Be Uttered On TV. Addressing Ivanka Trump, who had posted a photo taken with her child on Instagram while her father’s administration was busy separating undocumented migrants from their children, Bee said:

Let me just say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless cunt. He listens to you.

Later Bee apologised, saying that her use of the word ‘cunt’ had ‘crossed a line’: it was ‘inappropriate and inexcusable’. Plenty of people agreed: even if they shared Bee’s feelings about the President and his daughter, they thought her language overstepped the mark. Not everyone, however, took that view. There were some who defended Bee simply on the basis that they thought her target deserved the epithet; but there were others whose comments focused on the epithet itself, challenging the assumption that ‘cunt’ is, in the words of Grose’s much-quoted dictionary entry,  ‘a nasty name for a nasty thing’.

One high-profile example came from Sally Field, who tweeted:

I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a cunt. Cunts are powerful, beautiful, nurturing and honest.

Another popular riposte (I saw several variations of it on Twitter) was ‘I don’t think Samantha Bee should have called Ivanka a cunt: she has neither the warmth nor the depth’.

This isn’t a new take on ‘cunt’. Feminists over the past 50 years have regularly proposed to reclaim ‘the most offensive word in the English language’ and turn it into a positive symbol of female power.

Germaine Greer was an early advocate of reclamation: initially she thought the goal should be to make ‘cunt’ an ordinary, everyday word, but later she would say that on reflection she was glad efforts to tame it had failed. ‘Unlike other words for female genitals’ she observed, ‘this one sounds powerful. It demands to be taken seriously’. She also expounded a theory that has long been popular in some feminist circles–that the power of ‘cunt’ and its status as a forbidden word derive from the fact that ‘men identified female sexual energy as a dangerous force’.

These sentiments were echoed by Laurie Penny in a 2011 New Statesman column entitled ‘In defence of the C-word’. Repeating Greer’s point that ‘cunt’ is the only non-medical word for the female genitals that doesn’t domesticate or sanitise what it names, she exhorted women to ‘use it and love it’. ‘Cunt’, she rhapsodised, is

a wholesome word, an earthy, dank and lusty word, with the merest hint of horny threat…it’s fantastically difficult to pronounce without baring the teeth.

Unlike Greer, Penny defends not only the use of ‘cunt’ to name the female genitals, but also its use as an aggressive insult. In both senses, she says, it is a ‘word of power’.

I have always had a problem with this kind of cunt-talk, because it depends on what I would argue is a fundamentally patriarchal gesture—defining power, for women, in primarily sexual terms. Men may monopolise all other kinds of power, but sexual power—that magical ability to bend men to your will by provoking desires they cannot control or resist—is held out to women as a consolation prize. It is also used to vilify them and license various measures designed to control their ‘dangerous’ sexuality. The idea that women pose a sexual threat to men, rather than vice-versa, is the foundation for one of the commonest myths justifying rape (‘she aroused me, I couldn’t help myself’); it is part of the thinking behind every religious injunction telling women they must cover themselves to avoid leading men into temptation; it is also, as we have recently learnt, part of the creed of the men who call themselves incels. Why would feminists celebrate any of this?

Emma Rees, the author of  Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, seems rather more sympathetic to it than I am, but she too notes that there are problems with the idea of reclaiming a word which is both a name for the female genitals and a metonymic (part-for-whole) label meaning ‘woman’. Can this second usage ever be positive? Even in a culture that celebrated female sexuality, describing a woman as a cunt would still entail making her sexuality the defining feature of her identity as a person. And yes, you could argue that calling a man a ‘prick’ or a ‘dick’ does the same, but treating the two gestures as equivalent ignores the very different historical positioning of the two sexes: whereas men have never been valued primarily for their sexual utility to women, nor told that their only power is sexual power, that has been women’s experience for thousands of years.

Proposals to reclaim ‘cunt’ do not have to involve spouting mystical nonsense about ‘female sexual energy’. They could be based, and sometimes have been, on the more straightforward argument that if we see nothing wrong with either women or their genitals then we should see nothing wrong with the word ‘cunt’ either. But once again, this skips too lightly over the point that words have histories; the baggage they bring from the past continues to weigh them down in the present. When we ask what gives words like ‘cunt’ their peculiar power (a power that may be entirely lacking in their synonyms—you wouldn’t get the same effect by calling someone ‘a total vulva’ or ‘a bit of a vagina’), the answer lies less in what the words mean than in what they’ve historically been used to do.

There’s a good discussion of this point in a piece by the linguist Ana Deumert about a recent legal decision made by South African Constitutional Court. The case concerned a white man who was dismissed by his employer for using racially offensive language during a dispute about parking at work. Annoyed that another employee had parked too close to his own space, the white man had gone to the person in charge of parking and demanded the removal of ‘that Black man’s car’. He later made a claim of unfair dismissal on the grounds that referring to someone as ‘that Black man’ could not be considered racist; the phrase was purely descriptive, it contained no insulting or abusive terms, and he had not intended it to be offensive.

The Appeal Court had accepted this argument, but the Constitutional Court applied a different test: its question was not what the speaker was thinking when he used the phrase ‘that Black man’, but whether ‘a reasonable, objective and informed person, on hearing the words, would perceive them to be racist or derogatory’. The Court decided that in South Africa, a society still deeply marked by its recent history as an apartheid state, an informed and reasonable person would indeed have grounds to perceive a reference to ‘that Black man’ as racist. Though ‘Black’ is not in itself a negative term, the decision of a white speaker to foreground his opponent’s status as ‘a Black man’ rather than just ‘a man’ during an argument is liable to be interpreted in relation to a whole history of interactions where that gesture was a clear assertion of racial superiority and white power. As Deumert explains:

The performative nature of language – its ability to cause effects – is rooted in its history, in the circulation and repetition of words and phrases across time… [W]ords mean because they have meant before, and, consequently, words also wound because they have wounded before. There is no escape from history, from the meanings we inherit.

This should not be taken to imply that the meanings we inherit are immutable, and will inevitably be transmitted intact to every subsequent generation until the end of time: word-meaning does change, along with the contexts in which words are repeated and circulated. Terms which were once offensive can lose their power to wound, or indeed fall out of use entirely. But people who talk blithely of reclaiming current insults and slur-terms very often underestimate the magnitude of the task, and the time it takes to accomplish.

Last year there was an interesting—and to some, perhaps, surprising—illustration of this point, in the findings of an online survey which investigated attitudes to the term ‘queer’ among members of the LGBT community. 60% of respondents reported that they found ‘queer’ offensive and inappropriate; among gay men the percentage rose to 93%. These are not the kind of figures you can generalise from, since they were compiled from the responses of a small, self-selected and thus unrepresentative sample; but they do suggest that attitudes to ‘queer’ remain more polarised–and more negative–than might have been expected in 2017. The rise of ‘queer‘–which increasing numbers of people are said to prefer to ‘stale and stodgy’ old labels like ‘lesbian‘–has been chronicled at length in pieces on Buzzfeed, Slate et al. Why are some LGBT people–especially gay men–still so resistant to it?

There are some answers in the comments made by survey respondents. In line with the principle Ana Deumert outlines—‘words wound because they have wounded before’—gay men who found ‘queer’ offensive often cited experiences of having it used to and about them in a clearly derogatory and sometimes threatening way. Some of the strongest objections came from men over the age of 60, but negative reactions were not confined to the oldest respondents. Even if they had been, that would still be a salutary reminder that the meanings we attach to words are slow to change: the movement to reclaim ‘queer’ has been going on for 30 years, i.e. for most of the adult life of anyone now in their 60s or 70s. That’s not to say nothing has changed since the 1980s—‘queer’ has certainly become less uniformly negative in its uses and connotations—but it is still far too soon to declare it ‘reclaimed’, or indeed to know whether its older use as a homophobic slur will ever be completely superseded.

‘Cunt’, at least when used to refer to a person rather than a body part, remains unequivocally pejorative, and that assessment is not undermined by the evidence (cited by numerous contributors to social media discussions of Samantha Bee) that in some circumstances it can be used without anyone either intending or taking offence. The comedian Mark Watson remarked on Twitter that he’d been called a cunt while playing Pictionary with friends—one of many comments whose underlying theme was the linguistic (over)sensitivity of Americans compared to Brits or Australians. A linguist I know recalled his surprise when he heard teenage girls in Wales greeting one another (in Welsh) with ‘what’s up, cunt?’ But what cases like these show is that, like other highly offensive words (most obviously the N-word), ‘cunt’ can be appropriated to serve as a marker of solidarity and mutual affection among intimates. This gesture works not in spite of the word’s taboo status in other contexts, but because of it.

Contributors to the social media debate also suggested that in many non-American varieties of English (Scots featured particularly strongly, and Australian English was mentioned too) ‘cunt’ is used so frequently and with so little animus, it has effectively become just another word for ‘person’. Some people referred to this usage as ‘gender neutral’. But the evidence, at least for Britain, suggests otherwise. To the extent that ‘cunt’ can function as a ‘neutral’ word, neither pejorative nor affectionate, its meaning appears to be gender-specific, referring to a male person rather than just a person. More generally, according to Tony McEnery’s analysis of swearing in the British National Corpus, ‘cunt’ is preferentially used by men, and they most often use it when addressing or referring to other men. Men do also use the word in reference to women, though much less frequently, and women sometimes use it in reference to men. But the corpus does not contain a single example of a woman using ‘cunt’ in the way Samantha Bee used it, to address or refer to another woman.

The finding that ‘cunt’ is a much commoner insult for men than for women might suggest that using it against a female target is perceived as aggravating the offence. If so, that would not be surprising: whatever else may be implied by calling a man a cunt, he is not being reminded of his historical or actual status as a commodity for male sexual use. This implication of the word may also help to explain why ‘cunt’ is so rarely a female-to-female insult. Not because women’s sisterly feelings prevent them from hurling sexist insults at one another, but because there are other sexist insults which are better suited to their needs.

As I noted in an earlier post about swearing, both historical evidence from court records and more recent sociolinguistic studies suggest that the words women have most often used to wound each other are terms like ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘slag’, which make distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women on the basis of their (real or imagined) sexual conduct. In the context of verbal conflict between women, the problem with ‘cunt’ may be that it doesn’t make distinctions. When you call another woman a slag you are implying that she’s inferior, both to you and to anyone else who has eschewed the behaviour implied by the term; but if you call her a cunt you’re invoking a status which no one in possession of female genitals can easily disclaim. You’re not just expressing your opinion of her, you’re also recycling an old patriarchal belief about what all women essentially are.

This is why, ultimately, I do not agree with Laurie Penny’s assessment of ‘cunt’ as a ‘word of power’ for women. The power I see in it is largely the historical power of men to define women, to dominate them and to make them Other. (And also–given the evidence that ‘cunt’ is most commonly a male-on-male insult–to weaponise women’s bodies in their dealings with one another.)

So, am I saying we should treat ‘cunt’ in the way polite society has always treated it, as unspeakable? No: I don’t believe that any word is wholly unspeakable, nor am I in favour of banning words. I share the view set out by the African American legal scholar Randall Kennedy in his thought-provoking history of another ‘troublesome word’, the N-word. Though Kennedy has many qualms about its use, he argues that imposing a blanket prohibition just makes it into a fetish, and so does more to increase than to diminish its power. Instead he proposes that every case should be judged on its merits, giving careful consideration to the speaker’s aims, the effect of the word in context, and what alternatives the speaker could have chosen to use instead.

This last point, I think, is an important one for speakers themselves to take on board. In language there are almost always alternatives, and offensive words, words with the potential to wound because they have wounded before, should not be used either on autopilot or simply for their shock value: it’s always worth asking whether a word that carries less baggage might serve our purposes equally well.

In Samantha Bee’s case I think a well-chosen alternative to ‘cunt’, something scathing but not obscene, and more specific in its application to the person being criticised, would actually have served her purposes better. In a different context (like a live performance in a more intimate space) exploiting the shock value of ‘cunt’ might have been effective, but on a national TV show it was always liable to be heard as crass, flouting the rule so memorably stated by Michelle Obama in her own attack on Trump and his supporters: ‘you don’t stoop to their level … when they go low, we go high’. Perhaps what Bee will regret most, in hindsight, is not that she pissed off her sponsors and a large chunk of her audience by using the C-word on TV, but that by doing so she allowed Ivanka Trump to occupy, however briefly, the moral high ground.


This month I finally got round to reading Jessa Crispin’s much-hyped book Why I Am Not A Feminist. In fact, Crispin does consider herself a feminist: what her book takes aim at isn’t feminism as such, but a particular kind of ‘lifestyle’ feminism which she finds vacuous and self-absorbed. And one sign of this vacuity, she argues, is an obsession with linguistic minutiae:

…what becomes most important are the things on the surface. Like using the right words, rather than the wrong words. (The fact that the right words keep changing does nothing to quell the anger that builds in Internet feminism when you use the wrong words.)

This is an easy way to score political points, because the belief it mobilises—that if you’re worrying about mere words you must be neglecting the stuff that really matters—is deeply embedded in English-speaking culture. The idea that debating language is a trivial and ineffectual pursuit is expressed in a gazillion stock phrases and sayings: ‘Deeds, not words’. ‘Empty rhetoric’. ‘Just semantics.’ ‘He’s all mouth and no trousers’. ‘She talks the talk but can she walk the walk?’

By coincidence, while I was reading Jessa Crispin’s book I came across another piece making the same kind of argument, but from a very different political standpoint. This one appeared on a conservative website, the Daily Caller, under the title ‘Whiny and broken: the linguistic minefield of today’s politically correct tranny’. And it resembled Jessa Crispin’s text in another way too: just as Crispin is a feminist criticising other feminists, the author of ‘Whiny and broken’, Sophia Narwitz, is a trans woman criticising other trans people. ‘Each day’, she complains,

the habitually angry leftist LGBT “community” is creating semantic rules that are all but impossible to navigate unless you have helped lay the groundwork yourself.

She goes on to give examples:

I bet you didn’t know it’s wrong to say ‘transgendered’ now. Apparently the ‘ed’ at the end of the word is offensive. … They feel it invalidates a transgender person because people don’t become transgendered. They are born that way.

And later:

These people even cry depending on whether you put a space in transwoman or not. I am not joking. I think it’s not offensive if you say it as trans woman with a space, but honestly I don’t even care to check. I’m not going to waste my time googling nonsense, because — guess what — none of this fucking matters!

What Narwitz calls ‘googling nonsense’ was actually the first thing I did after reading her piece. This is because I remember the Great Political Correctness Furore of the 1990s, when it was common to discover, if you bothered to look, that the linguistic rules people were ridiculing as trivial, or denouncing as a sinister Orwellian plot to control people’s thoughts, had in fact been made up—not by the so-called ‘PC Brigade’ but by their opponents and/or people satirising the phenomenon. Thousands of primary school children were not, as the tabloids alleged, singing ‘Baa Baa Green Sheep’ because the thought police had decreed that any reference to a black sheep was racist. And absolutely nobody was seriously advocating the substitution of ‘vertically challenged’ for ‘short’. That was a joke. So, before I pondered Sophia Narwitz’s argument, I thought it would be prudent to check her facts.

She wasn’t making her examples up. The ‘transgender not transgendered’ rule is now a highly codified norm, appearing in, among other sources, the reference guide to LGBT terminology produced for media professionals by GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation);  it has been explained for a general audience in such mainstream publications as Time magazine. There are also many sources for the other rule Narwitz mentions, prescribing the two-word form ‘trans woman’ rather than ‘transwoman’. In each case the prescribed form is presented as what ‘the community’ prefers, whereas the proscribed form is associated with ignorant or malicious outsiders. But in fact that’s an oversimplification: there isn’t only one ‘insider’ view. Some community members dissent from the current orthodoxy—and they aren’t all right-wing zealots who would be happy to write for the Daily Caller.

In 2013 the trans blogger Cristan Williams devoted a post to the ‘trans woman v. transwoman’ issue. She began by reproducing part of an email she had received objecting to her ‘cissexist’ use of ‘transwoman’ to describe herself.

“Trans” should be used as an adjective to describe “woman.” When the two are linked together, it becomes a noun all its own, distinctly separating it from other groups of women, acting as a qualifier instead of a mere description. Conjoining the words together denotes that the two ideas can’t be separated, that being trans is somehow fundamentally different from any other characteristic a woman can have.

Then she explained why she disagreed with her correspondent. First, she argued that the proscription of ‘transwoman’ as transphobic or cissexist misrepresented trans history. It implied that the one-word form had been invented by outsiders as an insult, when in fact it originated among trans people themselves, and had a long history of being used in some trans communities. Second, she rejected the ‘adjective good, noun bad’ argument. ‘Businesswoman’ and ‘congresswoman’, she pointed out, are nouns: do they imply that the person so labelled is fundamentally different from all other women? Would their meaning be totally changed if they were written as two words rather than one?

Williams also offered a more general thought about what’s ultimately behind this kind of dispute:

I sometimes feel that the language polemics we so enjoy are created in part to support an environment which chases the ghost of empowerment through the reactionary policing of highly nuanced lexical epistemologies that inevitably privilege certain segments of the trans community over others.

Although I’m not included in Williams’s  ‘we’, when I read this observation it really resonated with me. What she feels is pretty much what I feel myself whenever I witness yet another Twitter spat about whether such-and-such a word is ‘problematic’, or contemplate the endless proliferation of ‘things not to say’ pieces with titles like ‘The Ten Words You Should Never Use to a Lesbian’, or ‘Five Ways Your Punctuation Could Be Making People Feel Excluded’.  But my problem with this sort of thing isn’t the same as Jessa Crispin’s: it’s not simply the fact that people are wasting energy on disagreements about ‘mere’ words. It’s more the way they’re going about it—by creating arbitrary shibboleths which are then used to police the boundaries of acceptable discourse within an already small and select community of the like-minded. It’s an example of Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’, or the sectarianism satirised in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (where the People’s Front of Judea hate the Judean People’s Front even more than they hate their Roman imperialist oppressors). And it can get very ugly.

The word ‘shibboleth’—Hebrew for an ear of corn—features in the account given in the Book of Judges of the behaviour of the Gileadites towards their defeated enemies the Ephraimites. When the surviving Ephraimites tried to flee, they found their access to a ford across the river Jordan cut off by Gileadites who would only let them cross if they could prove they weren’t members of the enemy group by pronouncing the word ‘shibboleth’ in the Gileadite way, with an initial ‘sh’ sound. If the Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked the ‘sh’, pronounced it ‘sibboleth’, they were slaughtered. This use of a small and otherwise meaningless distinction (‘shibboleth’ and ‘sibboleth’ are just variants of the same word) as a test of in-group versus out-group identity is the source of the word’s meaning in English, where it can denote a custom or practice that marks membership of a group or sect, a minor detail that is accorded disproportionate weight, or a rule which is fetishized, so that the letter of the law becomes more important than the spirit. The linguistic rules I am calling shibboleths have all these characteristics.

The most obvious sign that a rule functions as a shibboleth is that its observance or non-observance becomes an acid test of whether someone is friend or foe. The use of a prescribed form means the writer is ‘one of us’, a political ally on the right side of whatever the argument is, whereas failure to observe the rule indicates that the writer is an adversary, on the wrong side of the same argument. That, in turn, may be taken to license punitive action—pile-ons, name-calling, personal abuse and threats. This is particularly likely to happen in public forums online, where people’s words will often be the only thing you have to judge them by. But in that setting it is also likely to catch cases where non-compliance does not reflect hostility or bigotry, but merely the unfamiliarity or opacity of the rule to people who don’t belong to whatever network it emerged from.

Another sign of a shibboleth is that you can’t question either the rule or the argument that justifies it without being assumed to have the ‘wrong’ political beliefs—even if, like Cristan Williams, you are a member of the group in whose interests the rule is ostensibly being advocated. This isn’t just an issue with gender identity labels. Consider the recently influential argument that the formula ‘commit suicide’ should be avoided because it stigmatises people who take or attempt to take their own lives. The linguistic point is that the verb ‘commit’ has a strong association with criminal or sinful acts (other words that commonly follow ‘commit’ include ‘crime’, ‘murder’ and ‘adultery’): its use in relation to suicide reflects the historical definition of that act as both a crime and a sin. Since that is no longer how we think about suicide, we should stop using an expression that recycles the attitudes of a less enlightened time.

But it is possible to be 100% committed (sic) to the goal of de-stigmatising suicide while still thinking that the linguistic argument is based on inaccurate and simplistic assumptions. It assumes that anyone who hears or utters ‘commit suicide’ must be mentally accessing the negative meaning of ‘commit’ and the associated understanding of suicide as a crime/sin. But that isn’t necessarily the case. We still talk about the sun ‘rising’, but that doesn’t mean we think it actually ‘rises’. In the context of the formula ‘sun + rise’ we rarely think about the meaning of the word ‘rise’ at all.

This example is given in a blog post by Dariusz Galasiński, a linguist who has written extensively on the language of suicide. In addition to noting that we have little evidence about what ordinary language-users make of the expression ‘commit suicide’, Galasiński makes the important point that it’s unlikely to have the same meaning for everyone.  Arguments that ‘we should use X and avoid Y because X means this whereas Y means that’ consistently overlook how much variation there is in the way words are used and understood. There is also variation in the way people think about the issues behind the words. Some people who have contemplated or attempted suicide tell researchers they find the agentive language of ‘committing’ less stigmatising and disempowering than alternative formulas which suggest a lack of control over one’s own actions and decisions (e.g. ‘die by suicide’ or ‘lost to suicide’). Other research has found that being highly conscious of the stigma attached to suicide may deter people, especially men, from acting on suicidal impulses. Does that mean avoiding ‘commit’ might actually harm some members of the group it’s meant to help?

What Galasiński is questioning here is not just the rule proscribing ‘commit suicide’, but the idea that any argument for prescribing one form of words while proscribing another could be applicable in every context and to every case. Language is rarely that simple. But the power of the shibboleth depends on the conviction that some ways of using language are always right and others are always wrong—that it can never be OK, for instance, to refer to an adult woman as a ‘girl’, or to prefer the passive to the active voice. What this encourages is self-policing and bad faith: ‘I don’t understand why X is wrong/I don’t really believe that X is wrong, but if I’m going to be attacked for using it I’d better just steer clear’.

I see engaging in arguments about language as an integral part of doing any kind of politics. I can’t imagine a serious political movement that wouldn’t ask questions like ‘what does this term mean?’ or ‘how should we talk about this problem?’ In that sense I disagree with commentators like Jessa Crispin who say that arguments about language are just a trivial distraction from ‘real’ politics. But I do think there’s a problem with the way some of those arguments are conducted. If language matters, then we need to be able to reflect critically on the way we use it. And there is nothing reflective, or self-reflexive, about the shouty, judgy, self-righteous policing of anyone who doesn’t sound just like you.

The image shows a detail from Doris Salcedo’s artwork Shibboleth I (2007)

Is ‘terrorism’ the right word?

Since the self-styled ‘incel’ Alek Minassian killed ten people in Toronto last week, deliberately mowing them down with a van he had rented for the purpose, a number of writers have suggested that it is time to start calling this kind of violence ‘terrorism’. These commentators have also called attention to the role of online ‘hate-groups’ (meaning the various misogynist subcultures whose home-base is the ‘manosphere’) in ‘radicalising’ men like Minassian, exposing them to extreme beliefs and inciting them to commit acts of violence.

One feminist writer who made this argument was Jessica Valenti, who wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that 

despite a great deal of evidence that connects the dots between these mass killers and radical misogynist groups, we still largely refer to the attackers as “lone wolves” — a mistake that ignores the preventable way these men’s fear and anger are deliberately cultivated and fed online.

Here’s the term we should all use instead: misogynist terrorism.

David Futrelle, who has spent years tracking online misogynist groups on his blog We Hunted the Mammoth, concurred. In a piece written for Elle magazine he described the incel worldview as ‘a poisonous and hateful ideology’, adding that 

killings carried out in its name should be considered deliberate terrorism just as ISIS bombings or KKK lynchings are.

This suggestion was echoed by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedman, a mainstream liberal who confessed that until last week he had never even heard of incels:  

terrorism is precisely the right word for what happened in Toronto, right down to the online radicalisation that preceded it.

All three writers are making a more or less explicit analogy between Minassian’s acts and the acts of people we have no hesitation in calling terrorists, like radical Islamists and white supremacists. And it is not difficult to see the basis for that analogy. Islamist terror groups have used the internet for recruitment and propaganda purposes: the concept of ‘online radicalisation’ entered public consciousness via discussions of so-called ‘home grown’ terrorists like the London 7/7 bombers, who were said to have been inspired by the online preaching of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-based recruiter for al-Qaeda. Minassian’s method of killing, using a vehicle as a weapon, has been used in some recent attacks claimed by ISIS, as well as in the attack on anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville last year.

It’s also clear that misogynist killers see themselves as making a political statement. On Facebook Minassian referred to the attack he planned as an ‘incel rebellion’, and referenced the earlier incel killer Elliot Rodger, who composed a rambling ‘manifesto’ explaining/justifying his actions before murdering six people in 2014. Responses to these events on incel forums suggest that other members of the subculture have understood them as terrorist acts, in the textbook definition of terrorism as ‘the politically-motivated use of violence for the purpose of instilling fear’. After Toronto, one commenter wrote that    

normies must now live with fear for the rest of their lives, they can’t go to school, the mall, or on a date without having to fear another incel attack.

The argument that we should adopt the language of terrorism to talk about this phenomenon is essentially a proposal for what the linguist George Lakoff would call ‘reframing’—changing the language we use about something in order to change people’s perceptions of it. And what’s behind that proposal is the frustration felt by feminists like Valenti, and knowledgeable allies like Futrelle, about the failure of the authorities, mainstream commentators and the public at large to take misogyny seriously. As Valenti points out, the frame which has dominated previous discussions downplays the connection of mass killing with misogyny and the online groups which promote it: it has presented killers like Elliot Rodger as isolated ‘lone wolves’, driven to destroy others, and sometimes themselves, by their personal inadequacies and/or mental health problems. Reframing such acts as ‘misogynist terrorism’ is an attempt to make their political dimension visible.  

It is also an attempt to promote the idea that misogynist violence is preventable. The ‘lone wolf’ frame implies that nothing can be done: you can’t stop disturbed individuals from going off the rails and causing mayhem. But if what those individuals do is reframed as the result of being ‘radicalised’ by online ‘hate-groups’, the implication is that we could and should take action against those groups. We could, for instance, try to take away their platform by lobbying the companies that host their sites to shut them down (David Futrelle has argued for this). Or we could consider the kinds of counter-terrorism strategies that have been used in other contexts, like proscribing certain organisations or setting up programmes to help susceptible men resist their message.    

But while I agree with the writers I’ve quoted about the need to take misogyny seriously, and also with their criticisms of the ‘lone wolf’ frame, I have very mixed feelings about their proposed reframing. In the rest of this post I want to try to explain why I think we should be cautious about adopting the language of terrorism.    

The idea that we should combat misogynist terrorism by taking action against the online extremists who are radicalising men like Alek Minassian borrows not only the terminology but also the strategy of the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’. The western governments which have been fighting this ‘war’ since 2001 have devoted considerable effort to preventing radicalisation, but they have not been particularly successful; they may even have exacerbated the problem, by sharpening the sense of grievance felt by young Muslim men, and by sending the message that embracing radical Islamism is the ultimate act of rebellion against authority. Defining misogynist groups as terrorist organisations could have a similarly counterproductive effect. The problem is, as the old cliché has it, that ‘one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’. That’s exactly how the manosphere misogynists like to think of themselves—as a radical resistance movement rising  up against feminist tyranny. Do we really want to adopt a frame that will reinforce their own preferred narrative?  

Another thing we need to think about is what the ‘terrorism’ frame leaves out. All frames have the effect of bringing some aspects of the phenomenon being represented into the foreground, while relegating others to the background or obscuring them entirely, and this one is no exception. It foregrounds a particular kind of misogynist violence, the kind perpetrated by Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger, and it focuses attention on certain features of those killings. For instance, they were public and intended to be spectacular; they targeted strangers en masse, choosing weapons like vehicles or firearms, which can kill large numbers of people quickly and efficiently; their perpetrators subscribed to an identifiable ideology and claimed to have a political motive. What we see in this frame is the similarity with other forms of terrorism. What we don’t see is the connection with other forms of male violence against women and girls.

Most violence against women and girls has none of the characteristics just listed. It most often takes place in private, and is rarely intended to be spectacular. Its targets are not usually strangers: most women and girls who die or suffer serious harm at the hands of violent men are attacked by men they know, especially intimate partners or ex-partners and family members. They are typically attacked individually, and the commonest methods are ‘personal’ ones requiring direct physical contact, like beating, kicking and strangling. Some attacks have a sexual element: they are, or include, acts of rape or sexual assault. The vast majority of perpetrators have not been ‘radicalised’ and do not think of their actions as political.

From this long list of differences it would be easy to conclude that misogynist mass killings have nothing in common with more ‘everyday’ forms of male violence. But that would be a mistake. 

Killings perpetrated by incels are intended as acts of revenge against the women who refuse to consider them as sexual or romantic partners. This is their signature feature, and it is generally taken as the expression of an extreme and deluded belief system. But many acts of violence committed by non-incel men have a similar rationale. The man who kills his wife or girlfriend because she has left him, or is planning to leave him, has the same grievance against her that the incel has against ‘Stacys’. He cannot tolerate being rejected: it is a slight that must be avenged. Men who stalk women–often women who either rejected or left them–feel the same. These are different expressions of the same impulse, rooted in what has been labelled ‘aggrieved male entitlement’. 

The philosopher Kate Manne has argued that this is how misogyny works. Unlike, say, anti-semitism or homophobia, misogyny is not usually a generalized hatred of the kind that prompts calls for the entire group to be exterminated. Rather, misogyny is the enforcement arm of patriarchy: it’s about punishing any woman who does not fulfil what men consider to be her obligations to them. Misogynists become enraged when women either take something men think is theirs by right (like a position of power), or else withhold something men assume they are entitled to (like the sex, love and admiration which incels believe they are owed).  

Jessica Valenti complains that the ‘lone wolf’ frame does not join the dots that connect mass killers to radical misogynist groups; I am suggesting that the ‘terrorism’ frame does not join the dots that connect mass killers to the perpetrators of everyday violence against women and girls. For feminists I think that’s a serious drawback. We can’t tackle misogyny if we limit our focus to a handful of spectacular but untypical cases.

Nor do I think we can tackle it effectively by concentrating our efforts on the forums which are said to be ‘radicalising’ men online. The manosphere is certainly a magnet (and a megaphone) for the aggrieved and entitled, but I don’t think it’s where most men learn to be misogynists. Take away the in-group jargon and what you’re left with is ideas and attitudes (like ‘women owe men sex’, or ‘a “hot” girlfriend enhances a man’s status among his peers’) which are also ubiquitous in the surrounding culture, and are shared by millions of men with no connection to any online group. What produces these beliefs in most men who hold them isn’t ‘radicalisation’, it’s just everyday patriarchal socialisation.  

The introduction of the ‘terrorism’ frame (which has quickly gained traction in the media) has had some positive effects. The ‘lone wolf’ frame has not dominated commentary on the Toronto killings in the way it dominated discussion of earlier cases; there has been less interest in the individual killer and more in the misogynist subculture he belonged to. But I find it depressing if the only way to make people take misogyny seriously is to compare it to other forms of violence and hatred which it only resembles up to a point. And if the effect is to obscure the connections between the spectacular misogyny of incel killings and the misogyny expressed in more ‘everyday’ acts of violence, I think that’s a high price to pay. Let’s not forget that from a feminist perspective, all violence against women is political.







It ain’t what you say…

Women/ Rabbit rabbit rabbit women/ Tattle and titter/ Women prattle/ Women waffle and witter/ Men talk. Men talk.

These are the opening lines of ‘Men Talk’, a rap poem by the incomparable Liz Lochhead (you can watch her performing the whole thing here). It’s built around the familiar lexicon of disparaging terms for women’s speech: words like ‘rabbit’, ‘prattle’ and ‘witter’, which represent women’s talk as excessive, trivial and inane; and words like ‘gossip’ and ‘nag’, which represent it as malign and spiteful.

But those words are only the tip of the iceberg. If you look at the way the act of speaking is described in everything from news reports to Great Literature, you’ll soon discover that it’s persistently represented in stereotypically gendered and sexist ways.

The most neutral way to describe the act of speaking is by using the generic verb ‘say’. ‘X said’ is the reported speech equivalent of Lochhead’s ‘men talk’: it conveys no more than ‘this person uttered these words’. But writers often add colour by choosing something a bit less basic. Here’s an example, from a political sketch that appeared in the Telegraph after the second TV debate of the 2015 General Election campaign.

“Ed Miliband is scared to be bold,” scowled Ms Sturgeon. “We don’t want a pretend alternative to austerity.” “Exactly right!” squeaked Ms Bennett.

“Labour are letting the Tories off the hook!” snapped Ms Wood. The audience applauded.

Desperately Mr Miliband tried to steer the debate back to his absent foe. “Let’s not pretend there’s no difference between me and David Cameron,” he said, rather pleadingly.  “There’s not a big enough difference!” barked Ms Sturgeon.

Notice that it’s the only male participant in this exchange, Ed Miliband, whose contribution is reported using the basic ‘said’ (though the writer does add some extra information with the adverbial ‘rather pleadingly’). The three women, by contrast, don’t just ‘say’ things, they ‘scowl’, ‘squeak’, ‘snap’ and ‘bark’.

These verbs aren’t literally describing how the women sounded. They’ve been chosen to help the writer tell a story, in which a hapless male is ganged up on and berated by three angry and aggressive females. If we only had the speakers’ own words to go on, we might not make that interpretation: we’re directed to it mainly by the writer’s choice of verbs (‘scowl’, ‘snap’, ‘bark’) and adverbs (‘desperately’, ‘pleadingly’). The verbs also say something about the power dynamic among the women. Whereas ‘squeaked’ casts Natalie Bennett as a small animal, ‘snapped’ and ‘barked’ suggest bigger beasts.

This example isn’t unique. When Elisabeth Gidengil and Joanna Everitt examined TV coverage of the 1993 Canadian election campaign, in which two of the five parties were led by women,  they also found a tendency for men’s words to be reported with the plain and non-committal ‘he said’, while women’s were described in more elaborate, less neutral terms. Among the verbs which were only used about the women party leaders, and never about their male opponents, were ‘argue’, ‘blast’, ‘fire at’, ‘hammer away’ and ‘launch [an attack]’. There were also verbs, like ‘accuse’, which were sometimes applied to men, but occurred more frequently in relation to women. The women, in short, were systematically represented as more verbally aggressive than the men.

The researchers did consider the possibility that the women really were more aggressive, but when they analysed the five leaders’ actual speech they found no evidence to support that. The real difference, they argue, is in the way male and female speakers are judged: if women deviate from stereotypical expectations by presenting themselves as tough rather than gentle, combative rather than conciliatory, they are perceived as more aggressive than men who behave in exactly the same way. That perception, Gidengil and Everitt suggest, explains why female leaders’ speech is reported using more aggressive verbs of speaking. The contrast between ‘he said’ and ‘she blasted’ is an explicit encoding of the underlying double standard.

Do creative writers rise above these journalistic clichés? Not according to Ben Blatt, who analysed a large sample of literary and popular fiction for his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve. His number-crunching revealed, among other things, that male fictional characters habitually ‘mutter’, ‘shout’ and ‘chuckle’, while female characters ‘murmur’, ‘scream’ and ‘weep’. Other patterns were influenced by the sex of the author as well as the character. Male authors were more reluctant than female ones to allow their male characters to ‘sob’; and in their books it was usually female characters, not male ones, who ‘interrupted’.

This particular finding caught many readers’ attention because it’s the opposite of ‘realistic’ in the everyday sense of the word (in real life women do not interrupt more than men). But gender stereotyping can function as a ‘realist’ device in the more technical sense. Even if a stereotype is factually inaccurate, if it fits with readers’ common-sense beliefs it can help to make a fictional world believable.

As feminists have often pointed out, though, our beliefs about men and women are not just things we bring from our real-life experience to our reading; they are also things we may get from our reading and take back into the non-fictional world. I was reminded of this recently when a colleague told a story about a conversation she’d had with her children, who were insisting that ‘mummies don’t go out to work’. ‘Where’, she asked them, ‘does daddy drop me off every day when he’s taking you to school?’ They answered without hesitation: ‘work’. But knowing their own mother went out to work hadn’t prevented them from absorbing the stereotype of mothers as stay-at-home parents.

Concern about what children might be absorbing from the books they read has prompted a number of feminist researchers to analyse the language used in children’s fiction—including the words used to describe characters’ speech. One researcher, Sally Hunt, analysed the verbs of speaking used in some of the most successful children’s book series of the last 75 years: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And despite the differences of period, genre and target audience, she found there were patterns which recurred across the sample.

One of these patterns related to the distribution of verbs which tell you what action an utterance is performing. Verbs suggesting authority were more typical of male characters, and verbs suggesting deference were more typical of female ones. ‘Ordered’, for instance, was 77% male, whereas ‘begged’ was 68% female. Some actions, like ‘giggling’, were off-limits to male characters, while others, like ‘boasting’, were virtually an all-male preserve.

Hunt also remarks on authors’ fondness for verbs which allude to the vocal qualities of speech. In her sample, male characters’ verbs often implied low pitch (e.g. ‘he bellowed/roared’) whereas female characters’ verbs emphasised high pitch (e.g. ‘she shrieked/screamed’). It’s interesting that this contrast features so prominently in books for and about children, because the physiological differences which produce it in adults do not develop until puberty. But like the ‘squeaking’ and ‘barking’ attributed to female politicians in the sketch I quoted earlier, words like ‘bellow’ and ‘scream’ are rarely intended just to evoke the sound of the speaker’s voice: they are also code for emotional responses like anger, surprise and fear. Associating these words with either male or female speakers is thus a covert way of telling readers which emotions are typical of each sex.

The representation of male and female speech in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books has been investigated further by Maeve Eberhardt, who approaches the question through a detailed comparison of two characters, Hermione and Ron. As Eberhardt notes, Hermione is widely considered a ‘strong’ female character: Rowling herself has described her as the ‘brightest’ of the three friends, and she is also portrayed as morally courageous. But are her intelligence, strength and courage reflected in descriptions of her verbal behaviour?

Eberhardt’s answer is ‘yes and no’. In some respects, she finds that Hermione and Ron are treated similarly. Across the series as a whole they are given approximately equal amounts of reported speech, and the neutral ‘said’ is by far the commonest verb of speaking for both of them. The number of other verbs used to describe their speech is also approximately the same.

But the verbs themselves are not the same. When Eberhardt examined ‘unique’ verbs—those which were only ever used about one character—she found that Hermione’s tended to imply strong emotions, especially fear and sadness (they included ‘screamed’, ‘squealed’, ‘shrieked’, ‘squeaked’, ‘wailed’ and ‘whimpered’). Ron’s unique verbs, conversely, included a number (such as ‘mumbled’, ‘grumbled’ and ‘grunted’) which suggested emotional disengagement. The two characters were also distinguished by the frequency with which certain verbs were used about them. Both of them ‘whisper’ and ‘gasp’, but Hermione does those things about three times more often than Ron. He, on the other hand, does five times as much ‘muttering’ as she does, and over fifteen times as much ‘yelling’.

Eberhardt also looked at the use of adverbials to modify verbs of speaking (as in ‘he said, rather pleadingly’). Since Hermione is meant to be the clever one, you might expect her adverbials to include a high proportion relating to intellectual or mental states (e.g. ‘thoughtfully’, ‘logically’, ‘sceptically’). But in fact most of them are about her feelings: her unique adverbs do include ‘seriously’, but that occurs less often than either ‘timidly’ or ‘sadly’. And the most frequent of the adverbial modifiers which are only applied to Hermione’s speech is that old sexist cliché ‘shrilly’.

Since this study only compares two characters, it might be argued that the patterns it uncovers have less to do with their gender than with their distinctive qualities as individuals. What the reported speech verbs tell us is simply that Ron is the kind of person who mutters and grumbles, while Hermione is the kind who wails and shrieks. But I don’t think that argument will wash, given that other studies, like Sally Hunt’s and Ben Blatt’s, have found the same general patterns, and even some of the same specific word-choices, in a range of other texts. Generations of male fictional characters have expressed themselves by muttering and bellowing, while their female counterparts have screamed and spoken ‘shrilly’. These verbal and vocal habits could not be less individual, or more gender-stereotyped.

They are also remarkably persistent. A children’s writer starting out today wouldn’t be able to build a successful career on stories like the ones I read as a child, in which boys had adventures and girls helped mummy make the sandwiches. That kind of sexism is much less common now. Yet successful writers can still present children with a linguistic division of labour –boys giving orders and girls asking questions, boys bellowing and roaring while girls scream, squeal and giggle—that doesn’t seem to have changed since the 1950s.

I’m not accusing these authors of deliberately reproducing stereotypes. I’d be surprised if they had any conscious awareness of the patterns revealed by analyses of their work. But if we accept that those patterns both reflect and perpetuate sexism, perhaps we should be challenging writers to make a conscious effort to break away from them.

For those who want to avoid sexist clichés, whether in fiction or journalism, the research I’ve discussed suggests several top tips:

  1. Check you’re not consistently pairing minimal descriptions of male speech (‘he said’) with highly elaborate descriptions of female speech (‘she enunciated crisply’/ ‘she gasped in horror’).
  2. Go easy on the vocalisation verbs (like ‘growled’ or ‘squeaked’) which differentiate male and female speakers overtly by pitch and covertly by emotional state. And you’re going to use them, don’t make a habit of picking more ‘extreme’ ones for female speakers (if a boy ‘shouts’ or ‘yells’, why does a girl have to ‘shriek’?)
  3. Try not to give all the ‘thinky’ verbs to male speakers and all the ‘feely’ verbs to female ones.
  4. Watch out for the speech act trap–don’t let conversations be all about male speakers ‘asserting’, ‘instructing’ and ‘explaining’ while female ones ‘ask’, ‘suggest’ and ‘agree’.

The way I’ve phrased these points (‘go easy on X’, ‘don’t make a habit of Y’) is deliberate: they aren’t meant to be blanket prohibitions. As I’ve said a million times on this blog, context is all: any word–even ‘shrilly’–can be the right word if the context calls for it.  What you want to avoid is not specific words, it’s the kind of regular pattern that results from the habitual, unthinking repetition of the same stereotypical formulas.

Precisely because we’ve encountered them so often, phrases like ‘he muttered’ and ‘she murmured’ or ‘he yelled’ and ‘she screamed’ may seem obvious and ‘natural’; but really there’s nothing natural about them. On the contrary, they are products of our cultural obsession with magnifying gender differences, or imposing them where they don’t exist. In reality, men and women use language to perform the same acts and express the same emotions. Girls give orders and boys make suggestions; women chuckle and men have been known to scream. If we can cope with this complexity in our face-to-face encounters, why can’t it be reflected in our descriptions of the way people talk?


There go the girls

Until they were officially abolished last month, I had never heard of the ‘walk-on girls’ who accompanied professional darts players onstage at tournaments. Nor did I know that Formula 1 featured ‘grid girls’ (who have also been axed), that cycling has ‘podium girls’, and that boxing employs ‘ring card girls’ to do the vital job (according to promoter Eddie Hearn) of ‘letting people know what round is coming up’. The issue which has suddenly made these ‘girls’ controversial is not primarily about language (it’s more about broadcasters’ #metoo-fuelled unease with overt displays of sexism). But it does, arguably, have a linguistic dimension.

In 2013 the darts blogger Rich Nank devoted a post to what he called ‘the walk-on girls phenomenon’, in which he defended this invented tradition (born in Blackpool in 1994) against the charge of sexism. Queen_Mum_900As he saw it, the introduction of ‘walking on’ marked a softening of the traditional view that darts was strictly for the working man, and there was no place in the sport for women (a somewhat unconvincing argument, given that women had been playing darts competitively since the late 1950s). The walk-on girls made good money, they were popular with fans of both sexes, and some of them had become as famous as the players. Why, they were practically feminist role models! But there was one thing about them that even Mr Nank found slightly dodgy:

I’ve never been comfortable with calling them ‘girls’ mainly because they are grown women, but maybe that’s just me.

Actually, Rich, it’s not just you. Well, it might be just you if we’re talking about darts (along with F1, cycling, boxing, and possibly other sports too niche to have surfaced in recent media reports—are there, perhaps, ‘lawn girls’ in croquet? ‘Octagon girls’ in cage fighting?) But in the wider world this ‘girls’ thing has been a bone of contention for at least the last 45 years. And recently the debate has become more polarised.

In 2011, for instance, a contributor to Radio Times complained about the media’s relentless use of the Ernie K Doe track ‘Here Come the Girls’ (along with the Sugababes cover ‘Girls’):

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever women unite in television observational documentaries or entertainment shows to achieve a purpose, their steps will be dogged by Here Come the Girls… a suppurating bubo of a song, made famous by a series of witless television adverts for Boots.

Does your programme feature more than one woman doing something positive? Then play Here Come the Girls on the soundtrack as lazy shorthand aimed at pin-brains who can’t cope with the fact that women can be serious and grown-up and have purpose and enthusiasms. Or can be called “women”.

This comment references the classic feminist argument against calling adult women ‘girls’: that it belittles, demeans and insults them by reducing them to the status of children. Some feminists will tell you that since ‘girl’ means ‘female child’, it should be reserved exclusively for people under the age of 16 (or 15, or 18–whenever the writer thinks childhood ends). But the reason I’m posting on this subject is because (with apologies to regular readers who’ve heard this line before) I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

If it were really that simple, it would be hard to explain why ‘girls’ is favoured over ‘women’ in contexts like those Boots adverts, where the intention clearly wasn’t to demean women (how would insulting the customer help to shift the product?) but on the contrary, to present them as strong, capable and ‘empowered’. Boots was actually trading on the development which has reignited this long-running controversy: in recent decades ‘girl’, once a reliable indicator of unreconstructed male chauvinism, has come to be associated with a certain kind of feminism.

This may have begun with the Riot Grrrl movement, with its slogan ‘girls to the front’. But while that was very much a young women’s thing, today’s ‘girls’ can be of any age. Think of Oprah’s use of ‘you go, girl!’ and Beyoncé’s ‘who run the world? Girls!’ Think of the recent rash of female-authored bestsellers with ‘girl’ in their titles (like Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train), or TV series like Lena Dunham’s Girls (in which the characters are young, but no longer children) and ITV’s current Kay Mellor drama Girlfriends (whose protagonists are considerably older). These are not cases of men patronising women: the new ‘girl’-users are women, and often they are self-identified feminists. So what are they doing with ‘girl’? Or, to put it another way, what is ‘girl’ doing for them that ‘woman’ can’t?

To answer that question we will need to let go of the idea that ‘girl’ is automatically demeaning because it infantilises women. Some uses of ‘girl’ may do that, and many uses of ‘girl’ are demeaning whether or not they do it (a point I’ll elaborate on later). But as a general explanation of how ‘girl’ works, the ‘it treats adult women as children’ argument is flawed and always has been, because it’s based on an overly literal account of what and how words mean.

Suggesting that ‘girl’ should only be used in reference to actual children is a bit like suggesting that ‘cold fish’ and ‘fish out of water’ should only be used in reference to actual fish. It misses the point that these are metaphors, figures of speech that work by transferring some of the qualities of one thing (a girl, or a fish) to another thing (a woman, or a human). The question is what aspects of the meaning of ‘girl’ are being transferred when the word is used in reference to adult women. The answer may be different in different contexts, and that may help to explain why some uses of ‘girl’ are perceived as demeaning, while others are positively embraced by women themselves.

One element of the context that can affect the meaning of a linguistic form is related to that hardy perennial of sociolinguistics, the distinction between status and solidarity. As I explained in a previous post, it’s not uncommon for the same linguistic form to communicate a different meaning depending on whether it’s being used ‘vertically’, to mark the speakers’ relative positions in a status hierarchy, or ‘horizontally’, as a mark of solidarity, intimacy or mutual respect between equals. For instance, if two people are in an intimate relationship, each may address the other with endearment terms like ‘darling’ and ‘sweetheart’, and in that context the terms are unobjectionable; but it’s another story when the same words are used non-reciprocally, by men harassing female strangers in the street, or by a boss to a female underling who is obliged to call him ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr Smith’. The first usage says ‘we love each other’; the second says ‘I have power over you’.

‘Girl’ can be used in both ways. British readers may remember the outcry last year after the Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale referred to his female office staff as ‘girls’ during an interview on national radio. This was a good example of the vertical, non-reciprocal usage: the staff members in question, all women of mature years, could hardly refer to Sir Roger as ‘the boy we work for’ (just as he wouldn’t feel able to refer to his own boss, prime minister Theresa May, as ‘the girl in number 10’). Another, notorious historical example is the way white Americans in the era of racial segregation (and before that, slavery) addressed African Americans as ‘girl’ and ‘boy’. This racist convention underlined the subordinate status of Black people, and was accordingly resented by them. But that hasn’t stopped African American women from adopting ‘girl’ as a solidary term among themselves. When it’s used horizontally it communicates something different—it’s about female bonding and mutual support.

For solidary purposes, ‘girl’ may seem preferable to ‘woman’ because it’s warmer and more intimate. It works in the same way as endearment terms, or the diminutives we often use as nicknames for the people we’re close to: between intimates, a name that metaphorically makes you ‘smaller’ is a mark of affection. But when it comes from someone with socially-sanctioned power over you, the same metaphor becomes a putdown, a reminder that you are seen as a lesser being.

If the horizontal use of ‘girl’ conveys warmth, closeness and female solidarity, that might explain why ‘girlfriend’ is so often preferred to the more distant-sounding ‘woman friend’. But the closeness/distance contrast doesn’t seem so relevant to cases like The Girl On The Train, or the various bits of mainstream media output which have been soundtracked with ‘Here Come the Girls’. In those cases we might think that ‘girl’ is preferred to ‘woman’ for other reasons–reasons which feminists might find more problematic.

One obvious difference between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ is that ‘girl’ emphasises the quality of youthfulness and ‘woman’ the quality of maturity. In societies which are both sexist and ageist, however, maturity isn’t always seen as positive. So, when adult women refer to themselves and one another as ‘girls’, this may function as a form of avoidance, an attempt to block the less desirable associations of ‘woman’. A ‘girl’ is not, for instance, staid, careworn, ‘mumsy’, a domestic tyrant or a grim old battleaxe. She sounds less threatening than a ‘woman’, and more attractive—not only because of her imagined youthful looks, but also because of her supposed carefree attitude and her implied sexual availability. (It’s not a coincidence that we have walk-on, grid, podium and ring card ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’: women whose job is to project sexual availability are almost invariably referred to as ‘girls’.) Embracing ‘girl’, in short, is one way of dealing with the social fact that women’s value in modern western cultures is reduced rather than enhanced by age and experience.

Though ageism does not affect men in exactly the same way (getting older is not thought to render men sexually undesirable and therefore worthless), there are contexts where terms connoting youthfulness or juvenility are used by/about men as well as women, and often for similar reasons. For instance, we have paired expressions like ‘boys’/girls’ night out’, where the most relevant association of the juvenile term is with being carefree—participants are ‘boys/girls’ rather than ‘men/women’ because they’re putting aside adult responsibilities to concentrate on the pursuit of pleasure. (In that context, as the Radio Times writer pointed out, ‘Here Come the Girls’ has an equally clichéd male equivalent, ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’.) ‘Boys’ can also have the same solidary function as ‘girls’: both terms are frequently deployed as expressions of camaraderie among same-sex workmates or members of the same sports team.

‘Girl’ is a more complicated word than it might seem. A blanket prohibition on using it to refer to anyone older than 15 would be a very blunt instrument, capturing not only the cases which are offensive, but also many which are innocuous, or even positive. Broadly speaking, ‘girl’ is suspect when it meets one or more of the following criteria:

  1. it is used non-reciprocally by a more powerful person to or about someone less powerful;
  2. a reference to an equivalent male person would not contain a word suggesting juvenility, e.g. ‘boy’ or ‘lad’;
  3. subservience and/or sexual availability are important elements of the meaning it is being used to convey.

It’s not surprising that the ‘girl’ terms which inspired this post—‘walk-on girl’, ‘grid girl’, ‘podium girl’, ‘ring card girl’—meet all these criteria: they are labels for women fulfilling a function whose very existence would be inconceivable without sexism. But if ‘girl’ doesn’t tick any of these boxes then I don’t think feminists should have a problem with it. We don’t do ourselves any favours by policing language for no good reason.