Default: male

On Twitter recently, the British Green Party’s women’s organization explained why it had chosen to refer to its constituency as ‘non-men’ rather than ‘women’.

green party women

This inspired an outbreak of the kind of mockery and parody Twitter excels in. ‘What’s all this in my mentions about the non-blue party?’ inquired one user. Others urged the immediate rewriting of well-known feminist slogans and book titles, like ‘a non-man needs a man like a non-mammal needs a bicycle’ and The Non-Male Eunuch. Popular music was also fertile territory: ‘I’m Every Non-Man’ and ‘No Non-Man, No Cry’ were among the classics given the #greenpartyfeminism treatment.

The idea behind substituting ‘non-men’ for ‘women’ was to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary people. It will be news to nobody that this is a contentious issue in contemporary feminist politics. But whatever position you take on the issue itself, ‘non-men’ remains problematic from a linguistic point of view. It cannot easily be made to function as an inclusive, feminist or non-sexist term, because it repeats the most basic and ubiquitous of all sexist linguistic gestures: treating men as the default human beings while relegating women to what the radical feminist linguist Julia Penelope dubbed ‘negative semantic space’. ‘Non-men’ defines a subordinated group in relation to the dominant group, ‘men’: consequently it ends up, in today’s jargon, ‘centring’ the dominant group, even if that isn’t the intention.

The idea of maleness as the default setting is manifested linguistically in all kinds of ways. My last post discussed another version of the same principle—the gratuitous gendering of women like Zaha Hadid, who was often referred to as a ‘female/woman architect’, whereas men are simply ‘architects’. In many languages the male-as-default principle is built into the grammatical system, requiring masculine forms of articles, adjectives and pronouns to be used both in generic references to a category and in specific references to any group containing even a single male individual.

But it isn’t just in language that this principle holds sway. It influences the way we process all kinds of representations of the world—visual as well as verbal.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read about a recent study in which the linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer analysed the gender distribution of the dialogue across the entire canon of Disney princess films, from Snow White in 1937 to Frozen in 2013. To many people’s surprise and consternation, they found that the proportion of the spoken dialogue given to female characters had actually decreased over time. In Snow White women got approximately half the lines; in Sleeping Beauty (1959) they had just over three quarters. With The Little Mermaid (1989), however, their share dropped to under a third. In the most recent film analysed, Frozen, it was 41%—even though Frozen has two central female characters.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with the ‘default male’ principle, the answer is, quite a lot. According to the researchers, what’s driving the trend isn’t primarily a change in how much the central female characters speak. It has more to do with the move (first made in The Little Mermaid) to Broadway musical-style ensemble casts featuring more supporting characters–the majority of them, as it turns out, male.

In Karen Eisenhauer’s view, what’s behind the imbalance is an unconscious form of male bias:

My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm. So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that’s just really ingrained in our culture.

It isn’t just the people at Disney who display this ingrained tendency to imagine the prototypical representative of a category like ‘shopkeeper’ or ‘guard’ as a man rather than a woman. We all do it. We only have a female prototype for roles which are very heavily stereotyped as female (like ‘secretary’ or ‘witch’). By contrast, the tendency to assume that a ‘generic’ X will be male doesn’t just apply to the most stereotypically male roles (like ‘drill sergeant’ or ‘construction worker’), it applies to any role that isn’t almost exclusively reserved for women.

I agree with Karen Eisenhauer that this form of bias isn’t usually conscious and deliberate (if it were, it might be easier to get rid of). But I think there may be more to it than carelessness. If we want to see what else might be going on, a good place to look is in cartoons of another kind, the kind where a single visual image with dialogue and/or a caption is used to make a joke. Here’s an example.

avant guard dog

The joke here does not depend on the sex of the dog. It’s not even clear whether it has a sex. There’s no verbal specification of whether it’s male or female, and its outfit–the beret, sunglasses and narrow pants–belongs to an androgynous ‘bohemian’ style which has been worn by women as well as men (for instance, Juliette Gréco in Paris in the 1950s). Nevertheless, I read it immediately as a male dog.

Here’s another canine cartoon, where the joke is a bit more complex.


In this case I read all the characters, human and canine, as male. In the human case that’s not surprising: arguably the joke about outsourcing hunting requires them to be men, on the basis that our mental prototype for stone-age scenarios includes (accurately or not) the information that men were the hunters. But why do the wolves-slash-dogs have to be male? (In this case that’s not just my interpretation: one of them is addressed as ‘Tony’ and their boss is referred to as ‘Steve’.)

The obvious answer is that the animals in these cartoons are being anthropomorphized, and our reading of their sex reflects our prototype for human guards or business entrepreneurs. But while I think that’s right as far as it goes, I’d argue it isn’t the whole story.

A cartoon is a highly condensed kind of message, which will fail if the recipient doesn’t ‘get it’ at first glance. So it’s designed to get us to focus on the central point, without being distracted by incidental background details. One way to accomplish that is to depict something that’s instantly recognizable because it matches our prototype for the relevant social setting (be that a workplace, a restaurant, a classroom or a stone-age hunt). It’s not that we can’t make sense of non-prototypical scenarios when we encounter them in real life, but we process information faster when it doesn’t conflict with our default expectations. So, messing with the prototype is something that tends to happen only when the point is to challenge conventional expectations. This is a common strategy in feminist cartoons, where the point or joke is actually about gender or sexism. But in most cases gender is just a background feature: if you treat it non-prototypically you risk pushing it into the foreground and ruining the intended effect.

To see what I’m getting at, try imagining the wolf/dog cartoon with female canine characters (‘Tina’ and ‘Sue’ rather than ‘Tony’ and ‘Steve’). It’s possible, right? As anyone who’s watched The Apprentice knows, in the real world there are female entrepreneurs who use words like ‘rebranding’ and ‘outsourcing’; and substituting female characters would make no difference to the joke, because the joke has nothing to do with sex/gender.

But that’s exactly the problem. If we imagine entrepreneurs as prototypically male, we’re primed to respond to the substitution of a female one by assuming that her femaleness must be significant—that it’s central to the joke rather than just an incidental detail. So, in this case people might think the joke is about women outwitting men while letting them think they’re in charge, when really it’s about wolves doing that to humans. Similarly, if a joke began with the formula ‘an Englishwoman, an Irishwoman and a Scotswoman…’ we’d anticipate a punchline relating to the characters’ sex as well as their national origins. Otherwise, why deviate from the usual all-male line-up of ethnic stereotypes?

To keep the joke ‘clean’, you have to avoid distracting people with unexpected background details, like a female placed without comment in the slot for a generic category-member (a guard dog, a businesswolf, a Scot, or whatever). But the result is that women are either absent from cartoons which aren’t directly about women, or else they only appear in very stereotypical roles where their presence is in line with our expectations.

Here’s a cartoon which uses gender stereotyping in a joke about something else:

anger management

The humour here depends on incongruity—setting up a prototypical office scenario, and then showing someone doing or saying something which confounds our expectations of that scenario. In this case, gender stereotyping (the secretary is a woman and the therapist is a man) increases both the conventionality and the incongruity. The woman (middle aged and conservatively attired) is both exactly the kind of person you’d expect to fill the ‘secretary’ slot, and exactly the kind of person you would least expect to utter the words ‘fuck off’. If the cartoonist had put a man in this slot, the joke would still (IMHO) be funny, but it would arguably be slightly less funny.

These are not overtly sexist cartoons. They aren’t making a point about women, or male-female relations; the women (where there are any) aren’t being mocked or belittled or objectified. Yet I’ve been arguing that they are, in fact, examples of low-level sexism. What they exemplify is the kind of pattern ethnomethodologists call ‘seen but unnoticed’: like the background noise in a coffee shop, we tune it out so we can concentrate on the important stuff in the foreground. I tuned it out: they all made me laugh. But should feminists be so willing to tune it out?

When we criticise sexist representations, or look for alternatives to them, we are typically—and understandably—most concerned about what’s in the foreground. Our first question when choosing books or films for children, for instance, will often be whether there’s a ‘strong’ female central character, someone active and resourceful who doesn’t just waft about looking pretty. Contemporary producers often share that concern. In the case of Disney princess films, as Karen Eisenhauer notes,

If you watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries, there’s so much explicit discourse on what the princess is going to be like, and always it’s a feminist discourse in some way. They want her to be powerful.

The trouble is, as she also says, that this kind of discussion ‘never, ever seems to have gone beyond the princess’. Concerns about sexism and stereotyping do not extend to the depiction of the larger social world which forms the backdrop to the central character’s story.

But it’s not all about the princess. Whether we’re children learning about the world for the first time or adults using our existing knowledge to make sense of new situations, we’re always absorbing information from the seen-but-unnoticed (that is, not consciously noticed) background. And the beliefs we form in the process are hard to shift. But from a feminist perspective it’s important to try to shift them.

Social change only really succeeds when new ways of thinking, speaking and acting become normalized, taken for granted and treated as unremarkable. To put it another way, when the background changes. When we stop needing extra time to process a sentence that refers to a doctor or supervisor as ‘she’. When we don’t think ‘hey, a woman!’ if it’s a female voice that addresses us from the flight-deck. When the minor characters in stories and jokes—generic shopkeepers, guard dogs, stone-age people or space aliens—are as likely to be female as male, and no one thinks anything of it. When no one is a ‘non-man’—or more importantly, a non-person.

Cartoon credits: ‘Avant guard dog’ from Speed Bump, by Dave Coverly; ‘The domestication of the wolf’ by Chaz Hutton;  ‘Anger management’ by Donald Reilly.