Banal sexism

Last month I wrote about David Bonderman, the billionaire businessman who resigned as a director of Uber after suggesting that appointing more women to the board would mean ‘more talking’. Allegedly he meant this comment as a joke; but even if no one present had been offended, you have to wonder who would have found such a hoary old cliché amusing. An enormous amount of sexism is like this: thoughtless, repetitive, trite and formulaic. What—as bad stand-up comedians say—is that about?

Back in 1995, Michael Billig wrote a book about a phenomenon he called ‘banal nationalism’. The term ‘nationalism’ is most commonly used to denote what Billig refers to as ‘hot’ nationalism—a political ideology driven by strong emotions, which is often associated with conflict and violence. But his point was that there’s a less overt, lower-level form of nationalism which we don’t generally call by that name. Unlike the ‘hot’ variety, its main function is not to foment conflict or hatred of the Other. It’s to maintain our awareness of ourselves as national subjects—keep ‘the nation’ as a concept ticking over at the back of our minds. In Billig’s words:

National identity is remembered in established nations because it is embedded in routines of life that constantly remind, or ‘flag’ nationhood. However, these reminders or ‘flaggings’ are so numerous, and they are so much a part of the social environment, that they operate mindlessly, rather than mindfully.

The word ‘flag’ in this quote is a pun: one obvious daily reminder of nationhood is the national flag, flying (or as Billig puts it, ‘hanging limply’) on hundreds of public buildings. But banal nationalism takes subtler forms too, and many of them have to do with language.  For instance, the use of first person ‘we/us’ to mean ‘the people of this nation’, whereas the people of other nations are referred to with the third person ‘they/them’. The presence on every high street of businesses with names like the ‘Nationwide Building Society’ and—until recently—‘British Home Stores’. TV programmes hailing viewers with ‘Good Morning Britain’. Formulaic phrases that reference people’s shared membership of a nation, whether explicitly (‘best of British luck’) or implicitly (‘it’s a free country’).

The same idea can be applied to sexism.  Sexism also has ‘hot’ forms, and those are the ones mainstream discourse finds it easiest to recognise and condemn. The western media have no difficulty in recognising the sexism of the Taliban and Boko Haram; the more liberal parts of the western media have no difficulty in recognising the sexism of Gamergaters and Donald Trump.  But what you might call ‘banal sexism’—ordinary, unremarkable, embedded in the routines and the language of everyday life—is a different story. It does often go unnoticed, and when feminists draw attention to it they’re accused of taking offence where none was intended or embracing ‘victim culture’. These knee-jerk defences are often delivered with an air of surprise—as if the people responsible hadn’t realised until that moment that anyone could possibly dissent.

The idea that women talk incessantly is a classic example of banal sexism—it’s something people trot out on autopilot, as if they were commenting on the weather.  Most remarks about the weather fall into the category of small talk, or what the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski called ‘phatic communion’: their function is not to exchange information, but just to establish common ground and reassure others of our good intentions. That’s why statements like ‘lovely day today’ are almost invariably met with agreement: ‘Yes, beautiful!’ It would be odd to respond with something like ‘well actually it’s two degrees below the mean temperature for mid-July’. That might be an impressive demonstration of your meteorological knowledge, but it would also reveal your social incompetence, since you’d have missed the whole point of a phatic exchange. It’s the same with banal sexism: challenging the proposition (‘well, actually studies show that men talk more than women in most situations’) will be seen as a peculiar and hostile act. It’s especially hard to challenge a joke, because no one wants to be accused of lacking a sense of humour.

In my youth I didn’t understand this. I remember the first time I ever heard Chas & Dave’s pop classic ‘Rabbit’, a jolly cockney moan about women who give their husbands earache. It was 1980, and—at the age of 21—I had recently discovered my inner Radical Feminist. I thought, ‘you may sell that record today, but it won’t be long before you’re history’.  I was wrong: nearly 40 years later, the myth of the Woman Who Never Shuts Up remains ubiquitous in popular culture. Consider, for instance, this advertisementIMG_7139 for cruising holidays, which was recently photographed by a Swiss follower of this blog*:

Translated into English, this says: ‘Peace/quiet on holiday? Make your wife simply speechless’.  It’s a banal sexism double whammy, combining the old ‘rabbit, rabbit’ cliché with the idea that you can always shut a woman up by spending your hard-earned wages on something she wants. The ad’s presuppositions are both insulting and false (women don’t talk more than men, and according to one 2013 industry survey they make about 80% of household travel plans), but whoever came up with it seems not to have been concerned about offending potential customers.

Nor do I suspect its creator of deliberately courting controversy, though that’s certainly a strategy some advertisers have used. Banal sexism doesn’t provoke outrage. It occupies the part of the spectrum that runs from ‘seen but unnoticed’ (like the ‘default male’ convention which I discussed in an earlier post) through to ‘annoying but not worth getting all fired up about’. You might shake your head, roll your eyes, post a photo with a scathing comment on Facebook, but most people wouldn’t bother to make a formal complaint.

But sometimes the zeitgeist changes, and a form of sexism which has previously been tolerated gets moved from the ‘banal’ into the ‘hot’ category. Last year, for instance, a friend of mine spotted this greeting card, womenpart of a range addressed to men, in a university bookshop. Greeting cards in general are like a bottomless well of banal sexism, and ‘humorous’ cards like this have been around forever: though feminists have long found their message objectionable, most people have treated it in the same way as the ‘make your wife simply speechless’ ad, as an essentially harmless (if perhaps tasteless) joke based on the banal trope of ‘the eternal battle of the sexes’.

But recently more people have become aware (thanks in part to the work of feminists like Karen Ingala Smith and her Counting Dead Women project) that in the UK a man actually does kill a woman, most commonly a current or former partner, about every 2-3 days. If you’ve thought about that statistic, you’re less likely to let a joke about ‘shooting women and burying them in the garden’ pass without protest. I wasn’t surprised to hear that my (feminist) friend had complained, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the bookshop manager had agreed with her–and had promptly withdrawn the card from sale.

But the issue here is not just about the (un)acceptability of joking about male violence. Banal sexism is also exemplified by the formulas used in serious news stories about the killing of women by men. In France (where the statistics are similar to the UK’s), the journalist Sophie Gourion has set up a tumblr called Les Mots Tuent (‘words kill’) to document and criticise the linguistic ‘banalisation’ (‘normalisation/trivialising’) of violence against women and girls. She is exasperated by the constant repetition of phrases like crime passionel (‘crime of passion’, a category that does not exist in current French law), drame familial (‘family drama’, typically referring to ‘family annihilation’ cases where a man murders his partner and their children before killing himself) and pétage de plomb (‘blowing a fuse’, ‘flipping/freaking out’, ‘having a meltdown’). As she notes, these terms imply that the perpetrator was overcome by a sudden, uncontrollable impulse—whereas in fact many of these killings turn out to have been premeditated, not uncommonly by men who have long histories of domestic violence.

Similar formulas are well-established in the English-speaking media. In 1992, Kate Clark published an analysis of the Sun’s reporting of violence against women and girls, and found a pattern in the language used to label perpetrators and victims. In cases where ‘innocent’ women (in the Sun’s worldview that meant young girls or dutiful wives and mothers) were killed or assaulted by strangers, the perpetrators were given dehumanising labels like ‘beast’, ‘fiend’, ‘maniac’ or ‘monster’.  By contrast, reports of domestic violence, including homicide, tended to label men in ways that both humanised them and emphasised their own status as victims. One man who killed his wife and then himself was referred to as a ‘tormented’, ‘debt-ridden Dad’ (the word ‘tormented’ recurred in the reporting of so-called ‘family tragedies’); another who shot his wife and her mother dead was described as a ‘spurned husband’. Even the affectionate diminutive ‘hubby’ appeared in one report about a man whose 12-year history of domestic violence was revealed in court after he almost killed his wife.

Kate Clark’s data were taken from reports that had appeared in the late 1980s, but much of her analysis remains pertinent today. In Ireland last year, for instance, when a man named Alan Hawe stabbed his wife Clodagh to death, strangled their three sons and then hanged himself, the case was reported in both the Irish and British media as a ‘family tragedy’. The Mirror printed a photo which showed the family (in the words of the caption) ‘smiling together before all five lost their lives’.  ‘Lost their lives’ suggests an accident rather than the intentional killing which actually took place, but in the ‘family tragedy’ frame, as Clark’s earlier study found, the killer is usually portrayed as another victim, and often as the primary victim. In the Hawe case, again typically, much of the media’s attention focused on the mental ‘torment’ that must have driven Alan Hawe (described in numerous sources as a ‘real gentleman’ and a pillar of the community) to such extremes. Some commentators even portrayed him as a victim of sexism—the sexism of a culture which does not permit men to show weakness or express emotion.

This representation only began to be questioned after a blog post entitled ‘Rest in peace, invisible woman’, by the Dublin-based feminist writer Linnea Dunne, was picked up by the mainstream media. Dunne remarked on the way media reporting centred on the killer and his imagined state of mind (there was no actual evidence that Alan Hawe had any history of mental illness), while those he killed were treated as minor characters, or erased from the story entirely. Even the discovery of the family’s dead bodies was couched in terms that adopted the killer’s perspective: they were said to have been discovered by ‘his mother-in-law’ (aka Clodagh Hawe’s mother and the children’s grandmother).

By contrast with the keen interest they took in his mental state, reporters did not ask if Alan Hawe had a history of domestic violence. It would later turn out that he did: in the words of one family friend, ‘he controlled everything around him, he controlled how his family lived, he controlled how they died’. It would also emerge that Clodagh Hawe’s family, initially portrayed as grief-stricken but forgiving, had fought an eight-month battle to have the killer’s body removed from the grave in which he had originally been buried alongside his victims.

As time went on it became clearer and clearer that the framing of this story by most of the press had persistently obscured the material facts. And this is far from being an isolated example. This month, the UK press has been reporting on the case of Francis Matthew, a Briton living in Dubai, who killed his wife Jane with what the Emirati authorities described as ‘a strong blow on the head with a solid object’. Initially Matthew claimed that the attack had been perpetrated by burglars who broke into their home. Later, when it was clear this story would not stand up, he admitted that he had thrown a hammer at his wife during ‘a row’, but he continued to insist that her death was an accident. This example differs from the Hawe case in that there was only one victim: no children were involved and the perpetrator is still alive. But reports on it (like this one in the Telegraph) have used many of the same generic and linguistic conventions. For instance:

  1. The repetition of the words ‘tragedy’ and ‘tragic’. If the crime really had been committed by intruders, the reports would have used words suggesting anger and condemnation, but when murder is ‘all in the family’, the emotions we are directed to feel are sadness and pity for both/all parties.
  2. The centring of the (male) killer and the near-total erasure of his victims. Dead or alive, he is the main protagonist of the ‘tragedy’, while the victims exist only in relation to him. In the Telegraph’s report, for instance, we are told a fair amount about Francis Matthew’s life history, and we also learn that ‘the couple…were a fixture of Dubai’s social scene’, but nothing is said about Jane Matthew’s history, activities, interests or personality. Like Clodagh Hawe, she is rendered invisible.
  3. The presentation of the killing as a sudden, inexplicable eruption of violence into a previously happy relationship. In this case (as in the Hawe case before it, at least immediately after the murder), the message that Matthew’s act was ‘out of character’ is conveyed by reporting the reactions of others: ‘Friends and associates of Mr Matthew said they were astounded to hear that the genteel editor was under arrest. “He is the biggest teddy bear I know,” said one family friend’. Another acquaintance is quoted describing him as ‘relaxed, calm and laid back’. Though the Telegraph does mention that he has been charged with ‘premeditated murder’, it does not probe the apparent contradiction between this charge and Matthew’s own  claim to have killed his wife accidentally in the heat of the moment.
  4. The inclusion of multiple details which portray the killer as a man of good character and reputation. The Telegraph‘s report is headed by a photo of Francis Matthew shaking hands with the Emir of the UAE; it goes on to extol his educational and professional achievements, and makes several references to his standing in the expatriate community. This, we infer, is what makes the case so ‘tragic’. Not that a woman died following a brutal assault (and who knows how much other abuse in the months and years preceding it), but that a successful man’s life has been ruined by a momentary loss of control.

If I’m putting this kind of reporting in the category of banal sexism, it’s not because I think it’s trivial, but because I think it operates, as Billig says about banal nationalism, more mindlessly than mindfully. I don’t think there’s some media conspiracy to defend homicidal men: it’s more a case of reaching for the familiar formulas (the ‘family tragedy’ frame and the associated clichés—‘out of character’, ‘pillar of the community’, ‘lost their lives’) without ever thinking to interrogate the assumptions that lie behind them. It’s the news-story equivalent of the political discourse which Orwell, in 1946, compared to a ‘prefabricated henhouse’—assembled rapidly and unreflectively from a pile of standard, mass-produced components.

Let me hasten to make clear, though, that this analysis is not meant as an excuse for the journalists who produce these stories. On the contrary, I think this mindless recycling of familiar banalities about domestic violence is an absolute dereliction of their professional duty. Professionals who like to think of themselves as fearless seekers after truth should not be taking the conventional ‘family tragedy’ story at face value, particularly when—thanks to several decades of feminist activism and research—the facts which contradict it are readily accessible. There is ample evidence, for instance, that intimate partner killings like the murder of Jane Matthew are rarely ‘isolated incidents’, and that many men who are violent in private appear ‘calm and laid back’ in public.

Journalists are also professional language-users, and as such should be expected to make considered linguistic choices. Would anyone in any other context talk about ‘spurned husbands’ and ‘tormented dads’? It’s 2017, FFS: why are news reports still full of these archaic, tone-deaf clichés? If you call yourself a writer, you should try engaging your brain and actually thinking about the words you use.

Words may not literally kill, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have consequences. The banal sexism we see in the reporting of domestic homicide cases echoes, and so contributes to perpetuating, some of the same attitudes which are held more actively by men like Alan Hawe—like the idea that women are appendages rather than people who matter in their own right, and the view that violence is an understandable response to the pressures society puts on men. (‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t let them live if they don’t want to live with you’.) I’m glad that this traditional formula is now attracting more outspoken criticism, and not only from the usual feminist suspects. It’s lazy, it’s sexist and no self-respecting news outlet should give it house-room.

*thanks to Martina Zimmermann