2019: (not) the end of an era

In a couple of days’ time we’ll be marking not just the passing of another year, but by most people’s reckoning the end of the current decade. All kinds of commentators will be looking back over the last ten years, and many will turn to language (or at least, vocabulary) as a source of insight about what mattered in the 2010s. They’ll remind us this was the decade that gave us ‘Brexit’, ‘fake news’, the ‘gig economy’ and ‘influencers’; it was when ‘climate change’ became the ‘climate emergency’, and when global protest movements formed around the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

This approach to documenting social trends—epitomised by the annual ritual in which dictionaries select a Word of the Year (WOTY)—has its limitations. It doesn’t capture the preoccupations of the speech community as a whole (if I quizzed a sample of my neighbours on the vocabulary items listed in the last paragraph, asking ‘have you come across this expression, can you define it, have you ever used it yourself?’, I suspect that only one item—‘Brexit’—would get affirmative answers across the board). It also imposes artificial temporal boundaries on a much messier reality: though some notable linguistic developments can be tied to specific events and dates, most don’t fit neatly into a single year or even a decade. In addition, the search for zeitgeist-defining terms encourages a focus on what’s new or what’s changed, though arguably it’s no less important (and may even be more revealing) to consider what has stayed the same.

That last point will be reflected in my own attempt to summarise the decade. When I look at this blog’s archive (over 100 posts going back to 2015) I see more continuity than change. The specifics differ from year to year, but the same general themes recur; and I’m sure they would have featured just as prominently if I’d started blogging in 2010. So, in this post I’m going to pick out (in no particular order) my top five recurring themes, using the way they presented themselves in 2019 as a starting point for some reflections on what has—or hasn’t—changed during the 2010s.

1. The return of crass sexism

In January this year, after belatedly learning that she had died, I wrote a post about the writer and editor Marie Shear, who will be remembered for her definition of feminism as ‘the radical notion that women are people’. She was also a sharp and uncompromising critic of sexist language, and the author of a widely-read piece which described what she called its ‘daily toll’: a continual insidious wearing down of women’s dignity and self-esteem whose cumulative effects she thought were too often underestimated.

Shear wrote this piece in 2010, at a time when sexist language had become an unfashionable topic. In the noughties some writers had argued that the overt sexism feminists had criticised in the 1970s was no longer a major issue: it survived only among ageing dinosaurs (like the surgeon in Shear’s opening anecdote) who would not walk the earth for much longer. Attention had turned to the subtler forms of sexism that were said to be more typical of the postmodern, ‘postfeminist’ era. But while postmodern sexism is still a thing (particularly in advertising and branding), the 2010s turned out to be the decade in which crassly sexist and misogynist language returned with a vengeance to the public sphere.

I say ‘with a vengeance’ because the crassness was more extreme this time around. In the past, the norms of mainstream public discourse discouraged the grossest expressions of contempt for women—they were reserved for taboo-busting radio shock jocks and men talking among themselves. But the 2010s saw the rise of public figures–most notably populist ‘strongman’ leaders like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte–whose speech was not constrained by older notions of decorum (or gravitas, or honesty, or any other traditional public virtue). Crude misogyny is part of these men’s brand: I’ll leave aside Trump’s infamous reference to ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, since it wasn’t intended for public consumption; but think of his comment, made on CNN in 2015, that the journalist Megyn Kelly ‘had blood coming out of her wherever’ (her offence had been to question Trump about his earlier references to women as ‘dogs’ and ‘fat pigs’). In 2019 Britain got its own imitation strongman leader, Boris Johnson, who specialises in the crass sexism of the public school playground, denouncing his (male) opponents as ‘girly swots’ and ‘big girls’ blouses’.

But you didn’t have to be a political leader to broadcast male supremacist messages to a global audience. The internet gave ‘ordinary’ men with a grudge against women—incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs et al—a megaphone for their misogyny (and for the violent fantasies which some of them, like Alek Minassian, would go on to enact in reality, making 2018 the year when mainstream, nonfeminist commentators started to talk about  ‘incels’, ‘misogyny’ and ‘toxic masculinity’). Not dissimilar messages also circulated under the banner of ‘harmless fun’. For instance, one of the items I reproduced in a post about greeting cards this year bore the message: ‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them and bury them in the garden’. Which brings me to the second major theme of the decade…

2. The linguistic (mis)representation of sexual violence

Any feminist survey of the 2010s will be bound to treat the #MeToo movement as one of the most significant developments, if not the most significant, of the last ten years (the hashtag would be an obvious candidate for the feminist Word of the Decade.) But #MeToo also dramatized what for me was probably the most troubling linguistic trend of the decade: an increasingly marked reluctance on the part of institutions—educational establishments, the criminal justice system and above all the media—to name sexual violence and those who perpetrate it without equivocation, euphemism and overt or covert victim-blaming.

In 2017 and 2018, as #MeToo allegations multiplied, the media converged on a couple of phrases which were repeated ad infinitum: the whole spectrum of abuse, up to and including rape, was now covered (or covered up) by the bland euphemisms ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘sexual misconduct’. This vague, affectless language was a boon to anyone who wanted to argue that the women making allegations were lying, exaggerating, reframing consensual exchanges of sexual for professional favours as abuse, or simply making a fuss about nothing (‘can’t men even flirt now without being accused of misconduct?’)

In 2019 we saw a similar pattern in reports on the case of Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with child abuse and trafficking (though he killed himself in prison before he could stand trial). Oxymoronic terms like ‘underage women’ were used to describe girls who at the time were 14 or 15; and when attention turned, after Epstein’s death, to the actions of other men the victims had named, the words ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’ were conspicuous by their absence.

Earlier in the year, most news outlets had even resisted using those words without qualification when reporting on the case of a severely disabled woman who unexpectedly gave birth in the care facility where she had spent most of her life. Though she could only have become pregnant as the result of a criminal assault—her vegetative state rendered her legally and medically incapable of consenting to sex (and also of lying about it)—reporters’ first impulse was still to hedge their statements with doubt-indicating words like ‘alleged’, ‘apparent’ and ‘possible’.

But in the last part of 2019 there were some memorable protests in which feminists harnessed the power of the R-word. In Spain, women who were disgusted by the verdict in a gang-rape case—the perpetrators were convicted only of ‘abuse’, because they had not used physical force against their barely-conscious victim—took to the streets to protest, shouting ‘no es abuso, es violación’ (‘it’s not abuse, it’s rape’). And in Chile on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, women gathered outside the Supreme Court to perform a chant which has since been taken up around the world (its title in English is ‘The rapist in your path’), calling attention to the way individual men’s ability to rape and kill with impunity depends on a larger culture of complicity and victim-blaming.

In acknowledgment of the power of these protests, and because nothing has made me angrier this year than reading about men ‘having sex’ with 14-year olds or police investigating a ‘possible/alleged assault’ on a woman who gave birth while in a vegetative state, I choose ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ as my words of the year for 2019.

3. Curious contradictions: the case of the authoritative woman speaker

Among the themes which have recurred in each of the four-and-a-half years of this blog’s existence are two that, taken together, embody a stark contradiction. On one hand, women are constantly castigated because their speech allegedly ‘lacks authority’: how can they expect to be taken seriously when they’re forever apologising and hedging every request with ‘just’? On the other hand, women who do speak with authority are constantly criticised for being ‘angry’, ‘abrasive’, ‘arrogant’, ‘bossy’, ‘immodest’, ‘shrill‘, ‘strident’ and generally ‘unlikable’.

This familiar contradiction was on show again this year. We had more of the same old bullshit about ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and other female ‘verbal tics’, and more complaints about high-profile women leaders being ‘strident’ (teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg), bossy and ‘self-righteous’ (Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson), ‘angry’ (Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris) and ‘unlikable’ (every woman in the race for the Democratic nomination).

More unusually, two women—Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill—attracted praise for their authoritative testimony during the proceedings that led to Donald Trump’s impeachment by the US House of Representatives. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a sign of things to come. The positive reception Yovanovitch and Hill got was linked to their status as non-partisan public servants, and the same courtesy is unlikely to be extended to any of the female politicians who are still in the running for next year’s presidential election. It’s one thing for a woman to have authority thrust upon her, but actively seeking it is a different matter. Powerful and politically outspoken women will still, I predict, be ‘unlikable’ in 2020.

4. Studies show that women are rubbish

The training course where women executives at the accounting firm Ernst & Young learned that women’s brains are like pancakes and men’s are more like waffles (as reported in October by the Huffington Post) almost certainly wasn’t based on any actual science (or if it was, whoever designed the course should get the Allen and Barbara Pease Memorial Award for Neurobollocks). But while science can’t be held responsible for all the sexist drivel that gets talked in its name, it shouldn’t get a free pass either.

In the 90s and noughties we were endlessly told that women were naturally better communicators than men, but in the 2010s there’s been something of a shift: there are, it transpires, certain kinds of communication in which it’s men who are hard-wired to excel. This year, for instance, a widely-reported meta-analytic study put together the findings of 28 experiments investigating the proposition that men are better than women at using language to make others laugh. The conclusion was that men really do have more ‘humor ability’ than women, probably because this ability is ‘correlated with intelligence’, and as such is a useful diagnostic when females assess the fitness of potential mates. (Ah, evolutionary psychology: a 90s/noughties trend which sadly didn’t die in the 2010s.)

It isn’t hard to pick holes in these studies; but while it’s important to interrogate specific claims about why women are rubbish at [fill in the blank], we also need to ask more basic questions about why so much research of this kind gets done in the first place. What interests are served by this unceasing quest for evidence that sex-stereotypes and the judgments based upon them reflect innate differences in the abilities and aptitudes of men and women?

Another study published this year on the subject of gender and humour found that women who used humour in a professional context were perceived to be lacking in competence and commitment. This had nothing to do with their ‘humor ability’: in this study, subjects watched either a man or a woman (both actors) giving exactly the same scripted presentation, complete with identical jokes. But whereas the man’s humour was perceived as enhancing his professional effectiveness, the woman’s was perceived as detracting from it.

What this illustrates is the general principle that the same verbal behaviour will attract different judgments depending on the speaker’s sex. Judgments about women and humour are similar to judgments about authoritative female speakers, and they embody the same contradiction: women are widely disparaged for lacking humour, but those who don’t lack humour are disparaged as incompetent lightweights. What explains this effect–‘heads men win, tails women lose’–isn’t women’s behaviour or their natural abilities: it’s a consequence of sexism, which science too often reinforces.

5. The War of the W-word

In my round-up of 2018 I wrote at length about the increasingly contested status of the word ‘woman’, whose definition, use, avoidance and even spelling prompted heated arguments throughout the year. This isn’t totally unprecedented: as I’ve said before (beginning in my very first post), the W-word has a longer record of causing controversy than many people realise. But its current contentiousness is linked to something that is specific to the 2010s—the rise of a new politics of gender identity, which has also influenced language in other ways. It’s a development that divides feminists, and the kind of conflict we saw so much of in 2018 will undoubtedly continue in the 2020s.

In 2019, however, the most notable controversy about ‘woman’ was much more old-school. It started when the feminist Maria Beatrice Giovanardi was looking for a name for a women’s rights project she was working on. In search of inspiration she typed the word ‘woman’ into Google, and was shocked when her search returned a series of online dictionary entries full of offensive synonyms (‘bitch’, ‘chick’, ‘filly’) and insultingly sexist examples of usage (‘one of his sophisticated London women’; ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’). When Giovanardi started a petition calling on Oxford Dictionaries to change their entry, her intervention attracted extensive media interest, and by September the petition had over 30,000 signatures.

This is a good illustration of the point I made earlier—that the advent of new concerns does not mean the old ones become irrelevant. What Giovanardi drew attention to is one of many examples of the quiet survival of ‘banal sexism’, the kind of tediously familiar, low-level stuff whose ‘daily toll’ Marie Shear warned us not to underestimate. In the past five years I have come to agree with Shear. It’s striking to me that many of the most popular posts on this blog have been about things that would never register on any trend spotter’s radar: old chestnuts like ‘should women take their husband’s names?’, and ‘does swearing make women unattractive?’, which I could equally have written about at any time in the last 40 years, are still significant issues for many women. If feminism had started a linguistic to-do list in 1975, it would certainly be a lot longer now, but very few of the original items would actually have been crossed off.

So am I saying the next decade will look a lot like the last one? Yes: though change is a constant, in language and in life, what we mostly see is evolution, not revolution. That was true in the 2010s, and—barring some catastrophe that puts an end to civilisation as we know it—it will also be true in the 2020s. I know that’s not much of a prediction, and maybe not the happiest of thoughts when you look at the current state of the world, but there it is: we are where we are, and all we can do is keep going. I wish readers of this blog a happy new year/new decade (thanks as always to all the other feminists and/or linguists whose work I’ve drawn on in 2019), and I’ll see you on the other side.