Not a safe word

Last weekend a writer named Will Saletan stirred up a hornet’s nest when he tweeted some advice for parents:

Teach your daughters to say No firmly, and mean it. Men sense women’s willingness to yield. Make clear you mean business.

Like other feminists, I saw this as a classic case of a man weighing in with very little understanding of the issue at hand, and no appreciation of the reasons why he was bound to provoke a storm of criticism. But the exchanges the tweet prompted, on Twitter and elsewhere, reminded me of another, perhaps less popular opinion I hold: that discussions of sexual consent and refusal very often present the issue of ‘saying no’ as less complicated than it really is.

In 2015, just before I started this blog, I wrote something on this subject which I never found a home for. In fact, I’d more or less forgotten it, until Saletan’s tweet made me remember why I’d felt the need to write it.  So I pulled it out, reworked it slightly, and—for whatever it’s worth—here it is.

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In BDSM subcultures, participants in sexual encounters may agree in advance on a ‘safe word’—a word which can be uttered at any time to communicate the message ‘stop this now’. In theory, any word will do: all that matters is that the parties know it and agree to respect its meaning. But there are some words that can’t be used, and one of those words is ‘no’.

The fantasies played out in BDSM involve a dominant partner imposing their will on a submissive one. But the pleasure of imposing your will can only be experienced fully if the other appears to be unwilling. A show of resistance is part of the fantasy, enhancing the erotic charge for both partners. ‘No’, the prototypical verbal token of refusal, is used (along with other prototype expressions like ‘don’t’ and ‘stop’) to enact this simulated resistance. Consequently it cannot be a safe word, the word you utter when your refusal is real.

This principle doesn’t just apply in dungeons. When I was at primary school in the late 1960s, the girls had a playground chant that went: ‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch me’. The game was to repeat this chant, leaving out the last word each time, like this:

Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch me!

Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch!

Oh, Sir Jasper, do not!

Oh, Sir Jasper, do!

Oh, Sir Jasper!

Oh, Sir!

Oh!

I now know that these are the words of a rugby club song which is thought to date from the early 1950s. In its original form it includes a chorus after each line: ‘she lay between the lily-white sheets with nothing on at all’. The scenario evoked in the song has echoes of the popular Victorian melodramas in which an innocent girl is ‘seduced’ (i.e., raped) by an aristocratic villain. In the song, though, she isn’t innocent. Her resistance is simulated, there to be overcome.

At the age of 9 or 10 ‘Oh, Sir Jasper’ was just a game: we didn’t know where the song came from or understand what it was really about. (Today a 10 year-old might have more idea, but we were still pretty ignorant.) With hindsight, though, chanting these words was part of our informal education in the patriarchal rules of heterosexual conduct. We were absorbing the idea that a good girl refuses a man’s sexual overtures (and certainly does not make overtures to him). But we were also learning that her refusal is not sincere: really, she wants what he wants, she just can’t admit it straight away. The man’s job is to wear her resistance down, to persist until ‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do not!’ turns into ‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do!’

A decade after leaving primary school I would find myself in another group of women chanting a different set of words: ‘However we dress/ Wherever we go/ Yes means yes/ No means no’. ‘Yes means yes, no means no’—these are statements of the obvious, self-evident truths, tautologies. But when you put them together with the cultural script I’d first encountered as a young girl, they do not look quite so obvious, nor quite so simple.

The script says that whatever they want, women should offer some token resistance. If they say ‘yes’ too easily they risk being branded as sluts. (In an age when Teen Vogue promotes the joys of anal sex you might be thinking this rule no longer applies, but there is plenty of evidence that the charge of being a ‘slut’ (or ‘slag’ or ‘skank’) has not lost its power: it is a basic and ubiquitous component of the sexual bullying endured by thousands of teenage girls). The script also presupposes that it will be the man who asks the question, while the woman’s role is just to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If she does the asking she is not just a slut, but potentially a ball-breaking nymphomaniac. For as long as these conventions persist, the unpalatable truth is that some women, sometimes, will offer resistance which is not meant as an absolute refusal. And some men will get pleasure from overcoming that resistance.

I want it to be crystal clear what I’m not saying here. I am not saying that women are to blame for being raped because they don’t always say ‘no’ and mean it as an unequivocal refusal. Nor am I suggesting that men can be excused for ‘misunderstanding women’s signals’ and believing women consent when they do not. Those defences are both used in rape cases, and I reject them absolutely (I’ll say more about why later on). What I’m saying is that the context in which heterosexual encounters take place is (still) one in which men are defined as sexual subjects, while women are defined as sexual objects. That understanding of their respective roles affects what each participant is allowed to say, and how their words will be understood. In this sexual and linguistic economy there can be no guarantee that a woman’s ‘no’ is always and by definition an unequivocal refusal, nor that her ‘yes’ is always and by definition an active, uncoerced expression of desire.

Of course it is entirely possible for a woman to intend to refuse sex or to consent to sex, and to express that in terms that she herself considers unequivocal. But the thing about language is, you’re never a free agent—at least, not when you’re talking to someone other than yourself. Humans are not mind-readers: we do not have direct access to other people’s intentions, but only to the words they utter. And to understand what other people mean we have to do more than just decode their words. We also have to make inferences about how the words were intended. What is meant may be quite different from the literal meaning of what is said (as in irony or sarcasm); the key to what is meant may lie in what is conspicuously not said (as in hinting or sulking).

Figuring out the meaning behind the words is the hearer’s job, and to do it s/he uses both contextual information and common-sense assumptions about the world. That last part is where the problem arises. Will Saletan’s claim that ‘Men sense women’s willingness to yield’ implies that men just respond to cues they detect in women’s behaviour, but in reality, the men he’s talking about assume women’s willingness to yield. They’re working from the script in which ‘women say “no” when they don’t mean it’ is a common-sense assumption, a truism. This is not a problem with the way individual women express themselves. It is a problem with the world in which they do it.

Men who have been accused of rape will often point out that they can’t read women’s minds. ‘She didn’t say “no”, so what was I supposed to think?’ And in many cases it will be true that she didn’t utter the actual word ‘no’. But it doesn’t follow that she wasn’t refusing. English-speakers very rarely communicate refusals by saying ‘no’, firmly or otherwise.

Refusing is one possible move in response to a proposal or an invitation; the other is accepting. These two options form what conversation analysts call a ‘preference system’. One response, acceptance, is ‘preferred’, and you can express it very simply and briefly. If a colleague asks me to go for a drink after work and I want to accept the invitation, I can say something like ‘great, see you in the pub’. It isn’t a problem that this response is brief and bald, because I can assume it’s what my interlocutor wants to hear (a person who issues an invitation is usually hoping it will be accepted). But if I don’t want to go to the pub I will need to take a bit more care, because (as it says on the old notice about not asking for credit), ‘a refusal may offend’.

Detailed analysis of real-life refusals shows there’s a formula we use to mitigate the offence. It goes: hesitate + hedge + express regret + give a culturally acceptable reason. As in ‘um, well, I’d love to, but I promised I’d be home early tonight’. Or ‘[pause] I’m sorry, but I’ve got a report to finish’.

Imagine responding to someone who suggests going for a drink after work with a simple unvarnished ‘no’. Or ‘no, I can’t’, or ‘no, I don’t want to’. The person you said this to would think you’d been raised by wolves. It’s curt, it’s rude, and it will be heard as arrogant or aggressive. Why would we imagine that saying ‘no’, firmly, is a reasonable thing to tell a woman to do in a situation where she has reason to fear the consequences of giving offence? Why would we blame her for trying to refuse diplomatically, when we’d do the same ourselves in far less risky situations?  And why would we believe that ‘men don’t understand anything less direct than “no”’? The formula for (non-sexual) refusals is used and understood by speakers of both sexes. It’s absolutely normal. Saying ‘no’ is not.

Since it’s not considered ethical to record people’s sexual encounters, linguistic researchers have no direct evidence about sexual refusals in real-life situations. But one study, carried out by Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith, gathered some indirect evidence by asking women in focus groups to talk about their experiences of refusing sex. The strategies these women said they used followed the formula for other kinds of refusals: they involved hedging, apologizing and giving acceptable reasons. In this context, an ‘acceptable’ reason was one that did not imply any lack of desire for the man who was asking. It was better to emphasize circumstantial obstacles—headaches, periods, early starts—or your own emotional problems (‘well, I’m flattered, but I’m just not ready for another relationship’). Most women agreed that ‘just say no’ was bad advice, especially if the man was putting pressure on you, because of the risk that it would make him angry, and prompt a physically aggressive response.

So, the issue isn’t whether ‘no means no’, and whether men understand that. And it’s certainly not whether women say it ‘firmly’ enough to show they ‘mean business’. The issue is whether men are capable of interpreting—i.e. inferring the intentions behind—the verbal strategies which are normally used to indicate a lack of enthusiasm for something another person proposes. And the answer to that question must be yes, since in all other contexts men use those strategies themselves.

Since Kitzinger and Frith’s study, other research has provided evidence that men are able to interpret refusals which don’t contain ‘no’. This points to another unpalatable truth: in most cases where men have sex with women who don’t want to have sex with them, the men must know that’s what they are doing. Some may persuade themselves otherwise (using the time-honoured script in which resistance is token, there to be overcome). Others just don’t care. None of them should be able to get away with it.

In the last couple of years a new consensus has emerged about the importance of educating young people about consent. Many universities are doing this, and in future it will be a required element of the Relationships and Sex Education curriculum in schools. Like most feminists, I’m in favour of this, if only because so many people still have no understanding of their basic rights and responsibilities under the law. But on its own, I think it will only make things slightly better (which I acknowledge isn’t nothing, given how bad they are at the moment). It may help to make refusals more intelligible as refusals—that is, challenge the part of the script which assumes ‘women’s willingness to yield’—but it won’t solve the problem of women saying yes, under social and emotional pressure, to sex they don’t really want, or being prevented from pursuing their own desires by the fear of being branded sluts.

Ultimately what we need to do is rewrite the whole script, not just the ‘saying no’ part. In an ideal world, sex wouldn’t just be consented to (like medical treatment, or the terms and conditions offered by internet providers). It would be an actively and mutually desired exchange between free and equal human beings. We are still a long way from that world; but while of course feminists must go on fighting for what women need in the present, we must also go on trying to imagine a more radically different, and better, future.

 

 

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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

‘Men, shut up for your rights!’

If you haven’t spent the last decade living on another planet, I’m sure you will recognise the following sequence of events:

  1. A powerful man says something egregiously sexist, either in a public forum or in a private conversation which is subsequently leaked.
  2. There is an outpouring of indignation on social media.
  3. The mainstream media take up the story and the criticism gets amplified.
  4. The powerful man announces that he is stepping down.
  5. His critics claim this as a victory and the media move on—until another powerful man says another egregiously sexist thing, at which point the cycle begins again.

The most recent high-profile target for this ritual shaming was David Bonderman, a billionaire venture capitalist and member of Uber’s board of directors. It’s no secret that Uber has a serious sexism problem. Following a number of discrimination and harassment claims from former employees, the company commissioned what turned out to be a damning report on its corporate culture. At a meeting called to discuss the report, Arianna Huffington (who at the time was Uber’s only female director) cited research which suggested that putting one woman on a board increased the likelihood that more women would join. At which point Bonderman interjected: ‘actually what it shows is that it’s likely to be more talking’.

To call this remark ill-judged does not do it justice. In the space of 12 words it managed to (a) slander women collectively by recycling the idea they talk incessantly (when in reality, as a ton of evidence shows, it’s men who do more talking in mixed-sex interactions); (b) insult the only woman on the board by dismissing the point she had just made; and (c) undermine Uber’s attempt to look as though it was taking sexism seriously. What was needed from David Bonderman was a moment of silence—a moment when he considered his options and took an executive decision not to say what he was thinking. But that level of self-restraint was apparently beyond him. And he’s by no means the only powerful man who has this problem.

A few days before Bonderman’s comment made headlines, the trade publication PRWeek had held its annual, ickily named ‘Hall of Femme’ event celebrating women’s contributions to the PR industry.  This year, the organisers decided that what the event really needed was an all male panel, at which a group of male industry leaders would share their thoughts about women in PR. One of these men, Richard Edelman, made a particularly original and constructive suggestion: if women want to be heard they should try ‘speaking up more loudly’.

Once again, you have to marvel at the apparent inability of powerful men to practise the same kind of judicious self-censorship the rest of us routinely engage in. How could anyone with a functioning brain have prepared a speech containing this pearl of wisdom without ever thinking, ‘hang on, might there be something a bit dodgy about a male speaker on an all-male panel telling women they need to speak up?’ It’s even more ironic that this PR disaster was perpetrated by a leading PR professional, who apparently didn’t see it coming. Induct that man into PRWeek’s Hall of Shemme!

You can’t resign from a conference panel, so in this case the ritual only got as far as stage (2), public indignation. David Bonderman, however, was obliged to fall on his sword. His resignation statement took the form that’s become standard on these occasions: (1) apologise for causing offence; (2) deny that you really meant what everyone thinks you meant (one perennially popular version of this denial is ‘my remarks were taken out of context’, but Bonderman went for another cliché, ‘the way it came across was the opposite of what I intended’); (3) say that you’re stepping down because the controversy has become a ‘distraction’ (‘I do not want my comments to create distraction as Uber works to build a culture of which we can be proud’).

Every part of this is bullshit. The belated apology is rendered even less convincing by the accompanying denial of prejudiced intent, and the form of the denial adds insult to injury:  Bonderman appears to be claiming that when he said women talk too much, what he really meant was that women don’t talk too much—an interpretation even Humpty Dumpty might think far-fetched. (More likely he meant that he was joking, but that’s also an insult, implying that his critics have no sense of humour.)  The obligatory reference to ‘distraction’ is itself a distraction—very obviously in this case, where the issue from which Bonderman’s sexism had allegedly ‘distracted’ was—well, sexism.  The purpose of this formula is damage limitation: it’s an attempt to contain the criticism and draw a line under the affair. ‘OK, a rogue individual said something offensive, but he’s accepted his mistake and done the honourable thing. Problem solved. Time for the circus to move on’. Until the next time it happens, which will probably be within a week.

Increasingly I find myself wondering what good this ritual does. To me it doesn’t feel like much of a victory when a man like David Bonderman resigns: it feels more like cutting off the Hydra’s head when you know the Hydra will just grow a new one. If you really want to change a culture, you have to change the behaviour of the people in the culture: just replacing one director or CEO with another who’s cut from the same cloth is never going to solve the problem.

You might say, but at least Bonderman was held to account: he wasn’t just permitted to carry on as if nothing had happened. But you could equally argue that resigning is the easy option. Rather than having to change his behaviour, the offender just cuts his losses and walks away.

One day I’d like to see a powerful man in this position taking real responsibility for his actions by dispensing with the usual boilerplate and saying something more like this:

The asinine remark I made at yesterday’s meeting has prompted many people to call for my resignation. But instead of stepping down, I’ve decided I should try to step up.

For as long as I can remember, I have been given a license by the people around me to say whatever came into my head at any given moment, regardless of whether it was on point and with no thought for its effect on other people. But I’ve now realised that needs to change, and I have hired a consultant to conduct a year-long intervention. One of her responsibilities will be to interrupt me every time I begin to speak in a meeting. She will also arrange a series of corporate events at which male attendees will be obliged to listen to mainly all-female panels while having no opportunity to speak. In the Q&A men will be permitted to raise their hands, but the Chair will operate a policy of ignoring them.  A couple of panels will feature one token man: in those cases a woman will be tasked with talking over their contributions, then explaining at length what they’ve just attempted to say.

I know I can’t recreate other people’s experience of being ignored and disrespected from cradle to grave, but I hope even a small taste of my own medicine will make me less of an arse in future. Then perhaps I will have something to contribute to the creation of a culture we can be proud of.

This fantasy non-resignation speech was partly inspired by the title of a lecture once given by the artist Grayson Perry: ‘Men, sit down for your rights!’  In his book about masculinity, The Descent of Man, Perry argues that men—especially middle aged, middle class white ones—are lacking in self-awareness because they have gone through life taking their privileged position for granted. Being treated as the cultural default means never having to interrogate your own behaviour. But in a world which is moving towards greater equality, where maleness can no longer be regarded as an automatic ticket to the top, men will have to develop more humility and learn to, as Perry puts it, ‘sit down’.

One crucial element in this metaphorical sitting down will be learning to (literally) shut up. Because there is no form of privilege men deploy more frequently, more casually and more unselfconsciously than their assumed Divine Right to Talk—to monologue, to mansplain, to interrupt, to say whatever’s on their minds without considering the consequences.  This behaviour is everyday sexism at its most basic: it’s even commoner than catcalling, and its effects are felt by women of all ages, races and classes. Yet as I pointed out in my last post, the most popular way of addressing it involves telling women they should act more like men. Women are constantly exhorted to speak up. But who is making speeches telling men to pipe down?

Some mixed organisations are trying to grasp this nettle. Not long ago, for instance, a journalist told me about a small political party in Denmark which had introduced a rule to even out the distribution of speaking turns at its meetings. A male speaker cannot speak straight after another man, but must wait until after a woman has taken a turn.  Yes, there’s a degree of artificiality about this arrangement, but that’s true of any rule-governed system for managing the floor in a group—Roberts’s Rules of Order, or Parliamentary procedure, or the rules feminists of my generation sometimes followed in women’s groups to prevent the most confident and articulate women from dominating the discussion. Without analysing the evidence it’s hard to say how well the Danish rule works in practice (if anyone reading this can supply some data I’d love to hear from you), but even if it works imperfectly, its existence will at least be making people pay more conscious attention to their own behaviour.

The absence of self-awareness that Grayson Perry talks about is one of the hallmarks of the true alpha-male, and it is never more visible than when one of them is forced to apologise for some casually bigoted comment. These gaffemeisters always seem astonished by the outcry their words have provoked–it’s as if it had never occurred to them before that anyone might think they were arses. The sports star who used the N-word protests that he hasn’t got a racist bone in his body; President Donald ‘grab em by the pussy’ Trump declares that ‘no one respects women more than I do’. I don’t think they are actually lying, in the sense of saying something they believe to be false: I think they genuinely can’t see the world from anyone else’s point of view.

The question all this raises is why we go on putting these self-regarding solipsists in positions of power and influence, by choosing them as our leaders, our role-models, our cultural icons. Occasionally we punish one of them, but mostly we continue to reward them–if we didn’t, they wouldn’t keep reproducing themselves. In my youth they seemed like dinosaurs on the verge of becoming extinct; but 40 years later they are more powerful, and more popular, than ever. From Russia to the USA, and from the Philippines to Turkey, their star is once again in the ascendant. Mere indignation, however righteous, is not enough to turn the tide: it might even be as much of a distraction as the gaffes that set it off.

 

Confidence trick

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art has trained some of the world’s most celebrated actors. It also has a commercial arm, Rada in Business, which promises to ‘take our world-leading training and make it work for you in a business context’. Some of the courses it offers are aimed specifically at women. There’s one for recent graduates, entitled ‘Confidence and Presence for Women’, which costs £625 + VAT. For middle managers there’s ‘Impact and Influence for Women’, which costs £1850 + VAT. Then there’s the deluxe version, ‘Executive Presence for Women’, which costs £2800 + VAT for the basic course, and another £1000 if you opt for extras like one-to-one coaching.

What do you get for these eye-watering amounts of money? Here’s what the website says about ‘Confidence and Presence for Women’.

This one day, highly practical course is designed for women entering the workplace. Participants will be taken through the fundamental tools of communication – the body, breath and voice. You will learn how you can adapt these tools in order to come across in a particular way in front of different audiences and in different environments. By looking at status, common body language traits and your own personal brand, you will come to understand the impact that you have on others, and learn how to enhance your impact in order to come across with more confidence and presence.

If you’re not much the wiser after reading this mixture of obvious truisms (people communicate with their voices) and vacuous buzzphrases (‘your personal brand’, ‘enhance your impact’), allow me to direct you to the Times’s story about the course, in which Rada’s client director elaborates on the thinking behind it. Young women entering the workplace, she explains,

are suddenly finding themselves in a very hierarchical environment. Quite often they haven’t been taught about how to hold themselves and make their voices heard. Our courses aim to change that, by giving women the skills they need to empower themselves

But that doesn’t explain why only women need the course. If the problem it’s addressing is the difficulty young professionals have in making the transition from student to corporate life, we might wonder why men—who also enter the workplace fresh from their degree courses—are not thought to have the same skills deficit. (Rada does not offer training for men: it offers general courses and special women’s courses.) Were male students secretly ‘taught how to hold themselves and make their voices heard’ while their female peers were busy gossiping and eating chocolate?

What’s being danced around here is the common-sense understanding that men possess the right skills ‘naturally’, whereas women just as naturally lack them. Quasi-remedial training based on this proposition has been around for at least 30 years: my own collection of course prospectuses goes back to the late 1980s. They all promise to teach working women the secret of assertive/ confident/ effective/ powerful communication (the buzzwords change, the basic formula does not), and the ‘secret’ always turns out to be… that women should behave more like men.

This is also what Rada means by ‘giving women the skills they need to empower themselves’. According to the Times’s report,

Rada has listed ten body language “mistakes, where female leaders unknowingly reduce their authority by denoting vulnerability or submission”. These include using too many head tilts, which imply empathy; taking up less physical space than men; inappropriately and excessively smiling; and failing to interrupt enough.

As a tribute to this ever-popular ‘X Things Women Are Doing Wrong’ formula (a favourite with advice writers many decades before the invention of Buzzfeed), I hereby present my own list of the five reasons why you shouldn’t pay £6.25, let alone £625 + VAT, for a communication training course based on this approach.

  1. These courses rely on myths and stereotypes

I’ve been collecting information on communication training courses since the late 1980s, and I have literally never come across one informed by reputable evidence. Some courses draw on models of communication developed in psychotherapy (like assertiveness and transactional analysis), while others are content to recycle the same zombie facts and misleading generalisations which self-help writers have been peddling for decades.

These claims have acquired their undeserved credibility through constant repetition. We’ve been told so often that women ‘over’-apologise, make all their statements sound like questions and hedge every request with ‘just’, it’s hard for us to believe that this is folklore rather than fact. But in many cases that’s exactly what it is: our beliefs are contradicted by the findings of research. For instance, if you ask people which sex talks more, a majority will answer ‘women’, though there’s a large body of evidence showing that in most contexts the answer is ‘men’. If you ask them who uses uptalk, they’ll name the young women who were its most advanced users 30 years ago, though it has long since ceased to be just a girl thing.

Even if a folk-belief isn’t a myth, it’s sure to be an overgeneralisation. (Do women swear less than men? It depends which women you compare with which men.) It’s impossible to make a one-size-fits-all list of women’s communication problems, because women come in many different varieties. You wouldn’t be happy if a doctor you’d consulted just handed you a generic ‘women’s prescription’ (‘here are some oral contraceptives, anti-anxiety drugs and a leaflet on how to lose weight’). Why would you pay for a communication training course designed on the same principle?

  1. Their advice shows no awareness of the complexity of communicative behaviour

The ‘X Things Women Do Wrong’ approach needs two things to be persuasive. The first, as noted above, is a list of things women allegedly do which are sufficiently familiar to be accepted as fact. The second is a story explaining why those things are wrong. For instance: (1) women say ‘just’ more than men, and (2) saying ‘just’ makes you sound weak and indecisive. What these stories fail to acknowledge, though, is that forms like ‘just’ have multiple functions: they don’t always mean the same thing or do the same job (the ‘just’ in Nike’s ‘Just Do It’, for example, is there to strengthen, not weaken, the command). There is no sensible argument for a blanket ban on ‘just’.

Rada’s suggestion that women should move their heads less to avoid ‘denoting vulnerability and submission’ is in the same category of senseless advice. Whoever came up with it seems to be channelling the wisdom of Body Language for Dummies:

Although men tilt their heads in an upward movement, mostly as a sign of recognition, women tilt their heads to the side in appeasement and as a playful or flirtatious gesture. When a woman tilts her head she exposes her neck, making herself look more vulnerable and less threatening.

But researchers who don’t write for dummies have pointed out that ‘movements of the head can participate in a diverse field of meanings’. Among other things, they can function ‘as signals for turn-taking; as semantic and syntactic boundary markers; to locate discourse referents; or to communicate meanings like inclusivity, intensification, and uncertainty’. Head-movements, in other words, are part of the apparatus we use to manage the complex demands of face-to-face conversation. We generally do this without conscious reflection: advising women to make a conscious effort not to do it is both ridiculous and probably futile (next time you’re having a conversation, try suppressing your normal head-movements and see how long you can keep it up.)

  1. They assume that men’s behaviour is always preferable to women’s

Advice on communication is full of statements about what women do too much or not enough of. Rada’s advice is a case in point: it charges women with using ‘too many’ head-tilts, smiling ‘excessively’, and—my particular favourite—‘failing to interrupt enough’. How much interrupting is enough, and enough for what? What is this mysterious mark that women are forever overshooting or falling short of?

I think the answer is obvious: it’s men’s behaviour (or more exactly, what the advice-givers imagine to be men’s behaviour). But if so, that raises another question: what’s so great about men’s behaviour? How do we get from ‘men interrupt more frequently’, or ‘men use fewer head-movements implying empathy’ to ‘men are better communicators’? The logic here can only be that any behaviour associated with men should be preferred to any behaviour associated with women. That’s why women are ‘empowered’ by imitating men.

This approach to women’s empowerment seems to be trying to do for women what elocution lessons did for the upwardly-mobile a century ago: ‘get rid of your vulgar accent/ your excessive head-movements, and you too can be accepted into the ranks of the socially privileged’. But apart from demonstrating the political difference between ‘women’s empowerment’ and feminism (a movement whose aim is to challenge men’s collective power rather than just enabling a few ambitious women to share it), this strategy has a practical flaw…

  1. It ignores evidence that the same behaviour is judged differently in men and women

It can’t be assumed that a woman who talks like a man will be treated like a man: we have plenty of evidence that judgments of linguistic performance are affected by the identity of the performer. The same message may be interpreted and evaluated very differently depending on whether it comes from an adult or a child, a boss or a subordinate, a woman or a man.

In an earlier post I mentioned the case of Catherine Nichols, an aspiring novelist who sent out the same writing sample under two different names, her own name and a fictitious male name. Not only did she get far more interest from readers who believed she was a man, she also found they described her writing differently: it was ‘lyrical’ when she was female, and ‘well-constructed’ when she was male. You might also recall Kieran Snyder’s analysis of a sample of tech industry performance reviews, which found that most women, and almost no men, were criticised for their ‘abrasive’ manner. This perception of women who work in male-dominated environments as ‘abrasive’ is another example of the phenomenon I’ve discussed in recent posts about politicians: displays of female authority provoke resentment. Several experimental studies have found that for women, judgments of authority are negatively correlated with judgments of likability.

Instructing women to behave more like men (interrupt more, smile less, stop apologising, etc., etc.) takes no account of this evidence that women are judged by different standards. They are caught between a rock (‘your speech lacks authority and no one listens to you!’) and a hard place (‘you’re too abrasive and no one likes you!’). I’m not suggesting that women are always better off clinging to the rock. But teaching them to talk like men is not going to solve all their problems.

  1. Fixing women is not the same as challenging sexism

Most communication courses for women are bad in the ways I’ve already discussed, but even if I found one that avoided the usual pitfalls, I’d still have a problem with the basic concept. The reason these courses appeal to corporate clients is that they don’t challenge—in fact they pander to—a particular understanding of what causes gender inequality. It’s not that anyone’s trying to keep women down, it’s just that too many women aren’t achieving their full potential because of a lack of confidence and self-belief. This account makes both sexism and sexists disappear: it’s all about fixing women by sending them on courses.

In reality, of course, there is no shortage of sexists in the corporate world, but their behaviour, unlike women’s, is not regarded as a problem. They don’t get sent on courses featuring topics like ‘how to listen to women’, ‘resisting the temptation to mansplain’ and ‘why you don’t have to speak if you’ve got nothing to add’. Of course they don’t: no one would offer a course based on such an insulting premise, and no man would agree to attend one. But on reflection, is the premise women’s courses are based on any less insulting? They’re all designed around what women allegedly lack: authority, impact, confidence, presence. (What are you if you ‘lack presence’, a void?) Is this not just code for ‘women are not as good as men’?

The thing I find most intolerable, though, is the way training courses exploit the idea that women are their own worst enemies. One of the many glowing testimonials on Rada’s website says: ‘This course is a must for anyone who has ever held themselves back’. So, women hold themselves back, and women must learn to empower themselves. That definition of the problem may be the biggest problem of all.

Thanks to @ms_peaceweaver for drawing my attention to the Rada course.

The bins! the bins!

Remember SamCam? That’s tabloid-speak for Samantha Cameron, the wife of former Prime Minister David, and one of the stars of the 2015 General Election. Tory strategists deployed her as (in their own words) a ‘secret weapon’. She was seen meeting the voters, both with her husband and on her own. She gave interviews explaining why he was the right man to run the country. She made headlines when she revealed, during a visit to a Welsh brewery, that she’d been known to drink stout while she was pregnant. She wore clothes, which were duly discussed in all the papers.

By the end of the campaign, according to Loughborough University’s media watchers, Samantha Cameron was the 15th most talked-about person in press and TV election coverage. She was also the third most frequently-mentioned woman: the only women ranked above her were SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon (4) and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett (12). SamCam got more attention than Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, or than the most senior women in the UK’s two main parties. She was more visible than any woman who was actually a candidate in the election.

The women’s pressure group Fawcett criticised this focus on politicians’ wives (SamCam being the most prominent but not the only example) as part of its #viewsnot shoes campaign against sexist election coverage. It was generally agreed that the same trivialising treatment would not be dished out to a male Prime Ministerial consort: the following year, when an actual female PM took office, the Metro underlined the point with a satirical piece headed ‘Theresa May’s husband steals the show in sexy navy suit as he starts new life as First Man’

But it seems we laughed too soon: the campaign strategists are back, and they’ve decided to weaponise Philip May. Last week he joined his wife on the sofa for an interview on the BBC’s early evening One Show. What followed was described by the Guardian as ‘a banal conversation [whose] aim was to present the Mays as a dull but dependable quasi-presidential First Couple’, while another critic called it ‘pure TV Valium’. But it was also a good illustration of the workings of the code I described in my last post.

The basic presupposition of this code is that female authority is unnatural and grotesque, threatening constantly to emasculate any man who comes within range of it. The resentment it generates is then expressed either through insults (‘such a nasty/bloody difficult woman’) or through ‘humorous’ references to archetypes like the nagging wife, the stern nanny, Miss Whiplash, Mummy and Matron. Women can either go along with this–join in with the joke, treat the insult as a compliment–or they can try to counter it by deliberately performing a more conventional and less threatening kind of femininity.

Theresa May has used the first strategy (telling us she planned to be ‘bloody difficult’ in the Brexit negotiations), and her appearance on the One Show with her husband was an example of the second. To see how it worked, let’s try a feminist decoding of some of the key, headline-grabbing moments.

I get to decide when to put the bins out. Not if I take them out.

“Ours is a normal marriage. At home my wife is in charge and she allocates me my chores. But in case I’m sounding henpecked, let me acknowledge that she does let me take the bins out at a time of my own choosing.” 

Philip was a tad off-message here, casting Theresa as an archetypal She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. (The bin-soundbite was odd in another way, too: does anyone really think that putting out the bins features prominently on the Prime Ministerial to-do list? Personally I’ve always assumed that the bins at 10 Downing Street are removed by the secret service and destroyed in a controlled explosion.) But she quickly stepped in to limit the damage:

There’s boy jobs and girls’ jobs, you see.

“Ours is a traditional marriage, in which we play traditional roles. Putting out the nasty dirty bins is no job for a woman, just as cleaning shit-encrusted toilets is no job for a man. Just because I run the country and was once photographed in a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt, I wouldn’t want the British people to think I have no respect for ancient and illogical stereotypes. I’m a Tory, after all, and if that means I have to talk what I know in my heart is complete bollocks, so be it.”

Good catch by Theresa there: after her husband inadvertently made her sound like a bit of a bully, she immediately reasserted the key point that he is the man of the house. Though not, as he would go on to clarify, in the manner of a Victorian patriarch, or that bloke from UKIP who had to resign after calling women sluts because they didn’t clean behind the fridge:

If you’re the kind of man who expects his tea to be on the table at six o’clock every evening, you could be a disappointed man.

“Ours is a modern marriage: I’m the kind of modern husband who’s totally relaxed about his wife going out to work. Especially as we have staff.

So, we’ve addressed the whole domestic labour question, what other boxes do we need to tick to establish the correct degree of gender conformity? Ah yes…

I like buying nice shoes.

“I am the most powerful woman in Britain, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I’VE LOST MY FEMININITY”.

I quite like ties.

“I am married to the most powerful woman in Britain, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I’VE SUDDENLY DEVELOPED AN UNMANLY INTEREST IN FASHION”.

I don’t think it [the PM’s red box] has ever made an appearance in the bedroom. I’ve never had to shoo it out.

My wife’s job is not more important than our marriage, but if push came to shove I wouldn’t hesitate to tell her and her box what’s what. Also: I’m letting your reference to ‘the bedroom’ (just the one, then?) pass because it shows that ours is a normal marriage. But if you persist with this I will bore you to death.

Press commentators didn’t so much decode these remarks as write some more of the same code on top of them. In the Tory papers, the consensus seemed to be that the interview had helped to soften May’s steely image, making her seem more human (which was usually code for more ‘feminine’). As Quentin Letts put it in the Mail:

Theresa relaxed in [Philip’s] presence. She looked quite different from her normal, taut interview persona. Her eyes seemed rounder, her body language looser and happier than normal.

Reading this reminded me of an old advertisement which became a target for feminist protests in the late 1970s.2015HJ5115_jpg_ds It showed a woman walking down a street at night wearing a trench-coat, which she then unbuttoned to reveal that she was naked apart from her underwear (the product being advertised): the slogan was ‘Underneath they’re all Lovable’. In Mail-world, power does not make women lovable, and therefore it cannot make them happy: instead of trying to do important, stressful jobs, they should just follow their natural instincts, move to Stepford and let men kill them and replace them with robots take care of them.

Meanwhile, left-leaning commentators focused disapprovingly on Theresa May’s reference to ‘boy jobs and girls’ jobs’. Apart from being crassly sexist, wasn’t it a bit rich coming from a woman who’s doing one of the ultimate ‘boy jobs’ in her capacity as the UK’s Prime Minister?  Well, yes—but that was the point. If a right-wing woman has ambitions in the public sphere, it will always be prudent for her to reassure us that in private she’s as conventional as they come. ‘The nation needs me and I’ve dutifully answered the call, but I’m really just an ordinary housewife, cooking my husband’s tea while he puts the bins out. And by the way, shoes!’ There’s more rubbish in this kind of talk than there is in the aforementioned bins, but for as long as it plays well with the media and the public, Conservative women will go on spouting it.

You might be thinking, but is it really any different for the men? In 2015 they too (with the notable exception of Nigel Farage) dragged their families into their campaigns. The two Prime Ministerial contenders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, both made high-profile appearances in their kitchens, as if to emphasise their credentials as loving husbands and hands-on fathers. As Emily Harmer pointed out at the time, though, the way this works is not the same for men and women. When a male political leader presents himself as a ‘family man’, he may be projecting a ‘modern’ masculinity, but he is also activating a more traditional patriarchal frame in which a father is the head and chief protector of his family. His private role is thus consistent with the public role he seeks (‘what I do for my family I will also do for the nation’). If he gets it right, his performance will appeal to both conservative and more liberal audiences.

For a woman like Theresa May, by contrast, this strategy is not available. What she has to prove to avoid being damned as a virago is that she doesn’t try to usurp her husband’s position at home–she sticks to the ‘girl jobs’ and leaves the ‘boy jobs’ to him. Yet she also has to convince us that she isn’t too feminine (too weak, too indecisive, too emotional) to do the ‘boy job’ of governing the country.

The effect of these contradictory pressures was apparent in the One Show interview, where May shifted awkwardly between her familiar ‘strong and stable’ message and the coyer, girlier mode that made such an impression on Quentin Letts. I’ll admit, I found it excruciating, and it looked as if the Mays did too. But I don’t think we can blame them, or the campaign strategists, for inflicting this spectacle upon us. The sexist attitudes on show in it were an accurate reflection of the sexist attitudes that pervade the wider culture, and especially the popular media. I look forward to a time when these will be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history, but for the moment they seem to have got stuck in the recycling.

 

 

A very British sexism

Last week I inadvertently caught the beginning of Question Time, a long-running weekly political panel show which I have loathed and detested for many years. As luck would have it, I switched on at the very moment when its smug host David Dimbleby called on an audience member to ask the first question. Which was: ‘do we need a bloody difficult woman to negotiate Brexit?’ The studio audience applauded (they always do, and I have no idea why), while I reached, simultaneously, for the TV remote and the sickbag.

‘A bloody difficult woman’ was originally a comment made by the veteran Tory politician Kenneth Clarke about the present Prime Minister Theresa May. He came out with it (during what he wrongly assumed to be a private, off-mic conversation) during last summer’s Conservative leadership contest, in which May was one of several candidates; and he clearly didn’t mean it as a positive assessment. But like Donald Trump’s rather similar description of Hillary Clinton–‘such a nasty woman’–it quickly took on a new life as an empowering feminist slogan. It became a popular hashtag on Twitter, started appearing on badges and T-shirts, and was hymned on the Telegraph’s women’s page as ‘the ultimate compliment’.

The same paper offered a handy guide to the various subtypes of ‘BDW’, personified by women like the (late) TV dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse and the (fictional) Dowager Countess of Downton. Jan Moir in the Mail added Anne Robinson and Miss Piggy to the list. Moir also argued that Clarke’s insult was really a compliment. When a man calls a woman ‘difficult’, she mused,

that’s a tacit acknowledgement of [her] power. It means: ‘I can’t control her.’ It means: ‘She won’t do what I tell her to do.’ It means: ‘To be honest, I am a little bit scared of her’.

While I don’t agree with Moir that women should be flattered by this reaction, I do think her observation points to an uncomfortable truth which many mainstream discussions of sexism gloss over. Those discussions often define the problem women face as getting people (especially men) to ‘take them seriously’. Just this week, for instance, Girlguiding UK released some research which showed that girls and young women are very aware of the sexist treatment of female politicians, and it’s putting them off engaging in politics. News reports quoted 16-year old Emma Taggart, who complained about the excessive attention paid by the media to women’s bodies and their clothes: as she said,

Focusing on a politician’s appearance instead of what she has to say sends the message that even women in the most powerful roles in the country aren’t taken seriously.

The same point was made by another women’s organisation, Fawcett, in its 2015 ‘Views not shoes’ campaign against sexist election coverage. But while it isn’t wrong as far as it goes, I find this analysis superficial. The problem isn’t that we as a culture don’t take powerful women seriously. How seriously we take them may be inferred from the lengths we are willing to go to to demonise and undermine them. The real problem is not denial, but resentment of female authority–a resentment which no woman should take as a compliment, since what is ultimately behind it is misogyny.

Trivialising women with comments on their shoes or reducing them to the status of sexual objects (as in the Mail’s now-infamous ‘Legs-it’ photo), legs-for-commentsis only one expression of this resentment, one strategy for putting women (back) in their place. Calling them ‘bloody difficult’ or ‘nasty’ is another. But these codes are relatively simple and transparent. What I want to talk about is another, more insidious code, which is also pervasive in the British media.

The reason for talking about this, of course, is that we’re currently in the middle of another General Election campaign, unexpectedly announced last month by Theresa May. This ‘snap’ election has been widely interpreted as a Brexit version of Churchill’s ‘give us the tools and we will finish the job’–it’s a post-referendum referendum on May’s leadership. But when she first announced it, surprising her party colleagues, it wasn’t Churchill she put them in mind of.  Rather, the Sunday Times reported that ‘Tory MPs…have taken to referring to their leader as “Mummy” in their text exchanges’.

Actually, they’d called her that before: ‘Mummy’ also turned up in Tory tweets during last suheel boysmmer’s battle for the party leadership. GQ helpfully suggested that May was ‘nasty mummy’ to her younger rival Andrea Leadsom’s ‘nice mummy’.  And of course, nasty mummy won; we all know those Tory boys love a bit of discipline. When May became Prime Minister, the front page of the Sun depicted her stiletto heeled foot (she actually favours kitten heels, but why ruin a good dominatrix reference?) coming down on the heads of her hapless male subordinates. The headline, inevitably, was ‘Heel, boys’.

What was the Sun trying to say, though? It’s a Tory paper, it supported the side that won the referendum, and the text on the page implied approval of the party’s choice—’Maggie’ May was another Thatcher, she was going to re-unite the country and deliver Brexit to the people. But the subtext, if something so in-your-face can be called a subtext, was sending another message entirely. Give a woman the whip hand (geddit?) and she’ll treat you like dogs.

This isn’t just about Theresa May, and it isn’t just about the Tories. When Sylvia Shaw and I analysed the press coverage of the 2015 General Election for our book Gender, Power and Political Speech, we noticed a pattern in the way authoritative women were described. Here are a few examples: the first two are about Julie Etchingham, the news presenter who moderated the first TV election debate, and the rest are about Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party.

  1. Our Julie was also in a white jacket that gave her the air of an imperious dental nurse.
  2. This headmistress was not taking any nonsense from the naughty boys and girls at the back of the class.
  3. But the Aussie [Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party] backed the head girl Nicola when she took on the Prime Minister, saying: “I agree with Nicola.”
  4. She was very much like a primary school teacher, bobbing her head up and down, using her hands a lot.
  5. She ticked off Nigel Farage like a hospital matron who has found something nasty in the ward.

The women being described here had featured prominently in a debate watched by millions; one of them also had a day job running a small country. And what did the pundits compare them to? Head girls, primary school teachers, headmistresses, nurses, Matron. This is how female authority is made intelligible: through allusions to a set of archetypal roles in which women have traditionally exercised power–prototypically over children, or over adults infantilised by illness. There was no pattern of analogous references to men: their authority in the political sphere is taken for granted, and does not call for comment or explanation.

In the press reports I’ve quoted, the cultural references writers draw on in their comparisons are noticeably British (and evidently aimed at Britons of a certain age): Malory Towers, St Trinians, Hattie Jacques in the Carry On films. 8615-3006We’d only need to add Nanny, Bertie Wooster’s aunt Agatha and the Dowager Countess of Downton and we’d have the full set of Thoroughly British Battleaxes. These women’s authority is both a joke and a threat (or perhaps I should say, it’s made into a joke to defuse the threat): they’re bossy boots, petty tyrants, and in popular culture often grotesque—ageing, physically unattractive and either sexless or pathologically oversexed ‘man-eaters’.

Another common figure in this gallery of female grotesques is the man in drag, as exemplified by Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet. Margaret Thatcher Spitting Image puppetThe running gag on Spitting Image was all about emasculation: Thatcher’s male Cabinet colleagues were portrayed not just as ‘a little bit scared of her’, but as terrified, spineless wimps. One sketch had her ordering a steak, and replying to the waitress’s query ‘what about the vegetables?’ with ‘oh, they’ll have the same as me’.

As this joke demonstrates, resentment of female authority is a weapon that can also be used against men. Whereas authority in women is unnatural and repulsive, in men it is normal and desirable: the unnatural man is the one who lacks authority, or worse, who submits to the authority of a woman. He is ‘henpecked’ or ‘pussy whipped’, allowing the  woman to ‘wear the trousers’. During the 2015 General Election campaign this unnatural role-reversal became a recurring theme in right-wing press commentary on Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon (in case anyone’s forgotten, in the latter stages the Tories leant heavily on the idea that if English people voted Labour they would end up being governed by the SNP). georgeEd and Nicola were compared to George and Mildred, the characters in a 1970s sitcom about an overbearing nagging wife (another of British popular culture’s oversexed grotesques) and her long-suffering henpecked husband.

Then there was this little fable, composed by Matthew Parris for the Times after watching the second TV debate:

Spring is the season when pigeons distract us with their mating dance. The male paces about in an exotic strut, coocooing and puffing out his chest. The female makes a show of mincing away from him. He follows; she sidesteps; he pursues; she retreats. … On Thursday night on the BBC a similar courtship ritual could be observed taking place between two politicians, but with this striking difference. It was the lady in the dove-grey jacket [Sturgeon] coo-cooing with a puffed-out chest, and the gentleman in the dove-grey tie [Miliband] who was being coy.

The Sun, as ever, was briefer and blunter:

Nicola Sturgeon may wear high heels and a skirt, but the eerie silence from noisy ex-leader Alex Salmond proves she eats her partners alive.

All women who aspire to hold positions of power have to negotiate this representation of female authority as unnatural and emasculating (if not actually homicidal). And often, they find themselves trapped in a double bind. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, was damned both for not being enough of a woman and for being too much of one: while Spitting Image was portraying her as a man in drag, the Guardian was accusing her of ‘deliberately exploiting her gender as a weapon’. The writer seems not to have noticed that Thatcher’s gender was already a weapon—primarily one which others could use against her. Understanding this as a fact of life, she did not so much ‘exploit her gender’ as look for ways to turn men’s sexism to her own advantage.

According to her long-time ally Lord (Charles) Powell, one of the strategies she developed enabled her to get her own way in most arguments with her Cabinet colleagues: she would simply stand her ground until they backed down. ‘She knew’, explained Powell, that

private-school-educated British men weren’t brought up to argue with women. Only one or two of [the men in her cabinet] could stand up to that sort of treatment, or if they came from the same background as her… but most of the others got uncomfortable.

British ruling-class men of Thatcher’s generation had been formed by their experiences in an all-male world of public schools and single-sex Oxbridge colleges; as adults, their professional and political networks largely excluded women, except as helpmeets (wives and secretaries). In this milieu, the authority of women (personified by mummy, nanny and Matron) was something you had to put up with as a child, but you knew from an early age that when you grew up it would cease to be relevant. Since women were not your equals, or your rivals, you could afford to treat them with the pretend respect known to the upper classes as chivalry, or being a ‘gentleman’. This class-specific form of sexism was what Thatcher learned to manipulate. (Left-wing women confront a different set of challenges, but that’s a subject for a different post.)

Conservative women like Thatcher can also exploit the fact that authority itself is positively valued on the political right. As much as he or she may resent being bossed by a woman, your average Tory will take a strong female leader over a weak and ineffectual male one. If she passes their political virility test by being tough enough on their hot-button issues (war, national security, crime and immigration), conservatives may be willing to elevate her to the quasi-mythical status of the ‘Iron Lady’.

Despite her record as a hardliner on at least three of the issues mentioned above, Theresa May has not been given the ‘Iron Lady’ title. But it’s no accident that she and her supporters have spent the last two weeks talking incessantly about her ‘strong and stable leadership’. This is simultaneously a dig at her opponent Jeremy Corbyn (who is by implication weak and chaotic), and a message to anyone who might harbour doubts about a woman leader’s strength, determination or resilience. Like Thatcher before her, May is willing to embrace sexist stereotypes, but selectively, to suit her purpose. What she seems to be trying to project in this campaign is a combination of Mummy’s ruthless protectiveness (she’ll give no quarter when it comes to standing up for her British brood) and the stubborn persistence of the ‘bloody difficult woman’.

By now, though, you’re probably wondering what my point is: am I defending women like May and Thatcher? Am I suggesting British feminists should vote Conservative in June? The answer to that last question is no, absolutely not: I certainly won’t be voting for May’s clueless and inflexible leadership myself. To the first question, however, the answer is slightly more complicated. I’m not defending these women’s politics, but I am defending women politicians, and indeed women in general, against attacks which are rooted in misogyny.

No matter how much we despise the women being targeted, feminists shouldn’t applaud when they’re belittled and mocked using the code I’ve described in this post. We shouldn’t join in with the chorus of ‘bloody difficult woman’, ‘time for mummy’, ‘heel, boys’, and we shouldn’t pretend these jibes are really backhanded compliments. As I’ve said, what they express is resentment–and it’s not a specific resentment of right wing women, it’s a more general resentment (seen in varying forms across the political spectrum) of any woman who, as Rebecca West famously put it, ‘does or says anything that distinguishes her from a doormat’. We urgently need other ways of thinking and talking about women in authority: this one is toxic, and it damages us all.

Pride, prejudice and pedantry

Last year I discovered the perfect gift for the supercilious arse in your life: a mug emblazoned with the legend ‘I am silently correcting your grammar’. grammar-mug The existence of this item testifies to the widely-held belief that sneering at other people’s language-use is not just acceptable, it’s actually a virtue. When the subject is language, you can take pride in being a snob; you can even display your exquisite sensitivity by comparing yourself to a genocidal fascist (‘I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi: I can’t bear it when people use language incorrectly’).

On Twitter there’s a ‘Grammar Police’ bot whose mission is to belittle random strangers by tweeting unsolicited corrections of their ‘defective grammar’. Because, according to its profile, ‘publishing defective grammar abases oneself’.

‘Abases *oneself*’? Try ‘one’, or better, ‘you’. And maybe get your thesaurus out, because I don’t think ‘abase’ is the word you want.

What I’ve just done is an example of what I’m going to take issue with in this post: criticising the way someone has (mis)used language as a proxy for challenging their actual message. This strategy has featured prominently in critical commentary on Donald Trump: he’s been lambasted as often for his limited vocabulary, fractured syntax and inability to spell ‘hereby’ as he has for his bigotry, dishonesty and megalomania. Linguistically speaking, a lot of this commentary is wide of the mark (for a more illuminating take on Trump’s speech-style,  try this). But the strategy was common long before Trump came on the scene. One of the first things I noticed when I joined Twitter in 2014 was how often liberal progressive types used the grammar-sneer to call out bigots. Like this*:

We should round all you feminazi’s up and put you on an island away from society.

we’ll be moving on to punctuation later this afternoon.

And this:

As a straight male how would u feel about yr child having a homosexual school teacher?! Who their around for 8hrs of the day?

If a gay teacher teaches my child the difference between they’re, their and there, I’m good.

The conflict that accompanied last year’s EU referendum produced a bumper crop of examples like this:

Britain was once a proud nation, but is now afraid to speak it’s own name.

and restore our ancient birthright of putting apostrophes where they don’t belong!

In the wake of the referendum, which the Leave side won, there was an upsurge of public racism and xenophobia—threats, vandalism, harassment, verbal abuse and violence targeting people perceived as ‘foreign’.  Facebook pages were set up where people could report incidents they’d experienced or observed. A number of these reports followed the same formula: first they described a racist white Briton telling a non-white or non-British person to ‘start packing’ or ‘go home’, and then they commented that the racist couldn’t even speak English properly. One writer reported that she’d stood up to a white woman who harangued her in a shop, by telling her, among other things, that ‘I speak better English than you’. She explained that she’d heard the white woman speaking to someone else, and noticed that ‘her grammar was appalling’.

I’m not going to blame someone in this situation for defending herself with whatever weapons are to hand. My question is why claiming to speak better English than your adversary is so often a weapon people reach for. Why does it seem more apt, and less crass, than (for instance) ‘I’m better looking than you’ or ‘I’ve got more money than you’?  Maybe it’s because it chimes with the idea that bigots are ignorant and stupid. It allows their critics to feel intellectually and culturally as well as morally superior (‘I’d hate my child to be educated by a gay teacher’. ‘Pity no one bothered educating you. Gotcha’). But however satisfying that may be, it raises the question of whether you can claim the moral high ground by using one unjust prejudice against another.

If you describe someone you’ve heard speaking in a shop as using ‘appalling’ grammar, the only thing you can mean is that s/he speaks a nonstandard dialect. In Britain, speaking a nonstandard dialect generally means that (a) you grew up working class and (b) you didn’t spend enough quality time in formal education for your native dialect to be replaced in everyday speech by the more prestigious dialect of the middle class (though you’ll use that dialect when you write, and you’ll certainly be able to read it). So, criticising a racist’s nonstandard grammar is mobilising one form of privilege (based on class and/or education) to attack another (based on whiteness). As I said before, I’m not going to blame the person who uses this tactic in self-defence. But that doesn’t mean I have to applaud the tactic.

Maybe you’re thinking: ‘but what you linguists call “nonstandard” is actually just bad English. Criticising that isn’t snobbery: anyone who goes to school for long enough to learn to read and write can learn what the correct forms are. If they haven’t learnt, it means they’re lazy. Plenty of working class people speak correctly: it’s an insult to suggest that bad grammar is good enough for them’.

Sorry, but no. Nonstandard English is not ‘bad’ by any objective criterion; it’s stigmatised because the people who use it have lower social status than the people who don’t. The actual linguistic forms used by nonstandard speakers (like, say, ‘we was’ instead of ‘we were’ or ‘she done it’ rather than ‘she did it’) are neither better nor worse than the forms we judge ‘correct’. The judgment is based on what class of person uses a particular form, and the form’s status can change as its class associations do. A hundred years ago, for instance, saying ‘aint’ was associated with upper-class Brits like Winston Churchill and the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey. Today it’s strictly for the lower orders, and it’s also become one of the most stigmatised of all English grammatical forms.

grammarpoliceAs for the apostrophe fetish (‘its’ and ‘it’s’, or ‘they’re’ versus ‘their’), that’s got nothing to do with grammar. The English apostrophe does mark grammatical distinctions, but the reason people make mistakes isn’t that they don’t know the difference between possessive pronouns and contracted verb forms: what they don’t know is which spelling goes with which form. The possessive form of nouns has an apostrophe (as in ‘the dog’s bowl’), so people often reason that the possessive pronoun ‘its’ should logically have one too. It’s also easy to pick the wrong option when writing in haste or on autopilot. On this one I’m with Jesus: ‘let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone’.

But there are other reasons for feminists (and other defenders of equality and social justice) to think twice before mocking a political opponent’s ‘incorrect’ use of language. Here are a few of them.

1. It’s a red herring

Earlier I mocked the creator of the Grammar Police bot for using ‘oneself’ incorrectly. It was a fine display of my superior linguistic knowledge, but it also completely missed the point. My quarrel with the bot-maker isn’t that he corrects other people’s grammar when his own is nothing to shout about. It’s that correcting strangers’ grammar in public is a shitty thing to do.

The same problem arises with the political examples I took from Twitter. In no case does the response engage directly with the tweeter’s prejudice. It says, in effect, ‘this mistake tells me you’re stupid, and if you’re stupid I can just dismiss your argument, which is also, by extension, stupid’. And the argument may indeed be stupid, but it wouldn’t be any less stupid if it were spelled correctly (just as Hitler wasn’t any less fascist because he could write a coherent sentence). Conversely, deviations from standard usage do not make a true fact less true or a just argument less just. The moral status of what someone says is about the content, not the grammar.

2. It cuts more than one way

On this blog I have complained frequently about the policing of women’s language, arguing that there’s no linguistic justification for the criticisms people make of uptalk and vocal fry, hedging, apologising, etc. What’s behind this is common or garden sexism: if a way of speaking is associated (accurately or otherwise) with women, it’s judged inferior to the male alternative. Not because it objectively is inferior, but just because women are the lower status group.

Judgments on nonstandard language work in exactly the same way, the difference being that the relevant status hierarchy is based on class and education rather than gender.  So, when feminists engage in grammar policing they’re undermining their own objection to the gendered equivalent. If you dismiss someone’s argument because of a misplaced apostrophe, what do you say to the people who claim they can’t take women seriously because of their ‘shrill’ voices and annoying ‘verbal tics’?

3. It’s a vote for the status quo

People sometimes say: ‘OK, I get that what’s “correct” is arbitrary, but if you want to get your point across you have to play by the rules’. But this is not a progressive argument, because it treats ‘the rules’ as neutral rather than asking whose interests they serve. If someone defends a workplace dress-code requiring women to wear high heels as just ‘reflecting the prevailing standard for appropriate female business attire’, we don’t say, ‘oh, OK then’, we say it’s time the standard was changed.

In the case of linguistic standards, we should question why we’re so obsessed with shibboleths like ‘aint’ and ‘we was’ and the apostrophe, which say a lot about a person’s social background and education, but very little about how well they can actually communicate. Would any feminist suggest that the nonstandard grammar of the phrase attributed to Sojourner Truth, ‘and aint I a woman?’ detracts from the clarity, coherence or persuasiveness of her speech?

4. In other contexts you’d call it ‘shaming’

If you don’t think it’s acceptable to make people feel ashamed (or exploit the fact that they already feel ashamed) of their bodies, their clothes, what they eat or who they have sex with, you’re going to have to explain to me why shaming them for the way they speak or write is different.

5. Modesty becomes you

If your own grammar and spelling are 100% standard, that’s probably because you served a long apprenticeship in a series of educational institutions where, through constant practice and feedback, you acquired a set of socially-valued linguistic skills which eventually became ingrained habits. Well, good for you, but let’s not get carried away. Other people have gone through a similar process to master a craft like carpentry or hairdressing. They also take pride in their skills, but they don’t mistake them for proof of superior intelligence. They don’t come to your house and laugh at the wonky shelf you made, or stop you on the street to offer unsolicited advice on blow-drying. If they did, how would you react?  Which brings me to…

6. It’s counterproductive

This point is well made in a post Nic Subtirelu wrote in 2015 after Grammarly (a major player in the online culture of language pedantry) drew attention to the poor grammar and spelling it had found on Facebook pages for supporters of Donald Trump. grammar-crackersWhat are the angry white working class men who came out in force for Trump in 2016 going to think about liberals making fun of him because he doesn’t use big words or complicated sentence structure? Might that not reinforce their conviction that supporting Trump is striking a blow against ‘the elite’, aka snobs who look down on anyone less educated than themselves?

Maybe your answer is that you don’t care what a bunch of racists, misogynists and homophobes think. Fine, I’m not asking you to (though I do think a commitment to social justice requires you to care about the economic inequality which is clearly a factor in the rise of right-wing populism). By all means take issue with bigots–but for their politics, not their punctuation. Criticise their views, not the size of their vocabulary. Stop using their grammar as a measure of their moral worth.

Language pedantry is snobbery and snobbery is prejudice. And that, IMHO, is nothing to be proud of.

*The examples used in this post are real, but I’m not supplying links, names, handles or screenshots because I’m not trying to single these particular authors out, I’m just illustrating something that’s very common.