Forever 21

Like every other woman on social media, I am constantly bombarded with promoted posts about losing weight. Mostly I just scroll on by; but last week I saw something which stopped me in my tracks.  Here it is in all its glory:

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What caught my eye wasn’t the diet advice (which I can’t even read because the type is so small). It was those drawings of the Five Ages of Woman, which as everybody knows are ‘super hot’, ‘hot’, ‘less hot but still trying’, ‘sexless frump’ and ‘decrepit granny’. They may not be a great advertisement for the keto diet, but they’re a good example of what I want to talk about in this post: the intimate, complicated relationship between ageism and sexism.

In ageist societies, getting older, frailer and less independent entails a loss of status and  respect. Old people, of both sexes, may be addressed familiarly by total strangers, offered unwanted and patronising ‘assistance’, and generally treated as incompetent or foolish. It’s often been suggested that women, whose status is lower to begin with, are treated even more disrespectfully than men. Marie Shear, for instance, who wrote incisively on this subject, recalls struggling to board a bus and being told by the (male) driver to take ‘big girl steps’—a humiliating injunction which it’s hard to imagine being addressed to a man in the same situation (‘big boy steps’?) But the tendency to belittle and infantilise old people does not affect women exclusively.

There is, however, another kind of ageism that is sex-specific (and specifically sexist), and which reflects the way women in patriarchal societies are defined by and valued for their sexual and reproductive functions. This form of ageism kicks in earlier–long before its targets could reasonably be described as old. It affects women of all ages, and shapes their experience of sexism at every point in their lives.

Consider, for instance, the peculiar linguistic etiquette which (in my culture, at least) dictates that one should never mention or inquire about an adult woman’s age. I was taught as a child that this was unspeakably rude: ‘ladies’, people said (because it was also rude to call them ‘women’), ‘are forever 21’ (this wasn’t a reference to fast fashion: at the time 21 was the age of legal majority). When I became an adult, this rule was applied to me too. I wish I had £10 for every time someone with a legitimate reason for wanting to know my age has either apologised for asking or made some awkward joke. It took me a while to realise that what was presented as courtesy (or when men did it, chivalry) was really no such thing. By treating references to a woman’s age as what politeness theorists call ‘face-threatening acts’, requiring either avoidance or elaborate mitigation, the culture I grew up in was sending the message that ageing, for women, was shameful.

Of course, that was several decades ago; but I don’t think the basic message has changed. If anything, the endless expansion of consumerism and the advent of digital media have made us even more obsessed with youth and beauty. Just as a woman can never be too rich or too thin, so she can never be–or at least appear to be–too young. ‘She doesn’t look her age’ is a compliment; ‘she really looks her age’ is an insult. The fact that we consider it a cruel humiliation to tell a woman she looks as old as she actually is speaks volumes about what we value in women, and think that women ought to value in themselves.

To see how ageism, as I put it before, ‘shapes women’s experience of sexism at every point in their lives’, take a look at any random collection of women’s magazines, newspaper problem pages or cosmetics ads. You will soon discover that the beauty industry defines ageing as something that begins in a woman’s late 20s. That’s when she’s told she should start using products designed to delay or disguise its effects. It’s also roughly the point at which she’s expected to start worrying if she hasn’t yet found a partner and started a family: the biological clock is ticking and her time is running out. Later she will be urged not to ‘let herself go’ and give her husband a reason to trade her in for a younger model. And later still she will be instructed in the art of growing old ‘gracefully’—accepting her devalued status and behaving/dressing accordingly.

We can follow this narrative through the images reproduced above. The three younger women are sexualised: they have long, flowing locks, wear tight-fitting clothes and heels (the first two also flash some skin, though the third is more covered up), and they are depicted in a classic ‘look at me’ pose—head tilted up or to the side, one leg bent at the knee, hand on hip. They’re desirable, they know it, and they take pleasure in being admired. The two older women, by contrast, are desexualised. Their hair is pinned up or cut short; their clothes are shapeless and unfashionable. They are walking rather than posing, clutching shopping bags in their hands, and looking down or away from the viewer’s gaze.

Language tells a similar story. In English we have numerous labels for women–for instance, ‘babe’, ‘chick’, ‘MILF’, ‘yummy mummy’, ‘spinster’, ‘cougar’, ‘biddy’, ‘bag’, ‘hag’—which locate them on a continuum of increasing age and decreasing desirability. From a feminist perspective all these labels are sexist, but the most overtly negative ones are those referring to the oldest women. This relationship is less clear-cut in the case of men. Though there are some insults for men that imply a connection between negative qualities and advancing age (e.g. ‘old coot/git/fart’), there isn’t the same insistence on categorising and judging men by their perceived sexual attractiveness. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that old men must be sexually undesirable. As women in the acting profession have been pointing out for years, ageing male stars go on being cast as romantic leads long after their female age-peers have been relegated to supporting roles.

But we shouldn’t overlook the point I was hinting at when I said that all the labels on my list were sexist. The hierarchy of value in which young women are worth more than old ones exists within a larger system of male dominance and female subordination. The objectification of babes and chicks is as much a part of that system as the contemptuous dismissal of old hags; they are two sides of the same patriarchal coin. Though ‘hag’ may be considered more insulting than ‘babe’, it’s really no great privilege to be a babe.

That’s why I’m not a fan of one now-common way of pushing back against sexist ageism —by insisting that older women can also be beautiful and desirable; or put another way, that women should maintain their status as sexual objects into their 50s, 60s and beyond. This idea has been taken up enthusiastically by the beauty industry, which sells it as a way of ‘empowering’ older women. Some companies have modified their branding to project a more positive attitude: instead of advertising ‘anti-ageing’ products which will make women ‘look x years younger’, they now promote ‘pro-age’ products which will ‘repair the damage’ or ‘reduce the signs of ageing’.

In her book about modern beauty norms, Perfect Me, the philosopher Heather Widdows is critical of this approach. She points out that what’s presented as a personal choice (‘getting older doesn’t have to mean losing your looks’) can easily turn into a moral obligation (‘getting older is no excuse for losing your looks’). Today, a woman who ‘lets herself go’ after having children, or after menopause, risks being shamed not only for her unattractive appearance, but also for her failure to ‘make the effort’. Far from pushing back against ageism, Widdows suggests, this message actually intensifies it.

But surely, you may be thinking, women are capable of seeing through this, and of resisting the pressure if they so choose? Clare Anderson, who has studied both the beauty industry’s discourse and women’s own talk about getting older, thinks it’s complicated. Many of the women she interviewed were indeed critical of the beauty industry, saying they knew it exploited their insecurities to sell them products. But they also said they bought the products anyway; and when they talked about their own experiences they often reproduced the industry’s ageist/sexist narratives (e.g. ‘ageing is decline’ and ‘it’s important not to let yourself go’). Whereas the men Anderson interviewed often said they felt more at ease with their bodies in their 50s than they had in their 20s, most women reported the opposite. Being aware of ageism, and in principle opposed to it, did not mean that in practice they could simply rise above it.

That’s also how I would interpret the responses I saw on social media to the ‘What to eat on keto’ image. Many critical comments were made by older women who objected to the stereotyping of their age-group as unattractive, shapeless frumps. Often they drew attention to the inaccuracy of these representations: ‘I’m over 50/over 60 and I don’t look anything like the woman in that drawing!’ And I’m sure they don’t (for the record, at 61 I don’t favour perms and shapeless slacks myself); but this line of criticism misses the point. It fails to acknowledge that the devaluation of women who do look old is fundamentally unjust; it also fails to connect the unjust treatment of visibly older women with another injustice that affects women in general, namely our culture’s insistence on judging them, at every age, far more by their looks than their achievements.

These responses underscore the point that attitudes which are damaging to women may be internalised by women themselves. And feminist women are not exempt. Having a feminist analysis of sexist ageism does not, on its own, destroy its power to wound you. And at the other end of the age-spectrum, as Claire Heuchan (aka the blogger Sister Outrider) recently reminded her followers on Twitter, a commitment to feminism may not prevent young women from weaponizing ageism in political conflicts with older ones.

What prompted Heuchan’s thread on this subject was noticing how much of the criticism recently directed to JK Rowling made use of ageist/sexist language. Rowling, now in her 50s, was called (among other things) a ‘dried up prune’, a ‘dried up old tart’, a ‘tired old bitch’ and ‘a bitter old hag who’s pissy because she doesn’t get as much attention anymore’. Noting that some of the people who used this language were women, Heuchan commented:

It can be difficult to unlearn ageist misogyny. In particular when there is a social reward (male approval) attached, and the opportunity to exceptionalise yourself through making demeaning comments about older women. It is patriarchal conditioning. But that doesn’t excuse it.

It’s not hard to understand young women’s desire to ‘exceptionalise themselves’. The trouble is that ageism makes no exceptions. Every young woman will—barring catastrophe—grow old; at some point her ‘youth privilege’, such as it is, will be revoked, and she too will become a target for ageist and sexist insults.

The good news is that this cycle can be broken. We can’t change the fact that people get older, but we can change the conditions–the attitudes and practices and social structures–that make ageing a source of fear and shame. Rejecting the kind of language I’ve discussed in this post–language that age-shames through avoidance, condescension  or outright contempt–would be a modest step in the right direction.

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Postscript: the day after this was published a reader sent me a screenshot of another diet ad which uses the same format as the ‘What to eat on keto’ one–but this one targets men. The difference is instructive (and so obvious I don’t think I need to comment further):

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Many thanks to Brittney O’Neill for this example.

 

Mandemic

Whatever else the current pandemic may be, here in the UK it’s been a communications car crash. We’ve been bombarded with confusing official messages, some containing technical terms which are used variably even by experts, and are incomprehensible to much of the public (‘herd immunity’, anyone?) And some politicians’ ‘backstage’ language (though in the age of social media what’s uttered behind the scenes tends to find itself under the spotlight sooner rather than later) has been remarkably ill-judged. Boris Johnson reportedly suggested to business leaders he had approached for help manufacturing ventilators that they could call the initiative ‘Operation Last Gasp’. In the US, someone complained on Twitter that a member of the Trump administration had referred to COVID-19 as ‘Kung flu’, and Trump himself has publicly called it ‘the Chinese virus’. Sexism, which is this blog’s territory, has not been such an overt problem in public health messaging. But I do think it is there more covertly, both in what’s not being said and in the way some things are being said.

Feminists have already called attention to certain absences or silences—most obviously of women’s voices at the highest level. There are exceptions, such as Germany and Scotland, but globally it is mainly men who are the public voices of  both political and scientific authority. As someone commented when the media published a photo of Mike Pence and his then all-male Coronavirus Taskforce praying, ‘it must be a mandemic’. (Pence has since appointed one woman expert, Deborah Birx.) Boris Johnson too has set up a high-level committee (‘C19’) that consists entirely of men.

When not making racist remarks or tasteless jokes, both Johnson and Donald Trump have adopted a martial rhetoric in which we are now ‘at war’ with the novel coronavirus. In Britain the tone is evidently intended to be Churchillian: rousing, patriotic, appealing to the legendary ‘Blitz spirit’ of plucky little England. At one press conference this week Rishi Sunak, the 39-year old who has very recently become Chancellor of the Exchequer,  uttered a series of platitudes about doing ‘whatever it takes’ to defeat ‘the enemy’:

Yes, this enemy can be deadly, but it is also beatable – and we know how to beat it and we know that if as a country we follow the scientific advice that is now being given we know that we will beat it.  And however tough the months ahead we have the resolve and the resources to win the fight.

But though wars are traditionally men’s business, they also make demands on women. The government’s recently-published list of key workers, for instance, includes a number of predominantly female occupational groups, like nurses, care workers and supermarket staff, who will all be at heightened risk because of the personal contact their jobs involve (these are also, and will doubtless remain, among the lowest-paid jobs on the key worker list). The absence of women from pandemic ‘war cabinets’ isn’t just a symbolic issue, it’s a ‘nothing about us without us’ issue. It raises concerns that the men in charge will give little or no thought to the way their decisions affect women–differently, not always equally, and potentially in very damaging ways.

Apart from the Churchillian posturing, one way I see ‘mandemic’ thinking being subtly reflected in language is in the way politicians and official spokespeople talk about ‘home’. ‘Stay at home’ is one of the UK government’s key public health messages, along with ‘wash your hands’ (it’s said that Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings particularly favours these three-word slogans—see also ‘Take back control’ and ‘get Brexit done’). But it was long ago pointed out by feminists that ‘home’ doesn’t have quite the same meaning for most women as it does for most men.

In Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s Feminist Dictionary the entry for ‘home’ defines it as ‘most women’s place of work’. In current conditions it’s temporarily become a place of work for large numbers of men as well as women whose jobs do not require their physical presence in the workplace, and also the place where 5-18 year-olds will now be doing their schoolwork. All this only adds to the unpaid care-work—domestic labour, childcare, the ‘mental load’ of planning and strategising that keeps the show on the road—which makes ‘home’ a permanent workplace for women with families (whether or not they also have a paid job). The idea of ‘home’ as a safe haven, a shelter from the dangers of the outside world, may be less than soothing when you’re the one who will be expected to do even more caring than usual, in conditions of household isolation (i.e., without a break, or any of the usual social supports), and possibly with drastically reduced economic resources.

There’s also the point that for some women ‘home’ is a place of danger rather than safety. Reported incidents of domestic violence increase significantly even during relatively brief holiday periods; it’s horrifying to think about what could happen during a lockdown lasting weeks or months. We know this was a serious problem in Wuhan, but the British government has pledged no additional funding for the organisations that provide services to women. (There’s some general advice and contact numbers here.)

In the UK people over 70 have been told they should isolate themselves completely for several months, a policy which has been referred to both in Britain and Ireland as ‘cocooning’ the ‘elderly’. Both those words set my teeth on edge. ‘Elderly’ is a euphemism which people use to avoid the plain but apparently taboo word ‘old’, and it has strong connotations of frailty and helplessness—hence the need for ‘cocooning’, wrapping the frail and helpless in cotton wool. I’m sure the term ‘cocooning’ was chosen to sound warm and caring, but for those who remain fit and active (as many people do in their 70s and even beyond), the policy might well sound more like house arrest, removing all personal freedom at a stroke. It’s true that social distancing restricts everyone’s freedom, but the degree of restriction envisaged for the over-70s is extreme—no leaving the house or seeing anyone in person for months—and I don’t think it helps to dress that up in warm and fuzzy words. (Especially if you’re leaving it to volunteers to make sure that ‘cocooned’ people who don’t have family nearby, or at all, can still access food and other necessities.)

As someone who’s not far from being ‘elderly’ myself, I’m not surprised that some people over 70 are resisting the official advice (which is not (yet) being stringently enforced). I doubt that’s because they’re unaware that rates of serious illness and death from COVID-19 rise steeply after the age of 60, but they might think there are other factors to consider (like the effects of such prolonged isolation/immobility on mental health) when deciding if extreme measures are necessary or desirable for them personally. What the world seems to think, however, is that any ‘elderly’ person who resists being ‘cocooned’ is simply proving that old people in general are muddle-headed and irresponsible, in denial about the risks they face and incapable of making rational decisions. They must be nagged, patronised and held up as Bad Examples on social media by people who know better, not uncommonly their own children.

A lot of this discourse is covertly sexist as well as ageist. Because ‘elderly’ (does anyone, of any age, actually ‘identify as’ ‘elderly’?) connotes ‘frail and helpless, in need of protection’, we tend to imagine the prototypical ‘elderly’ person as a woman. I’ve noticed it’s most often the behaviour of their mothers that prompts people in their 30s and 40s to take to Facebook or Twitter to recount examples of ‘reckless’ behaviour and solicit advice on how to stop it. Of course this anxiety is fuelled by love, and the fear that comes with love; and of course there are old people (of both sexes) who really are extremely frail and at very high risk. But where people are still healthy and independent, neither the government nor their younger family members will get through to them by patronising and infantilising them.

Meanwhile, the populist (and in some cases, ‘elderly’) male political leaders who have cast themselves as latter-day Churchills make a public spectacle of their recklessness. They’re no longer suggesting, as Donald Trump initially did, that the pandemic is either a hoax or ‘just the flu’, but they go on ostentatiously shaking hands: not long ago Boris Johnson boasted that he had shaken hands with people who had COVID-19, while Trump said he would continue to shake hands with anyone who might ‘want to say hello’, adding that if they ‘want to hug you and kiss you, I don’t care’. When he and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro were found to have had close contact with someone who later tested positive for the virus, both said initially that they saw no need to get tested themselves. (Trump later announced he had tested negative.)

These are performances of masculinity (of which the firm handshake, in particular, has long been a powerful symbol), and of imagined alpha-male invincibility. They say ‘I’m not afraid, I’m not a wimp, I’m hard enough to take the risks I’m telling others to avoid’. Which is bullshit at the best of times, and even more so when the risks they’re taking are potentially harmful to others too. And it isn’t just ageing politicians who think there’s something emasculating about following advice to act responsibly. According to one report on the introduction of stricter social distancing measures in Britain, ‘millennial men have been the worst offenders at failing to reduce their contact with other people, continuing to visit pubs, travel widely and take part in other social events’.

Finally in this round-up of ‘mandemic’ rhetoric, let’s not overlook the early signs that anti-feminism may be replicating alongside the novel coronavirus. National crises tend to turn people’s minds to what kind of world they’d like to build when it’s all over, and these visions of a better future are often marked by nostalgia for the past—especially when it comes to the roles of men and women. During World War II, comparisons with which have already become a cliché of pandemic-talk, women like the iconic ‘Rosie the Riveter’ were drafted in to help the war effort by filling the roles male combatants had vacated; but afterwards they faced intense pressure to become the dependent housewives whose profound dissatisfactions Betty Friedan would later write about in The Feminine Mystique.

If you’re thinking, ‘OK, but we’ve moved on since 1945’, consider the fact that the closure of schools across Britain yesterday prompted this ruminative tweet from a man whose profile identifies him as a trades unionist and ‘Blue Labour’ supporter (i.e. economically on the left but socially conservative):

One of the downsides of the shift towards an economic structure & culture in which both parents are expected to work is that domestic chaos ensues when a crisis hits. We need to build an economy which allows families to enjoy a good standard of living on the wages of one earner.

This does illustrate one way in which we have, perhaps, moved on: it is written in impeccably gender-neutral or ‘inclusive’ language. But as I’ve pointed out before, that formal inclusiveness often masks a clearly gendered meaning. I’m willing to bet that when you read the tweet you drew a non-random conclusion about which parent he was imagining as the ‘earner’, and which would be assigned responsibility for staving off ‘domestic chaos’. (And don’t bother asking about single parents: though they’ve always existed, nostalgia generally renders them invisible.)

Watch out for the bullshit, and whenever you come into contact with it, wash your hands.

Radical notions

Occasionally on this blog I take a moment to look back at some of the feminists who concerned themselves with language in the past. I’ve written about Suzette Haden Elgin, the linguist and science fiction writer who created the women’s language Láadan, and about the feminists who produced alternatives to what Mary Daly dubbed the ‘dick-tionary’.  This post is about someone whose contribution I only discovered recently: the writer and editor Marie Shear, who died at the end of 2017.

You may not know her name, but you’re probably familiar with at least one thing she wrote: it was Shear who defined feminism as ‘the radical notion that women are people’. She came up with that definition in 1986, in a review of Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary. And for years it was Kramarae and Treichler who got the credit: people assumed Shear had just been quoting them, when in fact the words were her own. Such was her enthusiasm for the dictionary’s woman-centred approach, her review (which she herself described as a ‘toast’), took the form of a list of her own alternative definitions, including

men: people who think toilet paper grows on the roll.

overqualified: a job applicant who is not dumb enough for the work reserved for ‘girls’.

pocket envy: women’s unfulfilled yearning for practical clothes.

Though the error persists in some sources, others have now acknowledged Shear as the creator of one of the most memorable feminist slogans of the 20th century. Yet she remains, to use her own sardonic description, ‘a widely unheralded writer’. Much of her writing was done before the digital age, for ‘alternative’ publications like New Directions for Women, a New Jersey-based feminist newspaper whose ‘Media Watch’ feature she wrote for many years (this was also where her review of A Feminist Dictionary appeared). These pieces can still be found, but you have to know where to look: they won’t just pop up in a Google search*. Nor will much information about their author. While writing this post I was surprised to discover that the woman whose words have appeared on T-shirts, badges and bumper stickers around the English-speaking world had no entry in the English-language version of Wikipedia (though I’m happy to say that one has since been created by a reader of this blog).

My own quest to find out more about Marie Shear began when I quoted her definition of feminism in a book, and was therefore obliged by the laws of my profession to go hunting for the full bibliographical details (‘no, you can’t just cite a T-shirt, we need a page number’). As I searched through the records of her published work, I realized her review of A Feminist Dictionary wasn’t the only thing she’d written that I might be interested in. Language, and the problem of sexism in language, was a theme that recurred in her articles, book reviews and columns. It was also the subject of what her obituary singled out as the piece of writing many people would remember her for, ‘”Little Marie”: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language’.

Sexism in language first became an issue in the 1970s, and lot of early work on it was practical rather than academic: it aimed to define the problem and offer workable solutions, most commonly in the form of guidelines for writers. The first non-sexist writing guidelines were produced by publishers for in-house use (the pioneer was the educational publisher McGraw-Hill, which adopted guidelines in 1973), but over the next 15 years many examples of the same sort of advice were published in book form for a wider audience. In 1984 Marie Shear reviewed a selection of these publications for the Women’s Review of Books. The titles she discussed included one that is still in use today, Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, along with the same authors’ earlier book Words and Women, Bobbye Sorrels’s The Non-Sexist Communicator, and Merriellyn Kett and Virginia Underwood’s How To Avoid Sexism. Shear was well placed to assess these texts because of her own involvement, as an editor, in the enterprise they represented–though her influence was mainly exercised behind the scenes, in discussions with and writing for her fellow-professionals. But her interest in the problem–and her writing about it–went beyond the issues addressed by guidelines .

Most non-sexist writing guidelines published between the mid-1970s and the end of the millennium presented the issue of sexism in a bland, depoliticizing way. The goal was to persuade a mainstream audience of the benefits of adopting non-sexist language, and writers did so, in part, by emphasizing how moderate and unthreatening their proposals were. Really, they seemed to be saying, it was just a question of moving with the times. The problem was that English usage had not kept up with the onward march of progress: conventions that had served writers well enough in the past (like the generic use of ‘he’ and ‘man’) were now outdated, inaccurate, misleading and insensitive. Once this had been pointed out, people would immediately want to change their ways: their problem would be purely technical, a matter of not knowing exactly how to do it. Guideline-writers were there to help by suggesting accurate and unbiased alternatives to outmoded sexist terms.

As an editor who both dealt with and sometimes wrote about the technical challenges of avoiding sexism, Marie Shear also had a foot in this liberal camp. But when she wrote about language for a feminist audience her analysis of the problem was much more radical. She wrote vividly, often angrily and sometimes very personally about what lurked beneath the surface of linguistic sexism, and about the damage she believed it did to women.

It’s these qualities that make the piece I mentioned earlier, ‘“Little Marie”: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language’, so memorable. It was published in 2010, when Shear was 70, and it begins with this arresting vignette:

I am lying on a gurney in a hospital hallway, alone, waiting to be rolled into the O.R. for the first of two operations. The surgeon approaches and greets me: “It’s Little Marie!” he exclaims. …Fortunately, I don’t realize until later that a man named Richard who calls a woman “little” invites a reply that minimizes his most cherished protuberance: It would have been imprudent to say, “Hello, Little Dick!” moments before he stuck a sharp knife into my carcass.

Eventually, the same surgeon will address me as “kiddo” and “the little chippie.” A chippie, of course, is a prostitute. He tells the friend who has accompanied me to the exam that he is using the phrase “to bait her (– meaning me –) because I know it gets her goat.”

What’s striking about this is the contrast Shear makes us see between the person she is to herself–an intelligent adult who considers herself the surgeon’s equal–and the inferior, powerless child he turns her into with his familiar use of her first name and his insistence on infantilizing her further by calling her ‘little’ Marie (an unmistakable sign of sexism, since it’s impossible to imagine him greeting an adult male patient as ‘little Donny’). This vignette gives the lie to the liberal account in which well-meaning people inadvertently use sexist language because they don’t understand why it’s offensive. As the surgeon later confirms, there is nothing inadvertent about it. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he’s doing, by his own admission, is baiting her. She refuses to interpret this as just light-hearted ‘banter’ or friendly ‘joshing’. For her, this way of speaking to women can never be taken lightly:

Examined with an analytic eye and a diagnostic ear, sexist language reveals an underlying social disease — contempt for and fury at women. Being literally communicable, the disease both reflects and perpetuates our degradation.

It’s this ‘communicable’ quality which leads Shear to treat sexist language as a serious, even a fundamental, political issue. The words are like the rats that carry the fleas that spread the plague: they may not be the cause of sexism, but they are its privileged vehicles, and their ubiquity ensures that we will all become infected.

Everywhere we turn on an ordinary day — to politics, greeting cards, stand-up comedy, New York Times crossword puzzles, the dentist, the mail, the florist’s messenger and the TV pontificators — we meet words that demoralize and flay us.

These continual verbal reminders of the contempt with which the world regards women have not only an immediate effect, but also, and more insidiously, a cumulative one. Though many individual instances may be minor, the constant, relentless exposure wears women’s resistance down, inducing shame, self-consciousness and self-policing. Even—or perhaps especially—when it’s presented as a joke. ‘As a means of social control’, Shear remarks, ‘ridicule is second only to rape’.

‘Little Marie’ illustrates something else I appreciate about Shear’s analysis. She understands sexist language as a weapon used against all women, but she also recognizes that it is used differently against different groups of women:

Bigots switch instantly from one category of bias to another, compounding sexist condescension with ageist usage … Misogyny also interlocks with usage disparaging people who aren’t thin or physically decorative and parallels usage that insults people who aren’t white.

Though many second-wave writers on sexist language made analogies with other kinds of bias, few took the further step of drawing attention to problematic patterns of usage that resulted from the combination of sexism and other prejudices. (For instance, it was common for guidelines to warn against stereotyping (white) women with hair-colour terms like ‘blonde/ brunette/ redhead’, but I can’t remember any analogous discussion of the skin-colour clichés (‘her skin was like ‘ebony/ mahogany/ rich chocolate’) that pervade descriptions of Black women). Shear was aware of this gap: in the 1984 book review mentioned earlier she discussed not only a selection of non-sexist guidelines but also some addressing other problems like ableism, ageism, heterosexism and racism. ‘Literature like this’, she commented, ‘ought to grow’:

More extensive, authoritative guides to all kinds of stereotypes are needed. A thorough treatment of anti-lesbian gibes, for example, would point out that they often do double duty, simultaneously slandering the lesbian and the uppity straight woman for their wit and grit. Indeed, every group whose members are habitually derided can benefit by instructing the public at large about biased words and images.

This was also a theme in the media columns she wrote for New Directions for Women, where she frequently criticized representations that excluded, stereotyped or insulted Black women, lesbians, older women and women with disabilities.

By the time she wrote ‘Little Marie’ Shear herself was old enough to have become acutely aware of the particular forms of condescension that are routinely directed to older women:

A bus driver watching me haul myself laboriously up his stairs says, “Take big-girl steps.” (Kiss my big-girl Aunt Fanny.) …The sidewalk coffee vendor calls me “dear” twice and calls the male customer behind me “sir.” Reporting for jury duty, I hear a guard at a metal detector greeting every female who arrives with “young lady”; he welcomes no male with “young gentleman.” …The moment I enter a magazine shop in Manhattan, a customer asks, “What are you looking for, darlin’?” I turn and look at him, speechless. Mistaking my incredulity for incomprehension, he rephrases his question: “What are you looking for, sweetheart?” I draw myself up to my full, if negligible, height, assume my 5’10” voice, and tell him sternly, “Don’t call me ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’! It’s patronizing!” Without missing a beat, he replies, “I was just trying to be nice to an old lady.”

The older a woman gets, the more she will be addressed by men in a way that reflects not only the usual sexist presumption of familiarity (any man in any situation may address any woman as if the two of them were intimate, or at least sufficiently well-acquainted to give him an automatic claim to her attention) but also the idea that older women are mentally incompetent, requiring the same verbal accommodations as small children. All women past the first flush of youth are expected to regard ageing as a source of shame, from which it follows that you can always brighten their day with some jocular, faux-gallant comment on how young they look. Age may have withered their bodies, but their vanity is assumed to be indestructible. And any complaint about any of this will be met with that familiar refrain, an aggrieved ‘but I was only being NICE’. (Or that other familiar refrain, ‘no need to be such a bitch’.)

Marie Shear didn’t mince words, and she wasn’t afraid to direct the un-minced kind towards the most exalted of gatekeepers. In her 1984 book review she contrasted the various guidelines she was reviewing with the hopelessly muddled and inconsistent approach that still prevailed in most sections of the press. She saved her finest display of her signature snark for this assessment of the New York Times:

Its stylebook is laden with mugwumpery: elaborate distinctions between “comedian” and “comedienne”; a requirement that ships, but not countries, be called “she”; confusing directives about “coed”; the acceptance of “councilwoman” and the rejection of “chairwoman.” Best of all, there are 24 paragraphs on “Mrs.” and “Miss” –a remarkable tangle of Byzantine niceties and exceptions to exceptions.

Another thing Shear didn’t do was let things drop. She mentions in ‘Little Marie’ that she wrote to the NYPD seven times over a period of five years to demand an apology for an incident in which an officer addressed her as ‘babe’ (it seems she got one in the end). She didn’t stop talking about sexist language when it became unfashionable in the 1990s, and she made no apology for repeating herself, though she was evidently exasperated by the need for repetition:

Women spend our lives explaining the obvious to the uneducable. In the face of daily indignities and humiliations, why must we explain that we are neither prigs nor prunes — just people?

A radical notion, indeed.

*************

 

* Marie Shear’s writing for New Directions for Women can be found by searching Independent Voices, an open access digital collection featuring ‘periodicals produced by feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Hispanics, LGBT activists, the extreme right-wing press and alternative literary magazines during the latter half of the 20th century’. Thanks to the linguist Alice Freed and the reference librarian Fran Kaufmann at Montclair State University for tracking down this excellent, publicly accessible and free resource. The Women’s Review of Books, another publication Shear contributed to regularly from the 1980s on, has its own digital archive, but to use it you will probably need access to an academic library.  

 

There go the girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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