Sauce for the goose

My recent posts on male-as-norm language, To gender or not to gender and Default: male, did not go down well with everyone. I heard from one or two readers who thought I’d been a bit sweeping. Aren’t there, they asked, some cases where the unmarked term refers to a woman? And isn’t that just as problematic as the opposite?

Any feminist who draws attention to any kind of sexism will at some point be faced with this ‘sauce for the goose’ argument. It’s a particular favourite with men’s rights activists who claim that men are the real victims of sexual inequality. But it’s also popular with liberals, who maintain that sexism oppresses everyone. So, I thought I’d take a moment to consider their complaints. Are there areas of (English) usage that privilege the female over the male? And if there are, is that evidence that sexism ‘cuts both ways’?

My post about the gendering of occupational terms was prompted by all the obituaries that referred to Zaha Hadid as a ‘woman/female architect’, where her male equivalent would just have been called an ‘architect’. But it’s true there are some cases where this pattern is reversed: the unmarked form refers to a woman, and if you want to make clear you are referring to a man, you add the premodifier ‘male’. The classic examples are ‘nurse’ and ‘prostitute’. You might notice a pattern there, and I don’t think it has much to do with female privilege.

Are there any other words which mark male referents in a similar way?  Yes, actually; recently there’s been a bit of a vogue for terms which use ‘man’, in the sense of ‘male person’, as the first element in a compound (e.g. ‘manbun’) or a blend (‘manbag’, ‘manscara’, ‘mankini’). I say ‘in the sense of “male person”‘ to differentiate this new crop of ‘man’ words from older compounds like  ‘mankind’ and ‘manslaughter’, where the ‘man’ element historically meant just ‘person’, and the word’s meaning is still intended to be sex-inclusive. The new ‘man’ words are not sex-inclusive: in the cases I’ve just cited the meaning is something like ‘male version of a prototypically female item’. The female item gets the generic term (‘handbag’, ‘bun’, ‘mascara’) and the male version’s name is derived from that by sticking ‘man’ on the front.

Is that sexist?  Yes: but not because it privileges women over men. Its effect is to reinforce traditional gender norms by underscoring that certain things (many of them things that signify vanity and frivolity) are for the laydeez. If men adopt them (or, perhaps more to the point, if marketers want men to buy them) they need a special, manly label.

But there are some other recently popular ‘man’ terms which serve a different purpose. They name forms of behaviour that are considered not just prototypically male, but prototypical expressions of male entitlement. The words thus encapsulate a critical stance towards the behaviour in question, and sometimes a feminist analysis of it.

One of the best-known words in this category is ‘mansplain(ing)’, a term used to describe the practice of explaining something to a woman on the assumption that she must know less about it than the man providing the explanation. It was inspired by the writer Rebecca Solnit, whose essay ‘Men explain things to me’ featured a killer example: she’d had a conversation with a man who urged her to read an important book on her specialist subject, without realising she had actually written the book in question.

Because it’s linguistically a bit clunky, I didn’t initially think ‘mansplain’ would catch on; but in the event it got taken up quite widely, probably because the behaviour it named prompted a strong sense of recognition among women, and indeed among members of other groups with extensive experience of being patronized. Not only has ‘mansplain’ become part of the active vocabulary of feminism, it has generated a number of analogous terms like ‘whitesplain’ and ‘straightsplain’. It has also boosted the production of other terms naming related forms of entitled male behaviour, such as ‘manologue’ (men don’t just hold forth when they’ve got something to explain) and ‘mantrum’–though it remains to be seen whether these will prove to have the same staying-power.

Another word which appears to have prompted a similar ‘yes! we really needed a word for that’ reaction is ‘manspreading’, which names a physical expression of male entitlement (men sitting with their legs wide apart so they occupy more than their share of the available space). This term has been taken up not only in feminist circles, but also in official campaigns to encourage good manners on public transport.

Are these critical ‘man’ terms examples of anti-male sexism? Some men evidently think so: if you go to Urban Dictionary, you’ll see that they’re fighting back with ‘sauce for the goose’ entries like this one for ‘womansplain’:

When a woman attempts to tell a man how his brain works and what the motivations behind his various thoughts, words and actions are.

There’s an equally inventive entry for ‘womanspreading’:

The act by a woman to fill more than one seat, either by putting bags on the other seats or putting their feet on the seat across them [sic]. Way more common than manspreading—and more obnoxious—but feminists think it’s AOK.

You have to give the entry-writers points for effort, but these ‘woman’ terms are unlikely to become serious rivals to the ‘man’ words that inspired them, because they don’t fill what most people would regard as a genuine lexical gap. The definitions I’ve quoted do describe a form of behaviour that’s both recognizable and annoying, but in neither case is it a distinctively female form of behaviour in the way ‘manspreading’ is distinctively male. Consequently the terms come across as just tit-for-tat expressions of resentment–‘you’ve criticized us and we don’t like it, so we’re going to show you two can play at that game’.

But that’s not to say anti-feminists can never play the game successfully.  The over-the-top insult ‘feminazi’, for instance, which was first popularized in the 1990s, is still, as the writer Zoe Williams noted in the Guardian last year, ‘the go-to term for trolls out to silence women’. And another notable success is the recent promotion by men’s rights activists of what might be considered the ultimate ‘sauce for the goose’ word: ‘misandry’.

‘Misandry’ (meaning ‘hatred of men’) is meant to denote a phenomenon analogous to ‘misogyny’ (‘hatred of women’). But the two elements of this seemingly natural pairing, ‘misogyny/misandry’, have different histories: ‘misandry’ was created in a somewhat similar manner to the Biblical Eve, who was taken from Adam’s rib. Whereas ‘misogyny’ appears in English sources dating back to the mid-17th century,  ‘misandry’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entered the language only in the 1880s. Though like ‘misogyny’ it has linguistic roots in ancient Greek, it was not borrowed directly from classical sources, but rather constructed on the model of ‘misogyny’ to fill the vacant slot for a gender-reversed equivalent.

The current generation of MRAs were obviously not responsible for this innovation (their Greek isn’t generally up to Victorian standards), but they were the ones who plucked ‘misandry’ from the obscurity in which it had languished for more than 100 years. Thanks to their efforts, ‘misandry’ and its derivative ‘misandrist’ have gone from being words almost no one had ever heard of (in my youth people just called feminists ‘man-haters’) to being words which many of us know only too well.

I don’t think the increased currency of ‘misandry’ reflects high levels of mainstream support for men’s rights activism as such, but I do think it is connected with the mainstream preference for liberal over radical political analysis. If you have a structural analysis of sexism (or any other -ism), you’re not going to think it ‘cuts both ways’: it’s a system in which one group dominates another. But if you think of social inequality less in terms of overarching power-structures and more as the result of the prejudiced attitudes held by individuals, it becomes reasonable to suggest that there are prejudiced individuals in every group, and that every group’s prejudices deserve the same condemnation.

This is the reasoning ‘misandry’ exploits: if we acknowledge the existence of misogyny, then in fairness we must also acknowledge its opposite. Every coin has two sides, right? And what’s sauce for the goose… The promoters of ‘misandry’ have also shown some astuteness by choosing to revive a learned-sounding, faux-classical term, which implies that the mythical balance between woman-hating and man-hating has been recognized and discussed since ancient times. ‘Misandry’ conceals what ‘feminazi’ and ‘womanspreading’ can’t–its status as an angry riposte to feminist criticisms of men and masculinity.

All this reminds me of an interesting argument about male-as-norm language which was put forward in the early 1980s by Maria Black and Rosalind Coward. Most feminists, then as now, were critical of the tendency for women, but not men, to be represented linguistically as sexed beings (the ‘female architect’/ ‘woman president’ problem), and mostly they believed that the way forward was to insist on using the same gender-neutral terms for everyone. Black and Coward argued, however, that the real problem wasn’t the relentless gendering of women so much as the de-gendering of men. As they saw it, ‘one of the major political problems confronting feminism [is] the need to force men to recognize themselves as men’. 

Men are sustained at the centre of the stage precisely because they can be ‘people’ and do not have to represent their masculinity to themselves. They need never see themselves or their maleness as a problem.

Simone de Beauvoir mentioned the same asymmetry in The Second Sex, remarking that any man could say to a woman ‘you think thus and so because you are a woman’, whereas it would be out of the question to retort ‘and you think the contrary because you are a man’. ‘For it is understood’, she wrote, ‘that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity’.

The terms that provoke an angry response from MRAs, like ‘mansplain’ and ‘manspreading’, are, precisely, terms that do treat the fact of being a man as a ‘peculiarity’ (that is, as something specific and distinctive). They describe men’s behaviour as gendered behaviour, and where they criticize it, they call on men to ‘see themselves [and] their maleness as a problem’. As feminists since Beauvoir have pointed out, that’s something most men have less experience of than most women. And evidently, some of them don’t enjoy the experience. They respond by calling it sexism, or ‘misandry’; but maybe a better name for it would be ‘sauce for the gander’.

A rabid feminist writes…

Last week, the anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan asked:

Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as “rabid feminists” with mysterious “psyches” speaking in “shrill voices” who can’t do research or hold a PhD but can do “all the housework”?

The Oxford dictionary he was talking about was the one that comes with Apple devices (Macs, i-Pads, i-Phones), and his question was about the examples that follow the definition of a word and illustrate its use in practice. The ones he reproduced included the phrase ‘a rabid feminist’ illustrating the metaphorical usage of ‘rabid’; the sentence ‘I will never really fathom the female psyche’ exemplifying the use of the term ‘psyche’; and a series of examples featuring women and female voices in entries for ‘shrill’, ‘grating’ and ‘nagging’. He also reproduced entries for the words ‘doctor’ and ‘research’ where the examples referred to doctors/researchers as ‘he’.

The point of this intervention was not just to criticise a few specific entries, but rather to draw attention to a pattern of sexist stereotyping in the dictionary’s illustrative examples. But when Oman-Reagan tweeted to Oxford Dictionaries, citing the ‘rabid feminist’ example, whoever was running their Twitter account that day chose not to acknowledge the deeper point. Instead he was told that (a) the ‘rabid feminist’ example was authentic, and (b) that ‘rabid’ isn’t necessarily a negative term. In the ensuing arguments (first on Twitter and then in lengthier pieces like this and this) the main issue became whether Oxford was endorsing a view of feminists as mad fanatics, and then compounding the offence with its dismissive responses to criticism.

Eventually Oxford apologized for its ‘flippant’ tweets, and promised to review the example in the ‘rabid’ entry, noting that in its corpus (the collection of texts which examples are drawn from) the commonest words found alongside ‘rabid’ are actually ‘fan’ and ‘supporter’. In one way that’s a positive outcome, but in another it’s frustratingly limited: revising a single entry which has been criticized for overt political bias does not address the much larger problem of covert sexism in the dictionary as a whole.

I use the word ‘covert’ for two reasons: first, because most of the sexist examples are incidental, appearing in entries for words which are not specifically ‘about’ women; and second, because much of the sexism will remain invisible if you only look at single entries in isolation. There’s nothing obviously sexist about an entry for ‘research’ where the example sentence uses the pronoun ‘he’; what’s covertly sexist is if there’s a systematic preference for ‘he’ over ‘she’ in all the entries for words denoting intellectual pursuits. The effect is cumulative, and arguably all the more insidious because we’re unlikely to be conscious of the pattern that produces it. This point rather got lost in the debate on ‘rabid feminist’. Oxford was held to account for that particular example, but not for the more systematic bias that Oman-Reagan had detected.

He isn’t by any means the first to have detected it. Feminists who study dictionaries have been complaining about the sexist example problem for decades. I discussed it myself in an earlier post, taking examples from a foreign language learners’ dictionary where the entry for ‘slip’ was illustrated with ‘he slipped on his shoes’ and ‘she slipped off her dress’, while ‘mop’ had men mopping their brows and women mopping floors. Once you’ve become aware of this pattern, you soon start to notice how pervasive it is. It’s not just a problem in one publisher’s products or one type of dictionary.

But whenever it’s pointed out, the dictionary-makers have a tendency to respond in the way Oxford responded to Oman-Reagan. Their examples, they say, are authentic: every phrase or sentence used to illustrate every entry was actually written by a real person in a real context. Dictionaries just describe usage, they don’t judge it, and they certainly don’t censor it. So, don’t shoot the messenger: don’t accuse lexicographers of sexism when they’re only documenting the sexism that exists in the wider world.

Fair point, or lame excuse? I’d say, a bit of both, but more the latter than the former. As Tom Freeman remarked on his Stroppy Editor blog, ‘even if a sentence isn’t theirs, they’ve still made the decision to use it’. And they can’t really argue that they didn’t have other options. The illustrative examples used in contemporary dictionaries come from very large collections of texts—Oxford’s corpus contains over two and a half billion words—so there isn’t a shortage of authentic examples to choose from. In some cases the argument might be made that a sexist example captures something significant about the usage of a word. We might suspect that ‘shrill’ and ‘strident’, for instance, are more often used about women than men. But in most cases it’s neither necessary nor illuminating to reproduce sexist stereotypes.

There’s also something a bit disingenuous about the protestations of dictionary makers that their products simply reflect the world around them. For the average user looking something up on their i-Phone, the dictionary isn’t seen as a neutral document, but as an authority on the existence, meaning, spelling and use of words—a view its publishers are happy to exploit when they use words like ‘authoritative’ in their advertising. It follows, as Tom Freeman observed, that

Dictionaries do help to set the cultural tone, whether they intend to or not. Their job is to describe the language neutrally but beyond that they should also be aware of how they come across. For example, I have a battered Oxford dictionary from 1969 on my shelf. It defines “jazz” as “syncopated music, & dance, of U.S. Negro origin”. Today, the Oxford website says jazz is “of black American origin”.

As this example suggests, there are areas of usage where the editors of dictionaries are anxious not to come across as culturally insensitive. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (begun in the late 19th century and completed in the early 20th), contained numerous definitions and examples which would now be considered horrendously racist—and not only because they used words like ‘Negro’ (which, though offensive today, was regarded as a polite term in 1969). A famous example is the original entry for ‘canoe’, which distinguished between the type used by white people for sport and leisure, and the more ‘primitive’ type used by ‘savages’ as a mode of transport. This kind of thing has been weeded out during the ongoing process of revising the OED. But the sexism displayed in entries like the ones Michael Oman-Reagan reproduced does not seem to have been targeted in the same way.

Why is that? Partly, it may be because sexist examples are distributed in a different way from racist ones. Whereas racism tends to be concentrated in entries for words that relate directly to particular groups and cultures (like ‘jazz’ or ‘canoe’), sexism is an incidental feature of a much wider range of entries. To deal with it systematically, you’d not only have to get rid of the obvious stereotypes, you’d also have to look at the overall balance of your examples—for instance, check that you had roughly equal numbers with ‘she’ and ‘he’, distributed in a non-stereotypical way. Precisely because it’s so pervasive, eliminating sexism would be a major undertaking.

But I can’t help wondering if there’s a more basic problem here: most people just aren’t that offended by sexism—or at least, by the low-level sexism of clichés like ‘I will never really fathom the female psyche’. It’s a bit like the treatment of sexist verbal abuse in schools or football grounds, which is often talked about as if it were a different thing from the racist or homophobic equivalent: it gets put under the heading of ‘banter’, and women who complain are seen as humourless and over-sensitive.

The dismissive tweets for which Oxford later apologized were very much in that tradition. Their tone suggested that whoever wrote them did not feel obliged to take complaints of sexism seriously, and did not expect that stance to attract criticism. On this occasion the negative reaction prompted a climbdown–an apology for flippancy and a promise to look again at the example people had objected to. But if we want to see the problem of sexism addressed in a less piecemeal way, we’re going to have to keep sending the message that we don’t think it’s trivial or a joke. Become, in short, a bit less tolerant and a bit more rabid.