2016: the bad, the bad and the ugly

Once again tis the season to look back on the last twelve months, and since we’re talking about 2016, that may not make for uplifting reading (unless your heroes are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and President-Elect Donald Trump). If the Words of the Year chosen by dictionaries are any guide, the mood among English-speakers is darker than it was a year ago. Whereas Oxford’s choice in 2015 was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji, in 2016 it has gone for ‘post-truth’; other dictionaries’ selections have included ‘paranoid’, ‘surreal’ and ‘xenophobia’.

The reasons why this year sucked were not primarily to do with language, but language played a part—in some cases quite a prominent part. So, this review will be more about the lowlights than the highlights. Here are six of the worst:

Bantering bigots. In my 2015 annual round-up I named ‘banter’ as the word I’d most like to ban (if banning words were either feasible or desirable, which IMHO it isn’t). But banter continued to be exchanged in 2016, and the word ‘banter’, and variations thereon, continued to be used to wave away accusations of misogyny and bigotry. Both these tendencies peaked in October with the release of a 2005 tape in which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump engaged in what he and his defenders called ‘locker room talk’. He was elected just a few weeks later.

Relentlessly sexist commentary on female politicians, often focusing (most notably in the case of Hillary Clinton) on their voices and style of speaking. All the familiar word-weapons—‘shrill’, ‘harsh’, ‘grating’, ‘aggressive’—were deployed by all the usual suspects.

If you’re thinking, ‘but surely there was plenty of critical commentary on Donald Trump’s language too’, you’re not wrong, but the comparison is instructive. When negative judgments are made on the speech of a female politician, her alleged failings are typically presented as the failings of her sex in general. Trump’s failings, on the other hand, were presented as his alone. They were ‘Trumpisms’, not ‘man-isms’ (it was even argued that Trump talks like a woman). The one exception was the ‘locker room talk’, where the idea that this was typical male behaviour got wheeled out not to condemn Trump but to excuse him.

If a female politician is widely acknowledged as an excellent public speaker, you can always accuse her of talking too much. In April, Owen Smith MP (in case you’ve forgotten, he was the man who unsuccessfully challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party leadership) tweeted about his visit to a café in Millport in Scotland. He included two photos, one showing him with his arms around two of the ‘ladies’ (his description) who worked there, and the other showing a jar of old-fashioned gobstoppers. The part of the tweet relating to this second image said: ‘they’ve got the perfect present for @NicolaSturgeon, too’. A gobstopper, geddit? Because Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland (and at the time—before Theresa May became PM—the most powerful female politician in the UK), talks entirely too much and needs a good shutting up.

The continuing war on the word ‘women’. Two of the most popular posts I published this year touched on the question of why ‘women’ now seems to be the hardest word. In April the women’s section of the UK Green Party set off a Twitterstorm with its use of the term ‘non-men’. Across the Atlantic in September we had Planned Parenthood talking about ‘people’ being ‘criminalised for their pregnancy outcomes’. And throughout the autumn there were regular sightings of a new addition to the lexicon of ‘women’-avoidance: ‘menstruators’.

Having rejected sex or gender-based labels as essentialist and exclusionary, promoters of this term apparently felt that bodily function-based labels were the way to go. I, by contrast, feel pretty sure they aren’t. If you don’t want to say ‘women’, OK, I get it, but why not try using your linguistic judgment to find a contextually appropriate alternative? In this case, where the news story was about the removal of sales tax on pads and tampons, ‘sanitary product buyers’ would have worked—or where the report had already made clear what products were being discussed, just ‘customers’. If you’d find it offensive, or just plain weird, to read statements like ‘the recent fall in the price of toilet paper has been welcomed by defecators across the country’, or ‘perspirers have questioned the classification of deodorant as a luxury’, then you shouldn’t be giving house-room to ‘menstruators’ either.

More terrible advice and stupid opinions about women’s speech. This year hasn’t (yet) brought us anything quite as ludicrous as the ‘Just Not Sorry’ app that appeared at the very end of 2015, but bullshit continued to be churned out by the bucketload. It remained a truth universally acknowledged that women apologise too much, and constant criticism of female ‘verbal tics’ was once again presented as empowering rather than underminingAn op-ed piece in the New York Times added ‘I feel like’ to the list of words and phrases women should avoid if they want anyone to take them seriously—while also managing to relate the rise of ‘feeling like’ to Everything That’s Wrong With Our Society Today. (If anyone from the Times is reading this, I’d be happy to advise on what linguistic opinions editors should avoid giving space to if they want anyone to take them seriously.)

Not all bad advice is addressed to women: some of it is advice for men on how to make women’s lives a misery. The example that got most attention this year advised on how to make a woman take off her headphones and PAY ATTENTION. Because it’s part of a woman’s job description to be available to random men who want to converse with her AT ALL TIMES.

Death. It’s become a truism (though maybe not an actual truth) that 2016 brought a bumper harvest for the Grim Reaper. Two posts on this blog reflected that: one was a response to the death of the architect Zaha Hadid and the other was prompted by the murder of Jo Cox MP.

Online misogyny. In 2016 the abuse directed at women online was widely acknowledged as a significant problem, and in Britain it was the subject of a high-profile cross-party campaign—which was launched with a report that managed to blame half of the problem on women. (If you want to read something more sensible on this subject, I can recommend Emma Jane’s new book Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History.)

There were a few small consolations:

Resolution 109. The American Bar Association made the use of patronising endearment terms to women lawyers a breach of professional standards. (Meanwhile in the UK, a female judge responded to a male defendant who called her a cunt by saying ‘you’re a bit of a cunt yourself’.)

Women political speakers kicking ass. In the wake of the referendum that brought us Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon showed once again that few politicians can touch her when it comes to rhetorical skill. The US presidential campaign brought another outstanding female political speaker to the world’s attention: Michelle Obama.

Arrival. Not the best thing I’ve ever seen, but hey, Hollywood made a film about a woman linguist who saves the world!

In real life, of course, linguists don’t save the world: the best someone like me can do is try to make a bit more sense of some of the things that are happening in the world. As ever, my efforts to do that this year have been indebted to the work of many other researchers and/or bloggers, and I’m grateful to everyone I’ve cited/linked to in my posts.

I’ll be back with more feminist guiding in 2017, but in the meantime I thank everyone who reads the stuff I put here (there are a lot more of you than I ever thought there would be when I started this blog in 2015), and I wish you as much peace, love and joy as you can find in these unsettled and discouraging times.

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On banter, bonding and Donald Trump

In my last post I argued that gossip–personal, judgmental talk about absent others–is not the peculiarly female vice our culture would have us believe. Both sexes gossip. But one common form of male gossip, namely sexualised talk about women, is made to look like something different, and more benign, by giving it another name: ‘banter’.

A week after I published that post, along came That Video of Donald Trump doing the very thing I was talking about–and trying to excuse it, predictably, by calling it ‘locker room banter’.

There are many things I don’t want to say on this subject, because they’ve already been said, sometimes very eloquently, in countless tweets and blog posts and columns. I don’t need to repeat that Trump is a misogynist (which we already knew before we heard the tape). I don’t need to upbraid the news media for their mealy-mouthed language (the Washington Post described the recording as containing ‘an extremely lewd conversation’, while the Guardian has referred to it as a ‘sex-boast tape’–as if the issue were the unseemliness of bragging or the vulgarity of using words like ‘tits’). But what I do have something to say about is banter itself: what it does and why it matters.

A lot of the commentary I’ve read about the tape does not, to my mind, get to the heart of what’s going on in it. So, that’s where I want to begin. Here’s a (quick and very basic) transcription of the start of the recorded conversation: Trump, the Hollywood Access host Billy Bush and a third, unidentified man are talking on a bus which is taking them to the set of a soap opera where Trump is making a guest appearance.

THIRD MAN: she used to be great. she’s still very beautiful

TRUMP: you know I moved on her actually you know she was down in Palm Beach and I moved on her and I failed I’ll admit it

THIRD MAN: woah

TRUMP: I did try to fuck her she was married

THIRD MAN: [laughing] that’s huge news there

TRUMP: and I moved on her very heavily in fact I took her out furniture shopping she wanted to get some furniture and I said I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture. I took her out furniture– I moved on her like a bitch [laughter from other men] but I couldn’t get there and she was married. then all of a sudden I see her and she’s now got the big phony tits and everything she’s totally changed her look

In this sequence Trump is not boasting about having sex: he’s telling a personal anecdote about an occasion when he didn’t manage to have sex (‘I failed I’ll admit it’). He then returns to what seems to be the original topic, how to assess the woman’s physical attractiveness. The first speaker’s turn suggests that this has diminished over time (‘she used to be great’), but whereas he thinks ‘she’s still very beautiful’, Trump’s reference to her ‘big phony tits’ implies that he no longer finds her as desirable.

What’s going on here is gossip. Like the young men’s gossip I discussed in my earlier post, this is judgmental talk about an absent other which serves to reinforce group norms (in this case, for male heterosexual behaviour and for female attractiveness). It’s also male bonding talk: by sharing intimate information about himself–and especially by admitting to a failed attempt at seduction–Trump positions the other men as trusted confidants.

It’s not clear whether the discussion of the woman’s appearance has reached its natural end, but at this point, as the bus nears its destination, Billy Bush intervenes to point out the soap actress Trump is scheduled to meet, and she becomes the next topic.

BUSH: sheesh your girl’s hot as shit. In the purple

THIRD MAN & BUSH: woah! yes! woah!

BUSH: yes the Donald has scored. Woah my man!

TRUMP: look at you. You are a pussy.

[indecipherable simultaneous talk as they get ready to exit the bus]

TRUMP: I better use some tic-tacs in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful–I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet just kiss I don’t even wait [laughter from other men] and when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything

BUSH: whatever you want

TRUMP: grab them by the pussy [laughter]  do anything.

Trump’s contribution to this extract looks more like the ‘sex boast’ of the news headlines. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that this too is an enactment of male bonding. Trump, the alpha male of the group, takes centre stage, but the other men support him throughout with affiliative responses–saying ‘woah’ and ‘yes’, echoing his sentiments (‘Trump: you can do anything’/ ‘Bush: whatever you want’), and above all, greeting his most overtly offensive remarks with laughter. They laugh when he says he doesn’t wait for permission to kiss a woman; they laugh again when he mentions ‘grab[bing] [women] by the pussy’. (You can listen for yourself, but my assessment of this laughter is that it’s appreciative rather than embarrassed, awkward or forced.)

The transgressiveness of sexual banter–its tendency to report markedly offensive acts or desires in deliberately offensive (or in the media’s terms, ‘lewd’) language, is not just accidental, a case of men allowing the mask to slip when they think they’re alone. It’s deliberate, and it’s part of the bonding process. Like the sharing of secrets, the sharing of transgressive desires, acts and words is a token of intimacy and trust. It says, ‘I am showing that I trust you by saying things, and using words, that I wouldn’t want the whole world to hear’. It’s also an invitation to the hearer to reciprocate by offering some kind of affiliative response, whether a token of approval like appreciative laughter, or a matching transgressive comment. (‘I trust you, now show that you trust me’.)

When a private transgressive conversation becomes public, and the speaker who said something misogynist (or racist or homophobic) is publicly named and shamed, he often protests, as Trump did, that it was ‘just banter’, that he is not ‘really’ a bigot, and that his comments have been ‘taken out of context’. And the rest of us marvel at the barefaced cheek of these claims. How, we wonder, can this person disavow his obvious prejudice by insisting that what he said wasn’t, ‘in context’, what he meant?

What I’ve just said about the role of transgressive speech in male bonding suggests an answer (though as I’ll explain in a minute, that’s not the same as an excuse). Public exposure does literally take this kind of conversation out of its original context (the metaphorical ‘locker room’, a private, all-male space). And when the talk is removed from that context, critics will focus on its referential content rather than its interpersonal function. They won’t appreciate (or care) that what’s primarily motivating the boasting, the misogyny, the offensive language and the laughter isn’t so much the speakers’ hatred of women as their investment in their fraternal relationship with each other. They’re like fishermen telling tall tales about their catches, or old soldiers exaggerating their exploits on the battlefield: their goal is to impress their male peers, and the women they insult are just a means to that end.

As I said before, though, that’s not meant to be an excuse: I’m not suggesting that banter isn’t ‘really’ sexist or damaging to women. On the contrary, I’m trying to suggest that it’s more damaging than most critical discussions acknowledge. Banter is not just what commentators on the Trump tape have mostly treated it as–a window into the mind of an individual sexist or misogynist. It’s a ritualised social practice which contributes to the maintenance of structural sexual inequality. This effect does not depend on what the individuals involved ‘really think’ about women. (I have examples of both sexist and homophobic banter where I’m certain that what some speakers say is not what they really think, because they’re gay and everyone involved knows that.) It’s more a case of ‘all that’s needed for evil to flourish is for good men to go along with it for the lolz’.

You might think that in Trump’s case a lot of men have chosen to do the decent thing. Since the tape became public, male politicians have been lining up to condemn it. A formula quickly emerged: after Jeb Bush tweeted that, as a grandfather to girls, he could not condone such degrading talk about women, there followed a steady stream of similar comments from other men proclaiming their respect for their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.

But to me this rings hollow. Some of it is obvious political score-settling, and far too much of it is tainted by what some theorists call ‘benevolent sexism’ (no, Paul Ryan, women should not be ‘revered’, they should be respected as equal and autonomous human beings; and no, they aren’t just deserving of respect because they’re ‘your’ women). But in addition, I’d bet good money that all the men uttering these pious sentiments have at some point participated in similar conversations themselves. When Trump protested that Bill Clinton had said worse things to him on the golf course, I found that entirely plausible (though also irrelevant: Trump can’t seem to grasp that Bill’s behaviour reflects on Bill rather than Hillary). Whatever their actual attitudes to women, as members of the US political elite these men have had to be assiduous in forging fraternal bonds with other powerful men. And wherever there are fraternal bonds there will also be banter.

Feminists generally refer to the social system in which men dominate women as ‘patriarchy’, the rule of the fathers, but some theorists have suggested that in its modern (post-feudal) forms it might more aptly be called ‘fratriarchy’, the rule of the brothers, or in Carole Pateman’s term, ‘fraternal patriarchy’. Banter is fraternal patriarchy’s verbal glue. It strengthens the bonds of solidarity among male peers by excluding, Othering and dehumanising women; and in doing those things it also facilitates sexual violence.

Male peer networks based on fraternal solidarity are a common and effective mechanism for informally excluding women, or consigning them to second-class ‘interloper’ status, in professions and institutions which no longer bar them formally. Whether it’s city bankers socialising with clients in strip clubs, or construction workers adorning the site office with pictures of topless models, men use expressions of heterosexual masculinity–verbal as well as non-verbal, the two generally go together–to claim common ground with one another, while differentiating themselves from women. Sometimes they engage in sexual talk to embarrass and humiliate women who are present; sometimes they spread damaging rumours behind women’s backs. These tactics prevent women from participating on equal terms.

I said earlier that when Trump and his companions on the bus talked about women, the women were not the real point: they were like the fish in a fishing story or the faceless enemy in a war story. But that wasn’t meant to be a consoling thought (‘don’t worry, women, it’s nothing personal, they’re just bonding with each other by talking trash about you’). When you talk about people it should be personal–it should involve the recognition of the other as a human being with human feelings like your own. Heterosexual banter is one of the practices that teach men to withhold that recognition from women, treating them as objects rather than persons.

When you objectify and dehumanise a class of people, it becomes easier to mistreat them without guilt. And when you are part of a tight-knit peer group, it becomes more difficult to resist the collective will. According to the anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday, rape culture arises where both these conditions are fulfilled–where men have strong fraternal loyalties to each other, and at the same time dehumanise women. In her classic study of fraternity gang-rape, Sanday argues that what motivates fraternity brothers or college athletes to commit rape in groups is the desire of the men involved both to prove their manhood and to feel close to one another. These are typically men whose conception of masculinity will not permit them to express their feelings for other men in any way that might raise the spectre of homosexuality, which they equate with effeminacy and unmanliness. Instead they bond through violence against someone who represents the despised feminine Other.

Heterosexual banter is a regular feature of life in many fraternities, and Sanday identifies it (along with homophobia, heavy use of pornography and alcohol) as a factor producing ‘rape-prone’ campus cultures. One man who was interviewed for her study recalled the way it worked in his fraternity, and how it made him feel:

By including me in this perpetual, hysterical banter and sharing laughter with me, they [the fraternity brothers] showed their affection for me. I felt happy, confident, and loved. This really helped my feelings of loneliness and my fear of being sexually unappealing. We managed to give ourselves a satisfying substitute for sexual relations. We acted out all of the sexual tensions between us as brothers on a verbal level. Women, women everywhere, feminists, homosexuality, etc., all provided the material for the jokes.

Of course there’s a difference between ‘acting out on a verbal level’ and committing gang rape. It’s not inevitable that one will lead to the other. But Sanday suggests that one can help to make the other more acceptable, or less unthinkable. What the man quoted above says about the social and psychological rewards of fraternal bonding also helps to explain why men may be prevailed on to join in with a group assault, even if they wouldn’t have initiated it alone; and why they don’t intervene to stop it.

Whenever I talk or write about male sexual banter, I always hear from some men who tell me they’re deeply uncomfortable with it. I believe them. But my response is, ‘it’s not me you need to tell’. They risk nothing by expressing their discomfort to me. What would be risky, and potentially costly, would be for them to put their principles above their fraternal loyalties, stop engaging in banter and challenge their peers to do the same.

Similarly, it’s pretty easy–assuming your politics lean left of fascism–to criticise the behaviour of Donald Trump. But as necessary as that may be in current circumstances, on its own it is not sufficient. We need to acknowledge that the kind of banter Trump has been condemned for is more than just an individual vice: it is a social practice supporting a form of fraternity that stands in the way of women’s liberty and equality.

Personally speaking

Earlier this month, when Andrea Wulf won the Royal Society’s 2016 Science Book prize for The Invention of Nature, a biography of the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the Guardian’s John Dugdale wrote a piece headed ‘Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?’  Um, is it because they’re writing more science books than they used to? Is it because the book prize judges are finally recognising their talents? No: apparently women are being rewarded for making science personal. ‘Female science writers’, says Dugdale,

are more likely to focus on people, while their male counterparts are more likely to address a problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.

Men do the difficult, sciencey stuff, while women concentrate on the human angle. It’s yet another iteration of that ancient cliché, ‘men are interested in ideas and women are interested in people’.

Apart from being sexist, this is fundamentally illogical. Why are ‘ideas’ and ‘people’ presented as mutually exclusive options? Don’t most books about science deal with both?  James Watson’s book The Double Helix certainly did: subtitled ‘A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA’, it’s both a gripping narrative of scientific problem-solving, and a story about, as the blurb on Amazon’s website puts it, ‘brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions and bitter rivalries’. Yet somehow it’s remained an article of faith that men aren’t interested in personal stuff, and that women are interested in nothing else.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being interested in people. What’s wrong is the belief that this is a distinctive and universal female trait. That belief persists because it does ideological work: it naturalises the division of labour that makes women responsible for taking care of others’ needs. It implies that women do this because they want to, and because it’s what they’re naturally good at. It’s an argument that’s been used both to confine women to the domestic sphere and to limit their options in the wider world. Women are good with people, so let them do care work and customer service. If they’re journalists, assign them human interest stories while men report the news. If they’re politicians, give them a ‘soft’ portfolio, like education rather than finance. And so on, ad infinitum.

The same stereotype has pervaded discussions of the way men and women use language.  Women, the story goes, talk about people and in order to make connections with people. Men, by contrast (because there’s always a contrast), talk about objects or concepts, to impart information, solve problems or display knowledge. As Deborah Tannen summed this up in her 1990 bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, men do ‘report talk’ and women do ‘rapport talk’.

Evolutionary psychologists have taken this a step further by declaring that the difference is a product of evolution. According to John Locke’s book Duels and Duets, women’s well-known love of gossip reflects the involvement of their early human ancestors in all-female mutual support networks, where they created ‘feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves’. Men, on the other hand, did not form mutual support networks: rather they were rivals, and their ways of talking reflected that.

Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill.

It’s an axiom of evolutionary psychology that human nature doesn’t change: that’s why modern women still gossip and modern men still fight verbal duels—‘even’, Locke informs us, ‘when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends’.

In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.

So, men duel and women duet; women engage in intimate gossip while men engage in competitive banter. Locke presents this as an absolute divide: no bantering for women and no gossiping for men. ‘Women may denigrate themselves’, he explains, ‘but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously’. (If you’re a woman and you’re thinking ‘WTF?’ I can only say you’re not alone.) Men, conversely, have no use for the female habit of talking about other people behind their backs. ‘If they have something to say to a foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it’.

Well, sorry to spoil a nice neat story, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit.

Back in 1990, a student in one of my classes recorded a couple of hours of casual conversation in the house he shared with four other men (all were straight, white and in their early 20s)*. He wanted to answer the question, ‘what do male friends talk about?’ Some of the answers were much as he’d expected: they talked about sports, drinking and dating. But there was another topic which occupied more time than anything else apart from sport–criticism of other men. To give you the flavour, here’s a chunk of the transcript (which I’ve simplified a bit to make it easier to read):

BRYAN: uh you know that really gay guy in our Age of Revolution class who sits in front of us? he wore shorts again, by the way, it’s like 42 degrees out he wore shorts again [laughter]

ED: That guy

BRYAN: it’s like a speedo, he wears a speedo to class he’s got incredibly skinny legs

ED: it’s worse you know you know like those shorts women volleyball players wear? it’s like those it’s like French cut spandex

BRYAN: you know what’s even more ridiculous? When you wear those shorts and like a parka on […] he’s either got some condition that he’s got to like have his legs exposed at all times or else he’s got really good legs

ED: he’s probably he’s like he’s like at home combing his leg hairs

BRYAN: he doesn’t have any leg hair though

ED: he really likes his legs

BRYAN: yes and oh those ridiculous Reeboks that are always (indeciph) and goofy white socks always striped tube socks

ED: that’s right he’s the antithesis of man

So, OK, what is this? Is it banter, or is it gossip? It does have some features of what Locke describes as typical all-male talk: the two men I’ve called ‘Ed’ and ‘Bryan’ are talking in a way they evidently find amusing, and they’re doing it in front of an audience (the three other men who share the house). But in other respects it doesn’t conform to Locke’s template for male verbal duelling: it’s more of a collaborative duet. The speakers aren’t ‘humorously denigrating’ one another, they’re talking about someone else behind his back. They aren’t expressing conflicting views—on the contrary, what they’re constructing is very much a shared view of the ‘really gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’.

Why would young men gossip? The short answer is, for the same reasons anyone gossips. People who study gossip (they include anthropologists, sociologists, historians and linguists) say it’s ubiquitous in human cultures–despite the fact that most communities claim to disapprove of it–because it serves a number of important social purposes. One of these is circulating personal information, which enables members of a community to keep track of others’ activities and relationships. Another is the one Locke emphasises in his discussion of all-female talk, namely bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information–like a secret or a negative opinion about someone–that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present.

A third purpose gossip serves, especially when it’s critical or judgmental, is to affirm the group’s commitment to particular norms and values. That’s clearly one thing that’s going on in Ed and Bryan’s duet. By describing the absent ‘gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’, they’re also bonding around their own, very different code of properly masculine behaviour.

It may seem paradoxical that the vehicle for this heterosexual male bonding is a kind of talk which is stereotypically associated with women (not to mention that the main subject discussed is the very thing these men claim to have no interest in—other men’s bodies). But it’s only really a paradox if you take the stereotype at face value. The fact is that both sexes gossip: one survey conducted in 2009 found that men reported spending slightly more time on gossip than women. And respondents of both sexes gave the same reason for doing it: they said that gossiping made them feel like ‘part of the gang’.

But if everyone gossips, why has gossip been decried for centuries as a specifically female vice? The historical record is full of injunctions to women to avoid gossip, which was variously denounced as idle, frivolous, anti-social, sinful and even a cover for witchcraft.  Noting that the word ‘gossip’ in early modern English meant a close female companion who stayed with a woman in childbirth, Suzanne Romaine mentions one reason why this role prompted anxiety:

Professions such as midwifery allowed women passage between households, largely free of male control, to exchange …knowledge of intimate matters such as contraception and abortion.

Some historians argue that what really worried men wasn’t so much the sharing of arcane female knowledge as the prospect of women talking about them. They feared their wives would share embarrassing secrets, or spread malicious gossip deliberately to damage their reputations. This fear was not unfounded: at a time when women had very limited access to more public forums, gossip provided an alternative channel for influencing the opinions of others. And in a culture that practised quite extensive sex-segregation, it was one channel men couldn’t control.

But it was never just women who made use of this channel. Men also used gossip as a weapon; they still do. A fair proportion of what men like to call ‘banter’ is sexist and sexualised talk about women, and one of its effects (thanks to the sexual double standard) may be to damage a woman’s or a girl’s reputation by branding her a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’. This kind of so-called ‘banter’ is just gossip by another name. A more forgiving name, too: whereas ‘gossip’ is associated with meanness and malice, ‘banter’ is more often described using terms like ‘good natured’ and ‘light-hearted’.

The idea that women are obsessed with the personal (meaning the trivial, the venial, the commonplace) takes many different forms, and all of them are basically sexist put-downs. They’re a good illustration of the more general principle that whatever women are said to do will be devalued by comparison with whatever men are said to do–even if what they’re doing is essentially the same thing.

*The men involved in this conversation gave me permission to use the recorded data, which I later transcribed and analysed in this article. The names I’ve given them are pseudonyms.

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.