Tone deaf

A month ago, the psychologist Terri Apter tweeted

“I don’t like your tone,” is something said either to a child or a woman. Could @wordspinster confirm or comment?

@Wordspinster is me, but I didn’t see the tweet straight away, and it’s taken me a while to formulate an answer. The short version, as usual, is ‘it’s complicated’. So in this post I’ll try to dig a bit deeper. 

What prompted Apter’s tweet was a much-discussed exchange in Parliament between Matt Hancock, Conservative Secretary of State for Health, and Rosena Allin-Khan, a Labour MP and shadow minister for mental health who is also a working NHS doctor. Allin-Khan had asked Hancock an obviously critical question (using the third person, incidentally, because the arcane rules of the UK Parliament forbid MPs to address one another directly):

Does the health secretary acknowledge that many frontline workers feel that the government’s lack of testing has cost lives, and is responsible for many families being torn apart in grief?

He replied:

I welcome the honourable lady to her post… I think she might do well to take a leaf out of the Shadow Secretary’s book in terms of tone.

This was clearly intended as a putdown. The ‘Shadow Secretary’ is Jonathan Ashworth MP, who is white, male and senior to Allin-Khan. He is Hancock’s opposite number in the Labour shadow Cabinet, a post he has held for several years, whereas she is a recently appointed junior minister. So, first Hancock drew attention to Allin-Khan’s relative inexperience by welcoming her to her post; then he implied she didn’t know how to conduct herself properly in her new role, and suggested she should take her cue from the behaviour of her senior colleague.

But his strategy backfired: the criticism he directed at Allin-Khan was immediately turned back on him. This was partly because of the perception that his condescension was strongly gendered—as Glamour magazine put it, ‘steeped in micro-aggression and misogyny’.  Harriet Harman, no stranger herself to the gentlemanly sexism of male politicians, tweeted that there was ‘something creepy about a man telling a woman to watch her tone’. Pragya Agarwal, writing in the Independent, called attention to the specific ways in which women of colour get upbraided for their tone, noting that ‘longstanding tropes, such as the “angry black woman”, harm some communities more than others’. 

That wasn’t Hancock’s only miscalculation. Some people who didn’t pick up on the sexism/racism issue were critical of what he said for other reasons. It’s one thing for a Cabinet minister to patronise a more junior member of the opposing party, but another to do it to someone whose experience of actually treating Covid-19 patients gives her a far better claim than the minister to know what ‘frontline workers feel’. His dismissive response struck some as disrespectful not just to Allin-Khan, but to ‘our NHS heroes’ more generally. To many it also seemed irresponsible and petty for a minister presiding over the highest death-toll in Europe to scold a medically-qualified colleague for the tone of her question rather than giving her a serious answer.  

But that, of course, was the point. As the forensic linguist Claire Hardaker has also explained, tone policing (or as I will call it here, for reasons I’ll explain later, tone criticism) is a distraction strategy: it aims to shift attention from the substance of what is being said to the manner in which it is said, while also, as Hardaker notes, staking a claim to the moral high-ground. It’s one of many strategies politicians may use to avoid answering questions or buy time to plan a response; but it needs to be deployed with care, since it can easily give the impression that either you’re too thin-skinned for the job you’re in or else you haven’t got a credible answer. The more powerful a speaker is, in fact, the greater the risk that their criticism of someone’s tone will be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

That was how it went in this case. You could argue that the distraction strategy was partially successful, in that the subsequent conversation did focus more on the tone issue than on the substantive question about testing.  But that wasn’t unequivocally a win for Hancock, because it was his tone, not Allin-Khan’s, that attracted most negative comment.   

Terri Apter’s tweet raised the question of whether remarks like Matt Hancock’s are always or most often addressed to women. In Parliament, at least, the answer is no. A quick search of Hansard, the official Parliamentary record, revealed that references to tone are fairly frequent: a search for all uses of the word in the House of Commons since 2015 yielded 1835 results. I only had time to look closely at the first 100, and in this small sub-sample I found eleven examples of tone criticism directed towards an identifiable individual. Two involved men criticising a woman’s tone; three involved women criticising a man’s tone. The majority, six, were cases of men criticising other men.

Obviously these proportions (which may or may not be replicated in the sample as a whole) must reflect the fact that women are still a minority of all MPs. A more careful, full analysis might hypothetically show that female MPs are more likely than male ones to attract negative comments on their tone. But it’s safe to say that you don’t have to be female to be a target for this kind of criticism. 

It’s also clear that tone criticism isn’t only directed downwards, from more senior to more junior politicians. Backbenchers criticise ministers’ tone as well as vice-versa; and the highest-ranking politicians criticise each other. We had an example last week at Prime Minister’s Question Time, when Boris Johnson responded to a question from Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, by saying ‘I’m surprised he should be taking that tone’. In this case the status differential is slight to non-existent: both are white men, and in terms of rank they are peers (even if Johnson as the leader of the governing party has more real-world power). Their exchange makes it even clearer when and why powerful people resort to tone criticism–and how that move can backfire.

Starmer’s question, which like Allin-Khan’s to Matt Hancock was really a criticism framed in the interrogative, concerned the importance of public trust for managing the Covid-19 crisis. He cited a recent survey which found that trust in the government, and in Johnson himself, had plummeted in the previous week. Though he made no explicit reference to Dominic Cummings, everyone knew this shift in public opinion was connected to the controversy about Johnson’s chief political adviser, who had not resigned or been sacked following what most of the public regarded as gross breaches of the lockdown rules. Johnson knew that too, and since it’s a subject he’s keen to avoid, he reached for the distraction strategy of criticising the questioner’s tone. But what exactly was he talking about? What do people who make this criticism mean by ‘tone’?

This brings me to the reason why I’m talking about ‘tone criticism’ rather than ‘tone policing’. ‘Tone policing’ as I understand it refers specifically to the policing of emotional expression, the classic case being a demand that someone should refrain from making others uncomfortable by expressing their legitimate anger. That’s one kind of tone criticism, and it’s useful to have a term for it, but it’s also important (to me, at least) not to expand that term’s scope too far. I particularly want to avoid the implication that when women are criticised for their tone this is always or usually about them being, in someone’s opinion, too angry or too emotional. Without denying that can be an issue, we shouldn’t assume that it’s invariably what’s at stake.

‘Tone’ in everyday usage can mean a lot of things (which is very convenient for those who want to criticise it without going into the specifics of the alleged offence). Often it has more to do with, in technical language, stance–a speaker’s attitude to the addressee or the topic under discussion–than affect–a speaker’s mood or emotional state. In political discourse many judgments on ‘tone’ relate primarily to what kind of move is being made (e.g. agreement or disagreement, congratulation or criticism), what stance that implies and whether the critic considers it legitimate.  

In the two cases I’ve talked about so far it would be hard to argue that the targets of criticism spoke angrily. It could perhaps be argued that Rosena Allin-Khan used emotive language, in that her question included the phrases ‘cost lives’ and ‘torn apart in grief’; but that can’t be said of Keir Starmer, a former prosecutor whose style is frequently described as ‘forensic’. If you listen to a recording of his question you’ll notice that his delivery is calm and controlled: sometimes he uses heavy stress and a noticeably slow tempo for emphasis, but there’s no shouting or extreme fluctuations in pitch. So when Johnson complained about him ‘taking that tone’, what he seemed to be objecting to was the simple fact that Starmer had adopted a critical stance, as opposed to one supportive of the government.

A number of media commentators thought so too, observing that Johnson’s performance (which did display anger: one sketch-writer described it as ‘defensive and snappy’) showed his inability to tolerate criticism. He treats all non-supportive questions, however they’re delivered, as illegitimate challenges or personal attacks. Matt Hancock has a similar approach, as was demonstrated not only by his treatment of Rosena Allin-Khan, but also by a more recent interview on Sky News, where he laughed uproariously and called it ‘priceless’ when the presenter Kay Burley had the temerity to ask a question about the continuing problems with testing—something most viewers, as she immediately pointed out, were unlikely to regard as a laughing matter.

I honestly don’t know if this behaviour reflects an outsize sense of entitlement-slash-grievance (‘how dare these ingrates pick on me’), or if it is purely cynical. Johnson and Hancock, after all, must know that it’s the job of the Opposition, and of the media, to subject the government to critical scrutiny. That’s the purpose of Prime Minister’s Questions, and the point of interviewing ministers on TV. Complaining about the ‘tone’ of questioning simply because it’s adversarial (especially when it happens in the House of Commons, an adversarial forum by definition) does not make senior politicians look statesmanlike; it makes them look churlish and out of their depth.  

This is a point to bear in mind whenever we’re faced with yet another example of a man criticising a woman’s tone–whether he uses the actual word ‘tone’, like Matt Hancock, or tells her to ‘calm down, dear’ like the former prime minister David Cameron, or reaches for the codewords used recently about the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis by Daniel Kawczynski MP, who tweeted that he’d declined to be interviewed on the programme because he found Maitlis ‘extraordinarily aggressive, unnecessarily rude, biased & confrontational to point of intimidation’. (If he’d only added ‘strident’ we’d have a full house.) Yes, it’s a putdown, an attempt to embarrass or shame (something women, for all kinds of historical and cultural reasons, are often particularly susceptible to); and yes, there’s often a double standard at work (Boris Johnson doesn’t have to keep calm; Jeremy Paxman was respected for his aggressive interview style). But when we make those points (as we should, every time), let’s not forget to add that this is a strategy used by the insecure and less-than-competent to distract attention from their own shortcomings.

‘I don’t like your tone’ is something powerful people say when they’ve been put under pressure, they haven’t got a winning argument, and they are hoping to silence criticism by other means. But it doesn’t always work and it can easily backfire. Rosena Allin-Khan wasn’t shamed; Keir Starmer wasn’t distracted; Emily Maitlis wasn’t silenced; Kay Burley wasn’t amused. And a large section of the public was on their side. Read the room, guys: if anyone’s got a tone problem, you have.

A short history of lads in (British) English

Back when universities were still teaching face-to-face, the Times Higher reported on a research project which found that on some courses lecturing had been abandoned because of the ‘laddish’ behaviour of certain students, who disrupted the proceedings by heckling and interrupting. I found I had some questions about this. One was why universities were dealing with this problem by changing their teaching methods, rather than warning the offenders that if they persisted they’d be kicked out. Another, however, was about the language we use to discuss this kind of behaviour.

The Higher called it ‘laddish’, as did the researchers whose work was being reported. In Britain, the word ‘lad’ and its derivatives (e.g. ‘laddish’, ‘laddism’ and ‘lad culture’) are now well-established labels for what a 2012 report on sexual violence in universities described as ‘a group or “pack” mentality’ among young men, expressed in practices like heavy alcohol consumption and our old friend ‘banter’ (much of it, according to the report, sexist, misogynist and homophobic). But are these ‘lad’ terms helpful from a feminist point of view? Where do they come from and what do they imply?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the English noun ‘lad’ has been in use since the 14th century. Originally it had two main senses: the first, now obsolete, was ‘serving man or attendant, man of low birth’, while the second was ‘boy, youth, young man’. In some regional varieties of English (and Scots) ‘lad’ is still a straightforward synonym for ‘boy/young man’. But in the standard language it’s now more commonly used in another way: ‘familiarly’, to or about a male of any age, as either a term of endearment or a marker of solidarity among men who share ‘common working, recreational, or other interests’.

This non-age-specific usage is something ‘lad’ has in common with ‘girl’. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the argument that calling an adult woman a girl automatically demeans her by reducing her to the status of a child doesn’t work for all cases and contexts. ‘Girl’ can certainly be demeaning when it’s used by a person of higher status (e.g. by a boss about his secretary or a mistress about her servant), but among equals what it expresses is solidarity or camaraderie. It can also be a way of metaphorically attributing the positive qualities we associate with youth–like being carefree, fun-loving and sexually attractive–to someone who isn’t literally young. No doubt that reflects our culture’s ageism, but it isn’t necessarily an insult.

‘Lad’ works in a similar way. The plural form ‘lads’ most often appears in contexts where the emphasis is on solidarity and male bonding: ‘the lads’ may refer to the male friends a man goes out drinking with, the teammates he plays sport with, or—as the OED’s 20th century examples reminded me—his brothers in a union where the trade is working-class and male (‘I’ll have to take this offer back to the lads’). Like ‘girls’, ‘lads’ also turns up in expressions like ‘a night out with the ___’, where the implication is that those involved are temporarily putting adult cares aside and recapturing the pleasures of youth.

But there are also some differences between ‘lad’ and ‘girl’, reflecting the differing norms of masculinity and femininity. One of the senses listed for ‘lad’ in the OED is ‘a man of spirit and vigour’, as in ‘Jack the lad’ and ‘a bit of a lad’. These idioms suggest a general propensity for mischief or bad behaviour, but they can also take on a more specifically sexual meaning. One of the OED’s examples, from a text published in 1960, is ‘A bit of a lad, Mr Alan Clark, going around fancy-free for years’.

If you’re thinking, ‘but don’t girls also misbehave, sexually and otherwise?’, the short answer is yes, of course–but that isn’t part of the meaning of the word ‘girl’, nor indeed of ‘lass’, the female-specific term that directly parallels ‘lad’: we wouldn’t refer to a woman as ‘Jill the lass’ or ‘a bit of a lass’. So what do we call women who behave like ‘Jack’? Historically, they have also been ‘lads’: the OED notes that in the past ‘lad’ was sometimes used to mean ‘a spirited girl’ (the example it offers is dated 1935). More recently, young women who engage in ‘laddish’ behaviour–being loud and disruptive, getting drunk and having sex–have been referred to, belittlingly, as ‘ladettes’. This language suggests that female lad(ette)s are seen as gender-deviant: they’re assumed to be aping the boys rather than expressing their own authentic ‘spirit’.

The ‘lad’ of ‘lad culture’ is clearly a descendant of the ‘man of spirit and vigour’, and in 2001 the OED acknowledged this development by adding a new draft section to the ‘lad’ entry. In contemporary British usage, it explains, a ‘lad’ is

a young man characterized by his enjoyment of social drinking, sport, and other activities considered to be male-oriented, his engagement in casual sexual relationships, and often by attitudes or behaviour regarded as irresponsible, sexist, or boorish; (usually) one belonging to a close-knit social group’.

The first illustrative example for this sense comes from a 1986 article in The Face by Julie Burchill:

Remarried after more than a decade on the rampage, at 47 in true Lad style to a girl of 22.

The capitalization of ‘Lad’ here suggests that Burchill is referencing what she regards as a recognisable social type. It’s that type which the section is concerned with–though the  reference to ‘a young man’ does not acknowledge what the example clearly implies, that the Lad is defined less by his age in and of itself than by his attitudes and behaviour. In Burchill’s terms 55-year old Boris Johnson, with his long string of well-publicised affairs and his famously indeterminate number of children, would surely count as a Lad.

Johnson was also what we might now describe as a lad when he was young: at university in the early 1980s he belonged to the hard-drinking, restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club. But as boorish and irresponsible as their behaviour undoubtedly was, it was not yet described as ‘laddish’. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the ‘lad’—or as he was sometimes called at the time, the ‘New Lad’–became a familiar cultural figure, his laddish enthusiasms both codified and celebrated in a clutch of popular ‘lad mags’ like Loaded and FHM.

What, you might wonder, was ‘new’ about the New Lad? In many ways he wasn’t new at all: he was an amalgam of all the earlier ‘lads’, simultaneously engaged in male homosocial bonding, disruptive mischief-making and aggressive heterosexuality. Some high-profile New Lads were middle-class men adopting a working-class style of masculinity (their sport was football, their drink was beer), but that wasn’t unprecedented either. The real point of the ‘new’ label was to contrast the emerging ‘New Lad’ with the already-established ‘New Man’, who was ‘sensitive, charming, considerate…he’d do the housework and not be afraid to shed a tear’. After a decade when pop culture had been dominated by foppish New Romantics and androgynous synthpop types, the ‘New Lad’ represented the return of the repressed: he gave men permission to be men again.

‘New lads’ were uninterested in feminism, but to begin with, at least, they were keen not to come across as unreconstructed misogynists. The message of Loaded, according to one of its founders, was

Don’t take us too seriously, we’re blokes and we’re useless. . .We like football, but that doesn’t mean we’re hooligans. . .We like looking at pictures of fancy ladies sometimes but that doesn’t mean we want to rape them.

Feminists were not impressed, however, and there was also concern in other quarters. The examples illustrating ‘lad culture’ in the OED show that by the end of the 1990s it was widely regarded as a problem. This quote, for instance, is taken from the Glasgow Herald:

Boys seem to have an extreme amount of pressure on them and it’s very hard for them to resist the lad culture.

What prompted this anxiety wasn’t the sexism of lad culture, but rather the contribution it was thought to be making to the much-discussed problem of boys’ academic underachievement. Research confirmed that one of the hallmarks of laddism among school-age boys was the belief that studying was uncool. No one wanted to be what Boris Johnson once called his slightly less laddish contemporary David Cameron–a ‘girly swot’. The worry was that lad culture was leading boys—especially the middle-class white boys who had embraced it so enthusiastically—to neglect their schoolwork and undermine their future prospects.

In hindsight this anxiety seems misplaced: far from ending up unemployed, the lads of the 1980s and 1990s have become the new Establishment. Whether they’re posh Tory boys like Boris Johnson and Toby Young, or leftists like Owen Jones (and yes, I know he’s gay, but he’s also a classic lad), they are well-represented among Britain’s most powerful and influential people. And it’s not just at the top that laddism rules. The lad mags are long gone, but the culture they promoted lives on. The current pandemic has given us countless examples of irresponsible, boorish and sexist male behaviour, whether it’s students ‘zoombombing’ online classes with offensive messages and/or pornography (which is generally having, as the Economist put it, ‘a good pandemic’), ‘covidiots’ flouting lockdown rules (in Britain 80% of those fined for this have been men, the majority young), or middle-aged professional men expressing outrage because they’ve been told to wear a mask or expected to look after their own children.

Of course this has not gone uncriticised. Nor has the sexual harassment and sexual violence associated with lad culture in educational settings. The effect of ‘lad’ masculinity on women students gets far more attention today than it did in the 1990s. But I do sometimes wonder if the vocabulary of ‘laddism’ does feminists any favours.

As this blog has pointed out before, words carry baggage from their history of being used. ‘Lad’ is arguably a case where that historical baggage is largely positive, and thus in tension with the feminist analysis of ‘laddism’ as a serious problem. The ‘lad’ has long been associated with youthful exuberance, vigour, rebelliousness, hedonism and humour–qualities which many people find attractive, and whose less appealing manifestations they are willing to shrug off as ‘only natural’. Familiar excuses for irresponsible, boorish and sexist behaviour—‘boys will be boys’, ‘it’s just banter’, ‘we’re blokes and we’re useless’—are more or less baked into the discourse. (See also: ‘classic Dom’, and ‘it’s just Boris being Boris’.)

What words could we use instead? For some forms of ‘laddish’ behaviour (like disrupting lectures, or partying in large groups in the middle of a pandemic) I’d be happier with a term like ‘anti-social’; for ‘lad culture’ I’m tempted to suggest substituting ‘toxic masculinity’. (For the Boris Johnson/Toby Young variant there’s also ‘posh boy misogyny’, but not all misogynists are posh.) It’s not that I think this language would have a deterrent effect (a true ‘lad’ would presumably delight in the disapproval of feminist killjoys); but it would send the message that no, we don’t think this is harmless, or funny, or something we must put up with because that’s just the way men are.

Of course it could be argued that changing culture is more important than changing labels, and that efforts to change culture have to start from where people are. That’s the view of the Good Lad Initiative, which works with men and boys to rethink ideas about manhood. They want to reclaim the ‘lad’, not demonise him. But while ‘lad’—like ‘girl’–has some uses which I agree are innocuous, there might still be a case for calling ‘lad culture’ or ‘laddism’ by a name that doesn’t trivialise it or make excuses for it.

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Mother, father, parent

Last Monday the Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work from sick leave; two days later it was announced that he would miss Prime Minister’s Questions because he’d just had a baby. Obviously, Johnson hadn’t given birth himself: he’d delegated that task to his partner Carrie Symonds. But in the media coverage the baby was very much ‘Boris’s’, and its birth was presented as a major life-event. The political commentator Robert Peston tweeted: 

Having babies change [sic] us. Near-death experiences change us. @BorisJohnson has the full set. So will he become a very different PM from the one the UK voted for in December?

This take was greeted with some incredulity, because we all know Boris Johnson has a number of children already–though we’re not sure exactly how many, because he’s refused to answer the question. Many responses to Peston’s tweet were joking references to this:

The first 7-9 kids didn’t do it but I’ve got a good feeling about this one

Ah you know what they say, nothing like getting a sixth/seventh [subs pls check] child to change a man

There were also some more serious responses. One man suggested that

For a certain class of man, having children really does not change him at all… They’re what you do, and after they have arrived in the house, they’re simply there while your life carries on. They have their rooms, you yours. You know their names; birthdays not so sure.

Boris Johnson, who by his own account has never changed a nappy, belongs to the class that delegates routine childcare to others. Its young children have nannies, and are later sent away—as Johnson himself was—to boarding school. Women of this class may not do much nappy-changing either. But their class privilege does not completely cancel out the effect of their sex. Women generally are expected to be able to keep track of their children’s birthdays; and it’s hard to imagine a woman becoming prime minister who’d had (at least) five children with (at least) two different men, had abandoned and tried to conceal the existence of (at least) one child, been denounced by another as a bastard, and launched her bid for the highest office while pregnant by a third man. A woman with this record wouldn’t just be joked about: she’d be vilified as a terrible mother, irresponsible, negligent and selfish.

This difference is also evident in some uses of the English words ‘father’ and ‘mother’. These may look like a straightforward pair of terms denoting, respectively, a male and a female parent; but if we look more closely it becomes apparent that their meanings aren’t entirely parallel. As many feminists have noted, the difference is most obvious when they’re used as verbs. To father a child is not at all the same thing as to mother one.

By way of illustration, here’s a list of synonyms for the verb ‘to father’ taken from an online thesaurus:

Sire, beget, originate, generate, create, procreate, found, get, engender, institute, conceive, initiate, spawn, author, reproduce, breed, produce, trigger, bring to life, give life to, sow the seeds of

and here’s the same thesaurus’s list of synonyms for the verb ‘to mother’:

Pamper, nurture, coddle, raise, tend, cherish, cosset, protect, care for, deliver, look after, overprotect, spoil, mollycoddle, indulge, take care of, mind, minister to, fuss over, give birth to, bring into the world

Whereas the ‘father’ synonyms focus on men’s contribution to the biological process of reproduction (‘sowing the seed’, supplying the sperm that fertilises the egg), most items in the ‘mother’ entry relate to women’s social role as carers. They also illustrate the tendency for women’s performance of mothering to be scrutinised and judged (good mothers ‘nurture’ and ‘cherish’, bad mothers ‘spoil’ and ‘mollycoddle’) in ways men’s performance of fathering is not.

Though motherhood also has a biological element and fatherhood a social one, the way the verbs are used and interpreted underlines that one is conceptualised primarily as a social role and the other primarily as a biological function. If you say ‘he fathered six children’ you cannot mean, or be taken to mean, ‘he brought up/took care of six children’; you can only mean ‘he begat/sired six children’. With ‘to mother’ the reverse is true: ‘she mothered six children’ will be interpreted as meaning that she brought them up, not that she gave birth to six children who were then raised by other people.

These non-parallel meanings reflect a combination of social facts and ideological beliefs which have a long history in patriarchal cultures. But in recent decades we have seen the rise of a more ‘modern’ ideology which rejects the traditional division of roles in favour of something more equal and symmetrical. One sign of this shift is linguistic: the increasingly widespread use of the gender-neutral or inclusive verb ‘to parent’.

The meaning of ‘parent’ as a verb is close if not identical to the meaning of ‘mother’: if you insert it in the same hypothetical sentence I used before—‘he/she/they parented six children’—the meaning (at least according to my intuitions) has to be ‘brought up, took care of’, not ‘begat’. In this case, then, the purpose of switching to inclusive terminology is to include fathers in the caretaking role traditionally assigned to mothers. But it might be asked: does this new language correspond to any new reality? If in reality it’s still women who are doing most of the work involved in raising children, but we now call what they’re doing ‘parenting’ rather than ‘mothering’, has anything, from a feminist perspective, been gained?

This is one instance of a more general dilemma which radical political movements have often grappled with: should we choose our terms to reflect the world as it currently is, or the world as we would like it to become? The answer, in practice, is ‘it depends what you’re trying to do’. Sometimes what you want to do with words is name the reality of injustice and oppression; sometimes what you want to do is model alternatives to that reality, on the basis that (put crudely) words shape thoughts and thoughts shape actions.

This second argument was used in the 1970s by feminists who supported the introduction of gender-neutral job titles, even in cases where the job was still restricted to one sex: they hoped that inclusive terms, by making it easier for women to imagine themselves in new roles, would hasten progress towards their actual inclusion. In other cases, however, feminists have taken the opposite position. Neutral terms like ‘gender-based violence’ and ‘intimate partner killing’, for instance, have been criticised for glossing over the fact that these are acts committed predominantly by men against women, not vice-versa. Here the argument is that male violence needs to be named: the problem can’t be addressed effectively using language that renders it invisible.

As these examples illustrate, different problems call for different solutions. It’s entirely possible to maintain that sex-specific terms are preferable in some cases and inclusive terms work better in others. But that’s not to say feminists always agree among themselves about either the nature of the problem or the optimal solution. The language of parenthood is a case in point.

Recently a case which dramatises the dilemma has been making its way through the English courts. It concerns Freddy McConnell, a trans man who gave birth to a baby after he had already been legally recognised as a man. Because he had given birth to the child, the law required him to be recorded as its mother on the birth certificate. He contends that this was a breach of his rights, and that he should have been allowed to register either as the baby’s father or as its parent.

So far the courts have rejected this argument. Last week an Appeal Court judge, upholding an earlier decision against McConnell in the High Court, reiterated that the law requires whoever gives birth to a child to be registered as its mother. From the moment of a child’s birth there must be someone who is authorised to make decisions about its care, and the 1989 Children Act assigns that responsibility specifically and automatically to the child’s mother. ‘No-one else’, the judge explained, ‘has that automatic parental responsibility, including the father’.

Though this case is about the rights of trans parents, the principle set out by the judge applies to all parents, and many who are not trans may also find it questionable, since it is at odds with the modern, inclusive concept of ‘parenting’. If a birth certificate can be issued which doesn’t name the father—though every child must axiomatically have a male as well as a female progenitor—why is it impossible to issue a certificate which doesn’t name the mother? And why can’t a registered father be given ‘automatic parental responsibility’? The law seems to follow the same logic as the verbs ‘to mother’ and ‘to father’: it applies a similar understanding of how reproductive functions are connected to social roles, assuming that the caretaking element is central to motherhood (it is seen as following naturally from mothers’ reproductive role) whereas the social element of fatherhood is dispensable or peripheral.

In McConnell’s case these two elements have been separated, so deciding whether he should be identified as a mother or a father means deciding whether to give priority to the biological or the social component of parenthood. Since I think of parenthood as primarily a social role and a social relationship, my own view is that it makes more sense to identify McConnell as the child’s father, that being the only role in which the child has ever known or related to him. It is true, however, that while ‘father’ is closer to the child’s experience, it elides material facts about its history. Neither term is a perfect fit with all the relevant facts.

Is this a situation where gender-neutral or inclusive language would be preferable? There are jurisdictions which have adopted neutral terms as standard on some official documents: in the state of New York, for example, the parties to a marriage are recorded simply as ‘Spouse A’ and ‘Spouse B’. In addition to being inclusive (putting both men and women and same-sex/mixed sex couples on a par), this terminology has the advantage of not carrying the same ideological baggage as the traditional terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ (I’ve written before about my problems with the word ‘wife’). ‘Spouse’ defines you as a party to a contract that entails certain rights and obligations, but beyond that it says nothing about your role in the relationship. In theory there seems to be no reason why this minimalist approach could not be extended to birth certificates, replacing ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ with ‘Parent A’ and ‘Parent B’.

But in practice there might be good reasons to resist that move. As I said before, inclusive terms are open to the objection that they do women a disservice by glossing over or concealing politically consequential facts—such as, in this case, the fact that motherhood and fatherhood are not generally treated as equal and interchangeable roles. Most fathers still do significantly less childcare than most mothers (even, it turns out, when both are working from home), and plenty of men still father—that is, ‘beget’—children while treating the social role/relationship as optional. Society as a whole is still organised on the assumption that women, not men, will be primary carers, and it’s women, not men, who experience discrimination because of their actual or potential status as mothers, Does the language of ‘parenting’ help feminists’ efforts to change this reality, or does it hinder them by obscuring what the real problem is?

Clearly, different feminists have different views. But what’s also clear is that you can’t resolve issues of terminology simply by asserting that language should represent reality (whose reality?) Disputes about terms arise because there’s conflict about the reality they relate to: they are political through and through.

Take me to your leader

Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently about what lessons we might learn from the great pandemics of the past, the historian Amanda Foreman concluded:

History shows that public leadership is the most powerful weapon in keeping them from becoming full-blown tragedies.

Leadership has been a prominent theme in media coverage of Covid-19. Journalists focus day in and day out on the performance of presidents and prime ministers, and there’s a whole subgenre of commentary on which countries have the best and worst leaders. Opinions on that point differ, but one quite widely-held view (one which could not have been expressed during the Black Death, or even the 1918 flu pandemic) is summed up in this meme, which I saw numerous times last week:

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The point was taken up enthusiastically in an article for the business magazine Forbes:

Looking for examples of true leadership in a crisis? From Iceland to Taiwan and from Germany to New Zealand, women are stepping up to show the world how to manage a messy patch for our human family.

Female political leaders may be a minority in the world as a whole, but in this crisis, it’s being suggested, they’re doing a better job than men.

Should feminists be cheering? In my (possibly unpopular) opinion, it’s complicated. I’m certainly not going to argue with anyone who finds Angela Merkel or Jacinda Ardern more impressive than Boris Johnson or (if you want to set a really low bar) Donald Trump. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve been struck by how gendered a lot of our pandemic leadership talk is, and how heavily it leans on very familiar gender stereotypes. Even when it’s deployed to big up women, I think feminists should approach this discourse with caution.

One thing that makes me uneasy about it is the way it mythologises leadership itself, as if the fate of each nation will ultimately depend on the abilities and the character of a single individual, the Great (or not so Great) Leader. The problem with this from a feminist point of view isn’t just that the prototypical Great Leader is male: it’s that the basic idea is patriarchal, authoritarian and infantilising. In reality, both good and bad outcomes result from the actions taken, or not taken, by many people, not just one; those actions also have a wider context, which would shape the outcome whoever was in charge. Donald Trump, for instance, has clearly made a bad situation worse, but it isn’t obvious that any US president could have prevented a ‘full-blown tragedy’ given the deep-rooted structural problems—like the absence of universal healthcare—that he or she would have had to negotiate.

Dependence on the One Great Leader can be paralysing, as we saw in Britain recently when the prime minister Boris Johnson was hospitalised with severe Covid-19 symptoms. His ‘war cabinet’ apparently thought it was crucial for the nation’s morale to believe that he was still in command. First they prevaricated, suggesting he had been hospitalised only as ‘a precautionary measure’ and remained ‘in charge of the government’; after his admission to intensive care, his deputy Dominic Raab told reporters the cabinet would be implementing plans the prime minister had ‘instructed them to deliver’. There followed a stream of reports, tweets and other comments telling us the patient was ‘in good spirits’ and that he would ultimately pull through because he was a ‘fighter’. We were even exhorted to ‘Clap for Boris’, as if he could be restored, like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, by a collective demonstration of our belief in him.

This is what I mean by ‘authoritarian and infantilising’: it felt a bit like living in the kind of dictatorship where apparatchiks lie about the Leader’s health to avoid causing panic in the streets. If I’d believed it, which I didn’t, I’d have been more alarmed than reassured to think that important decisions were being made by someone who was ill enough to be in the ICU. My worry (which seems to have been justified), was more that Johnson’s absence had left a vacuum in which no one else felt able to decide anything. But it soon became clear that this nonsense was what a certain section of the public wanted to hear. Believing that only Boris could save us, they wanted him to be both irreplaceable and invincible.

A particularly transparent expression of this belief appeared in a Telegraph column written by Allison Pearson, headed ‘We need you Boris—your health is the health of the nation’:

How is Boris? For millions of people, that was our first thought upon waking yesterday. And our last thought before we fell asleep the night before….It’s rare for a politician to inspire such emotion, but Boris is loved – really loved – in a way that the metropolitan media class has never begun to understand. Hearing reporters and doctors on TV talking about the PM’s admission to the ICU at St Thomas’s Hospital, discussing the likely effect on his lungs and “other vital organs”, was horrible; the picture of naked vulnerability it painted so entirely at odds with our rambunctious hero barrelling into a room with a quizzical rub of that blond mop and a booming: “Hi, folks!”

This is the language of hero-worship, and we can tell from the vocabulary—not only the word ‘hero’ itself, but also words like ‘rambunctious’, ‘barrelling’ and ‘booming’—that its object is both male and hyper-masculine. What Pearson finds ‘horrible’ to contemplate isn’t just the knowledge that someone she admires is seriously ill, it’s the contrast between his normal masculine potency and the ‘naked vulnerability’ induced by illness.

Johnson’s own language has often suggested a similar preoccupation with masculine potency: he has baited opponents with insults like ‘big girls’ blouse’, and likened what he saw as wasteful spending to ‘spaffing money up a wall’. More recently, like several other ‘strong man’ leaders—Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte—he has adopted a macho, tough-talking stance in relation to the pandemic, musing publicly on the possibility that we would just have to ‘take it on the chin’. Some found his insouciance callous, but for many it seems to have confirmed their view of him as the larger-than-life, ‘rambunctious hero’ who is uniquely equipped to lead us through this. Toby Young, for instance, proclaimed his ‘mystical belief in Britain’s greatness and her ability to occasionally bring forth remarkable individuals …’, adding, ‘I’ve always thought of Boris as one of those people’.

Of course, not everyone agrees. This week a columnist for the Irish Post tore into Johnson, saying that ‘of all the European leaders he has looked the most out of his depth, the most shallow, and vacuous’. The writer compares him to the arrogant generals who sent their troops to be slaughtered in the First World War. It’s a totally negative assessment, but it has something in common with the positive ones, in that it imagines the male leader as a quasi-military commander. Whether he is praised for his indomitable spirit and the loyalty he inspires in the ranks, or blamed for his incompetence and indecision, the thinking is hierarchical and the imagery martial. Female leaders are not generally talked about in this way. The archetypal figure we want them to personify is not the heroic warrior but the caring, empathetic mother.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the extraordinary emphasis commentators have placed on women leaders’ interactions with children. The Forbes article I mentioned earlier praises Norway’s Erna Solberg for holding a press conference specifically to answer questions from children; Angela Merkel has been commended for addressing the children of Germany; and Jacinda Ardern garnered vast amounts of approving media coverage (the TV clip has become iconic, embedded in almost every report I’ve read about her) for her answer to a question about what lockdown would mean for the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy (she explained that they’d been classified as essential workers, but might not be able to get to everyone as easily as they would in normal circumstances).

To the writer of the Forbes article, this shows what’s different and special about women leaders. ‘How many other simple, humane innovations’, she wonders, ‘would more female leadership unleash?’ And it’s not just that women are good with children: their relationship with their adult citizens is also figured as maternal.

The empathy and care which all of these female leaders have communicated seems to come from an alternate universe…It’s like their arms are coming out of their videos to hold you close in a heart-felt and loving embrace.

I find this almost as embarrassing as Allison Pearson’s gushing over Boris Johnson. That’s not because I don’t think leaders should display ’empathy and care’: I agree those are important qualities, especially in a situation where people are anxious, fearful and grieving. But even if we put aside the loving embrace stuff (which will never be my top priority when judging the performance of any prime minister), it’s a serious problem for women in politics, and a barrier to the normalisation of female authority, that good leadership in women is always equated with–or reduced to–empathy and nurturance. It’s also a problem that women, for whom nurturance is supposed to be natural and instinctive, are expected to adopt a quasi-maternal leadership style (and often harshly criticised if they don’t), whereas with men we are more open to a range of styles and personae.

In the English-speaking media the most widely praised of the women leading their nations’ responses to the pandemic has been New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. Her conduct has been described as ‘a masterclass in leadership’, and particular admiration has been expressed for her empathetic communication style. Alistair Campbell, writing in the Independent, commented that ‘natural [sic] empathy has always been a strong point for Ardern’, and went on to ask, rhetorically,

could any other leader have stood at a government lectern as she did recently and talked directly to children about how yes, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny were key workers, but they might not be able to get everywhere because they were so busy in these challenging times?

Actually, yes: at least one male leader, Ontario’s Doug Ford, also reassured children about the Easter Bunny’s ‘essential worker’ status. But Ford, a conservative whose ‘crass, populist politics’ have been compared to Donald Trump’s, attracted more media attention when he angrily criticised the US President for blocking shipments of  medical equipment to Canada. Commentary on Jacinda Ardern, conversely, has given far more play to her remarks about the Easter Bunny than to her demotion and public upbraiding of a health minister who broke the country’s strict lockdown rules. ‘I expect better’, she said, bluntly, ‘and so does New Zealand’.

Ardern is tough as well as caring: it takes more than ‘a heart-felt and loving embrace’ to formulate and execute a strategy as hardline as hers. And men’s leadership isn’t all about Trumpian tough-talking. A number of male leaders, including Ireland’s Leo Varadkar and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, have been praised for their emotionally literate communications. It’s not only possible but arguably necessary for effective leaders of both sexes to combine so-called ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities. But we view their behaviour through a gendered lens, and emphasise different aspects of it in each case.

Sometimes gendered expectations can lead us to see what isn’t there. In our research on the 2015 UK General Election, Sylvia Shaw and I found that perceptions of the way female party leaders communicated were at odds with the evidence of their actual speech, and that the same stereotypical qualities were attributed to women whose styles, according to our analysis, were totally different. That’s another thing that irritates me about the meme: it treats the women pictured as interchangeable representatives of their sex rather than individuals with their own distinctive qualities.

Talking about leadership in the stereotypically gendered terms I’ve been discussing is a habit I think we need to break. I’m not suggesting a leader’s gender is irrelevant to the way they do things—it’s part of their identity and of the life-experience they bring to the role—but it isn’t the only thing that matters, and it certainly doesn’t determine their style of communication, decision-making or crisis management.

We can surely recognise that certain women leaders are doing an excellent job in this pandemic without putting them in a special, separate ‘female leadership’ box tied up with a pink ribbon. (Would Theresa May have belonged in that box? Margaret Thatcher? Sarah Palin?) And we can surely acknowledge the importance of leadership in a crisis without buying into the fantasy of the Great Leader—whether invincible warrior or nurturing mother—whose words and actions will determine our fate.

The battle of the big girl’s blouse

During Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Boris Johnson accused the Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of being scared to fight an early General Election (the government would like to call one, but they have so far failed to get the votes they need to do it). As Corbyn charged the prime minister with being ‘desperate’, Johnson was heard to shout, ‘Call an election, you great big girl’s blouse!’

‘Big girl’s blouse’ is an expression of contempt for weak and wimpy men. The OED’s first citation for it (i.e., the first written record they could find—I can testify from personal experience that it was used in everyday speech in Britain before 1969) comes from a TV sitcom called Nearest and Dearest, where it was used by the main female character Nellie (a middle-aged working class northerner played by Lancashire actress Hylda Baker) to berate her useless brother Eli, with whom she ran the family pickle factory.

An entry for the phrase on Wordhistories.net suggests that its meaning derives from an analogy between a ‘feeble, cowardly man “in a flap”…and an oversized garment hanging loose’. I don’t find that entirely convincing, though, because it doesn’t explain the gendered nature of the insult. Its target is always male, and the point is to deride him as unmanly. You see this very clearly in one of the examples the entry reproduces, from a 1986 sports report in the Guardian:

The last time Liverpool lost in a home league match against Chelsea was in 1935. The following year scientists isolated the principal female hormone and there are those at Anfield who will tell you that Chelsea have been playing like big girls’ blouses ever since.

The reference to female hormones suggests to me that what the writer wants to conjure up isn’t a mental picture of an outsize garment flapping around. Something is being made here of what’s inside a ‘big girl’s blouse’ when its owner wears it. A ‘big girl’s blouse’ is a man who’s soft when he should be hard: metaphorically he has breasts instead of balls.

As Declan Kavanagh observed on Twitter, this is a classic example of an ‘effeminophobic’ insult, and Boris Johnson’s use of it prompted some debate about whether he was guilty of sexism or homophobia. The answer is surely that any insult whose core meaning is ‘effeminate/emasculated man’ is both homophobic (insofar as popular homophobia conflates being gay with being effeminate) and sexist. Its sexism is slightly less straightforward than the sexism of, say, ‘bitch’, or ‘slut’, because unlike those two epithets it’s used to insult men rather than women. But that should not prevent us from noticing that its force depends on a sexist presupposition. It follows the rule I alluded to in my last post, that one reliable way to insult a man (of any sexuality) is to attribute female or feminine qualities to him.

Why is the attribution of femininity insulting to men? Not only because it implies gender nonconformity (though that’s part of the story), but also because it demotes the target from a dominant to a subordinate position. It exploits, in other words, the tacit understanding that gender isn’t just a difference, it’s a hierarchy. That’s why, although it’s possible to insult a woman by attributing masculine qualities to her (especially if you’re talking about how she looks), it’s also possible for that gesture to be a compliment (‘you think like a man’ is a classic example: we’re supposed to be flattered by this ‘promotion’ to the ranks of the superior thinkers). Attributing femininity to a man, by contrast, pretty much always implies a downgrading of his status.

Feminists were in no doubt that ‘big girl’s blouse’ is a sexist expression, and some quickly set about ‘reclaiming’ it, composing tweets which recontextualised the insult as part of a positive message of resistance to sexism. Sophie Walker, the former leader of the Women’s Equality Party, tweeted:

Today at Young Women’s Trust we are all wearing our #BigGirl’sBlouse to fight the gendered job roles and sex discrimination that’s holding back the brilliant young women we need in all our workplaces and decision-making spaces

Another feminist photographed a pink shirt on a washing line, explaining that

This is the #BigGirlsBlouse I wore yesterday, when I went to talk to an employer about how they can protect their staff from #sexualharassment. They’re especially keen to tackle the everyday, ‘low-level’ sexism that erodes people’s status at work. The gov’t could learn from them!

There were also tweets like this one, thanking Johnson for inspiring the writer to take action:

Well this Big Girls Blouse has just contacted her local Labour CLP and offered to campaign for the first time ever. I’m 52 and a 40 E cup in case it’s of interest to Boris. And me and my assets will now be doing all we can to bury him. Thanks for the inspiration. #BigGirlsBlouse

Whether sexist insults can be ‘reclaimed’ is one of the questions I’m asked most frequently: to my mind it’s a complicated issue, and the reaction to ‘big girl’s blouse’ is quite a good illustration of its complexity.

The way #BigGirl’sBlouse has been taken up on Twitter exemplifies what might be called ‘opportunistic’ reclaiming–intervening in a specific context to get a specific, and usually limited, effect. It’s the same thing feminists did with ‘[such a] nasty woman’ after Donald Trump used the phrase to describe Hillary Clinton. I call it ‘opportunistic’ (which I don’t mean to imply a negative judgment—being able to seize the moment is an important political skill) because you’re essentially exploiting a political opportunity created by your opponent, using his own insulting words to criticise and/or ridicule him. The goal isn’t really to reclaim ‘nasty woman’ or ‘big girl’s blouse’ by turning them into terms of feminist approbation; on the contrary, in fact, it’s to make these expressions less acceptable in future.

Another well-known example of this type is the use of the term ‘slut walk’ to name a protest against rape culture which was organised in response to a police officer’s comment that if women didn’t want to be raped they shouldn’t dress like sluts. Opinions on this one differ: mine is that the original slut walk was a great example of seizing the moment–taking the opportunity to call out an egregious piece of public slut-shaming–but that’s where it should really have stopped. Now that most onlookers can no longer connect the concept of a slut walk to the context in which it originally emerged, the political message has become less clear, and it’s been accused of uncritically celebrating an inherently sexist concept (though in fairness, the founder of the slut walks, Amber Rose, has said herself that she’d like the word ‘slut’ to become obsolete.)

A different type of reclamation involves repurposing a term that was historically an insult as a positive marker of group identity and solidarity, though its use as such is usually restricted to group members and trusted allies. Examples include ‘crip’ (as used by some disability activists) ‘dyke’ and ‘queer’, as well as, some would argue, ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ (which are used by some female speakers as terms of endearment, though that doesn’t mean they’d accept them from non-intimates). ‘Big girl’s blouse’ is not a good candidate for this kind of reclamation, because although it expresses contempt for women, it is not used directly to insult them. It’s not obvious in this case who would want to reclaim it as an identity marker: its targets, allegedly ‘effeminate’ or wimpy men, do not form a coherent political community.

Even where there is such a community, though, the reclamation of insults as positive identity labels tends to generate internal dissent. ‘Queer’ is a case in point: you increasingly see it being used positively, but surveys have found that a lot of LGBT community members, especially gay men, do not find this in-group use acceptable. Some say they will never be willing to call themselves by a word their experience has led them to associate with being verbally abused, threatened and even assaulted. While words continue to be used as slurs, some of the people targeted by them will find proposals to reclaim them insensitive and insulting.

With ‘queer’, the aim of the pro-reclamation camp is not just to make the word positive for in-group members, but also to make it more generally usable as a neutral, descriptive term. The idea is that ‘queer’ should be as widely accepted as ‘gay’ has become in recent decades. Similarly, there have been regular proposals to reclaim ‘cunt’ as simply a non-clinical descriptive term for the female genitals (though as I’ve explained elsewhere, I doubt that will ever happen).

One word that women did succeed in reclaiming as a neutral descriptive term is the word ‘woman’ itself. ‘Woman’ was not a strongly pejorative term like ‘cunt’ or ‘queer’, but it was often felt to be ‘impolite’ and therefore avoided or replaced. Historically the politeness issue had been about class distinctions: it was insulting to call female people of a certain social status ‘women’ rather than ‘ladies’. But even after that distinction had been lost, the idea lingered on that ‘lady’ was polite while ‘woman’ was disrespectful. Feminists were critical of what they saw as the squeamish avoidance of ‘woman’, and they made a concerted effort to establish it as simply the unmarked or default way to refer to an adult female. Broadly speaking that effort was successful (though ‘woman’ has since become contentious for other reasons, and the baggage that made people uncomfortable with it in the past remains visible in, for instance, the dictionary and thesaurus entries that recently inspired a petition complaining about their sexism).

In some cases it’s pointless to try to reclaim a word, because social change has made its use as an insult, and sometimes its use for any purpose, a non-issue. An example is ‘old maid’, a derogatory label for a no-longer young woman who, as people used to say, has been ‘left on the shelf’. In a world where unmarried women are no longer social outcasts or freaks, this term has lost its sting, and much of its currency: in the unlikely event that someone did call you an old maid, you’d probably assume they meant it as a joke.

If you’d asked me before this week, I’d have put ‘big girl’s blouse’ in the same category of archaic joke-insults. I hadn’t heard it in years; to hear it being uttered in the House of Commons, especially by someone who’s younger than I am, was more of a surprise than an affront. Though I don’t dispute that it’s a sexist expression, what it connotes, at least to me (perhaps because I first encountered it in the school playground 50 years ago), is an old-fashioned and particularly puerile kind of sexism. In short, I thought Boris Johnson sounded silly and childish calling Jeremy Corbyn a ‘great big girl’s blouse’.

It has since turned out that this is not the only occasion on which Johnson has resorted to the language of the playground. Last month, as he and his advisers planned to sideline Parliament in the crucial run-up to Brexit, he wrote a note in which he referred to fellow-Old Etonian David Cameron as a ‘girly swot’. Critics have been quick to diagnose arrested development, and to blame it on the British upper-class habit of sending impressionable children to single-sex boarding schools. But in fact this isn’t just a British problem: all over the world (in the US, the Philippines, Brazil) we are seeing the rise of middle-aged, misogynist man-children whose political rhetoric leans heavily on crude and puerile insults. When we criticise Boris Johnson’s language we need to see it in that context–as an outward and visible symptom of a deeper political malaise.

The header image shows a detail from one of Ronald Searle’s illustrations for Willans and Searle’s series of  Molesworth books