Sex, death and aliens: a feminist watches ‘Arrival’


Last week I saw Arrival, the recently-released film with Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the US military to decode the language of some non-humanoid aliens who have unexpectedly arrived on earth. I wasn’t expecting to love it; in fact, when I first heard about it I thought I’d probably give it a miss. For one thing, I’ve never been a great fan of the ‘aliens have landed’ genre; for another, I’d read that Arrival leans heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a 20th century theory which says that your perceptions of reality are influenced—or in the strongest version of the theory, determined—by the characteristics of the language you speak.

People in my line of work tend to approach anything based on this premise with caution. Most linguists rejected the ‘strong’ version of the hypothesis long ago (though ‘weak’ versions continue to be debated), but that hasn’t prevented it from being endlessly recycled in popular culture, often in crassly simplistic ways. Some propositions based on it have been around forever, repeated so often they’ve passed into received wisdom (like the indestructible zombie fact about Eskimos having a lot of words for snow—they don’t, but even if they did, as Geoff Pullum says in his classic debunking piece ‘The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’, why would that be any more significant than printers having a lot of words for fonts?) Others, testifying to its continuing vitality, have popped up more recently (remember the headline-making claim from 2013, that people save more if their language lacks a future tense?)

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has also been of interest to feminists. In 1980 Dale Spender invoked it to support her thesis that women were oppressed by having to view the world through the lens of a ‘man made language’. And a few years later, as I explained in an earlier post, the feminist linguist and sci-fi writer Suzette Haden Elgin made it the premise of a series of novels, for which she also created an alternative ‘women’s language’.

Not all versions of the idea that idea that language determines thought are directly indebted to Sapir and Whorf. Another perennially popular source for it is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. (Orwell was a contemporary of Whorf, though it’s unclear if he knew Whorf’s writing). Though Arrival refers explicitly to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in some ways it seemed closer to the Orwellian tradition. Specifically, it reminded me of a classic piece of feminist writing in that tradition: Carol Cohn’s 1987 article ‘Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals’.

Cohn wrote this article after spending a year at what she refers to as ‘the Center’, an institution devoted to studying the technology and strategic use of nuclear weapons. (She memorably describes herself as ‘a feminist spy in the house of death’.) A critic of US defence policy, she hoped that spending time with ‘defence intellectuals’ would give her politically valuable insights into their thinking. But she gradually became aware of a paradox. To interact with the experts it was necessary to speak their language, since if you didn’t use their specialist terminology they dismissed you as ignorant and naïve. But as Cohn learnt the language she realised her attitudes had changed:

The more conversations I participated in using this language, the less frightened I was of nuclear war.

Why did learning the language have this effect?  Cohn’s answer is that ‘nukespeak’ is designed to make its users feel powerful and in control. By positioning them as knowledgeable, rational agents, planning and overseeing the use of weapons of mass destruction, it insulates them from the emotions they would feel if they identified with the mass of powerless victims.

The most obvious feature of nukespeak which enables it to do this job is abstraction: it’s full of acronyms and obscure nominalisations (like ‘escalation dominance’ and ‘strategic stability’) which are, as Cohn comments,

so bland that they never force the speaker or enable the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust.

But it isn’t all about bland euphemisms. Another way in which users of nukespeak are induced to feel powerful is by imagining weapons as extensions of their masculinity. Cohn reports being both amazed and appalled by the extent to which explicitly sexual imagery pervaded the experts’ discourse:

Lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks—what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump”.

Yet the same weapons could also be imagined as cute animals or harmless pets: one anti-ballistic missile system went by the acronym ‘BAMBI’, and on a tour of a nuclear submarine the visitors were asked if they wanted to ‘pat’ a missile.

Cohn was also struck by what the experts couldn’t talk about. The model that informed their strategic discussions had been developed mainly by mathematicians, and its internal logic excluded the human factors which would be likely to affect any real-world conflict. For instance, discussions of ‘limited nuclear war’ were conducted on the assumption that

Our rational actors would be free of emotional response to being attacked, free of political pressures from the populace, free from madness or despair or any of the myriad other factors that regularly affect human actions and decision making. They would act solely on the basis of a perfectly informed mathematical calculus of megatonnage.

Which brings me back to Arrival, and why it reminded me of Cohn’s article. What I saw in the film was the same opposition Cohn posits between militaristic ‘male’ values (rationality, dominance, destructiveness) and their ‘female’ opposites (emotion, co-operation, nurturance). In Arrival the female values ultimately defeat the male ones. Whether you think that makes it a feminist film will depend on what kind of feminist you are.

What I knew about Arrival before I saw it suggested it would be a feminist film in the more conventional Hollywood sense. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (which requires at least one scene where two named female characters discuss something other than a man), because there’s only one adult female character in it. But that character, Louise Banks, is the main protagonist, and her role in the story is defined by her intellectual and professional achievements. She isn’t just a man’s sidekick or his love interest. She’s smart and brave and she ends up saving the world.

But at a deeper level the narrative is structured by the stereotypical male/female opposition I mentioned earlier. Louise isn’t just a brilliant linguist who happens (like many real-life brilliant linguists) to be a woman. The logic of the film requires her to be a woman—Venus to the military establishment’s Mars. I said before that what defines her role is her profession, but in fact she is also identified, in the opening moments of the film, as a mother—one who (we are led to believe) has suffered the death of a beloved child. And this is not irrelevant. Her success in decoding the aliens’ language is shown to depend not only on her technical skills (which are alluded to more than they are displayed), but also and crucially on her feminine/maternal qualities of empathy, intuition and compassion.

These qualities are especially prominent in the scene where Louise makes her initial breakthrough. She manages to connect with the aliens, before she knows how to communicate with them, when she impulsively abandons the defensive posture required by military protocol, and instead makes herself vulnerable. Defying her orders, she removes her protective gear, walks up to the glass wall that separates the humans from the aliens, and presses her naked palm against the glass—a gesture which the aliens reciprocate, and then follow up by offering the first, all-important evidence of their writing system.

Later on, Louise will apply her emotional intelligence to defusing the threat of global war, which arises because of a conflict among rival human powers (China, Russia, the US and their various satellites) about how to deal with the aliens, and in particular, whether to use force against them. This part of the film is like a textbook illustration of Carol Cohn’s point about the practical irrelevance of defence strategists’ abstract models. The politicians and generals who must decide what to do are clearly not in control, and nor are they making rational decisions. As their terrified populations riot, loot and demand immediate action against the alien menace, these leaders stop trying to figure out whether the aliens are really a threat, shut down communications and focus solipsistically on their own political interests (apparently they reason that it’s better to blow up the world than give up your strategic advantage by sharing intel with your rivals).

As the crisis escalates, the rational, pragmatic army colonel in charge of the US military operation seems to accept that the world is heading for catastrophe. Louise, however—who by now is in touch not only with her own feelings, but also with the aliens’ minds (this is where the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes in: by learning the aliens’ language she has become able to cognize the way they do)—refuses to accept defeat. Disobeying orders one last time, she makes a phone call and averts disaster. (I won’t reveal how she does it, but her strategy is definitely from Venus.)

Louise isn’t exactly a ‘feminist spy in the house of death’, since she appears to have no political convictions of any kind. But she can be seen as a disruptive female force in a world whose rules are made by men, and in the context of the film as a whole I think she does symbolise the old idea that women are the creators and protectors of life, whereas men—or at least the powerful ones—are the bringers of death and destruction.

That was also, of course, an argument used by some feminist peace activists in the 1980s. It’s not my favourite feminist idea; but the popularity of Arrival suggests that, like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it still resonates. And when you look at what’s happening around the world today, perhaps that isn’t hard to understand.

Passive aggressive

In 2014, someone set up a Twitter account called ‘Name the Agent’ as part of a feminist campaign challenging the way the media reported violence against women. Specifically, the campaign criticized the use of the passive voice in news headlines like ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’. This headline fails to mention that a man committed the crime. It presents rape either as something that ‘just happens’ to women, or as something for which women are indirectly responsible–as if the woman was raped because she was walking her dog, and not because a man decided to rape her. The campaign called on the media to abandon the passive in favour of active-voice headlines like ‘Man rapes woman dog-walker’.

Complaints about the passive have a long history. Advice to avoid it has been around for the best part of a century: I imagine many people reading this were taught at school that it was ‘bad style’. Originally the reasons for this judgment had nothing to do with politics: commentators in the 1930s said that active sentences were ‘strong’ while passive sentences were ‘weak’. The connection with politics was made by George Orwell, whose 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘ included ‘never use the passive where you can use the active’ on a list of rules for combatting the politically-motivated abuse of language. This helped to popularize the now-common idea that the passive isn’t just bad style, it’s a tool used by the powerful to conceal unpalatable truths and manipulate public opinion.

The feminist argument that passives are used to conceal men’s responsibility for violence against women belongs to this post-Orwellian tradition. But in this post I’m going to try to explain why I don’t think the argument is convincing–why it’s really not as simple as ‘active good, passive bad’.

Before I go on, let’s just run through some grammatical basics.

Below is a simple active sentence. It puts the agent—the doer of an action—in the grammatical subject position, which in English normally means before the verb.

A man attacked a woman

And here’s the passive voice equivalent:

A woman was attacked by a man

In the passive version the subject is ‘a woman’, the person affected by the action, while the agent, ‘a man’, has been relegated to a ‘by’ phrase after the verb. This ‘by’ phrase is optional. You can remove it and still end up with a grammatical sentence, like this:

A woman was attacked

This is a passive sentence with agent deletion: the attacker has disappeared, leaving the sentence to focus entirely on the woman and what happened to her. Agentless passives are common in news reports and headlines: ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’ is an example.

Agentless passives are also common in legal proceedings, and in that context the feminist argument has some force. Research has shown that men who are accused of sexual violence, and the lawyers who represent those men, very often make strategic use of what the linguist Susan Ehrlich calls ‘the grammar of non-agency’, including agentless passives. In her book Representing Rape,  Ehrlich analyses a sexual assault trial in which the defence lawyer asks his client questions like

‘I take it the sweater was removed?’

It’s not hard to see what the lawyer hopes to achieve by choosing an agentless construction that doesn’t specify who removed the sweater. If the court thinks the complainant took off her own clothes, that will support–or at least, not contradict–the defence’s argument that she consented to sex.

As Ehrlich says, it’s only to be expected that defendants and their lawyers will use this strategy. It’s more surprising, and perhaps more worrying, that the same tendency to downplay men’s agency has been observed in the language used by judges. When the researcher Linda Coates and her colleagues analysed the language used in judgments on sexual assault cases in Western Canada, they found many examples of judges using agentless passives like this:

There was advantage taken of a situation that presented itself.

This statement was made in the judgment on a case where a ten year-old girl had been sexually assaulted by a stranger in her home. The ‘situation’, in other words, was the presence of a child in her own bedroom, and it did not magically ‘present itself’, it was engineered by the defendant. A jury had found the defendant guilty, but the judge chose to minimize the seriousness of his offence by describing it in a way that implied he had no agency at all–as if he merely reacted, as anyone might, to the circumstances in which he (inexplicably) found himself.

The judge’s statement is an egregious example of ‘the grammar of non-agency’. But is the use of the passive the main problem here? I think we can see it isn’t if we recast the sentence in the active voice:

The defendant/Mr X took advantage of a situation that presented itself.

This reformulation names the agent, but it doesn’t solve the problem. The vague wording still glosses over what the defendant actually did, and the sentence still presents him as simply reacting to a situation that was not of his own making.

Naming the agent is not the same thing as holding him responsible for his actions. Conversely, not naming the agent doesn’t have to mean concealing or denying his actions.

We can see this if we go back to the newspaper headline ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’, which was criticized for failing to mention the key fact that the crime was committed by a man. It’s true that the headline doesn’t explicitly describe the perpetrator as a man. But it’s not true that the effect is to obscure his maleness from the reader. The word raped, which does appear in the headline, cues the reader to activate what psychologists call a ‘schema’—a sort of mental template for the kind of event the word is applied to. Part of that schema is the information that rapists are prototypically male. For many English-speakers rapists are male by definition, because the meaning of the word rape in their mental dictionary includes the idea of penetration with a penis. But even if they define the word more broadly, their schema will still incorporate the knowledge that rapists are almost always men. If the suspect in a rape case were female, you can be sure the report would say so, precisely because it would be so unusual.

In practice, therefore, the agent-naming headline ‘man rapes woman dog-walker’ communicates no more information than ‘woman raped while walking her dog’. The difference is only that the first version mentions the attacker’s sex explicitly while the second relies on the reader to infer it.

But if the two versions communicate the same information, why do headline writers so often favour the passive? If that’s not about excusing men and/or blaming women, what is it about?

The answer is, it’s about focus. When you choose between the active and the passive, you’re also choosing what to put in the grammatical subject position. In crude terms, you’re deciding what the sentence is about. And you don’t always want it to be about the agent. For instance, if a high-profile public figure is assassinated, the breaking news headline is more likely to be ‘President shot’ than ‘Gunman shoots president’. The story isn’t about the shooter: what makes it news is the identity of the victim.

In stories like ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’, the main news is simply that a rape has been committed. The report can’t say much about either the attacker or the victim: his identity is not yet known, while hers is legally protected. (That’s probably why the writer added the dog-walking detail—not to imply that the victim put herself at risk, but to enable readers to relate to her as an ordinary person engaged in an everyday activity.) In some circumstances the headline-writer might choose to focus on the attacker–for instance, if he’d been caught and arrested, or if the report concerned the latest attack by a serial offender. But if the attacker is just an unidentified, generic ‘man’, there’s no compelling reason to focus on him. It isn’t news to anyone that rape is committed by men.

So, I don’t think there’s a media conspiracy to deny men’s responsibility for violence by using passive-voice headlines. But as I’ve already pointed out, what actually gets communicated doesn’t depend exclusively on the intentions of the speaker or writer. It also depends on the inferences made by hearers or readers. In theory, a writer’s linguistic choices could affect readers’ interpretations even if that wasn’t the writer’s intention. Recognizing that possibility, a number of researchers have run experiments to investigate whether the grammatical framing of a report makes any difference to readers’ judgments of the case.

The basic procedure involves dividing a sample of research subjects into two groups, presenting one group with an account of sexual violence framed in the active and the other with a matched account in the passive, and then asking subjects to rate (a) the perpetrator’s degree of responsibility, (b) the victim’s degree of responsibility and (c) the degree of harm to the victim. Subjects may also be asked to complete a questionnaire about their attitudes to sexual violence, so researchers can see how their judgments relate to their pre-existing beliefs.

I’ll start with what you might call the good news. These studies suggest that we’re not dealing with a form of Orwellian thought control: readers who don’t already subscribe to rape myths are not susceptible to the influence of language. Their judgments are the same regardless of which report they’ve read. The grammar of a report only makes a difference to the judgments of people who have high RMA scores (RMA stands for ‘rape myth acceptance’. And before you ask, yes, gender does play a role here: men on average have higher RMA scores than women, so it’s mostly men who are susceptible.)

The next question is how grammar affects the perceptions of those subjects who are influenced by it. The answer isn’t clear cut: different studies have found different effects. The first group of researchers to do the experiment found what they’d predicted: subjects who read a passive-voice report judged perpetrators less responsible than those who read the active-voice version. But later studies found the opposite: subjects who were influenced by grammar judged perpetrators more responsible after reading a report in the passive.

This second pattern doesn’t fit with the theory that the passive downplays men’s agency and shields them from blame. To explain why it’s been found in some studies, we need to consider what else you can do with passive sentences.

One researcher who has thought about this is Tamar Holoshitz. She conducted one of the experiments which found that passive reports prompted higher ratings of perpetrator responsibility; she also analysed the language used by prosecutors in domestic violence cases, where she noticed that they often referred to the same act or event using both active and passive sentences. For instance:

The defendant gave her a single blow to the left eye

She was admitted [to hospital] after being hit in the eye, suffering from trauma and an orbital fracture

These two sentences are designed to do different things. The first directs attention to the perpetrator and describes what he did. The second directs attention to the victim and describes the consequences of the assault for her. The active sentence names the agent; the passive sentence names the harm.

Holoshitz argues that prosecutors use both these strategies to maximize their chances of getting a conviction. The first is necessary (to convict a defendant you have to show that he committed the crime he is on trial for), but prosecutors know that on its own it may not be sufficient. On any jury there are likely to be people who think violence against women is acceptable under some conditions (if it was ‘just a slap’, if she was ‘asking for it’, if he just lost control and lashed out without really meaning to, etc.). If you want jurors who think like this to return a guilty verdict, you need to address their belief that some degree of force is acceptable. Naming the agent doesn’t do that (they’re not disputing the claim that he punched her), but naming the harm–presenting an account that emphasizes the effect of his violence on the victim–gives you some chance of blocking the standard excuses (‘this wasn’t just a slap. He put her in hospital. You don’t break someone’s bones without meaning to hurt them’). Holoshitz thinks it’s this emphasis on harm that her experimental subjects were responding to when they attributed more responsibility to perpetrators after reading reports in the passive.

What all this boils down to is that passives can serve more than one purpose. The prosecutors in Holoshitz’s study used the passive strategically to highlight the effects of domestic violence on women; the defence lawyers in Susan Ehrlich’s research used it strategically to downplay the agency of their clients. They used the same grammatical construction, but in different ways to suit their different aims.

What matters for feminist purposes is the aims: we can criticize particular uses of the passive without suggesting it should never be used at all. If we do that, we won’t just catch the cases where it works against the interests of women, we’ll also catch the cases where it can work in women’s favour. Language is a resource; let’s not make it into a straitjacket.

Thanks to Tamar Holoshitz for allowing me to make use of her unpublished thesis ‘More than Words: Passive Voice Use in Courtroom Depictions of Violence Against Women’ (Harvard University, 2010).