Sexism’s greetings

Last week on Twitter I suggested that if you were looking for a potted guide to patriarchy you could try spending ten minutes in a high street card shop. I meant it, too. Since the 1970s feminists have been relentlessly critical of the sexist messages communicated in advertising, in the packaging of toys and the design of children’s clothes; yet we seem to have had much less to say about the sexism of mass-market greeting cards.

Maybe it’s because cards are ephemeral, displayed for a short time and then discarded. But in Britain particularly, we buy a lot of them: according to industry sources we’re the world’s most enthusiastic consumers of greeting cards, sending about 30 per person per year. Mother’s Day alone accounts for about 29 million sales, and the UK market overall is worth an annual £1.7 billion. Nor will it surprise you to hear that an estimated 85% of all these cards are bought by women. The job greeting cards do–maintaining relationships with family and friends–is a form of emotional labour which is generally considered part of women’s work. And the occasions they mark (births, marriages and deaths, anniversaries and other yearly celebrations) are part of the domestic or personal sphere with which women are traditionally associated. Which makes it all the more infuriating that so much of what’s on sale addresses women in ways that range from patronizing to outright misogynist.

What prompted my comment on Twitter was a photo someone posted of this pair of cards–I assume they’re Valentines, or at any rate intended for courting couples.

card twit

The person who posted the photo commented: ‘ah yes, the two sides of heterosexuality, commerce and toil’. Which is true enough, and sexist enough to be going on with; but what it doesn’t point out is that ‘make me a sandwich’ (or ‘sammich’) is a popular meme in the online manosphere, where it’s used as a put-down meaning ‘shut up woman, don’t you know your place is in the kitchen serving men?’ There’s no comparable implication of subservience in the boy-to-girl card. They might look like two versions of the same thing–one blue, one pink, both displaying the text in the same pseudo-handwriting with hearts instead of dots over the i–but on closer inspection they’re not.

This pair of cards exemplifies three patterns which are common across the whole greeting card genre. First, there’s the fact that the card addresses (or if you’re a fan of Louis Althusser you might say ‘interpellates’) the recipient, and often also the buyer/sender, as a gendered being.  That rule applies at every point in the human life-cycle. Want to congratulate someone on the birth of a baby? Great, but you’ll need to know the newborn’s sex so you can choose the right pastel shade (yep, we’re basically talking about blue and pink again) and the right words–as we all know, there are girl words and boy words. This gendering will continue when you select birthday cards for the child, and later the adult. Even the saccharine verses in birthday cards for older relatives use clearly gender-differentiated language–grandma is sweet and kind, while grandad is funny or ‘brilliant’.

You might think that this gendering is only natural: kinship terminology is systematically gender-marked, and the neutral words that do exist (e.g. ‘parent’, ‘sibling’) feel too impersonal for family occascard friendions. But on its own that doesn’t explain why there’s such a stark difference in the message (the colours, images and words designers select), nor why so many cards addressed to friends rather than relatives are also gendered. The one on the left, for instance, has pink type, butterflies, cupcakes, and the word ‘lovely’–so although it doesn’t say explicitly that it’s meant for a female friend, a competent card-consumer will understand that.

Male friends aren’t ‘lovely’: they don’t listen, understand and support, they joke and josh and take the piss. A quick look at the male friendship cards available via Amazon suggests that humour rather than soppy stuff is the norm,  and offensive humour is particularly favoured (see the masterpiece below, which is described on the site as ‘perfect for male friends and brothers’). card maleThis is the second general pattern–a tendency to make use of the crassest imaginable stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.  Even if you’re looking for a same-sex wedding or civil partnership card you’ll find it hard to avoid gender stereotyping (though you will find rainbows instead of straight-up pink or blue).

But it’s the third pattern that’s most problematic from a feminist perspective:  the use made by card designers of a set of ancient tropes about heterosexual relationships, which appear with monotonous regularity, particularly though not only on cards marking heterosexual milestones (engagements, weddings, anniversaries).  Here’s a husband-to-wife example. card wifeIt’s the old cliché of the ‘battle of the sexes’, the idea of marriage, or more generally heterosexuality, as a never-ending struggle for supremacy between adversaries who also need, desire and depend on one another. From the middle ages to the present, this cliché has often incorporated the idea that even if it’s supposedly men who rule the world, we all know that in reality it’s women who have the upper hand–talking incessantly, bossing men around and spending all their hard-earned money (sorry, what century are we in again?) Men put up with this because they love women: it’s a case of ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’.  Or as this card, spotted a couple of years ago in a university bookshop, put it:


Call me old-fashioned, or maybe just a humourless feminist, but it’s difficult to find this joke amusing when you know that in Britain the number of women killed by men–the majority of them current or former partners–is 2-3 a week. When that point was put to the manager of the bookshop, she agreed, and said she’d stop displaying the card. But most examples of ‘battle of the sexes’ humour aren’t as shocking as this one, and their banal sexism continues to flourish unimpeded.

card christmas maleThe other recurring heterosexual trope could be summed up as ‘all men are only after one thing, and all women are always gagging for it’. This kind of humour is probably most familiar from ‘saucy’ seaside postcards, but it also has a history on Christmas cards (some of them designed by the most famous of the seaside postcard artists, Donald McGill).


Today the language can leave less to the imagination.  card bushcard rudeLike the ‘I’d buy you flowers/make you a sandwich’ cards at the beginning of the post, these two Christmas cards (intended to be sent, respectively, from wife to husband and husband to wife) form a complementary set: one speaks in the voice of a female, the other in the voice of a male. But once again, these two voices aren’t just saying the same thing in slightly different words. As in so many representations of heterosex, the male speaks as an active sexual subject,  whereas the female adopts the receptive position. Incidentally, the website where I found these explains that the designer is a woman: she draws the images, and they are then ‘digitally enhanced by my rather clever husband’. You don’t have to be male to make your living from old-fashioned sexism.

Nor do you have to be female to be a target.  As one man reminded me indignantly on Twitter, cards are prone to stereotyping men as ‘fat, incompetent drunks who only like cars and football’.  He’s right, except that the range of things men are meant to like is slightly wider than cars and football–a glance at any ‘for men’ range will also turn up other objects with engines and/or wheels, such as motorbikes, boats and steam trains. The men who populate ‘humorous’ greeting cards are as one-dimensional as the women; and since anything soppy is off limits, there are even more of these joke cards addressed to men. What those cards don’t do, however, is propose to give men ‘a good stuffing’, or ‘shoot them and bury them in the garden’. Jokes about useless male slobs whose wives boss them around are a rather different thing from jokes about women making sandwiches or waiting for a ‘Christmas male’–because it’s male rather than female dominance that’s built into the social and sexual order. In any case, the feminist analysis isn’t ‘insulting women is bad, but insulting men is good’; these are two sides of the same patriarchal coin.

So what other options do we have?  A number of the women who responded to my tweet reported refusing to buy–and instructing their families not to buy for them–the patronizing, pinkified products on offer for birthdays, anniversaries and Mother’s Day; instead they chose more ‘neutral’ cards featuring artworks or animal pictures, with the inside left blank for the sender’s own message. And you can get actual feminist cards if you’re buying for feminist friends. But as some commenters pointed out, these ‘alternative’ products don’t cater for all the needs addressed by the mass market–for instance, one said she’d found it more or less impossible to source a card congratulating someone on the birth of a child that eschewed the usual gender stereotypes (or even came in a colour that wasn’t either pink or blue).

But while there’s some demand for alternatives to the sexist crap you see on the high street, or on Amazon, what I find really depressing is the continuing buoyancy of the market for sexist crap. Even at its most jaw-droppingly offensive (like the ‘can’t shoot them and bury them in the garden’ card) this stuff just doesn’t seem to generate the same kind of criticism as sexist adverts, toys and clothes. Some women evidently are voting with their purses, but is it time to actually say we’re Not Buying It? Should we be leaving sarky reviews on Amazon, and stickering offensive examples in card shops the way we used to put ‘this ad degrades women’ stickers on dodgy adverts in tube stations? If women really do purchase most of the greeting cards sold in Britain each year, then we ought to be able to send a message to the industry about the messages it’s sending us.













Joking aside

Do you use humour at work? Have you ever cracked a joke to liven up a boring meeting, or kicked off a presentation with an amusing anecdote? Would you agree that the ability to make people laugh is a useful professional skill?

If your answer to these questions is ‘yes’—and if you also happen to be a woman—then I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. According to a recently-published article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, using humour at work enhances men’s status, but for women it has the opposite effect. Whereas men’s humour is seen as ‘functional’, a tool for producing all kinds of positive outcomes (defusing tension, reframing problems, bonding team-members), women’s is more likely to be seen as ‘disruptive’, a sign that they’re lightweights who lack focus and dedication.

How, I hear you ask, did the authors of the article reach that conclusion? The answer is that they conducted an experiment: they recruited a sample of judges and asked them to evaluate a presentation made by a store manager named Sam (in fact the presenter was an actor and the presentation was scripted). Some judges watched a male Sam, others a female one; in each case half of them saw a presentation in which no use was made of humour, while the other half saw a version of the same presentation that included five humorous statements. Their article doesn’t specify what these were, but in a write-up for the Harvard Business Review they do reproduce the first one:

So, last night, my husband/wife gave me some good advice about this presentation. He/she said, whatever you do don’t try to be too charming, witty, or intellectual… just be yourself!

It’s not exactly side-splitting stuff, but subjects did judge both versions of Sam funnier when their presentations included it. However, those who had watched the female Sam rather than the male one were more likely to agree with statements like ‘the humor distracted from the purpose of the presentation’. And when they were asked about Sam’s career prospects (‘in your opinion, how likely is it that Sam will advance in the organization?’), the judges gave higher scores to the funny male Sam than either the non-funny male Sam or the funny female Sam. Female Sam did better on these questions when she was not funny (though she still did less well than her unfunny male counterpart). When she was funny, the judges accused her of, as one put it, trying ‘to cover up her lack of real business acumen by making little jokes’.

The authors explain their findings as the product of gender bias: their study shows, for the n millionth time, that even if the behaviour of men and women is identical, it is liable to be interpreted in different ways and judged by different standards. He is ‘direct’ and she is ‘abrasive’; he uses humour to get things done and she uses it to ‘cover up her lack of real business acumen’. That’s why, as I have pointed out in other posts about language in the workplace, advising women to imitate men’s behaviour is unlikely to solve their problems. These researchers agree, warning that

The potential for women to advance in the workplace may be harmed by the use of humor. Thus, recommending the use of humor to women leaders may in fact reduce their perceived effectiveness and opportunities for career advancement.

But this is not very helpful either, because avoiding humour also has costs. The humourless, po-faced boss or co-worker is not, generally speaking, a popular figure; if she’s female, her refusal to lighten up is likely to prompt the judgment that she is arrogant, or—that cardinal female sin—’unapproachable’. It seems women are damned whatever they do: if they’re funny they’re seen as disruptive, but if they aren’t they’re seen as unlikeable.

The authors say they’re not suggesting women should stop being funny at work, they’re just drawing attention to the problem in the hope  that ‘increased awareness of prejudice can help to reduce its occurrence’. I can’t say I share their optimism: many people have raised doubts about the effectiveness of interventions based on this principle, like unconscious bias training.  As with all discussions which start by asking how women’s behaviour might be holding them back at work, I think the main effect of ‘increased awareness’ will probably be to make women even more anxious and self-conscious than they are already. It’s predictable, depressing and infuriating—but before we throw up our hands in despair and look for new careers as self-employed spoon-whittlers, we should pause to ask if this study tells the whole story about gender and humour.

As the authors themselves acknowledge, their methodology had some obvious limitations. If you ask subjects to judge a scripted presentation delivered by a person they have never seen before, you are maximizing the probability that their judgments will rely on stereotypes: what else, after all, have they got to work with? In real life we usually have information about people that goes beyond obvious characteristics like sex, race and age. Also, in our real working lives our judgments aren’t abstract and decontextualized: rather we assess behaviour in relation to the whole situation—one which we are not just observing at a distance, but are actively involved in ourselves. The question arises, then, of whether the reactions of the judges in the experiment tell us anything very useful about real workplace situations.

As it happens, the use of humour was one of the issues examined in a large qualitative study of gender and workplace talk that Janet Holmes and her colleagues carried out in New Zealand. This study found that although the amount and type of humour people used varied in different workplaces, humour itself was a ubiquitous feature of working life, and its uses were similar for employees of both sexes. In Holmes’s words, ‘Both women and men crack jokes, exchange jocular abuse and tell funny stories at work’. Her account did not suggest that engaging in these behaviours reduced women’s perceived effectiveness. In fact, it suggested that women could use humour as a means of asserting or maintaining their status.

One function of humour is to soften criticism (and other acts that might cause hurt or offence) and reduce the risk of provoking conflict. Making a joke of something renders it both less overtly threatening and more difficult to take issue with (since if you object you risk coming across as humourless). This is what makes humour such a useful resource for sexists: when women protest about jokes or comments they find offensive, they can be met with the time-honoured ‘just banter’ defence (‘we weren’t being serious–can’t you feminists/PC-types take a joke?’) In the New Zealand data, however, there were cases where women used humour as a resource for either contesting sexism or turning the tables on men. For instance, at one project team meeting a woman initiated a humorous exchange that traded on a well-known stereotype of male incompetence:

Clara: he wants to get through month’s end first. He’s –  he can’t multi-task
[Other women laughing]
Peg: It’s a bloke thing
[General laughter]
Clara: [laughs] yeah yeah

The ‘softening’ effect of humour can also make a woman’s authority more palatable. Clara is noted for her direct, decisive and not especially collaborative management style; but one way in which she maintains good relationships with colleagues is by taking it in good part when they jokingly refer to her as ‘Queen Clara’. This nickname, which likens her to a monarch issuing commands to her subjects, is itself evidence of the way women are judged by a sexist double standard. I did once know a man whose workplace nickname was ‘King X’, but he wasn’t just direct and decisive, he was a tyrannical megalomaniac whose subordinates lived in fear of him. But Clara’s willingness to go along with the joke serves a pragmatic purpose: she gets what she wants from her team, while also deflecting the criticism to which all powerful women are vulnerable, that she’s an overbearing stuck-up b****.

The New Zealand study presents evidence that workplace humour is a complex phenomenon which serves a range of different purposes, and that in real-life work situations gender is only one of many factors that shape its use and interpretation. Other contextual variables, such as the culture of the organization, the roles of individuals and their relationships with colleagues, are more significant influences than gender in and of itself. By stripping out all that other stuff, the experimental study almost certainly amplified the gender difference it was investigating, potentially leading women to overestimate the risk that using humour in the workplace would harm their careers.

Methodological limitations aside, studies like this one also prompt the more basic question of why a certain issue is being investigated in the first place. The researchers didn’t pluck their hypothesis from thin air: there’s a long tradition of scientific (or ‘scientific’) discourse on gender and humour, and its starting point has always been that there’s something anomalous about women being funny.

When feminists took up the subject in the 1970s, one of their goals was to challenge the sexism of previous accounts, both scientific and popular, which essentially argued that being funny was a guy thing and women were just no good at it. They were either seen as innately humourless (an accusation commonly levelled at feminists, and even more frequently at lesbians), or else as too dim and ditzy to do humour well. If they tried to tell a joke they’d get confused and forget the punchline; if they embarked on a funny story they’d keep going off at tangents until their listeners lost interest. This thesis came in various theoretical flavours: Freud was popular in some quarters, Darwin in others (the Darwinian argument—that men use humour to attract mates, whereas women don’t need to be funny, they just need to be physically attractive—survives to this day).

One possible response to this argument was to call it out as sexist bullshit. Another, however, which was popular among some feminists, was to say that men didn’t find women funny because they defined ‘being funny’ in a way that excluded women’s distinctively female style of humour.

Descriptions of this style will remind anyone who knows the work of Deborah Tannen of her ‘difference’ or ‘two cultures’ approach, which posits a fundamental contrast between status-oriented and competitive men and rapport-building, collaborative women. Well before Tannen popularized it, this contrast had been invoked to make generalizations about the kinds of humour that were typically favoured by women or men. For instance: whereas men compete to top each other’s contributions, women collaborate to produce intimacy through shared laughter. Whereas men like jokes that climax with a punchline, women prefer less structured personal anecdotes. (If this one reminds you of another much-discussed sex-difference, I can only say you’re not alone.) And whereas men tend to make others the butt of their humour, women are more likely to poke fun at themselves.

A number of linguists I respect have used this framework, and I don’t dispute their observations about the way humour was used by the women and men they studied. But it’s a mistake to generalize about half of humanity from such a limited body of evidence–one that’s heavily skewed towards a particular subset of women, often talking in contexts where you’d expect to see collaborative, rapport-building behaviour (e.g. long-established female friendship groups, feminist ‘rap groups’, and support groups for mothers with young children). Even in the 1970s there were cases that didn’t fit this template—such as Rayna Green’s 1977 study of women’s bawdy talk in the US South, which included one woman’s riposte to a comment from her granddaughter on the sparseness of her pubic hair: ‘grass don’t grow on a racetrack’.* Some later research noted that both women and men used different kinds of humour in single-sex and mixed-sex groups. The New Zealand workplace study documented both ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ styles of humour, but it didn’t find that either style was used by one sex exclusively.

The more examples of humour we look at from different communities and settings, the more difficult it becomes to argue that there are clear-cut gender differences. As usual, there’s a gap between the actual behaviour of men and women, which shows more overall similarity than difference (along with a lot of variation inside each of the two gender groups), and our cultural beliefs about their behaviour, which are much more consistent—largely because they’re not derived from observations of what men and women do, they are expressions of our deeply-held convictions about what men and women are or should be like.

The authors of the study I began with suggest that what’s behind the prejudice against women being funny at work is our belief that men are more agentive, rational and goal-oriented than women. That’s why men’s workplace humour is interpreted as functional, deployed by rational agents as a way of achieving their goals, while women’s is seen as disruptive, signalling a lack of dedication to the business at hand. But this doesn’t really account for the fact that the prejudice isn’t confined to situations like the workplace where humour can be seen as ‘functional’ or ‘goal-oriented’. I can’t help thinking it skirts around some much more general points about humour, gender, sex and power.

Being funny is, in a number of key respects, incompatible with conventional femininity. For one thing, it involves putting yourself centre-stage: when you embark on a joke or a funny story you’re saying ‘pay attention to me’, and when you finish you’re expecting some sort of acknowledgment, like laughter or applause. That kind of attention (and the feeling of power you get from it) is still widely seen as a male prerogative: women who usurp it are not only displaying a lack of feminine modesty, they are also failing to play their prescribed role as supporters and cheerleaders for men. (Some studies have reported that women laugh more at men’s jokes than vice versa; and anecdotally it’s been suggested that when men advertise for a female partner with a good sense of humour, what they’re looking for isn’t a funny woman, but a woman who will tell them they’re funny.)

For another thing, it’s fairly difficult to make people laugh while also projecting the kinds of feminine qualities our culture defines as sexually alluring—like elegance and glamour, or innocence and grace. Funny women and sexy women are frequently presented as different ‘types’. That’s why so many films and TV shows pair a sexually attractive female protagonist with a less attractive best friend/sister/roommate: the sexy woman gets the guy, while the plain, fat or dowdy one gets the laughs. Behind this division of labour is the old idea that humour unsexes or de-feminizes women, and that those who make a speciality of it are trying to compensate for being ugly and unattractive.

Nevertheless, women persist in being funny—and so they should, whatever studies show. What studies mostly show is that women can be criticized however they behave, particularly in the workplace. And if the critics are never going to like what you do, you might as well just do what you like.


*I haven’t linked to Green’s study, ‘Magnolias grow in dirt’, because the source isn’t available if you’re searching from a location in the EU–but it’s discussed in this generally useful review of 20th century gender and humour research. 

Banal sexism

Last month I wrote about David Bonderman, the billionaire businessman who resigned as a director of Uber after suggesting that appointing more women to the board would mean ‘more talking’. Allegedly he meant this comment as a joke; but even if no one present had been offended, you have to wonder who would have found such a hoary old cliché amusing. An enormous amount of sexism is like this: thoughtless, repetitive, trite and formulaic. What—as bad stand-up comedians say—is that about?

Back in 1995, Michael Billig wrote a book about a phenomenon he called ‘banal nationalism’. The term ‘nationalism’ is most commonly used to denote what Billig refers to as ‘hot’ nationalism—a political ideology driven by strong emotions, which is often associated with conflict and violence. But his point was that there’s a less overt, lower-level form of nationalism which we don’t generally call by that name. Unlike the ‘hot’ variety, its main function is not to foment conflict or hatred of the Other. It’s to maintain our awareness of ourselves as national subjects—keep ‘the nation’ as a concept ticking over at the back of our minds. In Billig’s words:

National identity is remembered in established nations because it is embedded in routines of life that constantly remind, or ‘flag’ nationhood. However, these reminders or ‘flaggings’ are so numerous, and they are so much a part of the social environment, that they operate mindlessly, rather than mindfully.

The word ‘flag’ in this quote is a pun: one obvious daily reminder of nationhood is the national flag, flying (or as Billig puts it, ‘hanging limply’) on hundreds of public buildings. But banal nationalism takes subtler forms too, and many of them have to do with language.  For instance, the use of first person ‘we/us’ to mean ‘the people of this nation’, whereas the people of other nations are referred to with the third person ‘they/them’. The presence on every high street of businesses with names like the ‘Nationwide Building Society’ and—until recently—‘British Home Stores’. TV programmes hailing viewers with ‘Good Morning Britain’. Formulaic phrases that reference people’s shared membership of a nation, whether explicitly (‘best of British luck’) or implicitly (‘it’s a free country’).

The same idea can be applied to sexism.  Sexism also has ‘hot’ forms, and those are the ones mainstream discourse finds it easiest to recognise and condemn. The western media have no difficulty in recognising the sexism of the Taliban and Boko Haram; the more liberal parts of the western media have no difficulty in recognising the sexism of Gamergaters and Donald Trump.  But what you might call ‘banal sexism’—ordinary, unremarkable, embedded in the routines and the language of everyday life—is a different story. It does often go unnoticed, and when feminists draw attention to it they’re accused of taking offence where none was intended or embracing ‘victim culture’. These knee-jerk defences are often delivered with an air of surprise—as if the people responsible hadn’t realised until that moment that anyone could possibly dissent.

The idea that women talk incessantly is a classic example of banal sexism—it’s something people trot out on autopilot, as if they were commenting on the weather.  Most remarks about the weather fall into the category of small talk, or what the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski called ‘phatic communion’: their function is not to exchange information, but just to establish common ground and reassure others of our good intentions. That’s why statements like ‘lovely day today’ are almost invariably met with agreement: ‘Yes, beautiful!’ It would be odd to respond with something like ‘well actually it’s two degrees below the mean temperature for mid-July’. That might be an impressive demonstration of your meteorological knowledge, but it would also reveal your social incompetence, since you’d have missed the whole point of a phatic exchange. It’s the same with banal sexism: challenging the proposition (‘well, actually studies show that men talk more than women in most situations’) will be seen as a peculiar and hostile act. It’s especially hard to challenge a joke, because no one wants to be accused of lacking a sense of humour.

In my youth I didn’t understand this. I remember the first time I ever heard Chas & Dave’s pop classic ‘Rabbit’, a jolly cockney moan about women who give their husbands earache. It was 1980, and—at the age of 21—I had recently discovered my inner Radical Feminist. I thought, ‘you may sell that record today, but it won’t be long before you’re history’.  I was wrong: nearly 40 years later, the myth of the Woman Who Never Shuts Up remains ubiquitous in popular culture. Consider, for instance, this advertisementIMG_7139 for cruising holidays, which was recently photographed by a Swiss follower of this blog*:

Translated into English, this says: ‘Peace/quiet on holiday? Make your wife simply speechless’.  It’s a banal sexism double whammy, combining the old ‘rabbit, rabbit’ cliché with the idea that you can always shut a woman up by spending your hard-earned wages on something she wants. The ad’s presuppositions are both insulting and false (women don’t talk more than men, and according to one 2013 industry survey they make about 80% of household travel plans), but whoever came up with it seems not to have been concerned about offending potential customers.

Nor do I suspect its creator of deliberately courting controversy, though that’s certainly a strategy some advertisers have used. Banal sexism doesn’t provoke outrage. It occupies the part of the spectrum that runs from ‘seen but unnoticed’ (like the ‘default male’ convention which I discussed in an earlier post) through to ‘annoying but not worth getting all fired up about’. You might shake your head, roll your eyes, post a photo with a scathing comment on Facebook, but most people wouldn’t bother to make a formal complaint.

But sometimes the zeitgeist changes, and a form of sexism which has previously been tolerated gets moved from the ‘banal’ into the ‘hot’ category. Last year, for instance, a friend of mine spotted this greeting card, womenpart of a range addressed to men, in a university bookshop. Greeting cards in general are like a bottomless well of banal sexism, and ‘humorous’ cards like this have been around forever: though feminists have long found their message objectionable, most people have treated it in the same way as the ‘make your wife simply speechless’ ad, as an essentially harmless (if perhaps tasteless) joke based on the banal trope of ‘the eternal battle of the sexes’.

But recently more people have become aware (thanks in part to the work of feminists like Karen Ingala Smith and her Counting Dead Women project) that in the UK a man actually does kill a woman, most commonly a current or former partner, about every 2-3 days. If you’ve thought about that statistic, you’re less likely to let a joke about ‘shooting women and burying them in the garden’ pass without protest. I wasn’t surprised to hear that my (feminist) friend had complained, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the bookshop manager had agreed with her–and had promptly withdrawn the card from sale.

But the issue here is not just about the (un)acceptability of joking about male violence. Banal sexism is also exemplified by the formulas used in serious news stories about the killing of women by men. In France (where the statistics are similar to the UK’s), the journalist Sophie Gourion has set up a tumblr called Les Mots Tuent (‘words kill’) to document and criticise the linguistic ‘banalisation’ (‘normalisation/trivialising’) of violence against women and girls. She is exasperated by the constant repetition of phrases like crime passionel (‘crime of passion’, a category that does not exist in current French law), drame familial (‘family drama’, typically referring to ‘family annihilation’ cases where a man murders his partner and their children before killing himself) and pétage de plomb (‘blowing a fuse’, ‘flipping/freaking out’, ‘having a meltdown’). As she notes, these terms imply that the perpetrator was overcome by a sudden, uncontrollable impulse—whereas in fact many of these killings turn out to have been premeditated, not uncommonly by men who have long histories of domestic violence.

Similar formulas are well-established in the English-speaking media. In 1992, Kate Clark published an analysis of the Sun’s reporting of violence against women and girls, and found a pattern in the language used to label perpetrators and victims. In cases where ‘innocent’ women (in the Sun’s worldview that meant young girls or dutiful wives and mothers) were killed or assaulted by strangers, the perpetrators were given dehumanising labels like ‘beast’, ‘fiend’, ‘maniac’ or ‘monster’.  By contrast, reports of domestic violence, including homicide, tended to label men in ways that both humanised them and emphasised their own status as victims. One man who killed his wife and then himself was referred to as a ‘tormented’, ‘debt-ridden Dad’ (the word ‘tormented’ recurred in the reporting of so-called ‘family tragedies’); another who shot his wife and her mother dead was described as a ‘spurned husband’. Even the affectionate diminutive ‘hubby’ appeared in one report about a man whose 12-year history of domestic violence was revealed in court after he almost killed his wife.

Kate Clark’s data were taken from reports that had appeared in the late 1980s, but much of her analysis remains pertinent today. In Ireland last year, for instance, when a man named Alan Hawe stabbed his wife Clodagh to death, strangled their three sons and then hanged himself, the case was reported in both the Irish and British media as a ‘family tragedy’. The Mirror printed a photo which showed the family (in the words of the caption) ‘smiling together before all five lost their lives’.  ‘Lost their lives’ suggests an accident rather than the intentional killing which actually took place, but in the ‘family tragedy’ frame, as Clark’s earlier study found, the killer is usually portrayed as another victim, and often as the primary victim. In the Hawe case, again typically, much of the media’s attention focused on the mental ‘torment’ that must have driven Alan Hawe (described in numerous sources as a ‘real gentleman’ and a pillar of the community) to such extremes. Some commentators even portrayed him as a victim of sexism—the sexism of a culture which does not permit men to show weakness or express emotion.

This representation only began to be questioned after a blog post entitled ‘Rest in peace, invisible woman’, by the Dublin-based feminist writer Linnea Dunne, was picked up by the mainstream media. Dunne remarked on the way media reporting centred on the killer and his imagined state of mind (there was no actual evidence that Alan Hawe had any history of mental illness), while those he killed were treated as minor characters, or erased from the story entirely. Even the discovery of the family’s dead bodies was couched in terms that adopted the killer’s perspective: they were said to have been discovered by ‘his mother-in-law’ (aka Clodagh Hawe’s mother and the children’s grandmother).

By contrast with the keen interest they took in his mental state, reporters did not ask if Alan Hawe had a history of domestic violence. It would later turn out that he did: in the words of one family friend, ‘he controlled everything around him, he controlled how his family lived, he controlled how they died’. It would also emerge that Clodagh Hawe’s family, initially portrayed as grief-stricken but forgiving, had fought an eight-month battle to have the killer’s body removed from the grave in which he had originally been buried alongside his victims.

As time went on it became clearer and clearer that the framing of this story by most of the press had persistently obscured the material facts. And this is far from being an isolated example. This month, the UK press has been reporting on the case of Francis Matthew, a Briton living in Dubai, who killed his wife Jane with what the Emirati authorities described as ‘a strong blow on the head with a solid object’. Initially Matthew claimed that the attack had been perpetrated by burglars who broke into their home. Later, when it was clear this story would not stand up, he admitted that he had thrown a hammer at his wife during ‘a row’, but he continued to insist that her death was an accident. This example differs from the Hawe case in that there was only one victim: no children were involved and the perpetrator is still alive. But reports on it (like this one in the Telegraph) have used many of the same generic and linguistic conventions. For instance:

  1. The repetition of the words ‘tragedy’ and ‘tragic’. If the crime really had been committed by intruders, the reports would have used words suggesting anger and condemnation, but when murder is ‘all in the family’, the emotions we are directed to feel are sadness and pity for both/all parties.
  2. The centring of the (male) killer and the near-total erasure of his victims. Dead or alive, he is the main protagonist of the ‘tragedy’, while the victims exist only in relation to him. In the Telegraph’s report, for instance, we are told a fair amount about Francis Matthew’s life history, and we also learn that ‘the couple…were a fixture of Dubai’s social scene’, but nothing is said about Jane Matthew’s history, activities, interests or personality. Like Clodagh Hawe, she is rendered invisible.
  3. The presentation of the killing as a sudden, inexplicable eruption of violence into a previously happy relationship. In this case (as in the Hawe case before it, at least immediately after the murder), the message that Matthew’s act was ‘out of character’ is conveyed by reporting the reactions of others: ‘Friends and associates of Mr Matthew said they were astounded to hear that the genteel editor was under arrest. “He is the biggest teddy bear I know,” said one family friend’. Another acquaintance is quoted describing him as ‘relaxed, calm and laid back’. Though the Telegraph does mention that he has been charged with ‘premeditated murder’, it does not probe the apparent contradiction between this charge and Matthew’s own  claim to have killed his wife accidentally in the heat of the moment.
  4. The inclusion of multiple details which portray the killer as a man of good character and reputation. The Telegraph‘s report is headed by a photo of Francis Matthew shaking hands with the Emir of the UAE; it goes on to extol his educational and professional achievements, and makes several references to his standing in the expatriate community. This, we infer, is what makes the case so ‘tragic’. Not that a woman died following a brutal assault (and who knows how much other abuse in the months and years preceding it), but that a successful man’s life has been ruined by a momentary loss of control.

If I’m putting this kind of reporting in the category of banal sexism, it’s not because I think it’s trivial, but because I think it operates, as Billig says about banal nationalism, more mindlessly than mindfully. I don’t think there’s some media conspiracy to defend homicidal men: it’s more a case of reaching for the familiar formulas (the ‘family tragedy’ frame and the associated clichés—‘out of character’, ‘pillar of the community’, ‘lost their lives’) without ever thinking to interrogate the assumptions that lie behind them. It’s the news-story equivalent of the political discourse which Orwell, in 1946, compared to a ‘prefabricated henhouse’—assembled rapidly and unreflectively from a pile of standard, mass-produced components.

Let me hasten to make clear, though, that this analysis is not meant as an excuse for the journalists who produce these stories. On the contrary, I think this mindless recycling of familiar banalities about domestic violence is an absolute dereliction of their professional duty. Professionals who like to think of themselves as fearless seekers after truth should not be taking the conventional ‘family tragedy’ story at face value, particularly when—thanks to several decades of feminist activism and research—the facts which contradict it are readily accessible. There is ample evidence, for instance, that intimate partner killings like the murder of Jane Matthew are rarely ‘isolated incidents’, and that many men who are violent in private appear ‘calm and laid back’ in public.

Journalists are also professional language-users, and as such should be expected to make considered linguistic choices. Would anyone in any other context talk about ‘spurned husbands’ and ‘tormented dads’? It’s 2017, FFS: why are news reports still full of these archaic, tone-deaf clichés? If you call yourself a writer, you should try engaging your brain and actually thinking about the words you use.

Words may not literally kill, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have consequences. The banal sexism we see in the reporting of domestic homicide cases echoes, and so contributes to perpetuating, some of the same attitudes which are held more actively by men like Alan Hawe—like the idea that women are appendages rather than people who matter in their own right, and the view that violence is an understandable response to the pressures society puts on men. (‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t let them live if they don’t want to live with you’.) I’m glad that this traditional formula is now attracting more outspoken criticism, and not only from the usual feminist suspects. It’s lazy, it’s sexist and no self-respecting news outlet should give it house-room.

*thanks to Martina Zimmermann

Default: male

On Twitter recently, the British Green Party’s women’s organization explained why it had chosen to refer to its constituency as ‘non-men’ rather than ‘women’.

green party women

This inspired an outbreak of the kind of mockery and parody Twitter excels in. ‘What’s all this in my mentions about the non-blue party?’ inquired one user. Others urged the immediate rewriting of well-known feminist slogans and book titles, like ‘a non-man needs a man like a non-mammal needs a bicycle’ and The Non-Male Eunuch. Popular music was also fertile territory: ‘I’m Every Non-Man’ and ‘No Non-Man, No Cry’ were among the classics given the #greenpartyfeminism treatment.

The idea behind substituting ‘non-men’ for ‘women’ was to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary people. It will be news to nobody that this is a contentious issue in contemporary feminist politics. But whatever position you take on the issue itself, ‘non-men’ remains problematic from a linguistic point of view. It cannot easily be made to function as an inclusive, feminist or non-sexist term, because it repeats the most basic and ubiquitous of all sexist linguistic gestures: treating men as the default human beings while relegating women to what the radical feminist linguist Julia Penelope dubbed ‘negative semantic space’. ‘Non-men’ defines a subordinated group in relation to the dominant group, ‘men’: consequently it ends up, in today’s jargon, ‘centring’ the dominant group, even if that isn’t the intention.

The idea of maleness as the default setting is manifested linguistically in all kinds of ways. My last post discussed another version of the same principle—the gratuitous gendering of women like Zaha Hadid, who was often referred to as a ‘female/woman architect’, whereas men are simply ‘architects’. In many languages the male-as-default principle is built into the grammatical system, requiring masculine forms of articles, adjectives and pronouns to be used both in generic references to a category and in specific references to any group containing even a single male individual.

But it isn’t just in language that this principle holds sway. It influences the way we process all kinds of representations of the world—visual as well as verbal.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read about a recent study in which the linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer analysed the gender distribution of the dialogue across the entire canon of Disney princess films, from Snow White in 1937 to Frozen in 2013. To many people’s surprise and consternation, they found that the proportion of the spoken dialogue given to female characters had actually decreased over time. In Snow White women got approximately half the lines; in Sleeping Beauty (1959) they had just over three quarters. With The Little Mermaid (1989), however, their share dropped to under a third. In the most recent film analysed, Frozen, it was 41%—even though Frozen has two central female characters.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with the ‘default male’ principle, the answer is, quite a lot. According to the researchers, what’s driving the trend isn’t primarily a change in how much the central female characters speak. It has more to do with the move (first made in The Little Mermaid) to Broadway musical-style ensemble casts featuring more supporting characters–the majority of them, as it turns out, male.

In Karen Eisenhauer’s view, what’s behind the imbalance is an unconscious form of male bias:

My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm. So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man. I think that’s just really ingrained in our culture.

It isn’t just the people at Disney who display this ingrained tendency to imagine the prototypical representative of a category like ‘shopkeeper’ or ‘guard’ as a man rather than a woman. We all do it. We only have a female prototype for roles which are very heavily stereotyped as female (like ‘secretary’ or ‘witch’). By contrast, the tendency to assume that a ‘generic’ X will be male doesn’t just apply to the most stereotypically male roles (like ‘drill sergeant’ or ‘construction worker’), it applies to any role that isn’t almost exclusively reserved for women.

I agree with Karen Eisenhauer that this form of bias isn’t usually conscious and deliberate (if it were, it might be easier to get rid of). But I think there may be more to it than carelessness. If we want to see what else might be going on, a good place to look is in cartoons of another kind, the kind where a single visual image with dialogue and/or a caption is used to make a joke. Here’s an example.

avant guard dog

The joke here does not depend on the sex of the dog. It’s not even clear whether it has a sex. There’s no verbal specification of whether it’s male or female, and its outfit–the beret, sunglasses and narrow pants–belongs to an androgynous ‘bohemian’ style which has been worn by women as well as men (for instance, Juliette Gréco in Paris in the 1950s). Nevertheless, I read it immediately as a male dog.

Here’s another canine cartoon, where the joke is a bit more complex.


In this case I read all the characters, human and canine, as male. In the human case that’s not surprising: arguably the joke about outsourcing hunting requires them to be men, on the basis that our mental prototype for stone-age scenarios includes (accurately or not) the information that men were the hunters. But why do the wolves-slash-dogs have to be male? (In this case that’s not just my interpretation: one of them is addressed as ‘Tony’ and their boss is referred to as ‘Steve’.)

The obvious answer is that the animals in these cartoons are being anthropomorphized, and our reading of their sex reflects our prototype for human guards or business entrepreneurs. But while I think that’s right as far as it goes, I’d argue it isn’t the whole story.

A cartoon is a highly condensed kind of message, which will fail if the recipient doesn’t ‘get it’ at first glance. So it’s designed to get us to focus on the central point, without being distracted by incidental background details. One way to accomplish that is to depict something that’s instantly recognizable because it matches our prototype for the relevant social setting (be that a workplace, a restaurant, a classroom or a stone-age hunt). It’s not that we can’t make sense of non-prototypical scenarios when we encounter them in real life, but we process information faster when it doesn’t conflict with our default expectations. So, messing with the prototype is something that tends to happen only when the point is to challenge conventional expectations. This is a common strategy in feminist cartoons, where the point or joke is actually about gender or sexism. But in most cases gender is just a background feature: if you treat it non-prototypically you risk pushing it into the foreground and ruining the intended effect.

To see what I’m getting at, try imagining the wolf/dog cartoon with female canine characters (‘Tina’ and ‘Sue’ rather than ‘Tony’ and ‘Steve’). It’s possible, right? As anyone who’s watched The Apprentice knows, in the real world there are female entrepreneurs who use words like ‘rebranding’ and ‘outsourcing’; and substituting female characters would make no difference to the joke, because the joke has nothing to do with sex/gender.

But that’s exactly the problem. If we imagine entrepreneurs as prototypically male, we’re primed to respond to the substitution of a female one by assuming that her femaleness must be significant—that it’s central to the joke rather than just an incidental detail. So, in this case people might think the joke is about women outwitting men while letting them think they’re in charge, when really it’s about wolves doing that to humans. Similarly, if a joke began with the formula ‘an Englishwoman, an Irishwoman and a Scotswoman…’ we’d anticipate a punchline relating to the characters’ sex as well as their national origins. Otherwise, why deviate from the usual all-male line-up of ethnic stereotypes?

To keep the joke ‘clean’, you have to avoid distracting people with unexpected background details, like a female placed without comment in the slot for a generic category-member (a guard dog, a businesswolf, a Scot, or whatever). But the result is that women are either absent from cartoons which aren’t directly about women, or else they only appear in very stereotypical roles where their presence is in line with our expectations.

Here’s a cartoon which uses gender stereotyping in a joke about something else:

anger management

The humour here depends on incongruity—setting up a prototypical office scenario, and then showing someone doing or saying something which confounds our expectations of that scenario. In this case, gender stereotyping (the secretary is a woman and the therapist is a man) increases both the conventionality and the incongruity. The woman (middle aged and conservatively attired) is both exactly the kind of person you’d expect to fill the ‘secretary’ slot, and exactly the kind of person you would least expect to utter the words ‘fuck off’. If the cartoonist had put a man in this slot, the joke would still (IMHO) be funny, but it would arguably be slightly less funny.

These are not overtly sexist cartoons. They aren’t making a point about women, or male-female relations; the women (where there are any) aren’t being mocked or belittled or objectified. Yet I’ve been arguing that they are, in fact, examples of low-level sexism. What they exemplify is the kind of pattern ethnomethodologists call ‘seen but unnoticed’: like the background noise in a coffee shop, we tune it out so we can concentrate on the important stuff in the foreground. I tuned it out: they all made me laugh. But should feminists be so willing to tune it out?

When we criticise sexist representations, or look for alternatives to them, we are typically—and understandably—most concerned about what’s in the foreground. Our first question when choosing books or films for children, for instance, will often be whether there’s a ‘strong’ female central character, someone active and resourceful who doesn’t just waft about looking pretty. Contemporary producers often share that concern. In the case of Disney princess films, as Karen Eisenhauer notes,

If you watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries, there’s so much explicit discourse on what the princess is going to be like, and always it’s a feminist discourse in some way. They want her to be powerful.

The trouble is, as she also says, that this kind of discussion ‘never, ever seems to have gone beyond the princess’. Concerns about sexism and stereotyping do not extend to the depiction of the larger social world which forms the backdrop to the central character’s story.

But it’s not all about the princess. Whether we’re children learning about the world for the first time or adults using our existing knowledge to make sense of new situations, we’re always absorbing information from the seen-but-unnoticed (that is, not consciously noticed) background. And the beliefs we form in the process are hard to shift. But from a feminist perspective it’s important to try to shift them.

Social change only really succeeds when new ways of thinking, speaking and acting become normalized, taken for granted and treated as unremarkable. To put it another way, when the background changes. When we stop needing extra time to process a sentence that refers to a doctor or supervisor as ‘she’. When we don’t think ‘hey, a woman!’ if it’s a female voice that addresses us from the flight-deck. When the minor characters in stories and jokes—generic shopkeepers, guard dogs, stone-age people or space aliens—are as likely to be female as male, and no one thinks anything of it. When no one is a ‘non-man’—or more importantly, a non-person.

Cartoon credits: ‘Avant guard dog’ from Speed Bump, by Dave Coverly; ‘The domestication of the wolf’ by Chaz Hutton;  ‘Anger management’ by Donald Reilly.