A very British sexism

Last week I inadvertently caught the beginning of Question Time, a long-running weekly political panel show which I have loathed and detested for many years. As luck would have it, I switched on at the very moment when its smug host David Dimbleby called on an audience member to ask the first question. Which was: ‘do we need a bloody difficult woman to negotiate Brexit?’ The studio audience applauded (they always do, and I have no idea why), while I reached, simultaneously, for the TV remote and the sickbag.

‘A bloody difficult woman’ was originally a comment made by the veteran Tory politician Kenneth Clarke about the present Prime Minister Theresa May. He came out with it (during what he wrongly assumed to be a private, off-mic conversation) during last summer’s Conservative leadership contest, in which May was one of several candidates; and he clearly didn’t mean it as a positive assessment. But like Donald Trump’s rather similar description of Hillary Clinton–‘such a nasty woman’–it quickly took on a new life as an empowering feminist slogan. It became a popular hashtag on Twitter, started appearing on badges and T-shirts, and was hymned on the Telegraph’s women’s page as ‘the ultimate compliment’.

The same paper offered a handy guide to the various subtypes of ‘BDW’, personified by women like the (late) TV dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse and the (fictional) Dowager Countess of Downton. Jan Moir in the Mail added Anne Robinson and Miss Piggy to the list. Moir also argued that Clarke’s insult was really a compliment. When a man calls a woman ‘difficult’, she mused,

that’s a tacit acknowledgement of [her] power. It means: ‘I can’t control her.’ It means: ‘She won’t do what I tell her to do.’ It means: ‘To be honest, I am a little bit scared of her’.

While I don’t agree with Moir that women should be flattered by this reaction, I do think her observation points to an uncomfortable truth which many mainstream discussions of sexism gloss over. Those discussions often define the problem women face as getting people (especially men) to ‘take them seriously’. Just this week, for instance, Girlguiding UK released some research which showed that girls and young women are very aware of the sexist treatment of female politicians, and it’s putting them off engaging in politics. News reports quoted 16-year old Emma Taggart, who complained about the excessive attention paid by the media to women’s bodies and their clothes: as she said,

Focusing on a politician’s appearance instead of what she has to say sends the message that even women in the most powerful roles in the country aren’t taken seriously.

The same point was made by another women’s organisation, Fawcett, in its 2015 ‘Views not shoes’ campaign against sexist election coverage. But while it isn’t wrong as far as it goes, I find this analysis superficial. The problem isn’t that we as a culture don’t take powerful women seriously. How seriously we take them may be inferred from the lengths we are willing to go to to demonise and undermine them. The real problem is not denial, but resentment of female authority–a resentment which no woman should take as a compliment, since what is ultimately behind it is misogyny.

Trivialising women with comments on their shoes or reducing them to the status of sexual objects (as in the Mail’s now-infamous ‘Legs-it’ photo), legs-for-commentsis only one expression of this resentment, one strategy for putting women (back) in their place. Calling them ‘bloody difficult’ or ‘nasty’ is another. But these codes are relatively simple and transparent. What I want to talk about is another, more insidious code, which is also pervasive in the British media.

The reason for talking about this, of course, is that we’re currently in the middle of another General Election campaign, unexpectedly announced last month by Theresa May. This ‘snap’ election has been widely interpreted as a Brexit version of Churchill’s ‘give us the tools and we will finish the job’–it’s a post-referendum referendum on May’s leadership. But when she first announced it, surprising her party colleagues, it wasn’t Churchill she put them in mind of.  Rather, the Sunday Times reported that ‘Tory MPs…have taken to referring to their leader as “Mummy” in their text exchanges’.

Actually, they’d called her that before: ‘Mummy’ also turned up in Tory tweets during last suheel boysmmer’s battle for the party leadership. GQ helpfully suggested that May was ‘nasty mummy’ to her younger rival Andrea Leadsom’s ‘nice mummy’.  And of course, nasty mummy won; we all know those Tory boys love a bit of discipline. When May became Prime Minister, the front page of the Sun depicted her stiletto heeled foot (she actually favours kitten heels, but why ruin a good dominatrix reference?) coming down on the heads of her hapless male subordinates. The headline, inevitably, was ‘Heel, boys’.

What was the Sun trying to say, though? It’s a Tory paper, it supported the side that won the referendum, and the text on the page implied approval of the party’s choice—’Maggie’ May was another Thatcher, she was going to re-unite the country and deliver Brexit to the people. But the subtext, if something so in-your-face can be called a subtext, was sending another message entirely. Give a woman the whip hand (geddit?) and she’ll treat you like dogs.

This isn’t just about Theresa May, and it isn’t just about the Tories. When Sylvia Shaw and I analysed the press coverage of the 2015 General Election for our book Gender, Power and Political Speech, we noticed a pattern in the way authoritative women were described. Here are a few examples: the first two are about Julie Etchingham, the news presenter who moderated the first TV election debate, and the rest are about Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party.

  1. Our Julie was also in a white jacket that gave her the air of an imperious dental nurse.
  2. This headmistress was not taking any nonsense from the naughty boys and girls at the back of the class.
  3. But the Aussie [Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party] backed the head girl Nicola when she took on the Prime Minister, saying: “I agree with Nicola.”
  4. She was very much like a primary school teacher, bobbing her head up and down, using her hands a lot.
  5. She ticked off Nigel Farage like a hospital matron who has found something nasty in the ward.

The women being described here had featured prominently in a debate watched by millions; one of them also had a day job running a small country. And what did the pundits compare them to? Head girls, primary school teachers, headmistresses, nurses, Matron. This is how female authority is made intelligible: through allusions to a set of archetypal roles in which women have traditionally exercised power–prototypically over children, or over adults infantilised by illness. There was no pattern of analogous references to men: their authority in the political sphere is taken for granted, and does not call for comment or explanation.

In the press reports I’ve quoted, the cultural references writers draw on in their comparisons are noticeably British (and evidently aimed at Britons of a certain age): Malory Towers, St Trinians, Hattie Jacques in the Carry On films. 8615-3006We’d only need to add Nanny, Bertie Wooster’s aunt Agatha and the Dowager Countess of Downton and we’d have the full set of Thoroughly British Battleaxes. These women’s authority is both a joke and a threat (or perhaps I should say, it’s made into a joke to defuse the threat): they’re bossy boots, petty tyrants, and in popular culture often grotesque—ageing, physically unattractive and either sexless or pathologically oversexed ‘man-eaters’.

Another common figure in this gallery of female grotesques is the man in drag, as exemplified by Margaret Thatcher’s Spitting Image puppet. Margaret Thatcher Spitting Image puppetThe running gag on Spitting Image was all about emasculation: Thatcher’s male Cabinet colleagues were portrayed not just as ‘a little bit scared of her’, but as terrified, spineless wimps. One sketch had her ordering a steak, and replying to the waitress’s query ‘what about the vegetables?’ with ‘oh, they’ll have the same as me’.

As this joke demonstrates, resentment of female authority is a weapon that can also be used against men. Whereas authority in women is unnatural and repulsive, in men it is normal and desirable: the unnatural man is the one who lacks authority, or worse, who submits to the authority of a woman. He is ‘henpecked’ or ‘pussy whipped’, allowing the  woman to ‘wear the trousers’. During the 2015 General Election campaign this unnatural role-reversal became a recurring theme in right-wing press commentary on Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon (in case anyone’s forgotten, in the latter stages the Tories leant heavily on the idea that if English people voted Labour they would end up being governed by the SNP). georgeEd and Nicola were compared to George and Mildred, the characters in a 1970s sitcom about an overbearing nagging wife (another of British popular culture’s oversexed grotesques) and her long-suffering henpecked husband.

Then there was this little fable, composed by Matthew Parris for the Times after watching the second TV debate:

Spring is the season when pigeons distract us with their mating dance. The male paces about in an exotic strut, coocooing and puffing out his chest. The female makes a show of mincing away from him. He follows; she sidesteps; he pursues; she retreats. … On Thursday night on the BBC a similar courtship ritual could be observed taking place between two politicians, but with this striking difference. It was the lady in the dove-grey jacket [Sturgeon] coo-cooing with a puffed-out chest, and the gentleman in the dove-grey tie [Miliband] who was being coy.

The Sun, as ever, was briefer and blunter:

Nicola Sturgeon may wear high heels and a skirt, but the eerie silence from noisy ex-leader Alex Salmond proves she eats her partners alive.

All women who aspire to hold positions of power have to negotiate this representation of female authority as unnatural and emasculating (if not actually homicidal). And often, they find themselves trapped in a double bind. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, was damned both for not being enough of a woman and for being too much of one: while Spitting Image was portraying her as a man in drag, the Guardian was accusing her of ‘deliberately exploiting her gender as a weapon’. The writer seems not to have noticed that Thatcher’s gender was already a weapon—primarily one which others could use against her. Understanding this as a fact of life, she did not so much ‘exploit her gender’ as look for ways to turn men’s sexism to her own advantage.

According to her long-time ally Lord (Charles) Powell, one of the strategies she developed enabled her to get her own way in most arguments with her Cabinet colleagues: she would simply stand her ground until they backed down. ‘She knew’, explained Powell, that

private-school-educated British men weren’t brought up to argue with women. Only one or two of [the men in her cabinet] could stand up to that sort of treatment, or if they came from the same background as her… but most of the others got uncomfortable.

British ruling-class men of Thatcher’s generation had been formed by their experiences in an all-male world of public schools and single-sex Oxbridge colleges; as adults, their professional and political networks largely excluded women, except as helpmeets (wives and secretaries). In this milieu, the authority of women (personified by mummy, nanny and Matron) was something you had to put up with as a child, but you knew from an early age that when you grew up it would cease to be relevant. Since women were not your equals, or your rivals, you could afford to treat them with the pretend respect known to the upper classes as chivalry, or being a ‘gentleman’. This class-specific form of sexism was what Thatcher learned to manipulate. (Left-wing women confront a different set of challenges, but that’s a subject for a different post.)

Conservative women like Thatcher can also exploit the fact that authority itself is positively valued on the political right. As much as he or she may resent being bossed by a woman, your average Tory will take a strong female leader over a weak and ineffectual male one. If she passes their political virility test by being tough enough on their hot-button issues (war, national security, crime and immigration), conservatives may be willing to elevate her to the quasi-mythical status of the ‘Iron Lady’.

Despite her record as a hardliner on at least three of the issues mentioned above, Theresa May has not been given the ‘Iron Lady’ title. But it’s no accident that she and her supporters have spent the last two weeks talking incessantly about her ‘strong and stable leadership’. This is simultaneously a dig at her opponent Jeremy Corbyn (who is by implication weak and chaotic), and a message to anyone who might harbour doubts about a woman leader’s strength, determination or resilience. Like Thatcher before her, May is willing to embrace sexist stereotypes, but selectively, to suit her purpose. What she seems to be trying to project in this campaign is a combination of Mummy’s ruthless protectiveness (she’ll give no quarter when it comes to standing up for her British brood) and the stubborn persistence of the ‘bloody difficult woman’.

By now, though, you’re probably wondering what my point is: am I defending women like May and Thatcher? Am I suggesting British feminists should vote Conservative in June? The answer to that last question is no, absolutely not: I certainly won’t be voting for May’s clueless and inflexible leadership myself. To the first question, however, the answer is slightly more complicated. I’m not defending these women’s politics, but I am defending women politicians, and indeed women in general, against attacks which are rooted in misogyny.

No matter how much we despise the women being targeted, feminists shouldn’t applaud when they’re belittled and mocked using the code I’ve described in this post. We shouldn’t join in with the chorus of ‘bloody difficult woman’, ‘time for mummy’, ‘heel, boys’, and we shouldn’t pretend these jibes are really backhanded compliments. As I’ve said, what they express is resentment–and it’s not a specific resentment of right wing women, it’s a more general resentment (seen in varying forms across the political spectrum) of any woman who, as Rebecca West famously put it, ‘does or says anything that distinguishes her from a doormat’. We urgently need other ways of thinking and talking about women in authority: this one is toxic, and it damages us all.

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The taming of the shrill

During last year’s UK General Election campaign, Richard Madeley told readers of the Daily Express:

I can’t get enough of Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. That gorgeous accent! I could listen to it all day. It’s warmer than sunlight shining through a jar of honey.

Madeley wasn’t the only commentator who found the ‘warm’ or ‘lilting’ quality of Wood’s voice a bit of a turn on. Over in the USA, by contrast, it’s become a truth almost universally acknowledged that Hillary Clinton’s voice is a turn off. It’s been described by commentators as ‘loud, flat and punishing to the ear’, ‘decidedly grating’ and, inevitably, ‘shrill’.

The extent to which her critics have made an issue of Clinton’s voice has become a mainstream news story in its own right. Yet the topic of the male voice has barely featured in discussions of Clinton’s rival Bernie Sanders, nor in reporting on the Republican race, which is now an all-male affair. In the UK, similarly, election pundits expressed no opinions on the ingratiating smoothness of David Cameron’s vocal performance, or the blokeish braying of Nigel Farage. As Elspeth Reeve observed last year in the New Republic, men’s voices just don’t seem to make much impression:

[T]hink about Jeb Bush’s voice. It’s so—wait, what does it sound like again? He sounds just … like a guy, maybe?

It’s not that male politicians’ language gets no attention: there’s been plenty of commentary on their rhetoric, especially in the case of Donald Trump. And–as the New Republic piece goes on to demonstrate, quoting linguists like Penny Eckert, Carmen Fought and Mark Liberman–it’s not as if there’s nothing to say about the voices of Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Sanders. So, why is it only women whose voices are subjected to relentless critical scrutiny?  The short answer is, of course, ‘sexism’. But why does it take this particular form?

The most familiar feminist explanation for prejudice against the female voice connects it to the larger question of gender and authority. For historical and social reasons, the ‘unmarked’ or default voice of authority is a male voice;  criticism of female politicians’ voices is essentially a way of tapping into the still-widely held belief that women do not have the authority to lead.

Low voice pitch, a highly salient marker of maleness, is also strongly associated with authority. In 2012 an experimental study using digitally manipulated recordings of men and women saying ‘I urge you to vote for me this November’ found that judges of both sexes preferred the lower pitched version of each recording. Both men and women were advantaged by having a lower voice than their same-sex ‘rival’.

This association is what makes the word ‘shrill’, which combines the concept of high pitch with the idea of an unpleasantly piercing sound, such a common criticism of female public speakers. The linguist Nic Subtirelu has investigated the use of ‘shrill’, along with two other terms that do a similar job, ‘shriek’ and ‘screech’, in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. He calculates that the media are

2.17 times more likely to describe a woman or a girl as “screeching” (or a related form of the word) than a man. A woman or girl is also 3.14 times more likely to be described as “shrieking” (or a related form of the word), and she’s 2.3 times more likely to be described as “shrill”.

High pitch is associated not only with femaleness, but also with other characteristics which imply a lack of authority, such as immaturity (children have high-pitched voices) and emotional arousal (we ‘squeal’ with joy or fear, ‘shriek’ with excitement, ‘screech’ angrily). Saying that a woman’s voice is ‘shrill’ is also a code for ‘she’s not in control’.

It was this perception that led Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first and so far only woman Prime Minister, to undergo voice-training which lowered her pitch significantly. But the result was—to put it mildly—not to everyone’s taste. As Mrs Thatcher soon discovered, the only prejudice more widepread than scepticism about female authority is deep resentment of female authority.

That resentment is expressed in some of the other disparaging terms that are commonly used about women’s voices, like ‘abrasive’, ‘bossy’, ‘grating’, ‘harsh’, ‘hectoring’ and ‘strident’. Rather than focusing on pitch, this set of negative descriptors focuses on the tone and volume of a woman’s voice to suggest that she is aggressive and overbearing.

Today this is an even bigger problem for female politicians than it was for Mrs Thatcher. In an age of interactive, 24/7 media, we no longer treat our leaders as remote authority figures: we want them to be likeable or ‘relatable’ on a human level. But research suggests that it is harder for women to combine authority with likeability. If they score well on one, they’ll do badly on the other.

The female authority figure with the ‘shrill’, ‘grating’ voice is not just unlikeable, she’s also stereotyped as sexually repulsive. When Sylvia Shaw and I analysed media commentary on the UK General Election for our book Gender, Power and Political Speech*, we were struck by how frequently women in authority—and not only politicians, but even the woman newsreader who moderated one of the TV debates—were compared to archetypal female ‘battleaxes’ like the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school, the sadistic nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and ‘Matron’ from the ‘Doctor’ and ‘Carry On’ films. What these fictional characters have in common is that they’re grotesque: ageing, usually ugly, and either totally sexless or sexually voracious, terrifying the male objects of their insatiable desire.

The theme of the sexually predatory female was especially noticeable in commentary on the relationship between Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, and the then-leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband. In the Times, for instance, we got a strange little fable about pigeons, under the headline ‘Nicola Sturgeon and the politics of sadism’:

Spring is the season when pigeons distract us with their mating dance. The male paces about in an exotic strut, coo-cooing and puffing out his chest. The female makes a show of mincing away from him. He follows; she sidesteps; he pursues; she retreats. … On Thursday night on the BBC a similar courtship ritual could be observed taking place between two politicians, but with this striking difference. It was the lady in the dove-grey jacket coo-cooing with a puffed-out chest, and the gentleman in the dove-grey tie who was being coy.

The Sun compared Sturgeon to a Black Widow spider who ‘eats her partners alive’. And in this extract from a political sketch in the Telegraph, the words used to evoke the quality of her voice (in this case through the choice of quotative verbs) play into the depiction of powerful women as bossy bullies:

“Ed Miliband is scared to be bold,” scowled Ms Sturgeon. “We don’t want a pretend alternative to austerity.”
…Desperately Mr Miliband tried to steer the debate back to his absent foe. “Let’s not pretend there’s no difference between me and David Cameron,” he said, rather pleadingly.
“There’s not a big enough difference!” barked Ms Sturgeon.

Whereas Miliband ‘says’ things, ‘pleadingly’, Sturgeon ‘scowls’ and ‘barks’. Hillary Clinton has been described as ‘lecturing’ her audience (the behaviour of a schoolmarm or a strict mother) and her laugh has been called a ‘cackle’ (suggesting another version of the powerful but repulsive female, namely the witch).

Our cultural stereotype of the ‘attractive’ or sexually alluring female voice is very different. A ‘sexy’ voice may be high or low in pitch (think Marilyn Monroe or Lauren Bacall), but it is never ‘shrill’ or ‘grating’: it is breathy rather than clear, soft rather than loud, and ‘warmer than sunlight streaming through a jar of honey’.

Of course, a politician who used this voice would be criticized for ‘lacking authority’. Leanne Wood, whose warm and honeyed tones Richard Madeley said he could ‘listen to all day’, was endlessly patronized by the media: another writer described her as looking like ‘a 16-year-old whose date had failed to show up for the prom’. But unlike Margaret Thatcher, Nicola Sturgeon or Hillary Clinton, Wood did not commit the cardinal female sin of being a ‘turn off’.

Which brings me back to the question of why it’s women whose voices get all the attention. I think it’s at least partly for the same reason there’s more attention to female politicians’ faces, figures and clothes. Women are judged, to a far greater extent than men, by their perceived physical/sexual attractiveness. Judgments on a woman’s voice—the most directly embodied, physical aspect of linguistic performance—are part of the same phenomenon. And just like the judgments made on their bodies, the judgments made on women’s voices often express something more visceral, and more sexual, than the commentators are willing to admit.

Consider, for instance, Ben Shapiro’s defence of ‘shrill’ in a piece whose self-explanatory title was ‘Yes, Hillary Clinton is shrill. No, it’s not sexist to say so’.  His trump card is the observation that not all women politicians get called ‘shrill’:

Nobody calls Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) shrill, because she’s not shrill. She may have lifeless eyes, a doll’s eyes, but she doesn’t shriek like a wounded seagull.

‘Lifeless eyes, a doll’s eyes’??? On reflection, I think I agree with Shapiro that comments like these aren’t most aptly described as ‘sexist’. I’d describe them as outright misogyny.

*Gender, Power and Political Speech: Women and Language in the 2015 UK General Election, by Deborah Cameron and Sylvia Shaw