Expletive not deleted

This week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivered a powerful speech condemning the behaviour of a colleague, Florida Congressman Ted Yoho. Yoho had a problem with some comments she had made suggesting that a recent spike in crime was related to rising unemployment and poverty; he accosted her on the steps of the Capitol, and in the ensuing heated exchange he called her ‘disgusting’, ‘out of your freaking mind’ and finally (according to a reporter who overheard him, though by that time Ocasio-Cortez herself had walked away) a ‘fucking bitch’.

When the reporter’s account was published there were calls for Yoho to be sanctioned: a day later he made an apology to the House which Ocasio-Cortez and many others found woefully inadequate. In her own statement she said that she could have let the original insult pass—she’d heard far worse while waiting tables in New York City—but Yoho’s denial that he used the words ‘fucking bitch’, his lack of genuine regret and the House’s acceptance of his ‘non-apology’ had made her want to pursue the matter further.

This is, among other things, a story about language and power. It unfolded in three parts, and since each part brought a different aspect of language to the fore, I’ll consider them one by one.

I:  The insult

I’ll start where the story did, with a man calling a woman a bitch. What does that mean, and what does it accomplish? Ocasio-Cortez described it as ‘dehumanising’, and on one level she’s obviously right: ‘bitch’ represents a human woman as a non-human (canine) female animal. On reflection, though, we might wonder if that’s really what gives the insult its force. Many other labels compare women to animals—they can also be called, for instance, cows, sows, vixens, cougars and tigresses. In most cases, though, it’s more obvious what attribute of the animal is being invoked. A sow is fat, a vixen is sly, a cougar is predatory, a tigress is fierce. But what is the attribute linking canine bitches to human ones?

There are idioms (like ‘you’re my bitch now’) which suggest that the reference is to being dominated—the bitch is the submissive one, the bottom; but I don’t think that’s the prototypical meaning of ‘bitch’ when it’s used to insult a woman. On the contrary, in fact, women are typically labelled bitches when they aren’t submissive enough. The classic bitch is an ‘uppity’ woman–ambitious, powerful, outspoken, independent, non-compliant or outright disobedient.

Ambitious, outspoken and widely considered a rising star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fits the ‘uppity woman’ profile. That’s probably why, following an argument to which her sex was irrelevant–and which ended when she called him rude and walked away–Ted Yoho reached for the sex-specific insult ‘bitch’. If the argument had been with a male politician he would doubtless have found the man’s behaviour offensive; he might have called the man ‘disgusting’ and ‘out of your freaking mind’. But he wouldn’t have called a man a ‘fucking bitch’. The sin of the bitch–asserting herself while female–is one men cannot commit.

‘Bitch’, we might conclude, is not so much a dehumanising term as a misogynist one. Its function is both to punish individual women who transgress in the ways just outlined, and to police the behaviour of women in general (‘listen and learn, ladies: if you don’t want to be called a bitch, you won’t do what that bitch did’). In the lexicon of misogyny it’s the ultimate all-rounder.

(Incidentally, if you’re still wondering what human bitches have to do with canine ones, there may be a clue in the earlier history of the word. When ‘bitch’ was first, to quote the OED, ‘applied opprobriously to a woman’ (the earliest citation for this sense is dated 1400) it meant ‘a lewd or sensual woman’, or in other words, a whore. So, originally I suspect the relevant canine comparison was with the insatiable sexual appetite of a bitch in heat.)

II: The (non) apology

In the second part of the story, which began when the incident on the Capitol steps was reported in the press, attention turned from Yoho’s offence itself to the apology he was forced to make for it. Apologising is what politeness theorists call a ‘face-threatening act’, of a kind which (especially if it is public) demands a carefully-considered balancing act: you need to display humility, but without allowing yourself to be humiliated. If you get this balance right, apologising can actually enhance your status. But there are many ways to get it wrong.

Yoho clearly got it wrong: many reports referred to what he delivered as a ‘non-apology’. To see why, let’s take a closer look at his statement. (I am linking, with apologies, to Fox News, because their report has an embedded clip, and in this case it’s instructive to listen to the vocal delivery as well as reading the words.) The quote below is the beginning of the apology proper:

I rise to apologize for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague from New York. It is true that we disagree on policies and visions for America. But that does not mean we should be disrespectful. Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of the language I use. The offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleague, and if they were construed that way I apologise for their misunderstanding.

In the rest of the statement he explains why he felt strongly about Ocasio-Cortez’s comments on crime and poverty; he talks about his own experience of poverty and his interest in helping other poor people to succeed. He concludes: ‘I cannot apologise for my passion, or for loving my God, my family and my country’.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation for the judgment of this statement as inadequate is what’s conspicuously missing from it: Yoho did not apologise for what was generally regarded as his most serious offence, referring to a colleague as a ‘fucking bitch’. Rather he denied that he had used ‘the offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press’. Had he left it there it would just have been his word against the word of the reporter who claimed to have heard him utter the offending phrase. But instead he opened up a whole new can of worms by adding: ‘and if they were construed that way I apologise for their misunderstanding’.

This sentence is a puzzle which I admit I have failed to solve. ‘They’ and ‘their’ presumably refer back to ‘the offensive name-calling words’; but he’s just said those words ‘were never spoken to my colleague’. How can unspoken words be ‘construed that way’, or indeed any way? Is his point that he didn’t address the words directly to Ocasio-Cortez (‘my colleague’), but only uttered them after she had left (and if so, how does that make it better?) Or is he saying he used other words, which the reporter misheard as ‘fucking bitch’? The harder you look, the more opaque this denial becomes.

Yoho does manage to apologise for ‘the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague’. But as Ocasio-Cortez pointed out on Twitter, the words he chooses (‘abrupt manner’, ‘conversation’) downplay the aggressiveness of his behaviour. There’s also something weaselly about his use of pronouns in ‘it’s true that we disagree….but that does not mean we should be disrespectful’. It’s clear that the first ‘we’ must refer to him and Ocasio-Cortez. But what about the second one? He might claim it’s a more generic reference to ‘people who disagree’, but more likely it refers to the same two people as before—in which case the implication is that Ocasio-Cortez was also disrespectful, and should share the blame for ‘the abrupt manner of the conversation’ .

Yoho later muddies the waters further by making an explicit non-apology: ‘I cannot apologise for my passion’. Though he may not have intended this as a retraction of his earlier apology for ‘the abrupt manner of the conversation’, it’s not hard to see how that inference might be drawn. If we reason that Yoho spoke abruptly because of his passion, then his refusal to apologise for his passion may suggest that he didn’t really mean it when he apologised for being abrupt.

A felicitous apology must acknowledge that the speaker did something to cause another person harm or offence, it must express the speaker’s regret, and the expression of regret must be sincere (or at least, perceived as sincere by the addressee). Yoho’s statement fails on all counts. His acknowledgment is partial and selective, hedged about with denials, self-justifications and deflections of blame onto others; there is no expression of regret, and only the self-justifications come across as sincere.

And speaking of self-justifications…

Part III: the rhetoric

Though there’s nothing I like about Yoho’s statement, the part of it I dislike most is the reference he makes to his status as a husband and father: ‘Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of the language I use’. Or, translated into the dialect of his fellow conservative Republicans, ‘I have far too much respect for women to let the words “fucking bitch” pass my lips’.

This sententious drivel is in a long line of similar statements made by conservative politicians in recent years. Think back to 2016, when senior Republicans reacted to the release of the Hollywood Access tape—the one where their candidate and future president Donald Trump boasted about ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’—by claiming to be offended on behalf of their wives, mothers and daughters. Or to 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that she’d been sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh prompted Kavanaugh to become tearful about the toll her alllegations were taking on his family. The other men in the room felt his pain: ‘I know as a father’, smarmed Ted Cruz, ‘there’s been nothing more painful to you than talking to your daughters and explaining these attacks’. You couldn’t have asked for a clearer demonstration that some women matter, others don’t, and powerful men decide which are which.

But when Yoho played the family card, Ocasio-Cortez evidently saw an opportunity. In the most powerful part of her statement, she pointed out that she too was somebody’s daughter. She was glad, she said, that her late father was not around to read about her mistreatment in the papers. She told the House that by accepting Yoho’s non-apology they were giving permission for their own wives and daughters to be treated by other men in the way he had treated her.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I wish she’d taken a different tack. Though her speech was eloquent, and doubtless designed, like all good rhetoric, for a particular audience and setting, ‘remember every woman is some man’s daughter/ sister/ mother/ wife’ is a deeply patriarchal argument. If feminists can agree on nothing else, they can surely agree that women are people in their own right, and deserve to be valued for their own sake.

But I’m not going to labour the point, because Ocasio-Cortez is getting plenty of grief already: if I waited a little longer I could probably add a fourth part to the story, headed ‘the backlash’. Exhibit A is an article in yesterday’s New York Times, which reported on Ocasio-Cortez’s statement, and commented that she ‘excels at using her detractors to amplify her own political brand’. Ambitious, disruptive, opportunistic, self-promoting…the Times doesn’t need to use the B-word to make the point. The media narrative has come full circle; but the real story, like the struggle, goes on.

Isolated incidents

If you read the news regularly, you may have noticed that a lot of women die in ‘isolated incidents’. Between 22 May and June 19, for instance, Melissa Belshaw suffered fatal injuries in an isolated incident in Wigan (a man was later charged with her murder); in Stockport a woman’s body was found in a park following another isolated incident (a man was arrested shortly afterwards); and in a further isolated incident outside Norwich, Gemma Cowey was stabbed to death while walking in the grounds of a disused psychiatric hospital (the police arrested a man who has since been identified as her husband).  

The cases I’ve just mentioned are only the first three I found when I searched recent news coverage for the phrase ‘isolated incident’. There have been others: in Britain these ‘isolated’ incidents occur at a rate of 2-3 a week. ‘Isolated incident’ is police-speak, and it’s meant to reassure: ‘don’t worry, this killer isn’t a danger to the public. He only had it in for the woman he killed’. But it’s also shorthand for a larger narrative which frames each killing as a unique personal tragedy–a relationship gone wrong, a man who couldn’t cope, an act of violence that, supposedly, no one saw coming (though it will usually turn out that the victim saw it coming, and not uncommonly that her warnings went unheeded). The existence of a pattern, suggesting a social rather than purely personal problem, is effectively denied.   

Feminists have long argued that the narratives a culture constructs around male violence against women are very much part of the problem. This blog has also made that argument several times before–about rape, sexual harassment, domestic homicide and mass killings perpetrated by self-proclaimed ‘incels’. Stories are powerful, especially when they’re constantly repeated. But what I want to ask in this post is, why do the media go on repeating them?  

It’s not because no one ever complains. Every so often, the reporting of a case will prompt an outcry. In February, protesters in Mexico targeted the offices of La Prensa after it reported on the Valentine’s Day murder of Ingrid Escamilla under the headline ‘It was Cupid’s fault’. Last year there was anger about the media’s coverage of the trial in New Zealand of the man who was ultimately convicted of murdering the British tourist Grace Millane. More recently, the Sun newspaper’s decision to run a front page story headlined ‘I slapped JK and I’m not sorry’ (‘I’ being JK Rowling’s first husband, whose abusive behaviour during their marriage she had written about on her website) prompted over 500 complaints to the press regulator IPSO.  But the effect, if any, is usually short-lived. Even if the media have been forced to apologise for one story, the same narratives invariably reappear the next time around. 

The piece I’ve just linked to about the Millane trial offers one explanation:

Sadly, profit is and always has been the solitary pursuit of any given news outlet, and cultural appetites for stories featuring details of violence against women are seemingly insatiable. 

But while I don’t dispute the importance of the profit-motive, I think we also need to pay attention to the way news stories are produced, and the way certain narratives get entrenched and normalised through the routine reporting of ‘ordinary’ cases. 

To explain what I mean, I’m going to focus on an example I came across back in February. More exactly, I saw the headline which had appeared in the Independent: ‘Teenager pushed woman over balcony after she rejected his advances during houseparty’. The case was in the news because the trial had just ended, and the defendant, 19-year old Yusef Ali, had been found guilty of causing grievous bodily harm to the 18-year old woman he pushed over a balcony (she fell four storeys to the ground, sustaining serious injuries to her back and neck). I decided to look more closely at the way this story had been reported across a range of media outlets.

I chose this example because it was ordinary: a bread-and-butter Crown Court case which was not seen as newsworthy enough to merit blanket media coverage (but for a single ‘spectacular’ detail–the balcony–it might only have been covered in the local press). The sample of reports I managed to compile included items from two national newspapers (the ‘quality’ Independent and the tabloid Sun), two free papers aimed at commuters (the Metro and the Standard) and one local paper (Southwark News), plus the website of one national TV news channel (Sky) and–as an example of non-mainstream coverage–the Christian webzine Joy 105.com. 

I also found two other important texts: the statements issued at the end of the trial by the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. They’re important because it was clear they had served as the main if not the only sources for the news reports in my sample. Pressure to minimise costs (which also means staff) has made the news media increasingly reliant on official statements and press releases. Unless a trial is a major news event, they’re unlikely to send a reporter to observe the proceedings directly. That’s one reason why the reports are all so similar: their writers are working from the same sources, reproducing the same information (complete with the same gaps) and not uncommonly recycling large chunks of the text, right down to individual words and phrases.

Before I look more closely at some of those words and phrases, let me outline the facts of this case. In August 2019 Yusef Ali and a friend hired a fourth-floor flat in a building in Bermondsey where they planned to host an all-night party. Word of this event spread, and the young woman who became Ali’s victim was among a number of people who turned up on spec. According to witnesses Ali immediately began harassing her: he grabbed her neck, pulled her hair and slid his hand through a slit in her jeans to touch her thigh, telling her ‘this is what I do in bed’. Witnesses described her as becoming agitated, but they also said she made no direct response. Later Ali got into a fight with a group of men; as it escalated he took a knife from the kitchen and started lashing out indiscriminately. Other guests began to flee, including the woman he had harassed. But as she waited for the lift, he ran at her and pushed her over an internal balcony. He then tried to leave the building, but the police had been alerted and were waiting to arrest him. 

When the case came to trial the court heard that the young woman had been lucky to survive. Six months on, she was no longer in a wheelchair, but she was still unable to work or study. Clearly she had suffered a very serious, unprovoked assault. Yet that wasn’t quite how the media told the story. The way they told it reflects some troubling assumptions about men and women, sex and violence.  

For the purposes of this post I’m going to concentrate on the headlines. Research has shown that headlines are important (they’re also one thing news outlets don’t generally copy from press releases). It’s not just that for many readers (those who scroll through without clicking) the headline effectively is the story;  even for those who do read on, it’s been shown experimentally that headlines prime us to read what follows in particular ways, and that the presence of clarifying details in the story doesn’t always dispel assumptions based on the initial reading of the headline. With that in mind, let’s look at the headlines in my sample. 

  • Teenager pushed woman over balcony after she rejected his advances during houseparty (Independent)
  • EVIL REJECT: Teenager pushed girl, 18, off luxury flat’s 40ft balcony after she spurned his advances at a party (Sun)
  • Man found guilty of pushing teen who rejected his advances off fourth-floor balcony in south London (Standard)
  • Party host pushed girl off balcony after she rejected his advances (Metro)
  • Man pushed woman from fourth-floor balcony in SE1’s Long Lane after making inappropriate advances to her at a party (Southwark News)
  • A man has been convicted after pushing an 18-year-old woman off a fourth-floor balcony after she rejected his advances and stabbing two people at a party he was hosting (Sky News)
  • This 19 year old boy was flirting with this 18 year old girl: she declined and he pushed her off a balcony (Joy 105)

These headlines show some variation, but there are also some striking similarities. Most strikingly, four out of seven include the formula ‘rejected his advances’, while a fifth, the Sun’s, offers ‘spurned his advances’. Southwark News has ‘inappropriate advances’. Only Joy 105’s headline avoids the term ‘advances’ (though the word does appear in the story, along with ‘spurned’): instead it describes Ali’s behaviour as ‘flirting’ and tells us that the victim ‘declined’.

The fact that so many reports converged on the same or very similar formulas suggests that the writers were working from the same template–the CPS statement, which contains both ‘rejected his advances’ and ‘inappropriate advances’. It doesn’t have ‘spurned’, but it does describe Ali as ‘scorned’ (‘a scorned man who pushed a girl off a balcony after she rejected his advances’). It also describes him as behaving ‘disrespectfully’ towards the victim, and that word too appears in several reports.

The first objectionable thing about this is the mismatch between the language and the acts it describes. In what universe does grabbing someone you’ve never met or spoken to by the neck, pulling her hair and sliding your hand underneath her clothing constitute an ‘advance’, or ‘flirting’? Those terms belong to the lexicon of courtship: they denote ways of signalling sexual interest using words, gaze, posture and perhaps innocuous forms of touching, as part of an initial negotiation that may (or may not) lead to more intimate physical contact. What Ali did was far more aggressive: ‘inappropriate‘ and ‘disrespectful’ don’t begin to cover it. 

The second objectionable thing is the use of ‘rejected’, ‘spurned’ and ‘scorned’ to describe the woman’s response to Ali. Even the more neutral ‘declined’ suggests a level of engagement that’s at odds with witness testimony that the woman’s resistance was entirely passive. It’s a stretch to equate her non-response with actively ‘rejecting’, let alone ‘spurning’ or ‘scorning’ her assailant (verbs which imply that she set out to humiliate him). And that equation is significant, because it’s the basis for a narrative in which his later attack on her was payback for the earlier ‘rejection’.

I don’t think this is deliberate victim-blaming. All the reports are unsympathetic to Ali: the story ‘he pushed her over a balcony because she rejected his advances’ is told to explain his behaviour, not excuse it. But that’s still a problem, because it depends on an assumption that does get used to blame victims, and more generally puts the onus on women to prevent or contain male violence. It assumes that men will ‘naturally’ feel aggrieved when women don’t reciprocate their sexual interest. That’s one of the axioms of rape culture: it’s something every girl is taught she must manage. She must learn how to ‘let him down lightly’, in case he treats her lack of interest as a provocation. Men’s inability to tolerate rejection is also a common trope in reports on domestic homicide, where perpetrators are often said to have ‘snapped’ after a woman ended a relationship.

Can these narratives be changed? Feminists have tried: in 2018, for instance, the campaign group Level Up produced new guidelines for the British media on the reporting of domestic homicide, and in 2019 they succeeded in getting them endorsed by the press regulators IPSO and IMPRESS. Though newspapers are not obliged to follow them, the regulators’ endorsement does establish them as recommendations for ‘best practice’, and in theory that should strengthen the hand of anyone who complains about a breach. 

But complaining isn’t always a solution. It’s probably most effective in a case like the Sun’s ‘I slapped JK’ story, when the issue is a single newspaper overstepping the mark on a particular occasion. It’s not so useful when whatever you’re complaining about appears in every paper’s version of the same events.

Formulas like ‘isolated incident’ and ‘rejected/spurned his advances’ are not unusual or sensational: rather they are normalised and taken for granted. You can’t complain that they ‘overstep the mark’, because they are the mark; they’re clichés writers reach for (or copy and paste from other sources) because they’re seen as the obvious way to tell a certain kind of story. Of course it’s important to keep trying to raise awareness; but when even the CPS, the institution responsible for prosecuting crime, talks about ‘scorned men’ and ‘inappropriate advances’, it’s clear we still have a long way to go.

Forever 21

Like every other woman on social media, I am constantly bombarded with promoted posts about losing weight. Mostly I just scroll on by; but last week I saw something which stopped me in my tracks.  Here it is in all its glory:

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What caught my eye wasn’t the diet advice (which I can’t even read because the type is so small). It was those drawings of the Five Ages of Woman, which as everybody knows are ‘super hot’, ‘hot’, ‘less hot but still trying’, ‘sexless frump’ and ‘decrepit granny’. They may not be a great advertisement for the keto diet, but they’re a good example of what I want to talk about in this post: the intimate, complicated relationship between ageism and sexism.

In ageist societies, getting older, frailer and less independent entails a loss of status and  respect. Old people, of both sexes, may be addressed familiarly by total strangers, offered unwanted and patronising ‘assistance’, and generally treated as incompetent or foolish. It’s often been suggested that women, whose status is lower to begin with, are treated even more disrespectfully than men. Marie Shear, for instance, who wrote incisively on this subject, recalls struggling to board a bus and being told by the (male) driver to take ‘big girl steps’—a humiliating injunction which it’s hard to imagine being addressed to a man in the same situation (‘big boy steps’?) But the tendency to belittle and infantilise old people does not affect women exclusively.

There is, however, another kind of ageism that is sex-specific (and specifically sexist), and which reflects the way women in patriarchal societies are defined by and valued for their sexual and reproductive functions. This form of ageism kicks in earlier–long before its targets could reasonably be described as old. It affects women of all ages, and shapes their experience of sexism at every point in their lives.

Consider, for instance, the peculiar linguistic etiquette which (in my culture, at least) dictates that one should never mention or inquire about an adult woman’s age. I was taught as a child that this was unspeakably rude: ‘ladies’, people said (because it was also rude to call them ‘women’), ‘are forever 21’ (this wasn’t a reference to fast fashion: at the time 21 was the age of legal majority). When I became an adult, this rule was applied to me too. I wish I had £10 for every time someone with a legitimate reason for wanting to know my age has either apologised for asking or made some awkward joke. It took me a while to realise that what was presented as courtesy (or when men did it, chivalry) was really no such thing. By treating references to a woman’s age as what politeness theorists call ‘face-threatening acts’, requiring either avoidance or elaborate mitigation, the culture I grew up in was sending the message that ageing, for women, was shameful.

Of course, that was several decades ago; but I don’t think the basic message has changed. If anything, the endless expansion of consumerism and the advent of digital media have made us even more obsessed with youth and beauty. Just as a woman can never be too rich or too thin, so she can never be–or at least appear to be–too young. ‘She doesn’t look her age’ is a compliment; ‘she really looks her age’ is an insult. The fact that we consider it a cruel humiliation to tell a woman she looks as old as she actually is speaks volumes about what we value in women, and think that women ought to value in themselves.

To see how ageism, as I put it before, ‘shapes women’s experience of sexism at every point in their lives’, take a look at any random collection of women’s magazines, newspaper problem pages or cosmetics ads. You will soon discover that the beauty industry defines ageing as something that begins in a woman’s late 20s. That’s when she’s told she should start using products designed to delay or disguise its effects. It’s also roughly the point at which she’s expected to start worrying if she hasn’t yet found a partner and started a family: the biological clock is ticking and her time is running out. Later she will be urged not to ‘let herself go’ and give her husband a reason to trade her in for a younger model. And later still she will be instructed in the art of growing old ‘gracefully’—accepting her devalued status and behaving/dressing accordingly.

We can follow this narrative through the images reproduced above. The three younger women are sexualised: they have long, flowing locks, wear tight-fitting clothes and heels (the first two also flash some skin, though the third is more covered up), and they are depicted in a classic ‘look at me’ pose—head tilted up or to the side, one leg bent at the knee, hand on hip. They’re desirable, they know it, and they take pleasure in being admired. The two older women, by contrast, are desexualised. Their hair is pinned up or cut short; their clothes are shapeless and unfashionable. They are walking rather than posing, clutching shopping bags in their hands, and looking down or away from the viewer’s gaze.

Language tells a similar story. In English we have numerous labels for women–for instance, ‘babe’, ‘chick’, ‘MILF’, ‘yummy mummy’, ‘spinster’, ‘cougar’, ‘biddy’, ‘bag’, ‘hag’—which locate them on a continuum of increasing age and decreasing desirability. From a feminist perspective all these labels are sexist, but the most overtly negative ones are those referring to the oldest women. This relationship is less clear-cut in the case of men. Though there are some insults for men that imply a connection between negative qualities and advancing age (e.g. ‘old coot/git/fart’), there isn’t the same insistence on categorising and judging men by their perceived sexual attractiveness. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that old men must be sexually undesirable. As women in the acting profession have been pointing out for years, ageing male stars go on being cast as romantic leads long after their female age-peers have been relegated to supporting roles.

But we shouldn’t overlook the point I was hinting at when I said that all the labels on my list were sexist. The hierarchy of value in which young women are worth more than old ones exists within a larger system of male dominance and female subordination. The objectification of babes and chicks is as much a part of that system as the contemptuous dismissal of old hags; they are two sides of the same patriarchal coin. Though ‘hag’ may be considered more insulting than ‘babe’, it’s really no great privilege to be a babe.

That’s why I’m not a fan of one now-common way of pushing back against sexist ageism —by insisting that older women can also be beautiful and desirable; or put another way, that women should maintain their status as sexual objects into their 50s, 60s and beyond. This idea has been taken up enthusiastically by the beauty industry, which sells it as a way of ‘empowering’ older women. Some companies have modified their branding to project a more positive attitude: instead of advertising ‘anti-ageing’ products which will make women ‘look x years younger’, they now promote ‘pro-age’ products which will ‘repair the damage’ or ‘reduce the signs of ageing’.

In her book about modern beauty norms, Perfect Me, the philosopher Heather Widdows is critical of this approach. She points out that what’s presented as a personal choice (‘getting older doesn’t have to mean losing your looks’) can easily turn into a moral obligation (‘getting older is no excuse for losing your looks’). Today, a woman who ‘lets herself go’ after having children, or after menopause, risks being shamed not only for her unattractive appearance, but also for her failure to ‘make the effort’. Far from pushing back against ageism, Widdows suggests, this message actually intensifies it.

But surely, you may be thinking, women are capable of seeing through this, and of resisting the pressure if they so choose? Clare Anderson, who has studied both the beauty industry’s discourse and women’s own talk about getting older, thinks it’s complicated. Many of the women she interviewed were indeed critical of the beauty industry, saying they knew it exploited their insecurities to sell them products. But they also said they bought the products anyway; and when they talked about their own experiences they often reproduced the industry’s ageist/sexist narratives (e.g. ‘ageing is decline’ and ‘it’s important not to let yourself go’). Whereas the men Anderson interviewed often said they felt more at ease with their bodies in their 50s than they had in their 20s, most women reported the opposite. Being aware of ageism, and in principle opposed to it, did not mean that in practice they could simply rise above it.

That’s also how I would interpret the responses I saw on social media to the ‘What to eat on keto’ image. Many critical comments were made by older women who objected to the stereotyping of their age-group as unattractive, shapeless frumps. Often they drew attention to the inaccuracy of these representations: ‘I’m over 50/over 60 and I don’t look anything like the woman in that drawing!’ And I’m sure they don’t (for the record, at 61 I don’t favour perms and shapeless slacks myself); but this line of criticism misses the point. It fails to acknowledge that the devaluation of women who do look old is fundamentally unjust; it also fails to connect the unjust treatment of visibly older women with another injustice that affects women in general, namely our culture’s insistence on judging them, at every age, far more by their looks than their achievements.

These responses underscore the point that attitudes which are damaging to women may be internalised by women themselves. And feminist women are not exempt. Having a feminist analysis of sexist ageism does not, on its own, destroy its power to wound you. And at the other end of the age-spectrum, as Claire Heuchan (aka the blogger Sister Outrider) recently reminded her followers on Twitter, a commitment to feminism may not prevent young women from weaponizing ageism in political conflicts with older ones.

What prompted Heuchan’s thread on this subject was noticing how much of the criticism recently directed to JK Rowling made use of ageist/sexist language. Rowling, now in her 50s, was called (among other things) a ‘dried up prune’, a ‘dried up old tart’, a ‘tired old bitch’ and ‘a bitter old hag who’s pissy because she doesn’t get as much attention anymore’. Noting that some of the people who used this language were women, Heuchan commented:

It can be difficult to unlearn ageist misogyny. In particular when there is a social reward (male approval) attached, and the opportunity to exceptionalise yourself through making demeaning comments about older women. It is patriarchal conditioning. But that doesn’t excuse it.

It’s not hard to understand young women’s desire to ‘exceptionalise themselves’. The trouble is that ageism makes no exceptions. Every young woman will—barring catastrophe—grow old; at some point her ‘youth privilege’, such as it is, will be revoked, and she too will become a target for ageist and sexist insults.

The good news is that this cycle can be broken. We can’t change the fact that people get older, but we can change the conditions–the attitudes and practices and social structures–that make ageing a source of fear and shame. Rejecting the kind of language I’ve discussed in this post–language that age-shames through avoidance, condescension  or outright contempt–would be a modest step in the right direction.

_____________

Postscript: the day after this was published a reader sent me a screenshot of another diet ad which uses the same format as the ‘What to eat on keto’ one–but this one targets men. The difference is instructive (and so obvious I don’t think I need to comment further):

Screen Shot 2020-06-23 at 2.03.35 PM

Many thanks to Brittney O’Neill for this example.

 

Take me to your leader

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

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

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

EVJu96LUYAESjpp

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More bad news about rape

In my round-up of 2019 I chose ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ as my Words of the Year—partly as a protest against the way those words are avoided in many public discussions of sexual violence, and partly as a tribute to the women in Spain, Chile and elsewhere who used them so powerfully in public protests. I predicted that this story would continue in 2020, and sure enough, it has.

The Chilean anthem ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (‘A rapist in your path’) was performed again last week, in both Spanish and English, outside the New York City courtroom where the trial of Harvey Weinstein has now begun. In New York he is on trial for rape and sexual assault, and he has just been charged with the same offences in Los Angeles, where prosecutors reportedly considered bringing criminal charges in relation to eight different women’s complaints. In New York there are two complainants, but the court will hear supporting testimony from at least one woman whose case can’t be prosecuted because the events took place too long ago. Complaints that could potentially lead to further charges, including rape charges, have also been made in Britain and France.

In the light of all this, it is hardly controversial to refer to Harvey Weinstein as an ‘alleged rapist’. Yet on January 6, a report on BBC Radio prompted Sophie Walker to tweet:

Hey @BBCRadio4 there’s a clear, short word that you’re overlooking every time your journalist refers to allegations of ‘non-consensual sex’ against #HarveyWeinstein. Please use it. #rape

One reply to this tweet, from someone whose bio identified him as a journalism student, said: ‘I think they’re tied legally to not use the word rape. Frustrating but it could impact the case against Mr Weinstein’. I’ve seen this argument being made in other cases: it seems to be an increasingly widespread belief that using the word ‘rape’ (even qualified with ‘alleged’) before there has been a conviction is in itself prejudicial, and that its avoidance is legally required.

But this is a misconception. ‘The case against Mr Weinstein’ is, precisely, the case that he has committed what the laws of the state of New York define as the criminal offence of rape. That is what he is on trial for. So long as the media do not say or imply that he is guilty, it surely cannot be prejudicial for them to describe his alleged offence using the same word that appears on the indictment. On the contrary, if their job is to report the facts, there is no justification for not using that word. Substituting less ‘emotive’ terms implies a judgment which it is not their place to make.

The BBC has not consistently avoided the word ‘rape’ in its coverage of the Weinstein case. In a detailed timeline published on its website that word is used many times—it appears in every instance where a complainant has alleged that Weinstein raped or attempted to rape her. However, the piece does use the term ‘non-consensual sex’ when reporting statements made by Weinstein or his representatives. For instance, in relation to a rape allegation made by Rose McGowan in 2017, it says that ‘Weinstein has “unequivocally denied” any allegations of non-consensual sex in a statement released through his publicist’.

The placement of quotation marks here implies that ‘unequivocally denied’ is the only verbatim quote from the statement, but the fact that ‘non-consensual sex’ always appears in reference to Weinstein’s denials suggests that this phrase may also have been taken from that source. Either way, it raises questions. If the BBC is reproducing the language of the statement (without making that clear by putting the whole thing in quotation marks), does that give an accused rapist too much influence over the terms in which his case is reported? If ‘non-consensual sex’ is the BBC’s own wording, what’s the thinking behind that editorial choice?

Maybe they think it makes no difference, because (at least in jurisdictions which treat the absence of consent as a defining feature of the offence), ‘non-consensual sex’ means the same thing as ‘rape/sexual assault’. But I suspect Donna Rotunno, the lawyer in charge of Weinstein’s defence, knows better. Rotunno told an interviewer last September (as quoted in another piece on the BBC website) that

Any time we talk about men and women in sexual circumstances, I think we have to look at the fact that there’s always an area of grey. So there are these blurred lines, and I think sometimes one side walks away from an event feeling different from the other.

I think Rotunno understands why using ‘non-consensual sex’ rather than ‘rape’ (even when the message is that your client ‘unequivocally denies’ it) does make a difference. It’s not just that ‘rape’ is an emotive term. When you avoid what seems like the obvious word to use in a particular context, that prompts the recipient of the message to look for some unstated proposition that would explain the avoidance. In this case the conclusion a lot of people will come to is the one Rotunno spells out in the remarks just quoted, that there are ‘grey areas’ and ‘blurred lines’; it is possible for sex to be in some sense ‘non-consensual’ while still not quite counting as rape. For instance, it remains a widespread view that if a woman didn’t communicate her refusal clearly, the man can’t be blamed for (wrongly) thinking she consented. Maybe he’s obtuse but he’s not a rapist.

This is a belief Rotunno has clearly set out to foster in her presentation of her client, making a number of statements to the effect that his behaviour, though perhaps morally questionable, falls ultimately on the legal side of the line. (‘I’m not here to say he was not guilty of committing sins, but there’s a difference between sins and crimes’.) And it can only help her cause if the media use phraseology that supports this thesis.

There are worse offenders than the BBC. Rotunno has attracted a lot of media attention, not only because there’s so much interest in the case, but also because a woman defending someone like Harvey Weinstein is newsworthy in her own right (as Grazia put it, she’s ‘someone many are curious to get to know’). In profiles and other ‘soft’ pieces she’s been able to make controversial statements about Weinstein’s accusers without being seriously challenged. But while the BBC may not have given that kind of platform to people on Weinstein’s payroll, it still needs to think carefully about the way interested parties may be actively trying to manipulate the terms in which a story is reported.

This is not the only recent instance where the BBC has used questionable language. It has also done so in its reporting of the case of a young British woman who reported that she had been raped by a group of twelve young Israeli men in Ayia Napa, Cyprus. Later, following a lengthy police interrogation conducted without a lawyer present, the woman signed a statement retracting her original report. The men she had accused were allowed to leave Cyprus, while she was put on trial for causing ‘public mischief’, and eventually given a (suspended) sentence of four months in prison.

This case has prompted concern because there are reasons to think the woman’s rights may have been violated. She herself maintains that her retraction statement was dictated to her by the police, and that she signed it under duress. A forensic linguist who has analysed the statement believes it was composed by someone whose first language was not English. This linguist, Andrea Nini, was interviewed on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme last week. In a clip from the interview which was tweeted out from the programme’s account, you can see a ribbon at the bottom of the screen reporting on a rally which had been organised to support the woman and protest her treatment by the authorities. The caption reads: ‘Rally in support of woman in Cyprus “rape” case’.

What is going on with those scare quotes around the word ‘rape’?

My guess is that the formulation ‘Cyprus “rape” case’ was meant to convey a neutral or non-committal stance on the question of whether the woman had been raped. Since her allegation remains unproven, because the suspects were released without trial—but at the same time, the finding that she lied can no longer be considered definitive because of evidence that casts doubt on the authenticity of her retraction statement—the caption writer may been looking for a form of words that would not commit the BBC to either of the two competing narratives (that the woman was raped and then forced to retract her complaint, or that the original allegation was false).

But if that was the objective, putting ‘rape’ in scare quotes did not achieve it. Scare quotes are a distancing device, a signal that whatever the quote marks enclose should not be taken at face value. But the stance their use conveys is not agnosticism or lack of certainty, it is scepticism or disbelief. (Scare quotes can also signal irony or mockery, but in relation to rape that’s a less likely interpretation.) So, while it may not have been intentional, the caption’s reference to the ‘Cyprus “rape” case’ is likely to have been taken as supporting the false allegation narrative.

Perhaps the caption could have referred to the ‘Cyprus rape controversy’: that’s compatible with the understanding that the facts are disputed, but it doesn’t suggest the BBC itself is taking sides. However, in this context I don’t think it would have been unreasonable to use the phrase ‘rape case’ without scare-quotes. ‘Rape case’ does not just have the meaning ‘court case in which someone has been found guilty of rape’, and we really need to push back against the idea that the word can only be used in that very narrow sense. Those who think its use should be restricted in this way may be sincerely concerned about protecting defendants’ right to a fair trial, but they seem to have difficulty grasping the point that reports which systematically avoid the word ‘rape’, put it in scare quotes or replace it with euphemisms, are not just neutral and inconsequential.

As the Glasgow Media Group long ago pointed out in an analysis of the reporting of industrial disputes (where it was always the management who made ‘offers’ while the unions made ‘demands’ or ‘threats’), the repetition of certain formulas over time tends to normalise their underlying assumptions. What is normalised by the repeated avoidance of the word ‘rape’ is the assumption that complainants’ accounts should be approached with extreme suspicion. And according to this in-depth investigation, that suspicion—the author calls it an ‘epidemic of disbelief’–is the single most important reason why so many rapists are never brought to justice.

This doesn’t just harm individual complainants. If we as a society have an interest in seeing rapists brought to justice, reporting that normalises disbelief cannot be said to serve the public interest. The BBC is not the only or the worst offender, but as a public service broadcaster it should arguably be setting a higher standard. When the story is sexual violence, it really needs to sort its language out.

Tedious tropes: the sexist stereotyping of female politicians

I don’t often find myself agreeing with the Conservative politician Amber Rudd, but this weekend she expressed a sentiment I agreed with 100%. Responding to a Spectator article in which Melanie McDonagh attacked the ‘relentless head-of-school self-righteousness’ of Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat leader who lost her seat in last week’s General Election, Rudd tweeted:

Can we stop criticising every senior female politician for being “head of school”, “headmistressy” or “like a school teacher”?

I’ve been complaining about this very thing since 2016, when Sylvia Shaw and I analysed press coverage of the 2015 General Election for a book we were writing about gender and political speech. We were struck by the frequency with which female politicians were compared either to head girls, headmistresses and school teachers, or else to nannies, nurses and ‘Matron’. There were other variations: Nicola Sturgeon was also compared to a dominatrix and a man-eating spider. But the headmistress/teacher/head girl comparisons were the ones that recurred most frequently. No one, by contrast, compared David Cameron to a supercilious prefect or Ed Miliband to a geography teacher.

heel boysLater in 2016, after the EU referendum result led to Cameron’s resignation, the competition to succeed him brought us more of the same clichés. The two female contenders, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, were both referred to as ‘Mummy’; when she won, May was depicted in the Sun as a dominatrix in spike heels. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Hillary Clinton, the first ever female candidate for the US presidency, was disparaged for sounding like a bossy schoolmarm.

These clichés are deeply embedded in our collective imagination. Back in the 1980s. the management theorist Rosabeth Moss Kanter suggested that women who play public roles tend to be assigned to one of four archetypal categories (Kanter called these ‘role traps’): they can be Mothers, Seductresses, Pets or Battleaxes. These archetypes reflect the roles and settings in which women have historically wielded power–either in the home, and institutions like schools and hospitals which originated as extensions of it (the Mother),  in sexual relationships with men (the Seductress) or, occasionally, in quasi-masculine roles like ‘ruler’ or ‘warrior’ (the Battleaxe). The teacher or headmistress is a variant of the Mother: she is ‘routinely described as schoolmarmy, bossy, frumpy or mumsy’. And as Amber Rudd says, this is probably the commonest role-trap for women in politics. They can also, of course, be Battleaxes (like Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’), but even the most powerful female leaders are always liable to be put in the ‘Mother’ box. (Angela Merkel’s nickname, for instance, is ‘Mutti’.)

In an era when these archetypes no longer reflect the real-world limits on what women can do or be, their persistence as ‘natural’ reference-points for female authority in general is both frustrating and depressing. Whatever position a woman speaks from–she might be a CEO, a bishop, a Chief Constable, the First Minister of Scotland or the US Secretary of State–what we hear is apparently still the voice of Mummy or Teacher, lecturing and scolding us as if we were naughty children.

8615-3006Not only do these comparisons belittle the women concerned, making their authority seem trivial and petty, they also tap into a deep vein of resentment towards ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ (the fictional lawyer Horace Rumpole’s nickname for his wife). Older versions of the Mother, like Matron and the headmistress, are frequently caricatured as unnatural or monstrous, women whose need to dominate others reflects their sexual frustration and lack of feminine charm. Comparing a politician to one of these figures is thus a double put-down, implying that she is neither a proper leader nor a proper woman. It’s a way of reminding her that real power belongs to men: women who try to claim it are either ridiculous or repulsive.

Though the ‘mummy/teacher/Matron’ comparisons are wheeled out regularly by journalists of both sexes, in the sample Sylvia Shaw and I analysed it was noticeable that many of the most hostile examples were produced by right-wing female columnists. Melanie McDonagh, the author of the piece about Jo Swinson, was one of these; other repeat offenders were Sarah Vine in the Mail and Allison Pearson in the Telegraph. In Kanter’s terms, these women are ‘Pets’: they’re rewarded for acting as mouthpieces for the prejudices of the men who control the Tory press. Their editors know that if a man described Nicola Sturgeon as a power-crazed Lady Macbeth with a haircut like a Tunnock’s Teacake (I take this childish insult directly from a 2015 column by Allison Pearson), he’d just come across as a crude chauvinist bully. So the task of trashing women gets delegated to the ladies, producing a steady stream of female-authored ‘why I can’t stand [insert name of female politician]’ pieces.

But the journalists who occupy this niche may soon face a new challenge. In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that he plans to step down, the Labour Party is gearing up for a leadership contest in which it looks likely that most of the contenders will be female. So far, those who have been identified as potential successors to Corbyn include Yvette Cooper, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry—so far, along with one man, Keir Starmer. It will surely be difficult for the usual suspects in the media to write their usual ‘why I can’t stand X’ pieces about five different candidates without making it obvious that what they really mean is ‘I can’t stand women’. Which raises the question: in a contest as female-dominated as this one looks set to be, will sex–and therefore sexism–cease to be an issue?

Over in the US, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has prompted feminists to ask the same question. Whereas in 2016 the field included only one woman, Hillary Clinton, the 2020 campaign started with half a dozen. As Rebecca Traister wrote recently, this initially looked like a game-changer:

If there were six different women running for the country’s highest office, it would be far harder to caricature them in all the ways that ambitious women get caricatured: as mean, angry, crazy, elitist, lightweight, and dissembling.

But in practice it has turned out (as anyone familiar with Kanter’s role-traps might have predicted) that you can caricature six women almost as easily as one: all you have to do is put different women into different boxes. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, is a battleaxe, elitist and angry (but not crazy or a lightweight); Marianne Williamson was lightweight/crazy but not angry. So although the criticisms are specific to each candidate, they all end up dealing with the same general problem: the perception that, in the words of a poll Traister cites, ‘most of the women who run for president just aren’t that likable’.

This statement, which a large number of respondents agreed with, suggests that women’s ‘unlikability’ has very little to do with their qualities as individuals. If the judgment were being made on a single woman you might well think it reflected her own shortcomings, but as the number of women increases that begins to seem less and less plausible. What are the chances that you’d have six women in the same race who all just happened to be inherently unlikable?

What the judgment really reflects, we might suspect, is the phenomenon which psychologists call the ‘likability–competence dilemma’. A number of experimental studies have found that if a woman is judged to be highly competent, she will also be judged less likable than either similarly competent men or less competent women. (For men there is no such trade-off.)  So, the very fact that a woman is running for the presidency (which implies a strong claim to competence, as well as overt ambition) will make her, in many people’s eyes, unlikable. The more qualified and confident she appears, the less likable people will judge her.

This prejudice is a particular problem for women in politics, because in modern times, as the historian Claire Potter explains, likability has become closely linked to electability.  Even some progressive Democrats who are keen to support Elizabeth Warren in 2020 have wondered whether, in a campaign where the absolute priority is defeating Trump, it would make more sense, strategically, to get behind Joe Biden. He may be less appealing in other ways, but at least his sex won’t stop people voting for him.

But the unwillingness of the average citizen to vote for a woman may have been overstated. Last month the political scientists Mary McGrath and Sara Saltzer wrote a piece for the LA Times about an experiment they had conducted. They recruited two groups of subjects—one constructed to be demographically representative of the US, the other constructed to have a 50:50 balance between men and women and between registered Democrats and Republicans—and presented them with a series of choices between two political candidates. The candidates differed in age, education, gender and political views: the subjects were not told that gender was the variable being investigated. And when the votes were counted, it turned out that the female candidates had done better than the male ones. This preference was seen among subjects in all subgroups: men as well as women, and Republicans as well as Democrats. But it wasn’t the result of a direct pro-female bias: the most important factor influencing subjects’ decisions was how well a candidate’s policies matched their own political beliefs. Noting that other recent studies have produced similar results, McGrath and Saltzer comment:

a growing body of evidence shows voter preferences are not a major reason for the persistently low rates of women in elected office.

But in that case, what does explain the continuing over-representation of men? McGrath and Saltzer think the answer may be what some researchers have dubbed ‘sexism by proxy’, a tendency they illustrate using the findings of a poll conducted last summer. Respondents were asked first whether they personally would feel comfortable with a woman as president, and then whether they thought their neighbours would feel comfortable with a woman as president. Three quarters of the respondents answered yes to the first question, but only a third answered yes to the second. The conclusion McGrath and Saltzer draw is that

The biggest obstacle to putting women in office may not be that voters are afraid of female candidates, but that people have convinced themselves others are afraid.

The US presidency is something of a special case: in Britain I don’t think you’d find a quarter of the respondents in a poll expressing discomfort with the idea of a female prime minister. We’ve had two of them, and while one (Theresa May) did not impress, the other (Margaret Thatcher) is still widely regarded as a great leader: even people who found her loathsome (myself included) would be hard-pressed to make the case that she wasn’t up to the job.

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But although we no longer question women’s basic eligibility for the highest political office, our continuing ambivalence about female authority remains visible in the language that is routinely used, especially in the media, about the women we have elected to positions of power. It’s there in the belittling comparisons with nannies and schoolmarms, in the covertly gendered code-words (‘shrill’, ‘strident‘, ‘self-righteous’), in the popularity of innuendo-laden headlines and cartoons like the one shown above.

Since these tired old tropes are, to use a phrase beloved of Boris Johnson, ‘oven-ready’–a journalist on a deadline can just reach for them on autopilot–we may well see them being trotted out again once the Labour leadership contest gets going. Perhaps Emily Thornberry will be described as ‘headmistressy’ and Yvette Cooper will be the eager ‘head girl’; Jess Phillips might fill the ‘angry battleaxe’ slot while Rebecca Long-Bailey, said to be Corbyn’s preferred candidate, will be the ‘pet’. These descriptions don’t have to be accurate, or even especially apt, to stick. They just have to be repeated often enough.

The constant repetition of sexist stereotypes may not be up there with rape and death-threats as a deterrent to women’s participation in politics, but it undoubtedly constrains their freedom to participate on equal terms with men. In addition to actually doing their jobs, women must try to pre-empt the predictable criticism and mockery by engaging in continuous self-surveillance (‘is this outfit too mumsy? Do I sound like a bossy schoolmarm?’) We shouldn’t underestimate the energy-sapping effect of this–nor the emotional impact of being trashed in the media. People may say it ‘comes with the territory’–‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’–but some things only come with the territory for women.

So, for once I am happy to add my voice to Amber Rudd’s. Can we stop criticising female politicians in ways we don’t criticise male ones? Can we find ways of thinking and talking about female authority that bear some relation to the realities of the 21st century? And can we please consign the ‘why I as a woman can’t stand this other woman’ genre of political commentary to the toxic waste-dump of history?

Marie and Fiona go to Washington

This week something unusual happened. Two women participated in a high-stakes, high-profile political speech event, and were widely praised for their ‘authoritative’ performances. Even their voices attracted no criticism: they were not described as ‘abrasive’, ‘shrill’ or ‘strident’.

The event in question was the ongoing inquiry into whether Donald Trump should be impeached; the women who appeared before the House Intelligence Committee were Marie Yovanovitch, the former US Ambassador to Ukraine, and Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia who had served as an advisor to the Trump administration. Both women presented themselves as non-partisan public servants who considered it their duty to give evidence. As Hill told the committee, ‘I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction except toward the truth’.

Of course, the inquiry is itself partisan, initiated by the Democrats and opposed by the Republicans: not everyone thinks these women are sheroes. But the Trump-supporting media were surprisingly muted in their criticisms. Yovanovitch even got some support from the unlikely quarter of Fox News, where one anchor described her as a ‘sympathetic witness’, while another went so far as to tweet that if you weren’t moved by her testimony you probably didn’t have a pulse. Meanwhile, over in the liberal media camp, admiration for the two of them knew no bounds. ‘What does female authority sound like?’ asked the Washington Post: ‘Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill just showed us’.

In cases (though I found few) where sexism did come into play, it didn’t always come from the direction you would have predicted. Writing about Yovanovitch for the Guardian, for instance, Art Cullen praised the ‘decency’, ‘modesty’ and ‘restraint’ shown by this ‘61-year old single woman’ who had devoted her life to serving her country. These virtues were apparent, he said, in her ‘downward gaze’ and ‘the timbre of her quiet voice’. This picture of Yovanovitch may have been stereotypical, patronising and reductive, but it was a long way from the usual portrayal of women who expose men’s wrongdoing as lying bitches or vengeful harpies.

Whereas Yovanovitch was applauded for her restraint, Fiona Hill was praised for her forthrightness. USA Today called her ‘fierce, focused and fearless’;  it credited her with delivering ‘punchy lines of testimony’ and noted that her ‘wit and humor were on full display’. It also quoted, approvingly, the committee member who called her ‘steely’. One frequently-referenced symbol of this ‘steeliness’ was her voice–or more exactly her accent, which still bears witness to her working-class British origins (she is a coalminer’s daughter from County Durham). It’s not unusual for the media to fixate on women’s voices, but in this case the commentary completely bypassed all the sexist clichés (does she sound too shrill and squeaky, or is she harsh and grating?) that usually dominate the discussion. Instead, Hall’s accent became a positive symbol of both her toughness and her successful journey from the coalfields to the corridors of power.

The Washington Post’s question, ‘what does female authority sound like?’, alludes to something that was said during another high-profile political speech event that took place this week, the fifth debate featuring contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Amy Klobuchar spoke about the authority we grant to men who may not, as individuals, have done much to earn it: her comments were aimed at Pete Buttigieg, whose candidacy is being treated as seriously as that of Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris or Klobuchar herself, though they are experienced national politicians, while he is just the mayor of a small midwestern city. Because men have always been our models for what authority sounds like, we find it easy to compare men like Buttigieg with other male leaders we’ve admired in the past. For women, however, there are fewer comparators (as Klobuchar reminded us, in the case of the US presidency there are none); consequently we lack what the Post writer Monica Hesse called ‘the aural reference library to assess female authority, trustworthiness and power’. And that’s where she thinks Yovanovitch and Hill have made a difference:

Perhaps the next time an authoritative woman steps forward…listeners will remember that they’ve heard a voice like that before, and trusted it when they did.

But while I agree that it’s desirable for people to hear more authoritative female voices, I think Hesse overlooks an important point. It isn’t true that we have no cultural template for ‘what female authority sounds like’: the problem is rather that centuries of male dominance have imbued the figure of the powerful woman with all kinds of negative associations. Some of these are linked to our experiences (and perhaps especially men’s experiences) of resenting female authority in childhood: that’s why women who exercise power over adults are so often belittled by comparing them to overbearing mothers, nagging nannies and bossy schoolmarms—this both expresses resentment and metaphorically puts women (back) in their place. Other archetypes of female authority, like the ‘iron lady’ and the witch (remember Hillary Clinton’s ‘cackle’?) do the opposite, magnifying women’s power to the point where it becomes grotesque–unnatural, tyrannical and threatening.

Yovanovich and Hill were neither belittled nor demonised: they were presented not only as authoritative, but also as likable–‘decent’, ‘sympathetic’, ‘sincere’, and, even, in Hill’s case, ‘funny’.  For women to tick both these boxes simultaneously is a rare feat, and we might well wonder how they managed to pull it off.

I suspect the answer has less to do with the details of their speech than with their perceived motivations for speaking, and with their status as public servants rather than politicians. For them there was no quid pro quo: they were seen to be acting in the public interest, and not in pursuit of their own power. Unfortunately, that may limit what can be learned from their example, particularly by women who are running for elected office. However dedicated they may be to public service, politicians are also seeking power for themselves; and for women that’s still a problem. The civic-minded whistle-blower isn’t automatically protected from misogyny (see Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford), but the openly ambitious woman is a prime target.

But even if Hill and Yovanovitch haven’t changed the game for women, both the impeachment inquiry and the Democratic debate suggest that the rules of the game are changing. Feminist criticism of sexism and misogyny, which has taken on a new urgency since the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the advent of #MeToo, is being picked up and amplified more widely; many women have stopped pretending that sexism is not an issue for them, or that it’s something they should discuss behind closed doors to avoid putting men publicly on the spot. The voice of female resistance, in short, sounds louder and more militant in 2019 than it did in 2015.

We heard this resistance in Amy Klobuchar’s remarks during the debate; we also heard it during Fiona Hill’s testimony. At one point Hill referred to a ‘blow-up’ between herself and Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, and added: ‘I hate to say it, but often when women show anger it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often, you know, pushed onto emotional issues, perhaps, or deflected onto other people’. This remark seems to be channelling the post-#MeToo literature on women’s rage, and I’m inclined to read it as a strategic move by Hill, designed to counter any attempt by Sondland or his allies to portray her as ‘difficult’ or ‘hysterical’. The ‘no free pass for sexists’ message has also reached some men: when one of the Republicans subjected Hill to a lengthy exposition of his party’s arguments against impeachment, a male Democrat apologised for his colleague’s ‘epic mansplaining’.

Of course there’s still a long way to go, as Rebecca Traister noted recently in a piece about the Democrats: even with several women in the race (whereas previously the maximum was one), people’s judgments of them continue to be shaped by well-worn sexist stereotypes–they’re ‘meanies, lightweights, crazies, or angry, dissembling elitists’. And people still say, when pollsters ask them, that women who run for president ‘just aren’t that  ‘likable‘. Clearly, political cultures don’t change overnight. But this week, for once, I feel hopeful.

Out of humour

I say I say I say, have you heard the one about a new study showing that men are funnier than women? Probably, because every media outlet in the universe has picked it up and rehashed it, from the BBC and Science Daily to Malaysia News and Reddit. Which is no surprise, because it’s a gift to the media, a perfect example of ‘soundbite science’. But if you read this blog regularly you will also have heard the one about why it pays to take a closer look at these sex-difference stories. And guess what, I’m going to tell that one again.

I’ll start by summarising the research itself, as described by one of the researchers, Gil Greengross, in Psychology Today. What he and his colleagues did was a meta-analysis: rather than carrying out their own experiment, they combined the statistical findings of 28 previous studies and calculated the overall size of the effect they were interested in, which was the effect of gender on funniness—or as they called it, ‘humor ability’.

In the studies they selected, one set of experimental subjects had been given some cartoons and asked to come up with amusing captions; another set of subjects then rated the funniness of each caption on a numerical scale. Crucially, the raters didn’t know if the caption they were reading had been written by a man or a woman. If they’d known, their judgments could have been influenced by the stereotype of women as less funny than men. The studies had been designed to investigate whether there was any basis for that stereotype. Would women still be judged less funny by people who had no way of knowing they were women?

The short answer turned out to be ‘yes’. As the Psychology Today piece explains,

In statistical technical terms, the effect size was 0.32, or roughly one-third of the standard deviation. In plain English, this means that 63 percent of men score above the mean humor ability of women. This is considered a small to medium difference.

Evidently aware that such findings often attract criticism, and are frequently misinterpreted, Greengross goes on to assure us that yes, they did look for possible confounding factors (e.g., if there were cultural differences which calculations based on aggregated data were masking, or if there were more male than female raters, which might skew the ratings in men’s favour because men prefer the humour of other men); and no, they weren’t saying that all men are funnier than all women. Some women are very funny, and the most successful female comedians are funnier than 99% of men. Their claim was only that men on average are funnier than women on average.

Greengross then turns to the question of why that might be the case, and tells a story I have discussed on this blog before, in fact more than once, because it features in some accounts of the evolution of human language. It’s about sexual selection, the concept developed by Darwin to explain evolved traits like the peacock’s tail, which can’t have been selected because it made the bird better adapted to its environment (it’s hard to fly away from predators trailing that monster); rather it was favoured because it was attractive to potential mates, ensuring that big-tailed peacocks passed their genes to more offspring.

Peacocks are animals that ‘lek’, display themselves at mating time so that peahens can judge their fitness. The idea is that being funny serves a similar purpose for humans: it’s a form of display put on by men so women can assess how good they’ll be as mates. ‘Humor’, Greengross notes, ‘is strongly correlated with intelligence’. He also reminds us that women advertising on dating sites often mention humour as an important quality in men, whereas men are less interested in whether a woman is funny.  The principle that ‘males do the courting and females do the choosing’ explains why ‘humor ability’ has been selected for in male humans, but not in females, whose reproductive success is not enhanced by it.

This explanation presupposes that ‘humor ability’ has a significant genetic component; but couldn’t being funny be a learned skill which is more common or better developed in men because they get more opportunity or encouragement to practise it? The researchers, it transpires, did consider that possibility, but they dismissed it on the grounds that

There is minimal evidence to support the view that our society suppresses women from producing and exhibiting humor.

Mate, stop it, my sides are going to split—because this has to be a joke, right? You do realise that there’s a long tradition of discourse, both expert and popular, which ‘suppresses women from producing humor’ by telling them that they’re no good at it, it’s unfeminine, and men don’t find it attractive; and you do understand that YOUR OWN STUDY SITS SQUARELY IN THAT TRADITION? Oh, and while we’re on the subject, it presumably hasn’t escaped your notice that saying ‘men have more humor ability than women’ followed by ‘humor is highly correlated with intelligence’ will lead a lot of people to deduce the proposition ‘men are more intelligent than women’—which you wouldn’t be suggesting in all seriousness, would you?

So far I haven’t questioned the central claim made for this meta-analysis: that it confirms the robustness of the effect it investigated (i.e., sex affects funniness and men are funnier than women). Here are a few reasons why I think that claim needs to be at least qualified, and possibly rejected.

First, the studies used in the meta-analysis were chosen because they investigated the same question using a similar experimental design, which elicited evidence of people’s ‘humor ability’ by asking them to write funny captions for cartoon images. Presumably this task was used because it’s something you can get people to do in a lab, and because a written caption does not reveal the writer’s sex (whereas a recording of them telling a joke or a funny story would). But how good a proxy is captioning cartoons for the general ability to be funny?

I would say, not very good. Most everyday humour is produced spontaneously in the course of interaction, typically with people you know, like and have things in common with, and whose reactions guide your performance from moment to moment. The lab cartoon-captioning task reproduces none of these features. It requires subjects to be funny on command (not spontaneously), in isolation (not in a social group) and in writing (not speech), for an absent audience of strangers whose reactions they can only guess at. To me that makes it a dubious basis on which to generalise about ‘humor ability’. At best, the analysis shows that in lab conditions men write funnier cartoon captions than women—not that they’re funnier across the board.

Second, the finding that men are funnier than women is based on averaging the numerical scores given to subjects’ captions by the judges. But what do these numbers correspond to? Clearly, judges’ ratings must reflect their subjective response to a caption, but how, if at all, does that response relate to the caption-writer’s abilities? The problem is that there’s a lot of variation, individual as well as cultural, in what people find funny. If a judge rates one caption as a 2 and another as a 4, is that because of some objective quality of the two captions—the second is simply funnier than the first–or does it just reflect the judge’s preference for certain kinds of jokes over others? In short, can we have any confidence that these numbers are a useful measure of ‘humor ability’?

I’m sceptical, to be honest. I’m not convinced there’s such a thing as ‘humor ability’, and if there is, as I’ve already said, I have trouble seeing the very specific skill of writing funny cartoon captions as a fair test of it. It’s a test most of us would probably fail: back in 2011, in a Psychology Today piece criticising one of these studies, Ben Hayden noted that the commonest score awarded to captions, regardless of the writer’s sex, had been 1, which meant ‘not funny at all’. ‘That indicates’, he comments, that ‘the experimental subjects were not well-matched to the test—they were just swinging wildly’. They were like the proverbial roomful of typing monkeys, only in the field of cartoon-captioning rather than Shakespearean drama.

Third, even if we do trust the numbers, what the meta-analysis reports is only, as Greengross acknowledges, a ‘small to medium difference’. The effect-sizes reported in meta-analytic studies are generally described using a scale that goes from very small/slight to very large, so this effect isn’t even at the mid-point: to put it in context, it’s smaller than the reported effect of sex on spelling accuracy, and much smaller than the reported effect of sex on the distance someone can throw an object. As sex-differences go, it’s not a biggie. (Yet another ‘men are funnier’ study discussed in Psychology Today in 2011 found a difference so slight that even one of the authors described it as ‘just on the edge of detectability’–and he meant, by using statistical methods, not just observation.) Even liberally sprinkled with the words ‘on average’, the statement ‘men are funnier than women’ gives a misleading impression, because what ‘funnier’ means to most people is ‘noticeably funnier’: it implies a difference large enough to be significant in the ordinary rather than the purely statistical sense.

There are, then, a number of reasons to query the presentation of this meta-analysis as  clear confirmation that ‘men are funnier than women’. But my biggest problem with it isn’t the design of the studies analysed, the conclusions drawn by the researchers, or the exaggeration of their significance by the media: it’s the fact that this kind of research is seen as worth doing in the first place.

Think about it: in what other case would anyone design a study to investigate whether there’s a basis for some entrenched negative stereotype of a social group? ‘Is it true that poor people are lazier than rich ones?’ Nope. ‘Are Jews/Scots/Yorkshiremen really meaner than other people with money?’ Nope to the nth power. It would be utterly offensive: no one would fund it and the ethics committee would never approve it. Sex-differences, though, are always potential research fodder. And when the frame, as in this case, is evolutionary psychology, they will always turn out to be explained by the supposed—though in reality often misrepresented–activities of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and beyond that, by the irreducible difference between the sperm and the egg.

Actually, let me go back a step: it’s not true that all sex-differences are potential research fodder. As Caroline Criado Perez shows in her book Invisible Women, in many areas where women are consequentially different from men, whether it’s the way their bodies respond to drugs or their patterns of travel on public transport, there’s a huge data gap because the differences have not been investigated systematically. Research that would have a positive effect on women’s lives does not get done; yet there’s always room for one more study explaining that women are rubbish at something—maths, map reading, being funny–because biology. (Or alternatively, that women are better than men at something trivial or menial, like nappy-changing or keeping track of people’s birthdays.)

I hope what I’ve just said explains why I think it’s important to challenge claims like ‘men are (on average) funnier than women’. In fact, as I’ve said before, I think the way we talk about who is or isn’t funny matters in its own right: the proposition that ‘Xs have no sense of humour’ has a long history of being used to dehumanise the group in question, and ‘Xs aren’t as funny as Ys’ can also, as noted earlier, be code for ‘they’re not as intelligent’. But even when the difference under discussion really is trivial (for instance, a study once found that female shoppers spend more time browsing than their male counterparts—like their prehistoric ancestors they are natural foragers, whereas men are mighty hunters), it must be seen as part of a larger enterprise, in which the point of cataloguing sex-differences is ultimately to affirm that the sexes are not just different, they are different in ways that make equality a pipe-dream. The meta-message being communicated is ‘women, know your limits’.

Whenever we hear this message we should remember that the whole history of feminism is a story of women refusing to accept the limits imposed by their societies—limits which have always been represented as ‘natural’ rather than man-made. Once, scientists maintained that if women were admitted to universities, the intellectual stress would cause their ovaries to shrivel. Now we recognise that as just self-serving male chauvinist nonsense. The claims made by many scientists today are destined to end up in the same dustbin. Let’s use our intelligence and our ‘humor ability’ to speed them on their way.

We need to talk about rape

Content note: this post does what its title suggests

When is a rape not a rape? The answer, apparently, is ‘most of the time’.  Of more than 58,000 rapes reported to the police in England and Wales last year, only 1758 resulted in anyone being charged with rape, let alone convicted. Of course there are legitimate reasons why some cases aren’t pursued. Some rapists are never caught; some complainants are too traumatised to participate in the long and gruelling process of bringing a perpetrator to justice. (And yes, a small percentage of reports—as with any crime—may turn out on investigation to be untrue.) But the number of reported rapes that disappear into the void—that get ‘no-crimed’, reclassified, put on the back burner, or abruptly dropped without charge—suggests a deeper and more systemic problem. As EVAW, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said last month, the chance that a rapist will be convicted is now so small, rape is ‘effectively being decriminalised’.

Language can also make rape disappear. When I called this post ‘we need to talk about rape’, what I meant was that we need to talk about the word ‘rape’: how it’s used, when it’s avoided, and how that both reflects and contributes to a culture of impunity and injustice.

Earlier this year, when the victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird expressed concern about the low rate of rape convictions, one critic accused the QC and former Solicitor-General of failing to grasp a fundamental principle of the justice system. ‘The jury’ he mansplained,

is there to ensure that what gains a rape conviction is what the general society agrees is indeed rape. That’s actually the point.

Though I do not draw the same conclusion this writer does–that the system is working as it should–he is surely right to say that the treatment of rape in the justice system is affected by ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’. From a feminist perspective that’s exactly the problem: what is generally agreed to be rape overlaps only partially with what women experience and report as rape, or even with what the law defines as rape. There’s a mismatch between the legal definition (which in England and Wales, as in many other modern jurisdictions, centres on the absence of consent, or of a ‘reasonable belief’ in consent) and the common-sense understanding people carry in their heads.

One place where you can see this mismatch is in language, which is both an expression of our cultural common sense and a means through which it is reproduced. That’s why I think it’s instructive to examine the way words like ‘rape’ are used–or, just as importantly, not used–in public discourse. Here I’m going to concentrate mainly on the language of the media, whose reporting both reflects and shapes public opinion. How do the media talk about rape? What tacit assumptions underlie their linguistic choices?

I’ll start with a case that made headlines at the end of August, when Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of the victims of the now-deceased child abuser and trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, made a public statement in which she described three coerced sexual encounters with Prince Andrew. (For the record, he denies this.) The first two took place when she was 17, and in Florida, where she made a sworn statement of these facts in 2011, a 17-year old is below the legal age of consent. It is also illegal, not just in Florida but in most jurisdictions, to make use of the sexual services of a person under the age of 18. Furthermore, Giuffre’s statement made clear that even if she had possessed the legal capacity to consent, she was not, and did not act like, a willing participant.

If ‘rape’ means sex without consent, then what Giuffre alleged in her statement was rape (or in legal terms, possibly, depending on the details, sexual assault). But as a number of people noted on Twitter, the word ‘rape’ did not appear in any of the news reports, which in most cases used the formula ‘forced to have sex’. Though ‘forced’ obviously implies coercion, those who tweeted about it saw ‘forced to have sex’ as a euphemism, deliberately avoiding the strongest term the English language makes available for describing non-consensual sex. And many evidently suspected that the reason for that avoidance was Andrew’s status as a member of the royal family.

My own explanation is different. While I’m sure the media were keen to avoid suggesting that the Queen’s son might be a rapist, the fact is that they also avoid the term ‘rape’ (or ‘alleged rape’) in many ‘ordinary’ cases. This avoidance, as we’ll see, reflects various assumptions about what rape is and what it isn’t. In this case, I think the basis for those assumptions was not the status of the people involved but the context in which their encounters took place.

‘Forced to have sex’ is an agent-deleted passive: once you make it active, you see that the grammatical subject and semantic agent of the verb ‘force’ is not Prince Andrew but Jeffrey Epstein. The underlying structure, in other words, is ‘A forced B to have sex with C’. And in this scenario, where one man (let’s call him a pimp) makes a contract with another (a punter–though in this case not a paying punter: girls were ‘loaned’ to Epstein’s associates without charge), we do not generally call either man’s actions ‘rape’. We only think of it as rape when the two roles, forcing someone to have sex and actually having sex with them, are played by the same individual.

It is also typically assumed that sexual encounters of this type must be consensual by definition, because that’s what punters pay for, and because women who sell or are sold for sex have neither the right nor any reason to refuse (prostitutes who make rape complaints tend to get particularly short shrift from the police.) Repulsive though feminists may find them, these assumptions are widely accepted, and they explain why the word ‘rape’ is rarely considered applicable to this kind of situation.

But it should not be thought that this is the only context in which the media prefer formulas that do not contain the ‘R-word’; the same avoidance can be observed in almost all contexts. Jane Gilmore, the Australian feminist behind the ‘Fixed It’ project, where she takes a red pen to sexist headlines and publishes a screenshot of her amended version with the caption ‘here you go [name of media outlet], I fixed it for you’, is particularly exercised by the persistent use of the word ‘sex’ rather than ‘rape’ in reports on rape cases, even though the media could meet their legal obligation not to prejudice criminal proceedings simply by adding the modifier ‘alleged’. cropped-fixedit_ex-cop-rape-400x468.jpgAs Gilmore says, this is not how they approach the reporting of other crimes which no one has yet been convicted of. If someone is accused of stealing a car, the media feel no need to describe them as merely ‘driving’ the car until a jury has convicted them of theft. Even if their defence is ‘I was driving it with the owner’s permission’, words like ‘theft’ or ‘steal’ won’t be completely off-limits. ‘Rape’, however, is a different matter.

I came to similar conclusions while researching an article for the TES on the language used in media reports on child sexual abuse. The reports I read, especially on cases involving adolescent girls, showed a marked reluctance to use either the word ‘rape’ or other words implying criminality, like ‘assault’ or ‘abuse’. For instance, teachers who had been charged with abusing a position of trust were most commonly said to have ‘had sex with’ the teenage pupils they solicited; sometimes they were said to have had a ‘relationship’ or an ‘affair’. The language, in other words, was drawn from the register we would normally use to talk about sex or romance between consenting adults—even when the teacher was a serial offender preying on pupils as young as 13, and even in reports published after he had been convicted.

Why are reports on cases involving children so cautious about words like ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’? I did wonder if it might be because the actual charge in most of these cases isn’t rape (offences against minors have other names, like ‘sexual activity with a child’). But on reflection I concluded that the charge was not the issue: the avoidance had more to do with two other factors.

One of these factors is a reluctance to use words which imply violence in cases where the perpetrator used emotional and psychological manipulation rather than force or threats. This is how many child abusers operate. In a talk I heard recently about the case of Larry Nassar, the US gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of girls over a period of two decades, the journalist Lindsey Smith (who, with her colleague Kate Wells, covered the case for Michigan public radio, and went on to tell some of the survivors’ stories in the award-winning podcast Believed) explained that the main reason Nassar got away with it for so long was his ability to win the trust both of his victims and of their parents and coaches. Teachers who exploit their pupils also rely on trust; perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that the ‘abuse of a position of trust’ cases were the ones where formulas like ‘had sex/a relationship/an affair with’ were most consistently favoured. By using this language, though, the media just repeat the gaslighting which enables this form of abuse to flourish.

The second factor is a tendency to deny or gloss over the power imbalance between adult men and adolescent girls. The language of ‘relationships’ and ‘affairs’ implicitly affirms what Jeffrey Epstein argued explicitly–that teenage girls should not be thought of as vulnerable children. They may be technically underage, but in reality they are sexually and socially mature adults: they neither need nor want protection from the sexual attentions of older men.

Sometimes the denial of girls’ vulnerability is taken to the next level, by representing them as more powerful, calculating and in control than the men who have exploited them. This victim-blaming story is quite often told in court. At one trial in 2015, the judge said, of a 44-year old teacher who had just been convicted of abusing a position of trust by having sex with a 16-year old pupil, that he had been ‘groomed’ by an ‘intelligent and manipulative girl’. Another adolescent victim was described as a vindictive ‘bunny boiler’.

This portrayal of adult men as the real victims, ensnared and manipulated by predatory teenage girls, is a good example of what the philosopher Kate Manne calls ‘himpathy’, our socialised tendency to feel a man’s pain more easily and keenly than we would feel a woman’s, and to give him, wherever possible, the benefit of the doubt. That tendency provides another motive for not naming men’s actions as rape: since everyone agrees that rape is a particularly heinous crime, we must be ultra-cautious about making such a damaging accusation. We see this concern about ruining men’s lives in everything from the reluctance of judges to punish young men with promising futures to the demand that defendants in rape cases should be granted the same anonymity as their victims. Though the world is full of men who have been accused of rape and have not lost everything (think of Roman Polanski and Donald Trump), this may be yet another reason why  people so often shy away from the R-word.

Himpathy can influence attitudes to rape in other, less obvious ways. Earlier this month, the Court of Protection delivered a judgment in the case of a cognitively impaired man who wanted to have sexual relationships, but who had no understanding of consent. In the past he had behaved ‘inappropriately’ towards women, and his carers, worried that he might be arrested for reasons he was unable to comprehend, had put measures in place to prevent this. The judge, however, ruled that those measures infringed his fundamental rights. He was entitled, as she put it, ‘to make the same mistakes which all human beings can, and do, make in the course of a lifetime’.

As the lawyer Ann Olivarius commented on Twitter, the judge seemed wholly indifferent to the consequences of her ruling for the women this man’s carers believed he would victimise. In fact, she actively minimised the threat he posed to women by reframing it in bland, euphemistic language. Talking about ‘mistakes which all human beings can and do make in the course of a lifetime’ suggests that the issue is something commonplace and relatively minor–like the possibility the man might cause offence or embarrassment by making clumsy and unwelcome advances. In reality his carers feared he would commit a serious sexual offence. Few people would describe raping someone as a ‘mistake’, and certainly not as the kind of mistake that ‘all human beings can and do make’ (especially if we think women count as human beings). Of course, the judge could hardly have said, in so many words, ‘this man should have the same freedom to rape women as all other men’. But if you can get past the silences and the euphemisms, is that not, in essence, what her ruling does say?

This year, schools in England and Wales will be required to teach their pupils what the law says about sexual consent. Young people will learn that you have to be 16 to give consent, and that sex without consent is illegal. But outside the classroom the same young people will encounter large quantities of discourse in which non-consensual sexual acts, including acts involving minors, are described in terms that either normalise them (‘sex’, ‘relationship’, ‘affair’) or trivialise them (‘behave inappropriately’, ‘make mistakes’). Which of these conflicting messages do we think they will retain?

We need to talk about rape—by which I mean, talk about it as rape. EHcdN-TVUAAaSgZThe legal definition may have changed, but ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’ is still, in many ways, closer to the view Susan Estrich critiqued in her 1987 book Real Rape, according to which rape was only ‘real’ if it involved a savage attack by a stranger on a woman of blameless reputation. (The reporting of this kind of case is the one context in which we don’t see any avoidance of the R-word.) If we want to change the current consensus, we need (among other things) to stop using, or tolerating, language that makes the reality of rape disappear.

 

Postscript

Since I originally wrote this post, two high-profile news stories have underlined its point about the way language is used to downgrade the seriousness of sexual violence against women and children, and to cloak the reality of violence in vagueness and euphemism. They’ve also demonstrated that this isn’t just an English language problem.

In Spain there have been street protests following the decision of a court in Barcelona that six men who gang-raped a 14-year old girl in Manresa in 2016 could only be found guilty of the lesser charge of ‘abusing’ her, because they did not use ‘violence or intimidation’. They didn’t have to, because drink and drugs had rendered their victim incapable of resistance. Although the Spanish penal code does not recognise ‘rape’ as a specific offence (the more serious crime is ‘sexual assault’), ‘rape’ was the word protesters used in denouncing the ruling and calling for the law to be changed to frame the offence in terms of (non-)consent. ‘No es abuso, es violación’–‘It’s not abuse, it’s rape’–they chanted.

In France, the actor Adèle Haenel gave an interview in which she recounted her experience, between the ages of 12 and 15, of being abused by the director Christophe Ruggia. I have chosen the word ‘abused’ because Haenel was a child at the time. The details she has given do not suggest rape (i.e. penetration), but they do indicate a sustained pattern of abusive behaviour–forced touching/kissing and constant unwanted sexual attention–by a much older man towards a minor girl he had power over. But media reports, as usual, preferred other words, like ‘sexual harassment’ (as used in reports on #MeToo cases involving adults in the entertainment industry), and in the case of Screen Daily, the old-fashioned, euphemistic ‘molest’ and ‘molestation’.

What we see in these cases is a pattern whereby the language used, by the courts and/or the media, systematically downgrades the seriousness of whatever behaviour has been complained of. Gang-rape becomes ‘abuse’; child abuse becomes ‘harassment’ or ‘molestation’ (and as we saw at the height of #MeToo, harassment becomes ‘inappropriate behaviour’). The repetition of these formulas establishes them as the ‘official’ reality.

But the Spanish case shows how powerful it can be to challenge this linguistic downgrading. abuse Even where the word ‘rape’ has been removed from the penal code, it remains meaningful–and potent–in everyday language. The protestors are saying, in effect, ‘your patriarchal law cannot define our experience; its language does not speak for us’. (The cartoon alongside captures this sentiment: it’s captioned ‘sorry, but the only one who can decide if you were raped or not is me’.) Spanish feminists have insisted on talking about rape as rape; they have foregrounded the naming of the crime in chants and hashtags (#NoEsAbusoEsViolacion). Wherever we see the same kind of linguistic avoidance and downgrading, we should follow their example.

The illustrations are reproduced from Jane Gilmore’s ‘Fixed It’ project, from the Denver Post (h/t Twitter correspondents Jarvis Good and EwokNews), and from the Facebook page of Campus Relatoras (h/t Pilar Cuder Domínguez)

Broad men and narrow women: the perils of soundbite science

Last week a few people asked me what I made of a new study that was generating some interest on social media. At the time I hadn’t read it: I only knew Nature had reported it under a headline–‘Male researchers’ “vague” language more likely to win grants’–that made it sound both baffling (why would scientists get points for being vague?) and infuriating (as usual, it seemed to be men who were benefiting and women who were losing out). So I decided to investigate further, and then share my conclusions in this post.

The study was conducted by researchers at the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and their write-up is available as an NBER Working Paper. The data they analysed consisted of 6794 grant applications submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which operates a policy of anonymous reviewing. Because reviewers weren’t told whether applicants were men or women, the researchers assumed that any gender differences in success rates could not be the result of direct discrimination. Whatever was leading reviewers to favour men must be contained in the application itself. And since most of a grant application consists of words, they decided to look for gender-differentiated patterns of word-use.

What their analysis revealed was a tendency for reviewers to give higher scores to applications that contained ‘broad’ words and lower scores to those that used ‘narrow’ words. Since broad words were used more frequently in men’s proposals, while narrow words appeared more often in women’s, this preference for broad over narrow words was also a preference for male- over female-authored applications. The researchers found no reason to think that broad words were associated with better proposals. When they looked at what applicants had gone on to achieve, the words used in their proposals appeared to be a poor predictor of research quality. Overall, then, the study’s conclusion was as infuriating as the Nature headline suggested: men whose research was objectively no better than women’s were receiving more funding from the Gates Foundation because reviewers preferred a particular style of grant writing.

One question the researchers didn’t attempt to answer was why men and women writing grant proposals might favour, respectively, ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ words. But many people who commented on their findings thought the answer was obvious: simply and bluntly put, men–or at least a higher proportion of men–are bullshitters. Whereas women offer specific, realistic accounts of what they think their research can deliver, men have fewer inhibitions about making sweeping, grandiose claims.

This take is an example of a common interpretive strategy. If you present people with a generalization about language and gender—especially one whose significance isn’t immediately obvious—they will often try to make sense of it by invoking some other, more generic gender stereotype. In this case what they did was map the alleged linguistic difference (‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’) onto a higher-level, more familiar male-female opposition: ‘men are over-confident, women are over-cautious’.

You might ask: what’s wrong with that? Stereotypes aren’t always false: there’s plenty of other research you could cite in support of the thesis that men are over-confident (for instance, experimental studies showing that male test-takers consistently overestimate how well they’ve done, or the fact that men are more likely than women to apply for jobs when they don’t meet the advertised criteria). I don’t dispute any of that: in fact, I agree that ‘men are over-confident and women are over-cautious’ captures a real and significant cultural tendency. But there are, nevertheless, some problems with using it to explain the findings of this study.

One general problem is that you can use the same interpretive strategy to explain pretty much any set of findings, including made up ones. Suppose I told you the study had found that men use narrow words and women use broad words (i.e., the opposite of what it actually found). You’d be able to come up with an equally plausible explanation for that (non) finding just by switching to a different gender stereotype. Instead of ‘men use broad words because they’re overconfident bullshitters’ you might suggest that ‘women use broad words because they’re more attuned to their readers’ needs’; or ‘men use narrow words to show off their expert knowledge’. Since the supply of gender stereotypes is inexhaustible, there’s no statement of the form ‘men do x and women do y’ that can’t be slotted into this explanatory frame.

In the case of the NBER study, though, there’s a more specific problem with explaining men’s use of broad words as a linguistic manifestation of their over-confidence. When the researchers use the terms ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’, they don’t mean what people have assumed they mean (i.e., what the words would mean in ordinary English).

By way of illustration, here’s a list of six words taken from the study: three of them were classified as ‘broad’ and the other three as ‘narrow’. Which do you think are which?

  1. bacteria
  2. brain
  3. community
  4. detection
  5. health
  6. therapy

My guess is that you defined words as ‘broad’ if they were just basic, everyday vocabulary, and ‘narrow’ if they were a bit more abstract and technical. On that basis you probably categorised ‘health, ‘brain’ and ‘community’ as broad and ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ as narrow. That wasn’t, however, what the researchers did. Their definition wasn’t based on the characteristics of the words themselves, but on their frequency and distribution in the sample. Broad words were those that occurred in proposals on a wide range of different research topics; narrow words were restricted to proposals on a particular topic. By those criteria, ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ were broad, whereas ‘brain, community’ and ‘health’ were narrow.

If you think these definitions are confusing, I agree: the researchers might have done better to choose a different pair of terms (like, say, ‘core words’ and ‘peripheral words’). But once you’ve understood how they made their broad/narrow distinction and looked at the words in each category, it becomes difficult to argue that what’s behind the gender difference is men’s propensity for writing grandiose bullshit and women’s dogged attention to detail. (Is ‘health’ more precise than ‘bacteria’? Is ‘therapy’ vaguer than ‘brain’, or more grandiose than ‘community’?)

The fact that so much discussion revolved around the question of explanation suggests that most people had simply accepted the findings themselves at face value. This always bothers me: in my view, any claim that men use language in one way and women use it in another should be approached with a degree of scepticism. And that’s especially true if what you’re basing your assessment on is a report in the media. For obvious reasons, the media pay most attention to studies whose findings will make an eye-catching headline or a killer soundbite; this means they have a bias towards research which makes bold rather than cautious claims (stories like ‘men and women fairly similar, study shows’, or ‘we looked, but we didn’t find anything’, are not exactly clickbait). But for feminist sceptics it’s always worth asking whether the finding everyone’s talking about is supported by any other evidence. Have other researchers found the same thing? Or have they asked similar questions and come up with different answers?

There is, in fact, other research investigating the influence of writing style on grant decisions. Earlier this year, the Journal of Language and Social Psychology published an analysis of the language used in a sample of nearly 20,000 abstracts taken from research proposals submitted to the US National Science Foundation. This study considered only successful applications, taking the amount of funding applicants had been awarded as a measure of how positively their proposals had been assessed. It found there was a relationship between the funding researchers received and the language used in their proposal abstracts, but the linguistic features which made a difference were not the same ones the NBER study identified. The NSF gave more money to applicants whose abstracts were longer than average, contained fewer common words, and were written with ‘more verbal certainty’.

But I’m not just lamenting the uncritical reception of the NBER findings on general scientific principles. It also bothers me because I know how easy it is to propagate myths about the way men and women use language. ‘Men use broad words and women use narrow words’ is exactly the sort of thing that gets mythologized–detached from its original context (a study in which, as I’ve already pointed out, it meant something completely different from what most people thought) and repeated without elaboration in dozens of other sources, until eventually it turns into one of those zombie facts–like ‘Eskimos have a lot of words for snow’, or ‘women utter three times as many words per day as men’–that refuse to die no matter how many times they’re debunked.

If it does become part of our collective folk-wisdom on this subject, there’s every chance that ‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’ will also be filtered through the kind of deficit thinking which sees whatever women do with language as a problem in need of remedial intervention. Using ‘narrow’ words could join over-apologizing, hedging and tilting your head on the list of bad habits which are said to hold women back, and which it then becomes women’s responsibility to fix. (I can already imagine the TED talks exhorting women to ‘think broad’, and the workshops for female grant applicants on ‘choosing the right words’.)

To be fair to the authors of the NBER study, that isn’t what they think should happen. As they see it, it’s the reviewers who need training: their bias towards certain ways of writing elevates style over substance and leads to less than optimal funding decisions. But it’s hard for researchers to control what people make of, or what they do with,  findings that have entered the public domain. Even a study that was intended to be part of the solution can end up becoming part of the problem.

This is a dilemma for everyone who researches or writes about language and gender, myself included. Whenever I criticise some questionable claim or mistaken belief, I’m aware that I could be amplifying it just by giving it airtime. Though I’m only repeating it to explain the arguments against it, those arguments won’t necessarily be what people take away. But as you’ll have noticed, that hasn’t caused me to retreat into silence. I do believe that knowledge can set us free–but only if we’re willing to interrogate it critically.