Unspeakable

September was an eventful month in the ongoing War of the W-Word. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tweeted out an edited version of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words defending a woman’s right to choose, in which the words ‘woman’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ were replaced with ‘person’, ‘they’ and ‘their’. The medical journal The Lancet published a cover informing readers that ‘Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected’. And a series of British politicians publicly tied themselves in knots about whether it’s permissible to state that ‘only women have a cervix’.

‘Bodies with vaginas’ caused particular offence, but as the science writer and editor Sue Nelson pointed out, The Lancet had taken the phrase out of context. The statement on the cover was what’s known in the trade as a ‘pull-quote’, lifted from an article discussing an exhibition about menstruation at London’s Vagina Museum. Not only did the article mention women, it did so in the very sentence the quote was taken from:

Historically the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected—for example, the paucity of understanding of endometriosis and the way women’s pain has been seen as more likely to have an emotional or psychological cause, a hangover from centuries of theorising about hysteria.

The article does connect the treatment of ‘bodies with vaginas’ to the fact that vaginas, on the whole, belong to women. But the cover obscures that through selective quotation. Sue Nelson described this as ‘deliberately provocative’, adding that it was ‘clickbait…virtue-signalling, or both’.

What is it, though, that makes ‘bodies with vaginas’ so provocative? Many critics complained that the phrase dehumanised women by referring to them as ‘bodies’, but I’m not convinced that ‘bodies’ is the problem. I don’t think The Lancet would have been deluged with complaints if its cover had called attention to the historical neglect of ‘the anatomy and physiology of women’s bodies’, or ‘female bodies’, or ‘the female body’. On the cover of a medical journal, in a sentence about anatomy and physiology (‘the study of the structure and functions of bodies’) those phrases would not have seemed out of place.

In my view the provocation had less to do with the words The Lancet did use than with the word it conspicuously avoided. Whatever else they communicate, expressions like ‘bodies with vaginas’ (see also ‘menstruators’, ‘pregnant people’, ‘anyone who has a cervix’) signal that the speaker or writer has made a conscious decision not to use the word ‘women’. Particularly when it’s repeated across contexts and over time, this intentional avoidance implies that ‘women’ is taboo: it belongs to the category of words whose offensiveness makes them ‘dirty’ and publicly unspeakable.    

At this point you might be thinking: but this isn’t about avoidance, it’s about inclusion. It’s a way of acknowledging that some individuals who have vaginas/periods/abortions do not identify as women, but rather as trans men or nonbinary people. Is this not the same argument 1970s feminists made when they objected to the pseudo-generic use of masculine terms like ‘chairman’? I agree that there are parallels; but there are also, if you look closer, differences.     

1970s feminists looking for alternatives to ‘he/man’ language had a number of strategies at their disposal. One of these was ‘doubling’, conjoining terms with ‘and’, as in the phrase ‘servicemen and women’, now routinely used by politicians paying tribute to the armed forces. Feminists don’t complain about the continuing presence of ‘men’, who are still the majority of those who serve. But when the problem is the word ‘women’, and the issue is including people with other gender identities, there’s a tendency to shy away from the ‘add on’ approach (e.g. ‘we provide advice and support to pregnant women, trans men and nonbinary people’). The preferred strategy is to substitute a word or phrase that does not contain the word ‘women’—even if the result is bizarre (‘bodies with vaginas’), circumlocutory (‘anyone who has a cervix’) or unclear (e.g. the ACLU’s use of ‘person/people’ in a context where the reference is not to all people but specifically to those who can become pregnant). If you’re just looking for ways of referring to a category which includes but is not limited to women, why is it so important to avoid the word entirely?  

Another piece of evidence that we are dealing with avoidance is that the substitution rule only applies to ‘women’. As critics of the Lancet cover pointed out, a few days earlier the journal had tweeted something about prostate cancer which referred to those affected by the disease as ‘men’. If inclusiveness were the sole concern, the same considerations should apply to prostate cancer as to cervical cancer. In both cases, some patients in need of screening or treatment may identify as trans or nonbinary. But texts about cancers which only affect male bodies do not talk about ‘people with prostates’ or ‘bodies with testicles’. That can’t be because ‘men’ is more inclusive than ‘women’; the difference is that ‘men’ is not taboo.      

The English word ‘taboo’ means a kind of avoidance which reflects our notions of polite or socially appropriate behaviour. It covers such injunctions as not swearing in certain contexts (in front of your grandparents, or at a job interview), and not speaking plainly about certain subjects (e.g. death). The word ‘woman’ was once considered impolite (as a child I was taught to call say ‘lady)’, and avoiding it to be inclusive is also, to some extent, about politeness—being sensitive to others’ feelings and trying not to offend or upset them. But some aspects of the way this avoidance plays out might remind us of taboo in the more technical, anthropological sense.

The anthropological use of ‘taboo’ reflects the way it was observed to work in the Polynesian societies which originally gave English the word. In those societies, ‘tabu’ (or ‘tapu’ or ‘kapu’) is connected to the concept of ‘mana’, a form of power which all things are believed to possess, and which is dangerous if not correctly channelled. The danger is managed through the observance of ritual prohibitions, like not eating certain foods, or not bringing objects that serve one purpose into a space reserved for another, or not uttering the names of gods, rulers, or the recently deceased. Taboo-breaking is understood to be both dangerous and shameful: offenders may be shunned, and in extreme cases even killed.      

The avoidance of ‘women’ among contemporary English-speakers is not motivated by fear of supernatural forces, but it does sometimes seem to be rooted in another kind of fear—the fear that if you don’t observe the rules you will be publicly shamed and ostracised. When politicians were asked about ‘only women have a cervix’, it was striking how many of them could not explain why, in the Labour leader Keir Starmer’s words, ‘it is something that should not be said’. Some of their responses were like the answer James Cook got when he asked why it was forbidden for Tongan men and women to eat together: ‘it is our custom’, they told him, ‘and the custom is right’. A taboo does not require an explanation.     

Even in modern western societies, linguistic taboos retain an element of the ancient belief in word-magic. An obvious example is swearing, where the effect depends on harnessing the power attached to a specific word: if you substitute a synonym (e.g. say ‘copulate off’ rather than ‘fuck off’) the effect is completely lost. And quite similar ideas about the potency of certain words inform some common recommendations for making language more inclusive.

The psychologist Carol Tavris drew attention to this phenomenon in a piece about some new guidelines produced by the University of California at Irvine (UCI).  Noting that the guidelines recommended avoiding ‘hearing impaired’ and replacing it with ‘hard of hearing’, she wondered why one was considered preferable to the other. The answer is that guidelines often proscribe terms that include the word ‘impaired’ on the grounds that it is negative and therefore stigmatising. But is ‘hard of hearing’ any less negative just because it doesn’t contain ‘impaired’? (One piece of evidence which might suggest otherwise is the existence of the joke-expression ‘hard of thinking’, meaning ‘stupid’.)

Even if they’re not efficacious, we might think these avoidance-based rules are harmless. But as Tavris says, for the average language-user, who is not steeped in the discourse of diversity, equality and inclusion, they make talking about certain issues into what can easily appear to be a minefield. They also create a gap between the approved language of inclusion and the everyday language used by most people most of the time. The mismatch is apparent in another of UCI’s recommendations—to avoid the phrase ‘homeless people’ and substitute ‘people experiencing homelessness’. If most ordinary English-speakers don’t follow this advice, is that because they don’t believe homeless people are people? Or are they just reluctant to use such wordy, convoluted jargon? Maybe they think ‘people experiencing homelessness’ is a patronising euphemism—like when doctors ask if you’re ‘experiencing discomfort’ when you’re actually in excruciating pain.   

Disregarding the views of ordinary language-users is a mistake language reformers have made repeatedly. When the ACLU substituted ‘person’ for ‘woman’ in its edited quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many objections took the form of mockery—repeating the same substitution in a context where it was clearly absurd, like ‘When a man loves a person’, or ‘feminism is the radical notion that persons are people’. Something similar happened in Britain after the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to use gender-specific terms in job advertisements. With the many jobs whose title had traditionally contained ‘-man’ there were two options: you could either use paired terms like ‘servicemen and women’, or find a gender-neutral variant to cover both. One result was a crop of new compounds like ‘chairperson’, ‘salesperson’ and ‘spokesperson’. Another was an endless stream of jokes about ‘personholes’, ‘personagers’ and whether in future diners would have to ask the ‘waitperson’ for the ‘people-u’.

To begin with this looked like a predictable backlash which would die down as the new terms became familiar. But there were other problems with -person. One was our old friend ‘the illusion of inclusion‘. Outside job ads, person-terms were frequently used not as generic substitutes for ‘man’, but as euphemisms for ‘woman’. Women were ‘chairpersons’, while men continued to be ‘chairmen’. It also became evident that replacing ‘man’ with ‘person’ often produced real terms that sounded like jokes. Soon after the law came into force I got a job in a local hospital, where my wage-slip informed me I was a ‘laundrywoman’. I found that term archaic, but on reflection I could see why it hadn’t been replaced with the ludicrous-sounding ‘laundryperson’.

‘Person’ once appeared to be the obvious substitute for ‘man’, but in hindsight we can see that it failed. Today almost none of the old -person compounds survive. But over time people converged on more acceptable solutions to the problem of making job-titles inclusive (e.g. ‘chair’, ‘sales assistant/associate’, ‘firefighter’). What they rejected was not the basic principle of inclusion, but the imposition of terms they found unnatural or ridiculous.    

The very public controversies of the last few weeks suggest that the kind of inclusive language that requires the avoidance of ‘women’ may be encountering similar resistance. It wasn’t just a certain kind of feminist who criticised ‘bodies with vaginas’. There were other Lancet-readers who were not so much offended as just bewildered that a medical journal would go to such lengths to avoid the W-word.

But many women were angry, and that isn’t hard to understand. Erasing one group of people as a way of including others sends a clear message about who matters and who doesn’t. And replacing the word a group of people use to name themselves with terms that many of them find alien and insulting makes it clear that women’s own preferences are irrelevant. This isn’t new: for millennia, all kinds of names have been imposed on women against their will. In that respect, terms like ‘menstruator’ and ‘birthing person’ are not so different from ‘slut’ and ‘slag’. Men like Keir Starmer and the editor of The Lancet would deny that they think of women as subordinates–yet they apparently feel entitled to tell women what it’s acceptable for them to say about their own bodies. They need to understand it isn’t up to them to decide, and let women speak, in their own words, for themselves.                    

Between children

On the first day of the first full week of the new school year, the BBC reported that cases of ‘sex abuse between children’ had doubled over a period of two years. In 2016-17 the police in England and Wales recorded just under 8000 incidents where both the abuser and the victim were minors; in 2018-19 the figure was over 16,000. During the pandemic the number fell, but there were still more than 10,000 cases recorded in 2020-21. And since these figures include only cases which were reported to the police, they almost certainly understate the true extent of the problem.  

This news would, of course, be shocking whatever words were used to report it; but I couldn’t help being struck by the phrase ‘sex abuse between children’. This formula seems to have originated with the BBC (the statistics were compiled for its long-running current affairs programme Panorama). But it soon became ubiquitous: as so often happens in contemporary news reporting, the language used in the original source got picked up and recycled by other media outlets with minimal or no alteration. The Times’s headline, ‘Sexual abuse between children more than doubles in two years’, was almost identical to the one that appeared on the BBC website (‘Reports of sex abuse between children double in two years’). The Mail Online had an expanded version, ‘Reports of sex abuse between children doubles [sic] in two years to 16,000 cases in England and Wales – with 10% of youngsters accused aged 10 or under’. The Sun was an outlier, diverging from the ‘between children’ formula and going with ‘Reports of children sexually abusing other kids DOUBLE in a year to almost 16,000 cases’.

One thing that’s notable about all these headlines is their use of gender-neutral/inclusive terms like ‘children’, ‘kids’ and ‘youngsters’. That pattern continues in the body of the reports, and in quotes from named sources like the psychologist Rebekah Eglinton, who said that unwanted touching and being pressured to share nude photos had become ‘a part of everyday life for children’. There were also quotes from politicians who affirmed their commitment to ‘keeping children safe’ and ‘creating a safe learning environment for children’.

In most contexts this would be unremarkable—neutral/inclusive terms are the default choice—but in this case it’s striking because the issue under discussion is by no means gender-neutral. In the words of the BBC’s report, ‘a big majority of cases involved boys abusing girls’. Later the report spells out what ‘a big majority’ means: around nine out of ten abusers were boys, while eight out of ten victims were girls (figures which suggest that there must have been as many cases of boys abusing other boys as there were of girls abusing anyone). The framing of sexual abuse as something ‘children’ do to other ‘children’ glosses over this enormous imbalance. Apart from the BBC, most media outlets treated it as an incidental detail: the Times and the Sun each devoted one sentence to the information that most abusers were boys, while the Mail didn’t mention the issue at all.  

But when I first heard ‘sex abuse between children’, what caught my attention wasn’t primarily the word ‘children’. In the headlines, at least, I found the choice of ‘children’ understandable: the point, I assumed, was to flag the topic of the story as cases where both abuser and abused were under 18, as opposed to cases where children are abused by adults. Still, to my ear there was something not quite right about the phrase–and on reflection I concluded that the problem was ‘between’.

My guess is that ‘between’ was chosen for the same reason as ‘children’—to emphasise that the report dealt with cases where both the perpetrators and the victims were minors. More familiar phrases like ‘sexual abuse of children’ wouldn’t have made that clear. But ‘between children’ is jarring, because it tends to imply that what’s being described is in some sense a joint activity. That’s how ‘between’ works in phrases like ‘a quarrel between neighbours’ or ‘a fight between rival gangs’. The activities referred to are inherently adversarial, but they are nevertheless understood to require reciprocity. You can’t quarrel or fight with someone who isn’t also quarrelling or fighting: if your adversary doesn’t reciprocate you’re not having a quarrel or a fight, you’re just ranting at them or beating them up.

‘Sexual abuse between children’ is apparently constructed in the same way, but it doesn’t fit the template, because reciprocity is not part of the meaning of ‘sexual abuse’. You can see this even more clearly if you turn the nouns (back) into verbs. If it’s true that ‘the Jets fought the Sharks’ then it’s also true that ‘they fought [each other]’; but ‘Jack sexually abused Jill’ does not entail that ‘they abused [each other]’. Sexual abuse, by definition, is something one person does to another without their consent, let alone their active involvement. That’s what makes ‘sexual abuse between children’, and indeed any reference to ‘abuse between Xs’, so peculiar.  

As I’ve already said, I don’t think whoever came up with ‘sexual abuse between children’ actually intended to convey the idea of mutuality or reciprocity. It’s more likely they just didn’t notice that implication. But I still think it’s a problem, as is the consistent preference for gender-neutral or inclusive terms. These linguistic choices are part of a larger pattern—one I’ve commented on in several previous posts about the representation of both sexual violence/abuse and sexism/sexual harassment in schools.

In commentary on these issues there’s a persistent tendency to present coercion or exploitation as mutual engagement. One way in which this is often done is by exaggerating girls’ maturity, agency and power. You see this a lot in court cases involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of children by adults, where it is clearly intended to minimise the adult’s culpability. By presenting the girl as an autonomous agent who voluntarily engaged in a relationship with an older man, defence lawyers hope to persuade jurors, judges and/or public opinion that the so-called ‘abuse’ was in reality no such thing: though her age makes it technically illegal to have sex with her, her precocity makes that a victimless crime, and the verdict or punishment should reflect that.

The idea of female precocity can also be invoked in cases where the abuser is a minor rather than an adult. Boys, the argument goes, mature later than girls both sexually and socially, and this is a reason to cut them some slack: they’re not really bad, just clumsy and impulsive (and easily manipulated by more sexually sophisticated girls). Both versions of this discourse represent girls as more grown-up, and more equal in their relations with boys and men, than most really are, or than they tell researchers they feel.

In relation to schools there is also a persistent tendency to frame sexism and sexual harassment in terms of an eternal ‘battle of the sexes’ which ‘naturally’ expresses itself in conflict between boys and girls. In 2015, when the Institute of Physics issued some guidelines for combatting sexism in schools, commentators regretted that this po-faced political correctness might bring an end to (in one Telegraph writer’s words) ‘the days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake”’. Like the ‘between children’ formula, ‘baiting each other’ implies reciprocity: the combatants are by implication positioned as equals, ‘cheerfully’ engaged in the mutual ‘baiting’ which has been a feature of playground culture since time immemorial.

The IoP made it easier than it should have been for the media to take this line. Though its intervention was prompted by concern about the way sexism affects girls, its guidelines made a point of being inclusive, treating sexist insults directed to boys, like ‘sissy’ and ‘man up’, on a par with those directed to girls (most of which are far more degrading than ‘sissy’). Other reports published since 2015 have taken a similar approach: though they invariably report that both verbal and other forms of harassment are experienced far more frequently by girls, they end up paying disproportionate attention to the minority of cases where boys are targeted. Presumably this even-handedness is meant to counter accusations of anti-male bias; but when the evidence shows clearly that sexism in schools affects girls far more commonly and more seriously than boys, a representation which suggests otherwise is itself biased.

The same bias is apparent in comments like the one I quoted earlier from the psychologist who said that unwanted touching and pressure to share nude photos had become ‘part of everyday life for children’. It is overwhelmingly girls for whom those things are ‘part of everyday life’, just as it is girls who make up the great majority of victims in cases of ‘sex abuse between children’ (while boys are an even larger majority of abusers). In both our language and our actions we need to face up to the reality of that difference, and of the power imbalance that underpins it. We will never solve the problem of sexual violence and abuse if we habitually use linguistic formulas that obscure what the problem really is.   

Speakin while female

Remember the summer of 2018, when a woman was allowed to commentate on a men’s football World Cup match, prompting a tsunami of complaints about her ‘shrill’, high-pitched voice? Well, the sport-watching blokes of Britain have been at it again. Halfway through the Tokyo Olympics a man named Digby Jones (in case you’ve never heard of him, he used to run the Confederation of British Industry and was later elevated to the House of Lords) took to Twitter to complain about Alex Scott, the former Arsenal and England footballer who’d been presenting the highlights for the BBC:

Enough! I can’t stand it anymore! Alex Scott spoils a good presentational job on the BBC Olympics Team with her very noticeable inability to pronounce her ‘g’s at the end of a word. Competitors are NOT taking part, Alex, in the fencin, rowin, boxin, kayakin, weightliftin & swimmin

What this tweet draws attention to is something all English-speakers do at least some of the time, whether they’re aware of it or not: pronounce the final consonant in the –ing ending on words like ‘swimming’ with an [n] rather than the [ŋ] Jones thinks it should have. (Neither of these pronunciations contains an actual [g] sound, BTW—though there are some English accents that add one on.) The alternation isn’t totally random: we’re more likely to use the [ŋ] in more formal situations, and the [n], conversely, when we are or want to sound more relaxed (it’s ‘sittin on the dock of the bay’, not ‘sitting’). But the difference between the two pronunciations is also socially meaningful: though virtually everyone uses both, exactly how much we use each of them varies with demographic characteristics like age, ethnicity, gender and social class.

Interestingly, the current social class meaning of so-called ‘g-dropping’ (though that’s a misnomer for the reasons I’ve just explained—and also because speaking is not, in fact, reading from an invisible autocue in the sky) is not the only one it’s ever had. Today it’s understood as a working-class thing, but in the early 20th century it was also associated with the British upper classes, who talked about ‘huntin, shootin and fishin’ (and possibly fencin and rowin, though probably not kayakin and weightliftin). Writers of the time both used the [n] form in the dialogue they gave to upper-class characters (like Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey) and sometimes commented on its use explicitly, in a way that makes clear it was a recognized social stereotype.

Here’s an example from Jan Struther’s 1939 novel Mrs Miniver: the setting is a shooting party at Lord and Lady Chervil’s country house.

‘Now take huntin’…’ ‘Oh, bull-fightin’ — that’s quite a different kettle of fish.…’ Italics bred italics. Dropped g’s fell as thick as confetti.

Then as now, ‘dropped gs’ were considered a deviation from the standard pronunciation. But the tone of the disapproval they attracted was rather different when the g-droppers were aristocrats. Middle-class Mrs Miniver finds the sound of the upper-class voices at Lady Chervil’s table ‘musically unpleasing’, but she doesn’t accuse their owners of being ‘lazy’, ‘illiterate’, or in need of the ‘elocution lessons’ Digby Jones prescribed for Alex Scott.

That’s one way we know criticisms of pronunciation aren’t, as those who make them often claim, a case of ‘it doesn’t matter who says it, I just hate the way it sounds’. It does matter who says it: the things people claim to hate the sound of are almost always things they associate with an out-group, a group they don’t belong to themselves. And while they may, like Mrs Miniver, make mildly disparaging judgments on higher-status speakers, they generally reserve their harshest and most public criticism for those lower down the social hierarchy.  

But in 2020s Britain, as Digby Jones would soon discover, you won’t make yourself universally popular by criticising a young Black working-class Londoner for talking like a young Black working-class Londoner. As well as defending herself (‘I’m from a working-class family in East London, Poplar, Tower Hamlets, & I am PROUD. Proud of the young girl who overcame obstacles and proud of my accent’) Scott had heavyweight supporters ranging from London Mayor Sadiq Khan to former rugby international Will Carling. Jones came out looking like, as one tweep put it, ‘a f**kin snob’.

But before we conclude that British accent prejudice has had its day, let’s not forget a very similar incident that sparked controversy less than a year ago. Last September the former Labour spin-doctor Alistair Campbell tweeted about the Conservative politician Priti Patel: ‘I don’t want a Home Secretary who can’t pronounce a G at the end of a word’. He deleted the tweet after Patel’s Conservative colleague Sajid Javid called it ‘blatant snobbery’, but in my own (basically Left-leaning) part of the Twitterverse, the jibes about Patel’s accent continued. And when the row about Alex Scott blew up, I noticed a few people suggesting her case was different from Patel’s: maybe Patel’s g-dropping was less ‘authentic’ than Scott’s, or maybe Patel had less excuse for it.

Sorry, people of Twitter, but that kind of talk just underlines the point that accent prejudice is a proxy for other kinds of prejudice. You don’t like Priti Patel’s politics, so you want it to be OK to criticise the way she speaks (which IMHO is perfectly ‘authentic’ given where she grew up and went to school–according to Wikipedia, at a girls’ comprehensive in Watford)–while simultaneously maintaining that it’s not OK to criticise when the speaker is someone you approve of.

Of course this is a common reaction, and I can’t claim to be untouched by it myself. Boris Johnson has a way of pronouncing the word ‘to’ (with an elongated and heavily-stressed schwa vowel) that irritates me beyond all reason. Others might feel the urge to punch him when they look at his perpetually uncombed hair; for me what does it is hearing him say ‘to’. I can’t control that reaction, but what I can do, and what I think we all should do, is recognise it for what it is (a projection of my feelings about the person onto the way he speaks), and resist the temptation either to broadcast our prejudices or to invent spurious linguistic justifications for them.

For feminists there’s an extra reason to be wary of this kind of criticism. It’s not a coincidence that the two examples of accent-shaming I’ve discussed both targeted high-profile women. As Katie Edwards recalled in a piece about the Alex Scott affair,

When I first started presenting radio I discovered pretty quickly that while it’s all right for Alan Titchmarsh to be ‘nobbut a lad’ as a broadcaster, women with regional accents have a trickier time of it.

She’s right: the policing of nonstandard pronunciation, and other linguistic behaviours which are popularly associated with working-class speakers—for instance, swearing and using slang—is even more intense for female speakers than for male ones. Working-class speech has ‘rough and tough’ connotations, and is therefore perceived as ‘masculine’; in women it attracts not only the usual class-based criticisms, but also the sex-specific judgment that it’s ‘unladylike’. Regardless of her social class, a respectable woman is supposed to act like a ‘lady’; being ‘well-spoken’, as people say in Britain, is part of that. The Yorkshire-accented Katie Edwards was once described as having ‘no decorum’; Faima Bakar has written about the way Black women get told they shouldn’t ‘talk street’ because ‘it’s just not attractive’.

The idea that women should be ‘well-spoken’ is yet another item on the already long list of requirements (like not being shrill, strident or aggressive) that create a hostile environment for female speakers. In the case of Priti Patel that might seem like poetic justice. But when we condone the weaponizing of linguistic prejudice against a woman, whoever she is and whatever we think of her, we make it easier for the same weapons to go on being used against us all.  

Who’s to be mistress?

On April 13, the Associated Press Stylebook’s Twitter account issued a reminder:

Don’t use the term mistress for a woman who is in a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else. Instead, use an alternative like companion, friend or lover on first reference and provide additional details later.

I call this a ‘reminder’ because the rule isn’t new: it was added to the stylebook last year. Nevertheless, the tweet got a reaction: people were variously puzzled, irritated and–in the case of the usual suspects–outraged by this latest manifestation of political correctness gone mad. ‘The word “mistress”’, declared the Daily Mail, ‘is CANCELED’.

Many responses queried the suggestion that ‘mistress’ could be replaced by ‘friend’ or ‘companion’: weren’t those euphemisms rather than synonyms, and as such potentially misleading? The AP conceded that these alternatives ‘fell short’, but insisted they were ‘better than having one word for a woman and none for the man, and implying that the woman was solely responsible for the affair’.

By this point I was confused myself. Is that really the problem with ‘mistress’? And if it is, can it be solved by simply substituting a different word? I couldn’t help feeling that the AP was missing the point—or at least, that it was only skimming the surface. So, in this post I want to take a closer look at a word with a complicated history.

Borrowed from French in the middle ages (the earliest example quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the early 14th century), ‘mistress’ was originally just the feminine form of ‘master’, and its core meaning was ‘a woman having authority or control’. ‘The mistress’ could be the female head of a household, or its the highest-ranking female member; she could also be a female boss, in charge of workers, apprentices or servants (it has the same sense in compounds like ‘schoolmistress’ and ‘postmistress’). The female respect titles ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, which are still in use today, are both abbreviated forms of ‘mistress’–and what they originally marked was not marital status, but simply status.  

But of course, word-meanings can change—and when the words refer to women, they have a tendency to change for the worse. Back in 1975, Muriel Schulz named this tendency ‘the semantic derogation of woman’, explaining that

again and again in the history of the [English] language, one finds that a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or women may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but that gradually it acquires negative implications. 

Schulz drew attention to several male/female word-pairs, including ‘Lord/lady’, ‘governor/governess’ and ‘master/mistress’, where the two forms, originally parallel, had diverged in their meaning over time. In each case it was the masculine term which preserved its original association with authority and status, while the feminine term acquired a less exalted meaning. For instance, while ‘Lord’ still denotes a male aristocrat, ‘lady’ can now describe a woman of any social rank. ‘Governess’, originally a direct equivalent of ‘governor’ (in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I could be described as ‘the supreme Majesty and Governess of all persons’, meaning that as monarch she ruled over all her subjects), came to refer to a woman who earned her living teaching other people’s children. US states still have ‘governors’ (as do prisons in the UK), but where women have occupied those positions they have invariably adopted the masculine form rather than styling themselves the ‘governess’.

‘Mistress’ is a similar case, with the added problem that it exemplifies what Muriel Schulz considered the archetypal form of semantic derogation, where in addition to being downgraded in status, a word referring to women acquires a specifically sexual derogatory meaning. Often it ends up as yet another synonym for ‘prostitute’. ‘Mistress’ has stopped short of that final destination, but it’s certainly in the same ballpark: Schulz glosses it as ‘the woman with whom a man habitually fornicates’, while the AP’s rule proscribing the word alludes to the idea of the mistress as a ‘kept woman’, financially supported by the man in the relationship.

To understand this history we need to consider the larger context in which words are used—which in this case means examining the economic, social and cultural conditions that have shaped relationships between men and women. If we have, as the AP suggests, ‘one word for the woman and none for the man’, that’s not a random accident; it has a logic which is rooted in past and present realities.

In fact, though, we do have words for the man. Leaving aside the informal and pejorative ones (like ‘cheat’ and ‘love rat’), the most obvious one is ‘lover’. I was taught at school (I know, weird) that if Mary Jones is John Smith’s mistress, then John Smith is Mary Jones’s lover. ‘Lover’ is also the traditional term for a man in an illicit relationship with a more powerful women, as in the Boney M song about Rasputin (‘rah rah Rasputin/lover of the Russian queen’). The pairing of ‘lover’ with ‘mistress’ has a literary pedigree, going back to the mediaeval courtly love tradition in which a knight dedicated his life to the service of the lady he loved, but who was forever out of reach because she was married, often to a higher-ranking man (e.g. Sir Lancelot loved Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur). This is where we get another sense of the word ‘mistress’, ‘a woman who is loved and courted by a man’. That usage remained common in literature for several centuries, but there’s a note in the OED explaining that by the late 19th century writers had started to avoid it. They feared readers would interpret the word as referring to the morally suspect ‘kept woman’ rather than the idealised love-object of the past.  

We also have at a word for a ‘kept man’: ‘gigolo’, defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a man who is paid by a woman to be her lover and companion’. But a gigolo is different from a mistress, in ways that reflect some basic facts about patriarchal societies. To begin with, fewer women than men have the resources to pay someone for sex and companionship. Also, men are not encouraged to view economic dependence on women as desirable, or even acceptable, nor to treat their own sexuality as a marketable commodity. That’s why ‘gigolo’ is—I would say—a more pejorative term than ‘mistress’. Of course, nobody tells women in so many words that they should treat their sexuality as a commodity, but historically that has often been their best or their only route to economic security. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when women’s earning opportunities were limited and their rights almost nonexistent, feminists often drew parallels between marriage and prostitution, pointing out that both were exchange-relationships–sex for money, or for upkeep—which women entered into by necessity. The mistress as a ‘kept woman’ also had a place in this structure. The gigolo does not: like his female employer he is an anomaly.

Would calling a man a gigolo imply, as the AP thinks ‘mistress’ implies, that he was ‘solely responsible for the affair’? My feeling is that it wouldn’t, and indeed that we wouldn’t describe this relationship as an ‘affair’. ‘Affair’ tends to imply mutual desire (even if there’s also a financial element), but the gigolo is understood to be in it for the money, not the sex—if his employer were desirable she wouldn’t need to pay. The gigolo isn’t like Whitney Houston’s character in ‘Saving All My Love’, lamenting that she can only share ‘a few stolen moments’ with her lover because his family comes first; nor is he Dolly Parton’s Jolene, the flame-haired temptress and homewrecker. He’s a paid employee, a sort of cross between an escort and a personal assistant.

There’s no way of knowing if the women in the songs are mistresses in the ‘kept woman’ sense, or just single women in relationships with married men. Do ‘kept women’ even exist any more? The economic element doesn’t seem to be central to the current meaning of ‘mistress’ for most English-speakers, who seem happy to use the word for women who have well-paid jobs and/or husbands to support them (Camilla Parker-Bowles, for instance, was referred to as Prince Charles’s mistress during the period when both of them were married to other people). I remember, back in the 1980s, being told about a senior academic who had allegedly asked a woman he met at a conference to become his mistress, presenting her with a draft contract in which he undertook to pay all her expenses if she gave up her job and devoted herself to his needs. We found this both shocking and hilarious: what professional woman in the late 20th century would be remotely interested in such a proposal? (Today I’d have another question: what man would feel obliged to make it?)

But if the ‘kept woman’ is disappearing—if women no longer need or want to be her and men no longer feel an obligation to compensate her—why do we go on using the term ‘mistress’ for women in sexual relationships with married men? Without the element of financial dependence there’s surely nothing distinctive about these relationships: anyone–man, woman, straight or queer–can get involved with someone who is cheating on their spouse. So, why not abandon ‘mistress’—which is sex-specific, presumptively heterosexual and, in its ‘kept woman’ sense, increasingly archaic—and adopt a single label that covers all the possibilities? If we don’t like ‘friend’ or ‘companion’, we could go with the AP’s other suggestion, ‘lover’. We use it for men, so why not for women too?  

But the responses to the AP’s tweet suggested that some people do think a mistress is different from a lover. And this does seem to be connected with the question of responsibility, though I don’t see the connection in exactly the same way as the AP. To my mind, the issue isn’t that we have ‘one word for the woman and none for the man’—that she gets blamed because (only) she is named. Arguably it has more to do with the historical baggage ‘mistress’ carries, a lot of which is about female power. The mistress may no longer be a powerful woman in the original (social and economic) sense, but what she does still have, in our collective imagination, is sexual power: she uses her lover’s desire for her to gain authority and control over him.  

That view of the mistress was visible in some comments both on the AP tweet and the Daily Mail article. They tended to come from women whose husbands had had affairs, and who wanted to push back against the idea that it’s unfair to women to use a word that ‘implies the woman is responsible for the affair’. Their point was that wives are women too, and it isn’t unfair to hold mistresses responsible for behaving in ways that harm other women. Some conceded that the mistress wasn’t solely responsible—‘I know it takes two’—but they clearly blamed her more than they blamed their cheating husbands.

One reason for that may be simply that it’s easier and less painful to blame the one we don’t love. But also in the mix is the idea that when it comes to sex men are weak and gullible creatures: they can’t help themselves, whereas a woman in a relationship with a married man ‘knows exactly what she’s doing’ and could choose, if she had any decency, not to do it. In essence this is the ‘Jolene’ story, where the salient power differential is not between men and women, but between the wife and the woman who threatens to ‘take her man’ (an interesting phrase, since it reverses the usual pattern by making a woman the agent and a man the object).

The connotations ‘mistress’ has acquired over centuries of use make it particularly well-placed to serve this woman-blaming/man-excusing purpose. Yet it is clearly possible to express the same ideas in other words. As an illustration, consider a recent Spectator article in which Douglas Murray aired his concerns about the power wielded by Carrie Symonds, the partner of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Murray doesn’t call Symonds a ‘mistress’: though their relationship began while Johnson was married, it would be a strange term to use now she is living with him and their child in Downing Street. Instead he refers to her as Johnson’s ‘girlfriend’ or his ‘companion’. The AP Stylebook would presumably approve–except that what follows is exactly the kind of woman-blaming the ban on ‘mistress’ was meant to counter.

Murray points out that in Britain by convention we don’t assign a political role to the ‘first lady’ (or gentleman): we think the only people who govern us should be the ones we actually elected. But as he sees it Carrie Symonds is not abiding by that convention: she is using her position to gain undeserved political influence. He also suggests that many of Johnson’s problems since 2019 have arisen because of the ‘sway—even terror—his younger companion seems to exert over him’. She is said to be responsible for a number of misjudgments: for instance, she ‘persuaded the PM to stop a badger cull’, and ‘made him stop a COBRA meeting at the height of the Covid crisis’.

Here, once again, we have the female agent/male object pattern, presenting Symonds as the powerful one and Johnson as her puppet. Yet even if he did cancel an important meeting to placate her, that was still his decision, his action, his responsibility. He’s the Prime Minister, FFS: ‘she made me do it’ is the excuse of a four-year old. Granted, it’s not Johnson himself who’s making that excuse, but Murray isn’t the only person making it on his behalf. Dominic Cummings recently claimed that Johnson tried to prevent an inquiry he feared would cause ‘trouble with Carrie’; and more or less everyone blames her for the current ‘cash for cushions’ scandal. (And no, I’m not suggesting Johnson cares about cushions—just that he’s the one who ultimately decides what will or won’t be purchased for his official residence.)

Times may change and words may change, but what doesn’t change is the story of the ambitious, manipulative woman and the man whose desire for her makes him putty in her hands. You can give her whatever name you want: terminology, in this case, is a symptom of a deeper problem. Though I’d be happy to see the back of ‘mistress’, we shouldn’t imagine that cancelling the word will stop people blaming women, or making excuses for men.

Death of a patriarch

Not long ago I quoted Robin Lakoff’s observation that looking closely at the details of language-use can reveal, or bring into sharper focus, beliefs and attitudes that usually go unnoticed. I’ve been reminded of that again this week, following the announcement of the death of the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip.

Since he was approaching his 100th birthday, this event was not unexpected; the government and the media had made a detailed plan (code-named ‘Operation Forth Bridge’) which they could put into action whenever it happened. So, what we are now reading and hearing—all the news reports and tributes and retrospective features about his life—is not the result of some hasty bodge-job. Much of this material was compiled well in advance, by people who had plenty of time to consider what they were going to say. I was expecting the coverage to be a lot of things I haven’t personally got much time for: royalist (obviously), obsequious (naturally), nationalistic (inevitably). But I’ll admit I was not expecting it to be quite so… patriarchal.

When I say ‘patriarchal’, I mean that in a very basic and literal sense. I’m not just talking about the presentation of the Prince as a model of aristocratic masculinity, a man who had served in World War II, who spoke with the bluntness of a former naval officer, who sent his son to a school that prescribed cold showers and stiff upper lips, etc., etc. I’m talking about the fact that commentary on his life has been organised, to a remarkable extent, around the proposition—not directly stated, but apparently still taken for granted—that it is natural and desirable for men to rule over women and children, in any social unit from the family to the nation-state. That proposition has shaped the outlines of the story we have been told—the story of a man who was outranked by his wife,  and who (understandably) found that demeaning; and also of the wife herself, a Good Woman who understood the problem and made every effort to mitigate it.  

In case you think I’m just making this up, let’s have a look at some textual evidence.

The first thing that’s striking about the coverage is that many news reports announcing Philip’s death chose headlines that specifically drew attention to his subordinate position. In Italy the Corriere della Sera had ‘Goodbye to Philip, always one step behind the Queen’. This wasn’t the only occurrence of the ‘step behind’ formula: he was also compared, by Andrew Marr, to ‘an Indian bride’ walking two steps behind (not surprisingly this comment was criticised for ignorance/casual racism, but I’m mentioning it in the context of this discussion because it’s such a clear pointer to the underlying idea that Philip was feminised, or emasculated, by his role). Another phrase used by several newspapers was ‘in the shadow of’, as in the Spanish daily El Pais’s headline ‘Muere el Principe que vivió 70 años a la sombra de Isabel II’ (‘the prince dies who lived for 70 years in the shadow of Elizabeth II’). Some reports combined these formulas: the Bangladeshi Daily Star, for instance, informed readers that Philip ‘lived in the shadow of the woman he married at Westminster Abbey in 1947 and always walked a step behind the queen’.

To assess the significance of these choices, we need to ask if the same phrases would be equally likely to appear in reports on the death of a queen consort, the wife of a surviving male monarch. That’s hard to test empirically because it’s rare, at least in recent British history, for a male monarch to be widowed (the last four kings all died before their wives). But it would be odd to describe a queen consort as living in her husband’s shadow, because that’s exactly where important men’s wives are expected to live. Being outranked and overshadowed by one’s spouse is the unmarked case for women; for men it is marked, and that’s what makes it headline material.

For Prince Philip, unlike the female consorts who preceded him and those who will follow, being relegated to the shadows was a problem; indeed, it was the problem that defined him. In the words of the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, ‘Philip’s life was…lived in perpetual limbo, his every move, every remark, every glance reflecting on his wife. He enjoyed none of the scope extended to various predecessors [like William of Orange and Prince Albert]’. ‘The frustration’ adds Jenkins, ‘must have been intense’. This frustration is clearly a function of Philip’s maleness: if a woman in his position were to complain (as he once did) that she was ‘nothing but a bloody amoeba’, she would be met with a mixture of incomprehension and accusations of being a jumped-up, power-crazed harpy. Royal wives are expected to content themselves with smiling, looking pretty, accepting bouquets and providing heirs: those who do threaten to overshadow their husbands do not, on the whole, remain royal wives.  

The second notable thing is the emphasis commentators have given to the idea that while the Queen may have outranked her husband in public, behind the scenes their roles were reversed—or to put it another way, their marriage was based on the ‘normal’ patriarchal arrangement whereby wives defer to husbands, not vice-versa. Perhaps the bluntest statement to that effect appeared in Italy’s La Repubblica, which described Philip as ‘l’unico che poteva permettersi di dire alla sovrana: “Stai zitta”’ (‘the only one who was allowed to tell the sovereign to shut up’). For this the paper did get some pushback on social media. But it wasn’t unique: the Guardian said that Philip ‘allowed’ the Queen to take the lead in public, while the LA Times assured us that he was ‘the undisputed master of the royal household’. Sky News noted that ‘the Queen wore the Crown—but when it came to family, Prince Philip wore the trousers’. Ah yes, the Crown and Trousers, that beloved 1950s pub where women couldn’t get served at the bar or set foot in the saloon…I remember it well, and apparently so does a royal correspondent who’s probably about half my age.

If the Prince ruled the roost at home, perhaps he was really the power behind the throne, and his place in the shadows, always a step behind, was just a carefully nurtured illusion. A number of papers reminded us that for decades the Queen began every address to the nation with ‘My husband and I’, as if to underline his indispensable status as ‘her closest advisor and confidant’. And the idea that he was indispensable, if not actually in charge, might explain an otherwise puzzling piece of fluff put out by Reuters under the headline Despite loss of husband, little sign Queen Elizabeth will abdicate. That ‘despite’ clause is a classic, encouraging the inference that we would naturally expect her to consider abdicating at this juncture—that the death of her husband would be an appropriate moment for her to ‘relinquish the throne in favour of her son and heir Prince Charles’. (Time, perhaps, to draw a line under the anomaly represented by a female monarch, who is only ever there because her predecessor had no sons.)

In reality, as the piece goes on to acknowledge, there is no reason to think the Queen has any intention of abdicating, ‘despite the huge hole in her life that Philip’s death leaves’. It isn’t explained why she, or indeed anyone, would decide to deal with a ‘huge hole in her life’ by making another huge hole in it. But apart from the thought that a woman in her 90s should not be clinging on to power when a man is waiting for his turn (once again, although I can’t test it, I doubt this would ever be the response to a reigning King’s loss of his wife), the idea that it’s time for her to go may be related to another theme which has been quite noticeable in the coverage of Prince Philip’s death, the portrayal of him as ‘the love of her life’ (vice-versa has been rarer, presumably on the old romantic/Romantic principle that only women are ruled by their hearts). ‘He was her King’, said Bild, metaphorically bestowing on him the title he was not permitted in reality, because kings have higher status than queens. Perhaps the commentators think that, like Queen Victoria after Prince Albert died, she will be (or should be) too grief-stricken to carry on.

Does any of this really matter, though? Would we not expect media coverage of such an anachronistic institution to be, itself, anachronistic? Yes, and in many respects it has been: in its solemnity, its deference, its assumption that mourning dead royals is the same kind of shared national preoccupation it was in 1903, and its total disregard for the realities of the digital age (the BBC shut down one of its television channels entirely for a day while showing the same royal-themed programming simultaneously on the other two; meanwhile on the other gazillion channels, life went on as usual). All this seemed, to many people, weirdly old-fashioned, as if we’d suddenly gone back 50 or 100 years in time (the BBC even set up a webpage specifically for complaints about the excessiveness of its coverage).

But I don’t think the patriarchal presuppositions I’ve been discussing are in the same category. Nobody needed to have it spelled out why Prince Philip’s position was so difficult and ‘frustrating’ (something that will never be said about the future Queen Camilla); journalists my own age or younger reached unselfconsciously for formulas like ‘wore the trousers’ and ‘in her shadow’. The Times was able to report that Prince Charles had ‘step[ped] up to fill his father’s shoes as male head of family’ (because of course every family must have a man at its head). The assumptions behind all this did not strike most people as weird. And that, depressingly, is because they aren’t.

Don’t drop the doc: Jill Biden and performative outrage

Last week The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein headed ‘Is there a doctor in the White House? Not if you need an MD’ . This header suggested that what followed would be a rehash of the perennial debate on whether ‘Dr’ should be reserved exclusively for medics (cue 300 indignant tweets from academics reminding us that the title was given to the learned when medicine was still the province of barbers and quacks); but while that was certainly in the mix, it turned out to be buried in a steaming pile of sexist condescension aimed at a high-profile, topical target. In case anyone hasn’t seen it, here’s the opening paragraph:

Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.

Whether women who have doctorates should be permitted to use the title ‘Dr’ is also a perennial question. British feminists may recall the case of the historian Fern Riddell, who was deluged with abuse on social media in 2018 after she expressed the view that she, and other academic experts consulted by the media, should be given their professional titles. Accused of lacking humility, Riddell created the hashtag #ImmodestWomen.

Joseph Epstein, similarly, thinks Jill Biden should ‘drop the doc’. Addressing her as ‘Mrs Biden’, ‘Jill’ and ‘kiddo’, he informs her that her title sounds ‘fraudulent’, though he evidently knows it isn’t, because his next move is to suggest that her degree, an Ed.D from the University of Delaware, is academically worthless. (This disparaging assessment is itself an indirect manifestation of sexism: in the US, more women earn doctoral degrees in education than in any other discipline.) Only then do we get the ‘leave Dr for the medics’ argument, which he attributes—of course—to a ‘wise man’ (though a wiser man might have chosen a different procedure as his litmus test for Dr-worthiness, given how many millions of children throughout history have been delivered without the assistance of an MD).

Epstein’s piece attracted numerous complaints, and two days later the Wall Street Journal responded by suggesting that a campaign had been orchestrated by (Joe) Biden’s media team. The criticism, it noted, had only really taken off following a tweet from Biden press spokesman Michael LaRosa, who called the article ‘a disgusting and sexist attack’. ‘If you had any respect for women at all’, he added, ‘you would remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper and apologize to [Jill Biden]’. The Journal’s line was that the Biden team had seized on this ‘relatively minor issue’ as an opportunity to score culture-war points through a display of performative outrage. Though it came from a different ideological direction, this bullying of the press, it said, was uncomfortably reminiscent of Trump.  

Does this response stand up to scrutiny? I’d say, yes and no. I do think Michael LaRosa’s tweet was an instance of ‘performative outrage’: he must have known that any self-respecting newspaper would resist, on principle, calls from a member of the president-elect’s staff to take down or apologise for an article that criticised the president-elect’s wife. I also have some sympathy for the Journal’s own interpretation of the offending piece: ‘Mr. Epstein criticized the habit of people with Ph.D.s or other doctorates calling themselves “Dr.” as highfalutin, using Jill Biden as Exhibit A’. In other words, the point of it wasn’t (just) to attack Jill Biden. If you can drag your eyes away from the appalling first paragraph, that isn’t an unreasonable summary.

That is not to say, however, that Epstein’s criticism of Jill Biden was incidental or peripheral. It was the peg for his op-ed, which would otherwise have been just a generic rant about falling academic standards and professorial self-aggrandisement that could have been written at any time in the last 60 years. It certainly wouldn’t have generated the kind of controversy which drives lots of extra traffic to a newspaper’s website. In a media economy where outrage pays dividends, the performative outrage of the Biden team was a gift to the Journal, and its complaint about orchestrated bullying was just more performative outrage. And amid all this outrage, we began to lose sight of what’s actually at stake when women are accused of being over-invested in titles like ‘Dr’.

I don’t want to lose sight of that issue, especially since I’ve now seen several feminists online suggesting that even if Epstein made it in a gratuitously insulting way, he actually had a point. Is it not absurdly self-important of Jill Biden to insist on being referred to as ‘Dr’ in any context other than the strictly academic?

I understand where that view comes from—as I’ve written before, the question of titles is one a lot of feminists are conflicted about. On one hand we believe women should be treated with the same respect as men, but on the other we are uncomfortable with the overt marking of status differentials. Many of us (including me, as I admitted in my earlier post) choose not to challenge people who first-name us or call us ‘Ms X’ while addressing our male colleagues as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’, because we don’t want to be seen as elitist, old-fashioned, vain, insecure or unapproachable.

But there are also good arguments for the opposite approach. After I blogged about #ImmodestWomen, I heard from a number of women with PhDs who said they used ‘Dr’ outside their professional lives—for instance, when filling in forms at the dentist’s surgery or booking flights online—not because they expected their status to get them better service, but because it liberated them from the eternal question ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ A man with a doctorate who chooses to go by ‘Mr’ rather than ‘Dr’ in private life is not in danger of being treated as someone’s appendage: for women it’s a different matter.

In Jill Biden’s case, anyone who thinks she should use ‘Dr’ only for academic purposes is essentially saying that for all other purposes she should be ‘Mrs’, i.e. defined by her status as a wife. I don’t, of course, know Jill Biden, but it seems fairly clear that she resists being defined in that way. She’s the first US president’s wife in history who has declined to make First Ladyhood her fulltime occupation, instead declaring that she will continue to teach at a community college in Virginia. It’s at least plausible that her preference for the title ‘Dr’ has less to do with intellectual self-importance than with symbolising her commitment to maintaining some measure of independence.

The other thing we should remember before we criticise women like Jill Biden is that even in their professional lives women are frequently denied professional titles. This manifestation of what in an earlier post I called ‘the gender respect gap’ is the subject of many anecdotal complaints among women in academia, and it has been documented systematically in medicine. A study which looked at doctors introducing other doctors at ‘Grand Rounds’ discovered that men introducing women only referred to them as ‘Dr X’ in 49% of cases, whereas the figure for men introducing men was over 70%–and women almost always used the title when introducing colleagues of both sexes.

The media are also regular offenders, persistently addressing or referring to male guest experts as ‘Dr This’ and ‘Professor That’ while their female counterparts are first-named. In this Year of the Plague, when scientists and medics have been constantly on our screens, there has been ample opportunity to witness this tendency in action. Here’s a case in point:

The two people in this image are Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Nursing, and Hugh Pennington, a virologist. The caption gives each of them an institutional affiliation, but only Pennington gets the title ‘Professor’. Which would be one thing if he were the only professor in the room, but in fact Donna Kinnair is a professor too. She’s also a DBE: a fully accurate caption would have called her ‘Professor Dame Donna Kinnair’.

This example is particularly bad because it involves captioning, which there is time to check, as opposed to being an error made inadvertently in a live interview. I say ‘error’ because in most cases I don’t believe the media intend to treat men and women differently; I think it’s more likely to be a product of unconscious bias. Or in this particular case, intersecting biases: Kinnair is a woman, she’s Black, and her field is nursing, and all those things are at odds with our cultural prototype of a professor. The older white man beside her, by contrast, fits the prototype perfectly.  

Maybe Donna Kinnair thinks there are more important things to worry about than whether the captioners gave her the correct title, and if so we might think that’s to her credit. But there’s more to the problem of gendered disrespect than just the feelings of the individual women on the receiving end. Every time we tolerate the titling of a male expert and the non-titling of the female expert alongside him, we are effectively reinforcing the beliefs that are the root of the problem—for instance, that professors look like Hugh Pennington and not like Donna Kinnair. And that has knock-on effects. If it’s true that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, then there’s a reason to insist that women’s status should be made explicit which is not just about flattery or self-regard.

I don’t think the answer is performative outrage (in hindsight I regret having performed my own outrage about Joseph Epstein’s piece on Twitter). If the aim is to change things, as opposed to just getting people briefly riled up about them, a better strategy might be quiet, dogged, civilly phrased complaint. ‘Dear TV programme producer, I noticed tonight that your captions identified the two experts in your Covid-19 item as Professor Hugh Pennington and Donna Kinnair. Perhaps you were not aware that Donna Kinnair is also a Professor. I’d like to suggest that in future you adopt a general policy of checking these captions to ensure they provide viewers with accurate information about each guest’s expert credentials’.  

Of course, it’s harder to call out bias when you yourself are at the sharp end, and when the disrespect is coming from your colleagues or your students. That does feel petty and it can feel self-regarding. We all have to choose our battles, and if a woman chooses not to fight this one she’ll get no argument from me—except for the one I’ve made here, and in other posts on this subject, that the granting or withholding of respect titles is not the trivial concern it’s often made out to be. If it’s so trivial, why do so many men become so enraged when a woman expresses the desire to be known as ‘Dr X’?  What impels them to respond with such extraordinary condescension (‘humility, Dr Riddell!’ ‘Mrs Biden—Jill—Kiddo: a bit of advice’)?

At some level I think these men must see the move women like Riddell and Biden are making as an attack on the ‘natural’ (aka patriarchal) order in which men rank above women, and women should defer to men. Hostility towards women who insist on professional titles may also reflect the (conscious or unconscious) belief that whatever else women may do, their most important roles are still the traditional ones of wife and mother. Women who decline to take their husbands’ last names when they marry elicit similarly hostile reactions, and for the same reason. They aren’t just defying convention, they’re challenging assumptions that patriarchy takes for granted. That’s why the gesture isn’t trivial; and that’s why it deserves feminists’ support.     

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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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