Woman up! (part 1) In praise of Nicola Sturgeon

‘Shows what political leadership looks like’. ‘The only grown-up in the room’. ‘The only leader with purpose, resolve and backbone’. These are some of the things media commentators have said about Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon since the result of the EU referendum plunged the UK into chaos at the end of last week. (If you’ve been asleep, or if you live somewhere this isn’t big news: Britain as a whole voted (narrowly—52: 48) to leave the EU, while Scotland voted (less narrowly—62: 38) to stay in.)

As usual, some news outlets have followed the unwritten rule that any positive assessment of a female politician must be served with a side-order of sexist clichés. The BBC website excelled in this regard:

“If you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs… you will be a man, my son” wrote Rudyard Kipling. He may have got the gender wrong but he could have been talking about Nicola Sturgeon.  …Whilst Labour and Tory politicians were playing cricket, hanging out at Glastonbury or hiding away indoors Nicola Sturgeon pulled on the power heels and took charge.

Surely, just this once, they could have spared us the lazy ‘power heels’ reference.  (‘Hey, a woman leader—let’s make her shoes a metaphor for her attitude!’) And they could also have avoided that tedious gesture of presenting authority as an inherently male quality, so that any woman who displays it must immediately be described as behaving like a man (see also Margaret Thatcher, ‘the best man in the Cabinet’).

Actually, no one should be surprised by Sturgeon’s authoritative performance. Last year, when Sylvia Shaw and I wrote a book about gender and language-use in the General Election campaign, we took the linguist’s equivalent of a fine-tooth comb to the speech-styles of our political leaders. Sturgeon stood out as the best communicator of the bunch.

Of course, political leadership is not just about communication. Sturgeon is being commended for her substance as well as her style, and to some extent—depressing as this may be—simply for maintaining a public presence when the people you might have expected to ‘take charge’ (the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the organizers of the victorious ‘Leave’ campaign) were conspicuous by their absence. But in politics, facility with language isn’t just the icing on the cake. It’s a vital ingredient in any successful recipe. And Nicola Sturgeon has it in abundance.

What is it that makes her so impressive? Above all, I’d say, it’s her ability to operate effectively in a range of what linguists call ‘registers’, ways of speaking or writing that both reflect and help to define the nature of the situation. She isn’t a one-note political speaker: she knows how to vary her style and tone to suit the purposes of the moment (and she’s good at judging what the moment calls for). She can project gravitas using the traditional tools of formal rhetoric, and take down just about anyone in competitive debate; but she can also convey the sincerity and warmth we now demand from our political leaders.

Many of these qualities were on display in the speech she made after Saturday’s emergency Scottish cabinet meeting. She didn’t just focus on the most obviously newsworthy issue—whether the SNP would now be attempting to bring about a second independence referendum. She also took a moment to say this:

One group we want to reassure is EU citizens living here in Scotland. Those who have done us the honour of making Scotland their home will be protected.

Sturgeon had evidently grasped the importance of making a strong public statement of support for the non-Britons whose future was now in question. And she chose her words with care. She used the words ‘reassure’, ‘protect’ and ‘home’. She used the inclusive first person plural (‘we’, ‘us’): though strictly speaking the collective she spoke for was the cabinet, that ‘we’ was also hearable as a national, Scottish ‘we’. And she underlined both the seriousness of the issue and the explicitly positive stance her statement implied by using, unironically, the formal and slightly archaic phrase ‘done us the honour’.  (She has also made the same point using plainer words and direct, second-person address: ‘you are welcome here. This is your home’.)

Addressing the nation, Sturgeon sounds statespersonlike—calm, dignified, in control. But she can also do punchier, more combative messages, using colloquial language—often laced with sarcasm—to deliver a put-down to a political opponent.  In the General Election TV debates she repeatedly did this to Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband. And post-Brexit she’s been doing it on Twitter, another medium where sharp rejoinders work well. She responded to Boris Johnson’s announcement that ‘Project Fear is over’ with a withering

Indeed, Boris. Project Farce has now begun, and you are largely responsible.

Sturgeon is an effective debater, not only because she’s articulate and stylistically flexible, but also because she fights her corner. During the General Election campaign it was a constantly repeated truism that women are less competitive and more ‘civilised’ debaters than men: allegedly they do more listening and less interrupting or talking over others. The women who participated in the national TV debates (Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett) were repeatedly praised by media commentators for their kinder, gentler approach. But in Sturgeon’s case this was wide of the mark. She was actually the most frequent interrupter in both debates, and the vast majority of her interruptions were challenges to the speaker she was interrupting.

This kind of behaviour can work against a speaker, by alienating the audience; Nigel Farage, who had the second highest interruption score, did not get an enthusiastic reception in the studio. But Sturgeon’s interventions were typically well-received: as well as interrupting more than anyone else, she got more applause than anyone else. (In the second debate she got 97 seconds of applause compared to 54 seconds for Ed Miliband and only 16 for Nigel Farage.)

When Sylvia Shaw and I examined Sturgeon’s performance in detail, we noticed she had a way of framing her contributions so that she seemed to be on the audience’s side—it was as if she had intervened to voice what many of them were thinking, or to explain in plain English what other speakers were cloaking in abstraction. For instance:

When Ed talks about ‘cuts outside some protected areas’ that’s jargon. Let me tell you what that means. That means cuts to social care, to social security, to local government services, to defence. Ed’s in the position that’s he’s so thirled to austerity, so scared to be bold that he’s not even doing the right thing by the NHS. He’s not promising the money the National Health Service needs. I think it’s time not for a pretend alternative to austerity, it’s time for a real alternative to austerity.

Opinion polls and focus group studies conducted during the campaign found that Sturgeon was perceived (even by people who strongly disagreed with her political views) as ‘authentic’, expressing her own sincerely-held beliefs in her own words, whereas Miliband was criticized for repeating lines he’d been coached in by spin-doctors. It’s possible he was no less sincere than she was, but he didn’t have her stylistic flexibility, nor the knack of cutting through the jargon and the waffle to sound like someone who spoke for ‘us’ (ordinary people) rather than ‘them’ (the political elite). That’s the ability which has come to the fore again this week: whether it’s her empathy for non-Britons living in the UK or her scathing criticism of ‘Project Farce’, many people are feeling that Scotland’s First Minister is speaking for them in a way other politicians are not.

Nicola Sturgeon is not, of course, the only impressive woman in British politics. The devolved legislative bodies of Scotland and Wales have produced a number of capable leaders: Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood performed better than the media gave her credit for in the General Election debates, and the new Conservative opposition leader at Holyrood, Ruth Davidson, has also impressed commentators outside Scotland and outside her own party. At Westminster, too, there are women who are at least as well qualified to lead their parties as the men who currently do lead them. The biggest problem for these women isn’t what it’s often said to be—a lack of confidence in their own abilities, or a feminine preference for less visible, supporting roles. Of course, not everyone wants to be a leader or has the qualities to be a good one—but that’s true for men as well as women. Where well-qualified women do aspire to positions of leadership, the main problem they face is the one illustrated in my earlier quote from the BBC website: the ingrained perception of authority as male, and thus of female authority as unnatural and threatening.

As well as analysing the actual speech of politicians in the General Election campaign, Sylvia Shaw and I examined the way they were represented in the press. What we found striking wasn’t just the obvious cases of in-your-face sexism that everyone commented on (for instance, the notorious Sun picture of a scantily-clad Nicola Sturgeon astride a wrecking ball). It was the way writers’ assessments of female politicians–positive as well as negative–were implicitly guided by what seemed like extraordinarily old-fashioned assumptions about gender and authority. The cultural shorthand journalists used harked back to my own childhood in the 1970s. Women leaders were repeatedly compared to grotesque ‘battleaxes’ like the headmistress of St Trinian’s and Matron in the Carry On… films, or else to predatory ‘man-eaters’ and domineering, nagging wives (Nicola Sturgeon was likened, predictably, to Lady Macbeth, but also to Mildred in the old sitcom George and Mildred, and to a Black Widow spider who had already eaten Alex Salmond alive and was poised to do the same to Ed Miliband).

These allusions tap into a deep vein of male resentment towards women ‘taking charge’. A Freudian might say it’s about their mothers; the people who write this stuff would probably say it’s just a bit of light banter. I would say (and if saying it makes me a humourless feminist, so be it) that it’s no joke: it’s a serious problem for women in politics, and indeed in other areas of public and professional life. It’s the reason why research has found that a woman who scores high on perceptions of her authority will tend to score low on perceptions of her likeability. And since the ‘ideal’ modern leader is both authoritative and likeable, that’s a significant barrier to women’s advancement.

The existence of such a barrier is regrettable in any case, but it’s doubly regrettable in the present state of British politics. In the aftermath of the referendum we need women’s interests to be represented and women’s voices to be heard. The last week has given us more examples than we ever needed of powerful men behaving badly. Rather than presenting Nicola Sturgeon as an example of what it really means to ‘be a man’, shouldn’t the media be calling on the rest of our so-called leaders to ‘woman up’?  

This post draws on research done with Sylvia Shaw, whose contribution I acknowledge with thanks–though she isn’t responsible for the opinions I’ve expressed here.

 

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The taming of the shrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s beginning to smell a lot like bullshit…

In my last two posts of 2015 I’m going to tap into the seasonal zeitgeist and review some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the year. In the second of these round-ups I will emulate some of the great linguistic institutions of our time, such as the American Dialect Society and the publishers of major dictionaries, by nominating my Words of the Year. But first, I return to what has proved to be one of this blog’s most popular subjects: bullshit.

Sexist bullshit about language was ubiquitous in 2015. When I started this blog, in mid-May, the people of Britain had just endured almost two months of what you might call the ‘soft’ variety, in which women’s allegedly superior communication skills are ‘celebrated’ in an endless string of patronizing stereotypes. The objects of this treatment were three female politicians who had led their parties into the General Election—Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood. Following their appearance in the first set of nationwide TV election debates ever to feature anyone with two X chromosomes, these women were repeatedly said to have shown us what civilized political discussion looks like: no shouting, interrupting, talking over your opponents or trading personal insults. In the words of the Daily Telegraph, the women ‘brought a measure of dignity to an occasion that could have descended into chaos and rancour’.

This assessment may have been gallant, but it was also inaccurate, as I discovered when my fellow-linguist Sylvia Shaw and I actually analysed the TV debates for a forthcoming book about language and gender in the General Election. When the book comes out I’ll post about our findings in more detail. But let’s just say that the women’s behaviour didn’t match what we read about it in the papers.

Nicola Sturgeon was, on many measures, the most combative of the seven party leaders who took part in the debates. She interrupted more often than anyone else except Nigel Farage, and she was a master of the withering put-down. Sometimes her target was Farage, who was treated as fair game by everyone (the first leader to round on him was Leanne Wood), but she also got in some digs at Cameron and Clegg, and she was relentless in her goading—there’s really no other word for it—of Ed Miliband.

Sturgeon is a skilled exponent of the classic, adversarial style of political debate: in other words, she can beat the men at what’s supposed to be their own game. But instead of giving her credit for that, the commentators wittered on about how warm and empathetic women politicians are, how unconcerned with scoring points and getting into heated arguments.

That might sound like a compliment, and it might even be intended as one, but it’s only the other side of the same coin that gets women the media don’t like labelled ‘aggressive’, ‘shrill’ and ‘strident’. Of course women shouldn’t have to behave exactly like men to be accepted in positions of power, but nor should they have to conform to stereotypical notions of ‘feminine’ linguistic behaviour. Rather than praising them for civilizing men’s conversations, we should let women participate in those conversations on their own terms, as men’s equals. Which is pretty much what Nicola Sturgeon did: if I were handing out awards, she’d be my Woman Speaker of the Year.

Summer arrived in June, and with it came news that women weren’t such great communicators after all. (Bullshit does not have to be internally consistent.) There was a spate of articles about what’s wrong with women’s speech, and what they need to do to fix it if they expect people to take them seriously. Stop saying ‘just’ all the time!  Quit apologising! Cut out the uptalk and the vocal fry!

These pieces purported to be feminist (one, written by Naomi Wolf, was framed as a plea to the most ‘empowered’ generation of women in history not to throw it all away in a bid to sound like Kim Kardashian). But as I pointed out in a series of posts (see here, here and here), what they actually did was continue a long tradition of sermonizing on the general theme ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one who’d had enough of this finger-wagging dressed up as ‘empowerment’. Collectively the three pieces I wrote on this subject got nearly a quarter of a million page-views, and throughout July and August there was a steady stream of other blog posts and articles making similar points (this satirical take headed ’13 tips on how to speak while female’ was one of my favourites).

By December, even Business Insider—the publication responsible for publicizing the ‘stop saying just’ article that first prompted me to call bullshit—ran a piece with the uncompromising title ‘’There’s a war on the way women talk–and it needs to end’. I don’t suppose that will put an end to it, but it’s encouraging to see so many women talking back. ‘Next year I will ignore anyone who tells me to change the way I speak’ would make an excellent feminist new year’s resolution.

But I don’t want to give the misandrist impression that the field of sexist bullshit this year was totally dominated by women. They did make a strong showing in the ‘empowering you by telling you you’re shit’ subcategory, but in the ‘common or garden misogyny’ division the most outstanding performances came from men.

A particularly impressive contribution came from the cartoonist Scott Adams, who complained in the course of a lengthy rant about how tough life is for men in ‘female-dominated’ western societies that

Women have made an issue of the fact that men talk over women in meetings. In my experience, that’s true. But for full context, I interrupt anyone who talks too long without adding enough value. If most of my victims turn out to be women, I am still assumed to be the problem in this situation, not the talkers. The alternative interpretation of the situation — that women are more verbal than men — is never…

I’m afraid I’ll have to interrupt Adams there, as his arrogant mansplainy whining isn’t adding enough value to this discussion. He evidently forgot to read my post ‘Why women talk less’, which contains links to numerous studies demonstrating that in mixed-sex groups it’s men who are ‘more verbal’ than women.

That point also escaped another of the year’s most notable linguistic misogynists, the guy whose family Christmas card showed his wife and young daughters tied up with fairy lights and gagged with festive green duct tape, while he held up a blackboard bearing the message ‘Peace on Earth’. (You probably saw it, since it went viral on social media, but even if it’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, I refuse to link to a degrading image of children who cannot possibly have given informed consent to its public circulation.)

In his essay ‘On Bullshit’,  the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt suggests that the defining characteristic of bullshit is its complete indifference to questions of truth and falsehood. The true bullshitter isn’t deterred by anxiety about getting things wrong:

He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

One of my aims when I started this blog was to make this slightly harder to get away with. Sexist bullshit is difficult to kill (it has, after all, been around for centuries), but it doesn’t have to go undetected and unchallenged. Or in some cases, unlaughed at.

I’ve done what I can for this year; but I’ll be back for more (because there will be more) in 2016.