Not unprecedented: 2020

No one, you might think, needs an end-of-year round-up to tell them what 2020 was all about. The word-watchers of the English-speaking world all chose pandemic-related terms as their Words of the Year: Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com selected ‘pandemic’ itself, while the American Dialect Society voted for ‘Covid’ and Collins went for ‘lockdown’. Oxford offered not one word but a whole glossary, including ‘coronavirus’, ‘furlough’, ‘superspreader’ and ‘PPE’—an unusual move for a year which they described, using another word that turned up on several WOTY shortlists, as ‘unprecedented’.

But here at Language: a feminist guide it was a rather different story. Of course the pandemic was omnipresent, and I did write a couple of posts that were specifically about it. But most of the language controversies that caught my eye this year were very much not unprecedented.

Many of them were variations on the old and familiar theme of disrespect for women, especially but not only women in positions of authority. Back in February, in the most-read post I published this year, I analysed a particular form of this gendered disrespect, the ‘gentlemanly sexism’ directed by her colleagues towards Lady Brenda Hale, the now-retired President of the Supreme Court. Gentlemanly sexism is—or appears to be—polite, measured and reasonable, but it conceals a deep resentment of women who are too clever, too outspoken and too critical of the arrangements that make the gentlemen’s power seem natural and benign.

That resentment may also be in evidence when powerful men tell women who challenge them to ‘watch their tone’, as the Health Secretary Matt Hancock did in June to the junior shadow health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan. This tone-criticism is a defensive move, often employed as a distraction when a politician has no substantive answer to the question being posed; in this case it served only to make Matt Hancock look like what he is—over-promoted and out of his depth.  But the 2020 award for self-defeating abuse of a female political opponent should probably go to Rep. Ted Yoho, who called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a bitch outside the Capitol in July, and so provided her with a golden opportunity to demonstrate her own political and rhetorical skills with a hard-hitting speech about sexism to the House.

As the US presidential election campaign hotted up, I turned my attention to another familiar form of gendered disrespect, the interruption of women by men, and the far more punitive treatment of women who interrupt men. Joe Biden’s running-mate Sen. Kamala Harris was very familiar with this double standard: when she questioned former Attorney-General Jeff Sessions in 2017 she was sanctioned by the Chair for her ‘aggressive’ interruptions. In her Vice-Presidential debate with Mike Pence in October it was apparent that she had learned from this experience: she was at pains to present herself as civil and approachable, while also resisting Pence’s attempts to take the floor from her. It was (IMHO) a skilful performance, but it did not prevent her from being criticised as (in one commentator’s words) ‘an insufferable smug power-hungry bitch’.

Another phenomenon Harris encountered during the campaign (and indeed during her debate with Pence, though she waved the moderator’s apology away) was being addressed and referred to as ‘Kamala’ (sometimes mispronounced, or as one Twitter commentator felicitously put it, ‘dispronounced’—i.e., it was deliberate disrespect rather than an ‘innocent’ mistake) when her opponent was ‘Vice-President Pence’. The de-titling of women is a common pattern, but in politics it isn’t always self-evidently an insult. Being known familiarly by a first name or a nickname can sometimes work to a politician’s advantage (think of ‘Maggie’, ‘Boris’, or ‘Bernie’). Outside politics, however, the withholding of women’s titles usually does imply a lack of regard for their authority, status or expertise.

This point was illustrated in December by an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal urging Jill Biden to stop using the professional/academic title ‘Dr’, which according to the 83-year old male writer sounded ‘fraudulent’. Though Biden has made clear that she is not planning to be a traditional, fulltime First Lady, she was clearly being told to get back in her ‘wife of’ box. This year we’ve also seen a series of cases where women scientists, doctors and other healthcare professionals were first-named in media interviews and captions, while the male experts who appeared beside them were ‘doctor’ and ‘professor’. Women who complain about this are often accused—sometimes even by feminists—of being petty and self-regarding: in my post about it I explained why I don’t think that’s the right response.    

You might be thinking: but what about all those articles we read this year which praised women political leaders for the way they were managing the Covid crisis? Didn’t that prove that female authority was finally getting some respect? I did write about this trend, taking the view that a lot of the commentary t was patronising, essentialist fluff. It lumped all kinds of women together (passing swiftly over those who were doing a terrible job, like some US state governors) and praised them in stereotypical terms for their empathy, their rapport with children, and their supposedly natural communication skills. It also glossed over the point that the worst pandemic leaders weren’t just any old men, they were right-wing populist mavericks like Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson, men who couldn’t, at the best of times, manage their way out of a paper bag.

But in any case, it’s not just women in authority who suffer from the gender respect gap. This year I also wrote about the way girls and young women are treated in educational settings—both in universities, where so-called ‘lad culture’ continues to inspire much hand-wringing and little useful action, and in schools, where the verbal and other harassment of girls by boys has prompted a series of reports suggesting that Something Must Be Done, but somehow nothing ever happens because, as one pupil quoted in the latest report remarked, ‘nobody thinks it’s a big deal’. To my mind it’s a very big deal, one of the most important issues we as feminists need to address: we cannot create a culture of equality and respect if we teach our children from the age of 5—not explicitly but implicitly, through the everyday experience of going to school—that boys’ freedom to do and say what they like matters more than girls’ freedom to live and learn without harassment.

Finally on the subject of respect and its absence, in April I published my second most-read post of the year, about the disrespect to which women are routinely subjected as they age out of the category of desirable and compliant sexual objects. It’s been a terrible year for ageism in general–even as I write, I can see the Usual Suspects on Twitter are back on their ‘why not just let the over-60s die so the rest of us can get back to normal’ bullshit–but the way ageism interacts with sexism (and ageist language with sexist language) tells us a lot about what’s valued, and what isn’t, in women of every age.

Another recurring-and-by-no-means-unprecedented theme of the posts I published in 2020 was violence against women, the stories that are commonly told about it and the linguistic formulas that pop up repeatedly in those stories. In January I criticised the BBC’s coverage of two high-profile rape cases; in July I took a closer look at how the press reports physical assaults on women, and at the use of the cliché ‘an isolated incident’ in cases where women are killed by men. Though posts on this topic are never popular, I’ll go on using this blog to criticise the misleading and harmful narratives peddled by the media. They’re not the root cause of male violence, but they do play a major part in shaping most people’s understanding of it, and that in turn plays a part in licensing our present, patently inadequate response to it.

But I didn’t spend all my time accentuating the negative. One of my own favourite posts of 2020, inspired by Jonathon Green’s Sounds and Furies, a history of women and slang, celebrated the linguistic creativity of fishwives, fast young ladies, flappers, fictional schoolgirls, Valley Girls et al. I also had fun writing about that hardy perennial, gender and colour terms, aka ‘Why Real Men Don’t Know Lavender From Mauve’. And I was glad to be able to bring one of last year’s stories—about the campaign to change the entry for ‘woman’ in the Oxford Dictionary—up to date (a revised entry was published in November).

Meanwhile, as the year wore on, I began to suspect that the pandemic was having at least one unexpectedly positive effect–reducing volume of bullshit advice on how women should or shouldn’t speak. Apart from a brief flurry of corporate nonsense on International Women’s Day, we heard relatively little this year from the purveyors of ’empowering’ top tips. On the minus side, this may be only because they’d found a new outlet for their finger-wagging: instead of banging on about ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ they were busy telling women how to look ‘professional’ on Zoom (wear make-up, get a ring light, and make sure your home workspace contains no domestic clutter, whether it’s a pile of laundry or a stray child). Which is also irritatingly sexist, of course, but happily it falls outside this blog’s remit.

There were other subjects which I did feel moved to write about, and even started writing about, but then abandoned for lack of time (both work and basic life-admin take much longer in a pandemic). But I expect I’ll have opportunities to return to them in future: even in ‘unprecedented’ times, the basic problems faced by women tend to stick around. Meanwhile, as always, my thanks and good wishes to everyone who stuck around to read this blog in 2020.

Mandemic

Whatever else the current pandemic may be, here in the UK it’s been a communications car crash. We’ve been bombarded with confusing official messages, some containing technical terms which are used variably even by experts, and are incomprehensible to much of the public (‘herd immunity’, anyone?) And some politicians’ ‘backstage’ language (though in the age of social media what’s uttered behind the scenes tends to find itself under the spotlight sooner rather than later) has been remarkably ill-judged. Boris Johnson reportedly suggested to business leaders he had approached for help manufacturing ventilators that they could call the initiative ‘Operation Last Gasp’. In the US, someone complained on Twitter that a member of the Trump administration had referred to COVID-19 as ‘Kung flu’, and Trump himself has publicly called it ‘the Chinese virus’. Sexism, which is this blog’s territory, has not been such an overt problem in public health messaging. But I do think it is there more covertly, both in what’s not being said and in the way some things are being said.

Feminists have already called attention to certain absences or silences—most obviously of women’s voices at the highest level. There are exceptions, such as Germany and Scotland, but globally it is mainly men who are the public voices of  both political and scientific authority. As someone commented when the media published a photo of Mike Pence and his then all-male Coronavirus Taskforce praying, ‘it must be a mandemic’. (Pence has since appointed one woman expert, Deborah Birx.) Boris Johnson too has set up a high-level committee (‘C19’) that consists entirely of men.

When not making racist remarks or tasteless jokes, both Johnson and Donald Trump have adopted a martial rhetoric in which we are now ‘at war’ with the novel coronavirus. In Britain the tone is evidently intended to be Churchillian: rousing, patriotic, appealing to the legendary ‘Blitz spirit’ of plucky little England. At one press conference this week Rishi Sunak, the 39-year old who has very recently become Chancellor of the Exchequer,  uttered a series of platitudes about doing ‘whatever it takes’ to defeat ‘the enemy’:

Yes, this enemy can be deadly, but it is also beatable – and we know how to beat it and we know that if as a country we follow the scientific advice that is now being given we know that we will beat it.  And however tough the months ahead we have the resolve and the resources to win the fight.

But though wars are traditionally men’s business, they also make demands on women. The government’s recently-published list of key workers, for instance, includes a number of predominantly female occupational groups, like nurses, care workers and supermarket staff, who will all be at heightened risk because of the personal contact their jobs involve (these are also, and will doubtless remain, among the lowest-paid jobs on the key worker list). The absence of women from pandemic ‘war cabinets’ isn’t just a symbolic issue, it’s a ‘nothing about us without us’ issue. It raises concerns that the men in charge will give little or no thought to the way their decisions affect women–differently, not always equally, and potentially in very damaging ways.

Apart from the Churchillian posturing, one way I see ‘mandemic’ thinking being subtly reflected in language is in the way politicians and official spokespeople talk about ‘home’. ‘Stay at home’ is one of the UK government’s key public health messages, along with ‘wash your hands’ (it’s said that Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings particularly favours these three-word slogans—see also ‘Take back control’ and ‘get Brexit done’). But it was long ago pointed out by feminists that ‘home’ doesn’t have quite the same meaning for most women as it does for most men.

In Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s Feminist Dictionary the entry for ‘home’ defines it as ‘most women’s place of work’. In current conditions it’s temporarily become a place of work for large numbers of men as well as women whose jobs do not require their physical presence in the workplace, and also the place where 5-18 year-olds will now be doing their schoolwork. All this only adds to the unpaid care-work—domestic labour, childcare, the ‘mental load’ of planning and strategising that keeps the show on the road—which makes ‘home’ a permanent workplace for women with families (whether or not they also have a paid job). The idea of ‘home’ as a safe haven, a shelter from the dangers of the outside world, may be less than soothing when you’re the one who will be expected to do even more caring than usual, in conditions of household isolation (i.e., without a break, or any of the usual social supports), and possibly with drastically reduced economic resources.

There’s also the point that for some women ‘home’ is a place of danger rather than safety. Reported incidents of domestic violence increase significantly even during relatively brief holiday periods; it’s horrifying to think about what could happen during a lockdown lasting weeks or months. We know this was a serious problem in Wuhan, but the British government has pledged no additional funding for the organisations that provide services to women. (There’s some general advice and contact numbers here.)

In the UK people over 70 have been told they should isolate themselves completely for several months, a policy which has been referred to both in Britain and Ireland as ‘cocooning’ the ‘elderly’. Both those words set my teeth on edge. ‘Elderly’ is a euphemism which people use to avoid the plain but apparently taboo word ‘old’, and it has strong connotations of frailty and helplessness—hence the need for ‘cocooning’, wrapping the frail and helpless in cotton wool. I’m sure the term ‘cocooning’ was chosen to sound warm and caring, but for those who remain fit and active (as many people do in their 70s and even beyond), the policy might well sound more like house arrest, removing all personal freedom at a stroke. It’s true that social distancing restricts everyone’s freedom, but the degree of restriction envisaged for the over-70s is extreme—no leaving the house or seeing anyone in person for months—and I don’t think it helps to dress that up in warm and fuzzy words. (Especially if you’re leaving it to volunteers to make sure that ‘cocooned’ people who don’t have family nearby, or at all, can still access food and other necessities.)

As someone who’s not far from being ‘elderly’ myself, I’m not surprised that some people over 70 are resisting the official advice (which is not (yet) being stringently enforced). I doubt that’s because they’re unaware that rates of serious illness and death from COVID-19 rise steeply after the age of 60, but they might think there are other factors to consider (like the effects of such prolonged isolation/immobility on mental health) when deciding if extreme measures are necessary or desirable for them personally. What the world seems to think, however, is that any ‘elderly’ person who resists being ‘cocooned’ is simply proving that old people in general are muddle-headed and irresponsible, in denial about the risks they face and incapable of making rational decisions. They must be nagged, patronised and held up as Bad Examples on social media by people who know better, not uncommonly their own children.

A lot of this discourse is covertly sexist as well as ageist. Because ‘elderly’ (does anyone, of any age, actually ‘identify as’ ‘elderly’?) connotes ‘frail and helpless, in need of protection’, we tend to imagine the prototypical ‘elderly’ person as a woman. I’ve noticed it’s most often the behaviour of their mothers that prompts people in their 30s and 40s to take to Facebook or Twitter to recount examples of ‘reckless’ behaviour and solicit advice on how to stop it. Of course this anxiety is fuelled by love, and the fear that comes with love; and of course there are old people (of both sexes) who really are extremely frail and at very high risk. But where people are still healthy and independent, neither the government nor their younger family members will get through to them by patronising and infantilising them.

Meanwhile, the populist (and in some cases, ‘elderly’) male political leaders who have cast themselves as latter-day Churchills make a public spectacle of their recklessness. They’re no longer suggesting, as Donald Trump initially did, that the pandemic is either a hoax or ‘just the flu’, but they go on ostentatiously shaking hands: not long ago Boris Johnson boasted that he had shaken hands with people who had COVID-19, while Trump said he would continue to shake hands with anyone who might ‘want to say hello’, adding that if they ‘want to hug you and kiss you, I don’t care’. When he and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro were found to have had close contact with someone who later tested positive for the virus, both said initially that they saw no need to get tested themselves. (Trump later announced he had tested negative.)

These are performances of masculinity (of which the firm handshake, in particular, has long been a powerful symbol), and of imagined alpha-male invincibility. They say ‘I’m not afraid, I’m not a wimp, I’m hard enough to take the risks I’m telling others to avoid’. Which is bullshit at the best of times, and even more so when the risks they’re taking are potentially harmful to others too. And it isn’t just ageing politicians who think there’s something emasculating about following advice to act responsibly. According to one report on the introduction of stricter social distancing measures in Britain, ‘millennial men have been the worst offenders at failing to reduce their contact with other people, continuing to visit pubs, travel widely and take part in other social events’.

Finally in this round-up of ‘mandemic’ rhetoric, let’s not overlook the early signs that anti-feminism may be replicating alongside the novel coronavirus. National crises tend to turn people’s minds to what kind of world they’d like to build when it’s all over, and these visions of a better future are often marked by nostalgia for the past—especially when it comes to the roles of men and women. During World War II, comparisons with which have already become a cliché of pandemic-talk, women like the iconic ‘Rosie the Riveter’ were drafted in to help the war effort by filling the roles male combatants had vacated; but afterwards they faced intense pressure to become the dependent housewives whose profound dissatisfactions Betty Friedan would later write about in The Feminine Mystique.

If you’re thinking, ‘OK, but we’ve moved on since 1945’, consider the fact that the closure of schools across Britain yesterday prompted this ruminative tweet from a man whose profile identifies him as a trades unionist and ‘Blue Labour’ supporter (i.e. economically on the left but socially conservative):

One of the downsides of the shift towards an economic structure & culture in which both parents are expected to work is that domestic chaos ensues when a crisis hits. We need to build an economy which allows families to enjoy a good standard of living on the wages of one earner.

This does illustrate one way in which we have, perhaps, moved on: it is written in impeccably gender-neutral or ‘inclusive’ language. But as I’ve pointed out before, that formal inclusiveness often masks a clearly gendered meaning. I’m willing to bet that when you read the tweet you drew a non-random conclusion about which parent he was imagining as the ‘earner’, and which would be assigned responsibility for staving off ‘domestic chaos’. (And don’t bother asking about single parents: though they’ve always existed, nostalgia generally renders them invisible.)

Watch out for the bullshit, and whenever you come into contact with it, wash your hands.