2019: (not) the end of an era

In a couple of days’ time we’ll be marking not just the passing of another year, but by most people’s reckoning the end of the current decade. All kinds of commentators will be looking back over the last ten years, and many will turn to language (or at least, vocabulary) as a source of insight about what mattered in the 2010s. They’ll remind us this was the decade that gave us ‘Brexit’, ‘fake news’, the ‘gig economy’ and ‘influencers’; it was when ‘climate change’ became the ‘climate emergency’, and when global protest movements formed around the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

This approach to documenting social trends—epitomised by the annual ritual in which dictionaries select a Word of the Year (WOTY)—has its limitations. It doesn’t capture the preoccupations of the speech community as a whole (if I quizzed a sample of my neighbours on the vocabulary items listed in the last paragraph, asking ‘have you come across this expression, can you define it, have you ever used it yourself?’, I suspect that only one item—‘Brexit’—would get affirmative answers across the board). It also imposes artificial temporal boundaries on a much messier reality: though some notable linguistic developments can be tied to specific events and dates, most don’t fit neatly into a single year or even a decade. In addition, the search for zeitgeist-defining terms encourages a focus on what’s new or what’s changed, though arguably it’s no less important (and may even be more revealing) to consider what has stayed the same.

That last point will be reflected in my own attempt to summarise the decade. When I look at this blog’s archive (over 100 posts going back to 2015) I see more continuity than change. The specifics differ from year to year, but the same general themes recur; and I’m sure they would have featured just as prominently if I’d started blogging in 2010. So, in this post I’m going to pick out (in no particular order) my top five recurring themes, using the way they presented themselves in 2019 as a starting point for some reflections on what has—or hasn’t—changed during the 2010s.

1. The return of crass sexism

In January this year, after belatedly learning that she had died, I wrote a post about the writer and editor Marie Shear, who will be remembered for her definition of feminism as ‘the radical notion that women are people’. She was also a sharp and uncompromising critic of sexist language, and the author of a widely-read piece which described what she called its ‘daily toll’: a continual insidious wearing down of women’s dignity and self-esteem whose cumulative effects she thought were too often underestimated.

Shear wrote this piece in 2010, at a time when sexist language had become an unfashionable topic. In the noughties some writers had argued that the overt sexism feminists had criticised in the 1970s was no longer a major issue: it survived only among ageing dinosaurs (like the surgeon in Shear’s opening anecdote) who would not walk the earth for much longer. Attention had turned to the subtler forms of sexism that were said to be more typical of the postmodern, ‘postfeminist’ era. But while postmodern sexism is still a thing (particularly in advertising and branding), the 2010s turned out to be the decade in which crassly sexist and misogynist language returned with a vengeance to the public sphere.

I say ‘with a vengeance’ because the crassness was more extreme this time around. In the past, the norms of mainstream public discourse discouraged the grossest expressions of contempt for women—they were reserved for taboo-busting radio shock jocks and men talking among themselves. But the 2010s saw the rise of public figures–most notably populist ‘strongman’ leaders like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte–whose speech was not constrained by older notions of decorum (or gravitas, or honesty, or any other traditional public virtue). Crude misogyny is part of these men’s brand: I’ll leave aside Trump’s infamous reference to ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, since it wasn’t intended for public consumption; but think of his comment, made on CNN in 2015, that the journalist Megyn Kelly ‘had blood coming out of her wherever’ (her offence had been to question Trump about his earlier references to women as ‘dogs’ and ‘fat pigs’). In 2019 Britain got its own imitation strongman leader, Boris Johnson, who specialises in the crass sexism of the public school playground, denouncing his (male) opponents as ‘girly swots’ and ‘big girls’ blouses’.

But you didn’t have to be a political leader to broadcast male supremacist messages to a global audience. The internet gave ‘ordinary’ men with a grudge against women—incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs et al—a megaphone for their misogyny (and for the violent fantasies which some of them, like Alek Minassian, would go on to enact in reality, making 2018 the year when mainstream, nonfeminist commentators started to talk about  ‘incels’, ‘misogyny’ and ‘toxic masculinity’). Not dissimilar messages also circulated under the banner of ‘harmless fun’. For instance, one of the items I reproduced in a post about greeting cards this year bore the message: ‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them and bury them in the garden’. Which brings me to the second major theme of the decade…

2. The linguistic (mis)representation of sexual violence

Any feminist survey of the 2010s will be bound to treat the #MeToo movement as one of the most significant developments, if not the most significant, of the last ten years (the hashtag would be an obvious candidate for the feminist Word of the Decade.) But #MeToo also dramatized what for me was probably the most troubling linguistic trend of the decade: an increasingly marked reluctance on the part of institutions—educational establishments, the criminal justice system and above all the media—to name sexual violence and those who perpetrate it without equivocation, euphemism and overt or covert victim-blaming.

In 2017 and 2018, as #MeToo allegations multiplied, the media converged on a couple of phrases which were repeated ad infinitum: the whole spectrum of abuse, up to and including rape, was now covered (or covered up) by the bland euphemisms ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘sexual misconduct’. This vague, affectless language was a boon to anyone who wanted to argue that the women making allegations were lying, exaggerating, reframing consensual exchanges of sexual for professional favours as abuse, or simply making a fuss about nothing (‘can’t men even flirt now without being accused of misconduct?’)

In 2019 we saw a similar pattern in reports on the case of Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with child abuse and trafficking (though he killed himself in prison before he could stand trial). Oxymoronic terms like ‘underage women’ were used to describe girls who at the time were 14 or 15; and when attention turned, after Epstein’s death, to the actions of other men the victims had named, the words ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’ were conspicuous by their absence.

Earlier in the year, most news outlets had even resisted using those words without qualification when reporting on the case of a severely disabled woman who unexpectedly gave birth in the care facility where she had spent most of her life. Though she could only have become pregnant as the result of a criminal assault—her vegetative state rendered her legally and medically incapable of consenting to sex (and also of lying about it)—reporters’ first impulse was still to hedge their statements with doubt-indicating words like ‘alleged’, ‘apparent’ and ‘possible’.

But in the last part of 2019 there were some memorable protests in which feminists harnessed the power of the R-word. In Spain, women who were disgusted by the verdict in a gang-rape case—the perpetrators were convicted only of ‘abuse’, because they had not used physical force against their barely-conscious victim—took to the streets to protest, shouting ‘no es abuso, es violación’ (‘it’s not abuse, it’s rape’). And in Chile on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, women gathered outside the Supreme Court to perform a chant which has since been taken up around the world (its title in English is ‘The rapist in your path’), calling attention to the way individual men’s ability to rape and kill with impunity depends on a larger culture of complicity and victim-blaming.

In acknowledgment of the power of these protests, and because nothing has made me angrier this year than reading about men ‘having sex’ with 14-year olds or police investigating a ‘possible/alleged assault’ on a woman who gave birth while in a vegetative state, I choose ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ as my words of the year for 2019.

3. Curious contradictions: the case of the authoritative woman speaker

Among the themes which have recurred in each of the four-and-a-half years of this blog’s existence are two that, taken together, embody a stark contradiction. On one hand, women are constantly castigated because their speech allegedly ‘lacks authority’: how can they expect to be taken seriously when they’re forever apologising and hedging every request with ‘just’? On the other hand, women who do speak with authority are constantly criticised for being ‘angry’, ‘abrasive’, ‘arrogant’, ‘bossy’, ‘immodest’, ‘shrill‘, ‘strident’ and generally ‘unlikable’.

This familiar contradiction was on show again this year. We had more of the same old bullshit about ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and other female ‘verbal tics’, and more complaints about high-profile women leaders being ‘strident’ (teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg), bossy and ‘self-righteous’ (Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson), ‘angry’ (Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris) and ‘unlikable’ (every woman in the race for the Democratic nomination).

More unusually, two women—Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill—attracted praise for their authoritative testimony during the proceedings that led to Donald Trump’s impeachment by the US House of Representatives. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a sign of things to come. The positive reception Yovanovitch and Hill got was linked to their status as non-partisan public servants, and the same courtesy is unlikely to be extended to any of the female politicians who are still in the running for next year’s presidential election. It’s one thing for a woman to have authority thrust upon her, but actively seeking it is a different matter. Powerful and politically outspoken women will still, I predict, be ‘unlikable’ in 2020.

4. Studies show that women are rubbish

The training course where women executives at the accounting firm Ernst & Young learned that women’s brains are like pancakes and men’s are more like waffles (as reported in October by the Huffington Post) almost certainly wasn’t based on any actual science (or if it was, whoever designed the course should get the Allen and Barbara Pease Memorial Award for Neurobollocks). But while science can’t be held responsible for all the sexist drivel that gets talked in its name, it shouldn’t get a free pass either.

In the 90s and noughties we were endlessly told that women were naturally better communicators than men, but in the 2010s there’s been something of a shift: there are, it transpires, certain kinds of communication in which it’s men who are hard-wired to excel. This year, for instance, a widely-reported meta-analytic study put together the findings of 28 experiments investigating the proposition that men are better than women at using language to make others laugh. The conclusion was that men really do have more ‘humor ability’ than women, probably because this ability is ‘correlated with intelligence’, and as such is a useful diagnostic when females assess the fitness of potential mates. (Ah, evolutionary psychology: a 90s/noughties trend which sadly didn’t die in the 2010s.)

It isn’t hard to pick holes in these studies; but while it’s important to interrogate specific claims about why women are rubbish at [fill in the blank], we also need to ask more basic questions about why so much research of this kind gets done in the first place. What interests are served by this unceasing quest for evidence that sex-stereotypes and the judgments based upon them reflect innate differences in the abilities and aptitudes of men and women?

Another study published this year on the subject of gender and humour found that women who used humour in a professional context were perceived to be lacking in competence and commitment. This had nothing to do with their ‘humor ability’: in this study, subjects watched either a man or a woman (both actors) giving exactly the same scripted presentation, complete with identical jokes. But whereas the man’s humour was perceived as enhancing his professional effectiveness, the woman’s was perceived as detracting from it.

What this illustrates is the general principle that the same verbal behaviour will attract different judgments depending on the speaker’s sex. Judgments about women and humour are similar to judgments about authoritative female speakers, and they embody the same contradiction: women are widely disparaged for lacking humour, but those who don’t lack humour are disparaged as incompetent lightweights. What explains this effect–‘heads men win, tails women lose’–isn’t women’s behaviour or their natural abilities: it’s a consequence of sexism, which science too often reinforces.

5. The War of the W-word

In my round-up of 2018 I wrote at length about the increasingly contested status of the word ‘woman’, whose definition, use, avoidance and even spelling prompted heated arguments throughout the year. This isn’t totally unprecedented: as I’ve said before (beginning in my very first post), the W-word has a longer record of causing controversy than many people realise. But its current contentiousness is linked to something that is specific to the 2010s—the rise of a new politics of gender identity, which has also influenced language in other ways. It’s a development that divides feminists, and the kind of conflict we saw so much of in 2018 will undoubtedly continue in the 2020s.

In 2019, however, the most notable controversy about ‘woman’ was much more old-school. It started when the feminist Maria Beatrice Giovanardi was looking for a name for a women’s rights project she was working on. In search of inspiration she typed the word ‘woman’ into Google, and was shocked when her search returned a series of online dictionary entries full of offensive synonyms (‘bitch’, ‘chick’, ‘filly’) and insultingly sexist examples of usage (‘one of his sophisticated London women’; ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’). When Giovanardi started a petition calling on Oxford Dictionaries to change their entry, her intervention attracted extensive media interest, and by September the petition had over 30,000 signatures.

This is a good illustration of the point I made earlier—that the advent of new concerns does not mean the old ones become irrelevant. What Giovanardi drew attention to is one of many examples of the quiet survival of ‘banal sexism’, the kind of tediously familiar, low-level stuff whose ‘daily toll’ Marie Shear warned us not to underestimate. In the past five years I have come to agree with Shear. It’s striking to me that many of the most popular posts on this blog have been about things that would never register on any trend spotter’s radar: old chestnuts like ‘should women take their husband’s names?’, and ‘does swearing make women unattractive?’, which I could equally have written about at any time in the last 40 years, are still significant issues for many women. If feminism had started a linguistic to-do list in 1975, it would certainly be a lot longer now, but very few of the original items would actually have been crossed off.

So am I saying the next decade will look a lot like the last one? Yes: though change is a constant, in language and in life, what we mostly see is evolution, not revolution. That was true in the 2010s, and—barring some catastrophe that puts an end to civilisation as we know it—it will also be true in the 2020s. I know that’s not much of a prediction, and maybe not the happiest of thoughts when you look at the current state of the world, but there it is: we are where we are, and all we can do is keep going. I wish readers of this blog a happy new year/new decade (thanks as always to all the other feminists and/or linguists whose work I’ve drawn on in 2019), and I’ll see you on the other side.

Tedious tropes: the sexist stereotyping of female politicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marie and Fiona go to Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle of the big girl’s blouse

During Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Boris Johnson accused the Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of being scared to fight an early General Election (the government would like to call one, but they have so far failed to get the votes they need to do it). As Corbyn charged the prime minister with being ‘desperate’, Johnson was heard to shout, ‘Call an election, you great big girl’s blouse!’

‘Big girl’s blouse’ is an expression of contempt for weak and wimpy men. The OED’s first citation for it (i.e., the first written record they could find—I can testify from personal experience that it was used in everyday speech in Britain before 1969) comes from a TV sitcom called Nearest and Dearest, where it was used by the main female character Nellie (a middle-aged working class northerner played by Lancashire actress Hylda Baker) to berate her useless brother Eli, with whom she ran the family pickle factory.

An entry for the phrase on Wordhistories.net suggests that its meaning derives from an analogy between a ‘feeble, cowardly man “in a flap”…and an oversized garment hanging loose’. I don’t find that entirely convincing, though, because it doesn’t explain the gendered nature of the insult. Its target is always male, and the point is to deride him as unmanly. You see this very clearly in one of the examples the entry reproduces, from a 1986 sports report in the Guardian:

The last time Liverpool lost in a home league match against Chelsea was in 1935. The following year scientists isolated the principal female hormone and there are those at Anfield who will tell you that Chelsea have been playing like big girls’ blouses ever since.

The reference to female hormones suggests to me that what the writer wants to conjure up isn’t a mental picture of an outsize garment flapping around. Something is being made here of what’s inside a ‘big girl’s blouse’ when its owner wears it. A ‘big girl’s blouse’ is a man who’s soft when he should be hard: metaphorically he has breasts instead of balls.

As Declan Kavanagh observed on Twitter, this is a classic example of an ‘effeminophobic’ insult, and Boris Johnson’s use of it prompted some debate about whether he was guilty of sexism or homophobia. The answer is surely that any insult whose core meaning is ‘effeminate/emasculated man’ is both homophobic (insofar as popular homophobia conflates being gay with being effeminate) and sexist. Its sexism is slightly less straightforward than the sexism of, say, ‘bitch’, or ‘slut’, because unlike those two epithets it’s used to insult men rather than women. But that should not prevent us from noticing that its force depends on a sexist presupposition. It follows the rule I alluded to in my last post, that one reliable way to insult a man (of any sexuality) is to attribute female or feminine qualities to him.

Why is the attribution of femininity insulting to men? Not only because it implies gender nonconformity (though that’s part of the story), but also because it demotes the target from a dominant to a subordinate position. It exploits, in other words, the tacit understanding that gender isn’t just a difference, it’s a hierarchy. That’s why, although it’s possible to insult a woman by attributing masculine qualities to her (especially if you’re talking about how she looks), it’s also possible for that gesture to be a compliment (‘you think like a man’ is a classic example: we’re supposed to be flattered by this ‘promotion’ to the ranks of the superior thinkers). Attributing femininity to a man, by contrast, pretty much always implies a downgrading of his status.

Feminists were in no doubt that ‘big girl’s blouse’ is a sexist expression, and some quickly set about ‘reclaiming’ it, composing tweets which recontextualised the insult as part of a positive message of resistance to sexism. Sophie Walker, the former leader of the Women’s Equality Party, tweeted:

Today at Young Women’s Trust we are all wearing our #BigGirl’sBlouse to fight the gendered job roles and sex discrimination that’s holding back the brilliant young women we need in all our workplaces and decision-making spaces

Another feminist photographed a pink shirt on a washing line, explaining that

This is the #BigGirlsBlouse I wore yesterday, when I went to talk to an employer about how they can protect their staff from #sexualharassment. They’re especially keen to tackle the everyday, ‘low-level’ sexism that erodes people’s status at work. The gov’t could learn from them!

There were also tweets like this one, thanking Johnson for inspiring the writer to take action:

Well this Big Girls Blouse has just contacted her local Labour CLP and offered to campaign for the first time ever. I’m 52 and a 40 E cup in case it’s of interest to Boris. And me and my assets will now be doing all we can to bury him. Thanks for the inspiration. #BigGirlsBlouse

Whether sexist insults can be ‘reclaimed’ is one of the questions I’m asked most frequently: to my mind it’s a complicated issue, and the reaction to ‘big girl’s blouse’ is quite a good illustration of its complexity.

The way #BigGirl’sBlouse has been taken up on Twitter exemplifies what might be called ‘opportunistic’ reclaiming–intervening in a specific context to get a specific, and usually limited, effect. It’s the same thing feminists did with ‘[such a] nasty woman’ after Donald Trump used the phrase to describe Hillary Clinton. I call it ‘opportunistic’ (which I don’t mean to imply a negative judgment—being able to seize the moment is an important political skill) because you’re essentially exploiting a political opportunity created by your opponent, using his own insulting words to criticise and/or ridicule him. The goal isn’t really to reclaim ‘nasty woman’ or ‘big girl’s blouse’ by turning them into terms of feminist approbation; on the contrary, in fact, it’s to make these expressions less acceptable in future.

Another well-known example of this type is the use of the term ‘slut walk’ to name a protest against rape culture which was organised in response to a police officer’s comment that if women didn’t want to be raped they shouldn’t dress like sluts. Opinions on this one differ: mine is that the original slut walk was a great example of seizing the moment–taking the opportunity to call out an egregious piece of public slut-shaming–but that’s where it should really have stopped. Now that most onlookers can no longer connect the concept of a slut walk to the context in which it originally emerged, the political message has become less clear, and it’s been accused of uncritically celebrating an inherently sexist concept (though in fairness, the founder of the slut walks, Amber Rose, has said herself that she’d like the word ‘slut’ to become obsolete.)

A different type of reclamation involves repurposing a term that was historically an insult as a positive marker of group identity and solidarity, though its use as such is usually restricted to group members and trusted allies. Examples include ‘crip’ (as used by some disability activists) ‘dyke’ and ‘queer’, as well as, some would argue, ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ (which are used by some female speakers as terms of endearment, though that doesn’t mean they’d accept them from non-intimates). ‘Big girl’s blouse’ is not a good candidate for this kind of reclamation, because although it expresses contempt for women, it is not used directly to insult them. It’s not obvious in this case who would want to reclaim it as an identity marker: its targets, allegedly ‘effeminate’ or wimpy men, do not form a coherent political community.

Even where there is such a community, though, the reclamation of insults as positive identity labels tends to generate internal dissent. ‘Queer’ is a case in point: you increasingly see it being used positively, but surveys have found that a lot of LGBT community members, especially gay men, do not find this in-group use acceptable. Some say they will never be willing to call themselves by a word their experience has led them to associate with being verbally abused, threatened and even assaulted. While words continue to be used as slurs, some of the people targeted by them will find proposals to reclaim them insensitive and insulting.

With ‘queer’, the aim of the pro-reclamation camp is not just to make the word positive for in-group members, but also to make it more generally usable as a neutral, descriptive term. The idea is that ‘queer’ should be as widely accepted as ‘gay’ has become in recent decades. Similarly, there have been regular proposals to reclaim ‘cunt’ as simply a non-clinical descriptive term for the female genitals (though as I’ve explained elsewhere, I doubt that will ever happen).

One word that women did succeed in reclaiming as a neutral descriptive term is the word ‘woman’ itself. ‘Woman’ was not a strongly pejorative term like ‘cunt’ or ‘queer’, but it was often felt to be ‘impolite’ and therefore avoided or replaced. Historically the politeness issue had been about class distinctions: it was insulting to call female people of a certain social status ‘women’ rather than ‘ladies’. But even after that distinction had been lost, the idea lingered on that ‘lady’ was polite while ‘woman’ was disrespectful. Feminists were critical of what they saw as the squeamish avoidance of ‘woman’, and they made a concerted effort to establish it as simply the unmarked or default way to refer to an adult female. Broadly speaking that effort was successful (though ‘woman’ has since become contentious for other reasons, and the baggage that made people uncomfortable with it in the past remains visible in, for instance, the dictionary and thesaurus entries that recently inspired a petition complaining about their sexism).

In some cases it’s pointless to try to reclaim a word, because social change has made its use as an insult, and sometimes its use for any purpose, a non-issue. An example is ‘old maid’, a derogatory label for a no-longer young woman who, as people used to say, has been ‘left on the shelf’. In a world where unmarried women are no longer social outcasts or freaks, this term has lost its sting, and much of its currency: in the unlikely event that someone did call you an old maid, you’d probably assume they meant it as a joke.

If you’d asked me before this week, I’d have put ‘big girl’s blouse’ in the same category of archaic joke-insults. I hadn’t heard it in years; to hear it being uttered in the House of Commons, especially by someone who’s younger than I am, was more of a surprise than an affront. Though I don’t dispute that it’s a sexist expression, what it connotes, at least to me (perhaps because I first encountered it in the school playground 50 years ago), is an old-fashioned and particularly puerile kind of sexism. In short, I thought Boris Johnson sounded silly and childish calling Jeremy Corbyn a ‘great big girl’s blouse’.

It has since turned out that this is not the only occasion on which Johnson has resorted to the language of the playground. Last month, as he and his advisers planned to sideline Parliament in the crucial run-up to Brexit, he wrote a note in which he referred to fellow-Old Etonian David Cameron as a ‘girly swot’. Critics have been quick to diagnose arrested development, and to blame it on the British upper-class habit of sending impressionable children to single-sex boarding schools. But in fact this isn’t just a British problem: all over the world (in the US, the Philippines, Brazil) we are seeing the rise of middle-aged, misogynist man-children whose political rhetoric leans heavily on crude and puerile insults. When we criticise Boris Johnson’s language we need to see it in that context–as an outward and visible symptom of a deeper political malaise.

The header image shows a detail from one of Ronald Searle’s illustrations for Willans and Searle’s series of  Molesworth books

Language and the brotherhood of men

I started writing this post on what one Facebook friend called ‘a sad day for women and for justice’: Brett Kavanaugh had been sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in spite of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that he was one of two men who sexually assaulted her at a high school party in 1982. As in 1991, when Anita Hill testified to being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, the Senate hearings were a stark reminder of pretty much everything feminists object to about the patriarchal treatment of women—their bodies, their experiences and, not least, their speech.

The speech of Christine Blasey Ford featured prominently in media commentary. A couple of journalists contacted me with questions about her speech patterns, and I know of at least one other linguist who was asked for her expert opinion. As this colleague remarked, it was telling that these requests were all about Ford. Nobody asked us to comment on Brett Kavanaugh’s speech patterns, or the language of the male Senators on the Judiciary Committee. That’s usually the way it goes. People don’t tend to treat a male speaker as a generic representative of his sex: they’re more likely to ask what his speech patterns say about him as an individual. Women’s linguistic performances, by contrast, are routinely treated as performances of gender—and this is true whether the commentator is feminist or anti-feminist, sympathetic or hostile to the woman concerned.

One tactic right-wing anti-feminist commentators couldn’t easily use in this case was the one they used against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election campaign, namely decrying a woman speaker as ‘shrill’, ‘abrasive’, ‘bossy’, ‘harsh’, ‘strident’, etc. Ford’s vocal performance was, by common consent, none of those things. But for the right wing pundit Rush Limbaugh that in itself was a reason to be suspicious:

It’s an odd speech pattern for an accomplished woman. I’m not denying that it could be legit. But it’s a speech pattern that garners sympathy. …she comes off as an up-talker, ends sentences with an upward inflection, which is how young girls — young teenage girls — come off. It makes the speaker sound uber-nice and harmless, non-aggressive, sensitive, vulnerable and so forth, like there’s not a mean bone in their body.

This is an attempt to discredit Ford’s testimony by suggesting that her performance was inauthentic. Why would this middle-aged academic use uptalk, an intonation pattern which is stereotypically associated with teenage girls, if not to manipulate us into thinking she was ‘uber-nice and harmless’? The message is ‘don’t be fooled: this is a plot to bring down an innocent man’. Other hostile comments on Ford’s uptalk and her so-called ‘baby’ or ‘little girl’ voice (like the ones quoted in this Economist piece) conveyed a more familiar but equally negative message: ‘don’t be impressed, it means she’s not a reliable witness’.

Feminist commentary on Ford’s speech was dominated by the idea (first popularized in the 1970s by the linguist Robin Lakoff) that her performance reflected the way women are socialized from girlhood to communicate. Here’s a typical example from the Huffington Post:

For countless women watching, her gestures struck a chord. Every knee-jerk “thank you” and “I’m sorry” felt like words so many had uttered before, part of a familiar display of courtesy we’d all performed at some point ― out of sheer necessity. Out of a desire to make other people, not ourselves, feel comfortable at all costs. …From an early age, girls learn that authority figures will reward them for being amenable and punish them for being “too” assertive.

There are problems with this ‘We Are All Christine Blasey Ford’ line of argument, an obvious one being that we are not all Christine Blasey Ford: women, their ways of speaking, and even the prejudices that confront them when they speak, come in more than one variety. And it was clear that not all women identified with Ford. Some evidently felt more sympathy for Kavanaugh, or for the husbands/sons/brothers they could imagine being in his position.

But in any case, why was there so much emphasis on Ford’s speech patterns? For me, what made the hearings so revealing was the light they shone on men: they showed how men, or more exactly a particular subgroup of highly privileged men, use language to perform both gender and power.

As many commentators noticed, the account Ford gave of her assault suggested that what motivated her assailants, Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, was less a desire for sexual gratification, or even power, than a need to impress and to be approved of by one another. Lili Loofbourow dubbed it ‘toxic homosociality’: two men abusing a woman ‘to firm up their own bond’.

One telling detail in this regard was Ford’s vivid memory of the two men laughing together as they held her down.  According to the neuroscientist Sophie Scott, laughter evolved as a social bonding behaviour: research has found that

you laugh more when you’re with other people and you want them to like you; it establishes that you like them, that you are part of the same group as them, and that you agree or understand.

Language can fulfil the same functions. The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino commented that what Kavanaugh and Judge were doing in their assault on Ford seemed a lot like what Donald Trump and Billy Bush were doing in the purely verbal exchange that was captured on tape in 2005, and made public a few weeks before the 2016 presidential election. I agree: as I said in my own post about the tape, the speech genre Trump called ‘locker room banter’ is all about male homosocial bonding. It’s another case of men using women’s bodies (in this case, talking about them and what you have done or would like to do to them) to ‘firm up their own bond’.

Banter was clearly part of the culture Brett Kavanaugh and his high school buddies inhabited. Their yearbooks were full of sexual boasting, joking and slang terms that expressed contempt for women. Since written evidence had survived, Kavanaugh could not deny that he was familiar with words like ‘boof’ (anal sex) and ‘devil’s triangle’ (intercourse involving two men and one woman); but when questioned he chose instead to lie about what was meant by these terms (glossing the first as ‘flatulence’ and the second as the name of a drinking game). On the face of it this seemed odd, given that the terms were not part of a secret code known only to his immediate circle; millions of people knew their real definitions. But this is how fraternal loyalty works: as with Fight Club and the Mafia, the rule is that you don’t talk to outsiders, and if you’re forced to talk to them you obfuscate or lie, trusting that your brothers will have your back.

In my post about Trump’s banter I argued that fraternal loyalty is central to the workings of modern patriarchy: its effects are felt far beyond the proverbial locker room. And I would argue that they were felt at the Senate hearings, which became, during Kavanaugh’s testimony, another arena for male bonding. Though it was Kavanaugh’s performance that drew most attention, he was not left to defend himself alone: other men, especially the Republican men who dominated the committee, collaborated in this effort. Of course their support for him was politically motivated; but it was also gendered, expressed in terms of what they shared as men.

One thing the Senators evidently identified with was Kavanaugh’s performance of the role of the devoted family man who has been unable to protect his family from the damaging effects of the accusations against him. In this role he was angry and tearful, prompting some feminists to remark on the double standard which allows men to emote in public without being labelled hysterical or crazy. Several Senators got quite emotional on his behalf: Ted Cruz, for instance, said that

watching your mother’s pained face has been heart-wrenching as she’s seen her son’s character dragged through the mud after not only your lifetime of public service but her lifetime of public service as well. And I know as a father, there’s been nothing more painful to you then talking to your daughters and explaining these attacks that the media is airing.

Another thing that resonated with these men was the idea that any man could find himself in Kavanaugh’s predicament—facing the loss of his career because of something he did as a teenager. Boys, after all, will be boys: who hadn’t got drunk and done stupid things in high school?  (If the stupid things in question were sexual assaults, one answer to this question might be ‘women’.) And as the 85-year old committee chair Chuck Grassley said in a TV interview, who could remember what happened 35 years ago? (Again, one answer might be ‘a woman who’d been sexually assaulted’.)

Their loyalty to Kavanaugh was also evident in the way they responded to his testimony, which was very different from Ford’s. She had been an extremely co-operative witness, answering questions directly when she could and stating clearly when she could not; she didn’t shout, interrupt, argue, ramble, attack the questioner or turn the question back on them. Brett Kavanaugh, by contrast, did all those things–and in most cases he wasn’t challenged. However aggressive, evasive or irrelevant his answers were, his Republican brothers had his back.

I don’t think anyone’s use of language had much impact on the outcome of these proceedings. That was a political decision, and with hindsight we might well think that nothing anyone said during the hearing (short, perhaps, of Kavanaugh confessing to the assault) was ever going to make any difference. But in another way, language was central to this story: it was all about the power of speech.

The ability of men to abuse women with impunity relies on two things: the support of other men and the silence of women. Breaking that silence is a powerful act: in speaking about what was done to her, the woman who was treated as an object becomes an agent. In this case, her decision to speak made Christine Blasey Ford a threat–not only to Brett Kavanaugh’s ambitions, but also to the hopes of the politicians who were using him to advance their agenda. These men worked together to neutralize that threat. And they succeeded, in the sense that their candidate was confirmed; but only because they had the numbers. Not because their speech was more powerful. It wasn’t, and I think some people who supported Kavanaugh–people like Susan Collins and Rush Limbaugh, who were noticeably reluctant to call Ford a liar–knew that. So did all the women who looked at him and saw the faces of their own abusers.

So, appalled though I am by the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh, I do also see some reason to be hopeful. In 2018 as in 1991, a woman testifying at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing told the truth about her life, and the world did not split open. But one day, if women keep on speaking, it will.

Note: quotations from the Senate proceedings are taken from this transcript, which is available on the website of the Washington Post

It ain’t what you say…

Women/ Rabbit rabbit rabbit women/ Tattle and titter/ Women prattle/ Women waffle and witter/ Men talk. Men talk.

These are the opening lines of ‘Men Talk’, a rap poem by the incomparable Liz Lochhead (you can watch her performing the whole thing here). It’s built around the familiar lexicon of disparaging terms for women’s speech: words like ‘rabbit’, ‘prattle’ and ‘witter’, which represent women’s talk as excessive, trivial and inane; and words like ‘gossip’ and ‘nag’, which represent it as malign and spiteful.

But those words are only the tip of the iceberg. If you look at the way the act of speaking is described in everything from news reports to Great Literature, you’ll soon discover that it’s persistently represented in stereotypically gendered and sexist ways.

The most neutral way to describe the act of speaking is by using the generic verb ‘say’. ‘X said’ is the reported speech equivalent of Lochhead’s ‘men talk’: it conveys no more than ‘this person uttered these words’. But writers often add colour by choosing something a bit less basic. Here’s an example, from a political sketch that appeared in the Telegraph after the second TV debate of the 2015 General Election campaign.

“Ed Miliband is scared to be bold,” scowled Ms Sturgeon. “We don’t want a pretend alternative to austerity.” “Exactly right!” squeaked Ms Bennett.

“Labour are letting the Tories off the hook!” snapped Ms Wood. The audience applauded.

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.

Notice that it’s the only male participant in this exchange, Ed Miliband, whose contribution is reported using the basic ‘said’ (though the writer does add some extra information with the adverbial ‘rather pleadingly’). The three women, by contrast, don’t just ‘say’ things, they ‘scowl’, ‘squeak’, ‘snap’ and ‘bark’.

These verbs aren’t literally describing how the women sounded. They’ve been chosen to help the writer tell a story, in which a hapless male is ganged up on and berated by three angry and aggressive females. If we only had the speakers’ own words to go on, we might not make that interpretation: we’re directed to it mainly by the writer’s choice of verbs (‘scowl’, ‘snap’, ‘bark’) and adverbs (‘desperately’, ‘pleadingly’). The verbs also say something about the power dynamic among the women. Whereas ‘squeaked’ casts Natalie Bennett as a small animal, ‘snapped’ and ‘barked’ suggest bigger beasts.

This example isn’t unique. When Elisabeth Gidengil and Joanna Everitt examined TV coverage of the 1993 Canadian election campaign, in which two of the five parties were led by women,  they also found a tendency for men’s words to be reported with the plain and non-committal ‘he said’, while women’s were described in more elaborate, less neutral terms. Among the verbs which were only used about the women party leaders, and never about their male opponents, were ‘argue’, ‘blast’, ‘fire at’, ‘hammer away’ and ‘launch [an attack]’. There were also verbs, like ‘accuse’, which were sometimes applied to men, but occurred more frequently in relation to women. The women, in short, were systematically represented as more verbally aggressive than the men.

The researchers did consider the possibility that the women really were more aggressive, but when they analysed the five leaders’ actual speech they found no evidence to support that. The real difference, they argue, is in the way male and female speakers are judged: if women deviate from stereotypical expectations by presenting themselves as tough rather than gentle, combative rather than conciliatory, they are perceived as more aggressive than men who behave in exactly the same way. That perception, Gidengil and Everitt suggest, explains why female leaders’ speech is reported using more aggressive verbs of speaking. The contrast between ‘he said’ and ‘she blasted’ is an explicit encoding of the underlying double standard.

Do creative writers rise above these journalistic clichés? Not according to Ben Blatt, who analysed a large sample of literary and popular fiction for his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve. His number-crunching revealed, among other things, that male fictional characters habitually ‘mutter’, ‘shout’ and ‘chuckle’, while female characters ‘murmur’, ‘scream’ and ‘weep’. Other patterns were influenced by the sex of the author as well as the character. Male authors were more reluctant than female ones to allow their male characters to ‘sob’; and in their books it was usually female characters, not male ones, who ‘interrupted’.

This particular finding caught many readers’ attention because it’s the opposite of ‘realistic’ in the everyday sense of the word (in real life women do not interrupt more than men). But gender stereotyping can function as a ‘realist’ device in the more technical sense. Even if a stereotype is factually inaccurate, if it fits with readers’ common-sense beliefs it can help to make a fictional world believable.

As feminists have often pointed out, though, our beliefs about men and women are not just things we bring from our real-life experience to our reading; they are also things we may get from our reading and take back into the non-fictional world. I was reminded of this recently when a colleague told a story about a conversation she’d had with her children, who were insisting that ‘mummies don’t go out to work’. ‘Where’, she asked them, ‘does daddy drop me off every day when he’s taking you to school?’ They answered without hesitation: ‘work’. But knowing their own mother went out to work hadn’t prevented them from absorbing the stereotype of mothers as stay-at-home parents.

Concern about what children might be absorbing from the books they read has prompted a number of feminist researchers to analyse the language used in children’s fiction—including the words used to describe characters’ speech. One researcher, Sally Hunt, analysed the verbs of speaking used in some of the most successful children’s book series of the last 75 years: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And despite the differences of period, genre and target audience, she found there were patterns which recurred across the sample.

One of these patterns related to the distribution of verbs which tell you what action an utterance is performing. Verbs suggesting authority were more typical of male characters, and verbs suggesting deference were more typical of female ones. ‘Ordered’, for instance, was 77% male, whereas ‘begged’ was 68% female. Some actions, like ‘giggling’, were off-limits to male characters, while others, like ‘boasting’, were virtually an all-male preserve.

Hunt also remarks on authors’ fondness for verbs which allude to the vocal qualities of speech. In her sample, male characters’ verbs often implied low pitch (e.g. ‘he bellowed/roared’) whereas female characters’ verbs emphasised high pitch (e.g. ‘she shrieked/screamed’). It’s interesting that this contrast features so prominently in books for and about children, because the physiological differences which produce it in adults do not develop until puberty. But like the ‘squeaking’ and ‘barking’ attributed to female politicians in the sketch I quoted earlier, words like ‘bellow’ and ‘scream’ are rarely intended just to evoke the sound of the speaker’s voice: they are also code for emotional responses like anger, surprise and fear. Associating these words with either male or female speakers is thus a covert way of telling readers which emotions are typical of each sex.

The representation of male and female speech in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books has been investigated further by Maeve Eberhardt, who approaches the question through a detailed comparison of two characters, Hermione and Ron. As Eberhardt notes, Hermione is widely considered a ‘strong’ female character: Rowling herself has described her as the ‘brightest’ of the three friends, and she is also portrayed as morally courageous. But are her intelligence, strength and courage reflected in descriptions of her verbal behaviour?

Eberhardt’s answer is ‘yes and no’. In some respects, she finds that Hermione and Ron are treated similarly. Across the series as a whole they are given approximately equal amounts of reported speech, and the neutral ‘said’ is by far the commonest verb of speaking for both of them. The number of other verbs used to describe their speech is also approximately the same.

But the verbs themselves are not the same. When Eberhardt examined ‘unique’ verbs—those which were only ever used about one character—she found that Hermione’s tended to imply strong emotions, especially fear and sadness (they included ‘screamed’, ‘squealed’, ‘shrieked’, ‘squeaked’, ‘wailed’ and ‘whimpered’). Ron’s unique verbs, conversely, included a number (such as ‘mumbled’, ‘grumbled’ and ‘grunted’) which suggested emotional disengagement. The two characters were also distinguished by the frequency with which certain verbs were used about them. Both of them ‘whisper’ and ‘gasp’, but Hermione does those things about three times more often than Ron. He, on the other hand, does five times as much ‘muttering’ as she does, and over fifteen times as much ‘yelling’.

Eberhardt also looked at the use of adverbials to modify verbs of speaking (as in ‘he said, rather pleadingly’). Since Hermione is meant to be the clever one, you might expect her adverbials to include a high proportion relating to intellectual or mental states (e.g. ‘thoughtfully’, ‘logically’, ‘sceptically’). But in fact most of them are about her feelings: her unique adverbs do include ‘seriously’, but that occurs less often than either ‘timidly’ or ‘sadly’. And the most frequent of the adverbial modifiers which are only applied to Hermione’s speech is that old sexist cliché ‘shrilly’.

Since this study only compares two characters, it might be argued that the patterns it uncovers have less to do with their gender than with their distinctive qualities as individuals. What the reported speech verbs tell us is simply that Ron is the kind of person who mutters and grumbles, while Hermione is the kind who wails and shrieks. But I don’t think that argument will wash, given that other studies, like Sally Hunt’s and Ben Blatt’s, have found the same general patterns, and even some of the same specific word-choices, in a range of other texts. Generations of male fictional characters have expressed themselves by muttering and bellowing, while their female counterparts have screamed and spoken ‘shrilly’. These verbal and vocal habits could not be less individual, or more gender-stereotyped.

They are also remarkably persistent. A children’s writer starting out today wouldn’t be able to build a successful career on stories like the ones I read as a child, in which boys had adventures and girls helped mummy make the sandwiches. That kind of sexism is much less common now. Yet successful writers can still present children with a linguistic division of labour –boys giving orders and girls asking questions, boys bellowing and roaring while girls scream, squeal and giggle—that doesn’t seem to have changed since the 1950s.

I’m not accusing these authors of deliberately reproducing stereotypes. I’d be surprised if they had any conscious awareness of the patterns revealed by analyses of their work. But if we accept that those patterns both reflect and perpetuate sexism, perhaps we should be challenging writers to make a conscious effort to break away from them.

For those who want to avoid sexist clichés, whether in fiction or journalism, the research I’ve discussed suggests several top tips:

  1. Check you’re not consistently pairing minimal descriptions of male speech (‘he said’) with highly elaborate descriptions of female speech (‘she enunciated crisply’/ ‘she gasped in horror’).
  2. Go easy on the vocalisation verbs (like ‘growled’ or ‘squeaked’) which differentiate male and female speakers overtly by pitch and covertly by emotional state. And you’re going to use them, don’t make a habit of picking more ‘extreme’ ones for female speakers (if a boy ‘shouts’ or ‘yells’, why does a girl have to ‘shriek’?)
  3. Try not to give all the ‘thinky’ verbs to male speakers and all the ‘feely’ verbs to female ones.
  4. Watch out for the speech act trap–don’t let conversations be all about male speakers ‘asserting’, ‘instructing’ and ‘explaining’ while female ones ‘ask’, ‘suggest’ and ‘agree’.

The way I’ve phrased these points (‘go easy on X’, ‘don’t make a habit of Y’) is deliberate: they aren’t meant to be blanket prohibitions. As I’ve said a million times on this blog, context is all: any word–even ‘shrilly’–can be the right word if the context calls for it.  What you want to avoid is not specific words, it’s the kind of regular pattern that results from the habitual, unthinking repetition of the same stereotypical formulas.

Precisely because we’ve encountered them so often, phrases like ‘he muttered’ and ‘she murmured’ or ‘he yelled’ and ‘she screamed’ may seem obvious and ‘natural’; but really there’s nothing natural about them. On the contrary, they are products of our cultural obsession with magnifying gender differences, or imposing them where they don’t exist. In reality, men and women use language to perform the same acts and express the same emotions. Girls give orders and boys make suggestions; women chuckle and men have been known to scream. If we can cope with this complexity in our face-to-face encounters, why can’t it be reflected in our descriptions of the way people talk?

 

The year in language and feminism, Part II: selected reading

I created this blog primarily as a vehicle for my own thoughts and opinions, but what I write for it is always informed by other people’s research, and by ideas I’ve encountered in other people’s writing. So, to complement my recent review of the year, I’d like to share ten things I read in 2017 which I found interesting, informative and thought-provoking—and which aren’t too technical to be accessible to non-specialists.

Four books

Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto. A short book which takes the long view on the silencing of women in patriarchal societies.

Emma Jane, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History. An Australian journalist turned academic researcher examines the development and impact of online misogyny, and its characteristic linguistic register ‘Rapeglish’, from 1998 to the present.

Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Before anyone was talking about the ‘alt-right’, Angela Nagle was investigating the online subcultures from which it emerged, tracking the people involved, the platforms they used, the political positions they espoused and—from a linguist’s perspective most interestingly—the evolution of their distinctive communication style. This isn’t as distinctive as we might think: it has much in common with earlier celebrations of transgression (‘kill all normies’ is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ‘il faut épater les bourgeois’), and its emphasis on men rebelling against the domesticating influence of women recalls the leftist counter-culture of the 1960s (think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). What this shows, Nagle argues, is that we shouldn’t equate being transgressive with being politically progressive. She thinks opponents of the ‘alt-right’ need to take a critical look at their own style of discourse.

Jennifer Sclafani, Talking Donald Trump. Another short book in which an interactional sociolinguist analyses Donald Trump’s use of spoken language during the contest for the Republican nomination. Sclafani doesn’t say much about Trump’s performance of masculinity (which became more salient after he won the nomination and was pitted against a female opponent, Hillary Clinton), but what she does do, by concentrating on small but interactionally significant details, is get beyond the linguistically superficial received wisdom (‘he’s inarticulate/ can’t construct a proper sentence/ has a vocabulary as small as his hands’) to show what’s actually distinctive (and effective) about Trump’s style of public speaking.

Six shorter reads

Language, gender and politics

Unsurprisingly, 2017 produced many reflections on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and one issue some of these reflections addressed was the role played by gendered language in shaping responses to the candidates. Among the most intriguing approaches to the question was a dramatic experiment asking ‘What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had swapped genders?

Speaking while female in the workplace

Though working women in 2017 continued to be lectured about their dysfunctional ‘verbal tics’, the idea that inequality in the workplace might not be the result of women’s own linguistic shortcomings appears to be gaining more traction. The research reported in ‘A study used sensors to show that men and women are treated differently at work’ led the researchers to conclude that the problem is ‘bias, not differences in behavior’.

Representing violence against women

Watching the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was one of the feminist cultural events of the year, prompted Emma Nagouse, who researches Biblical and contemporary rape narratives, to write ‘Handmaids and Jezebels: anaesthetising the language of sexual violence’, about the way language is used to normalise sexual violence and exploitation in the fictional world of Gilead. Later in the year it would become apparent that language serves a not dissimilar purpose in our own world. In ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, Constance Grady reflected on the difficult linguistic choices writers face in reporting women’s experiences of sexual harassment.

Language, gender and artificial intelligence

There was a steady stream of commentary this year on the rise of intelligent machines and what it might mean for the future of humanity. A question of interest to feminists is whether the Brave New World of AI will look any less sexist than what preceded it. In her short but pithy ‘What is a female robot?’, Gia Milinovich asked what it means to treat a  machine as ‘female’. Another memorable piece about the way gender affects human-machine relationships was ‘Siri is dying. Long live Susan Bennett’. Susan Bennett is the woman whose recorded voice was used, without her knowledge, to create the first version of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri. There’s nothing feminist about the writer’s take on her story, but for a feminist reader it contains plenty of food for thought. You could think of it as a Pygmalion narrative for the 21st century, set in a technologically advanced world where women are still seen as raw material to be shaped and improved on by male ingenuity.

Bonus: something to listen to

One of my professional sheroes, the cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott, gave 2017’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures for young people. In the run-up to the lectures she made this podcast, which is interesting on a range of frequently asked questions about language, evolution and the brain, and includes some trenchant debunking of  myths about male-female differences.

As Sophie Scott observes, challenging popular beliefs about men and women is an uphill struggle. Though I’ve only mentioned a few by name in this post, I want to salute all those women (and men) who have, nevertheless, persisted.