2022 was a year when I didn’t do much blogging. That wasn’t because there was nothing to blog about, but more because I had too much other stuff going on. So, as it’s now end-of-year review season, here’s a round-up of some of the events, debates and news stories that caught my attention during the last twelve months.
In January the Scottish government agreed to pardon those Scots–most of them women–who had been executed for witchcraft several centuries earlier. Some felt this was just a PR exercise, designed to burnish Scotland’s progressive credentials, but it did raise some questions worth reflecting on about how we memorialize past misogyny and whether that makes any difference in the present.
The same can’t be said about the real PR story of the month, an announcement from Mars (the chocolate manufacturer, not the planet): that the characters used to promote M&Ms were getting a makeover which would highlight “their personalities rather than their gender”. What this turned out to mean was replacing one set of gender stereotypes with a different set. The green M&M, for instance, was previously supposed to be the sexy one, but in the revamp she has exchanged her white go-go boots for “cool, laid-back sneakers” to symbolize her “confidence and empowerment, as a strong female”. She will also lose her previous habit of being bitchy to the brown M&M (who is also female, and has also been given new shoes with a lower heel): we’ll see them “together throwing shine rather than shade”. As you’ll have gathered from these quotes, the press release was like a digest of popular neoliberal feminist clichés. But it’s pointless to expect mass-market advertising not to deal in clichés. What’s interesting about this story (like the previous year’s story about the rebranding of Mr Potato Head as “Potato Head”) is what it says about changing fashions in gender stereotyping and gendered language.
Fast forward to April, which was a month of Men in (British) politics Behaving Badly. Actually that was pretty much true for every month of the year, but in April things got particularly bad. There was, for instance, the MP who was seen looking at porn in the House of Commons debating chamber, and who claimed to have landed accidentally on a porn site when he was looking for information about tractors (this understandably convinced nobody, and in the end he resigned). There was also a story in the Mail on Sunday which accused the Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions. Rayner’s description of this as a “perverted, desperate smear” (though there were some indications that she might unwittingly have inspired the story herself during a bit of casual banter on the House of Commons terrace) brought forth a torrent of misogynist, classist commentary which illustrated exactly why British Parliamentary politics is so offputting to so many women.
June brought the news (not unexpected but still horrendous) that the US Supreme Court had upheld a challenge to its earlier ruling in Roe v. Wade, enabling a large number of states to prohibit abortion completely. If ever there was a moment for deeds not words, and for unity rather than factionalism among supporters of women’s reproductive rights (whatever else they might disagree on), this was surely it; and yet one highly visible response to the crisis involved feminists performatively scolding other feminists online for using “problematic” terms, slogans and symbols. For me this was something of a low point. As much as I believe that language matters, I don’t believe linguistic purism and language policing have ever advanced the feminist cause.
In July the England women’s football team won the European Championship, a feat which has eluded the men’s team, and I started getting inquiries from journalists about their name. One inquirer asked why, if we’re not allowed to call women actresses any more, it’s fine for England’s women footballers to be known as Lionesses. What is the deal with –ess? Good question. Actress is actually a complicated case: unlike, say, authoress and poetess it survived the purge of feminine-marked occupational titles in the 1970s, but some women did reject it, and what has developed since is a kind of status distinction between female actors and actresses (referring to a woman as an actor implies she’s a serious artist rather than, say, a popular soap star). But the more recent acceptance of Lioness as a label for elite footballers suggests that the old feminist view of –ess terms as twee and trivializing may have gone. Perhaps it helps if you know that in the animal world it’s lionesses who rule: they run the pride and do most of the hunting (forget The Lion King, it’s bullshit). But it’s still slightly odd, because if the women are the Lionesses that implies that the men must be the Lions, and in fact you don’t often hear them called that: more typically they’re just “England”. On the more positive side, though, pundits who used to talk about “football” and “women’s football” are now being more careful to say “men’s football”.
During July and August we had to watch the Tories choosing a replacement for Boris Johnson, who had finally been forced to resign as Prime Minister. The man who eventually replaced him, Rishi Sunak (let’s draw a veil over the short, unhappy premiership of Liz Truss) favours a less feral brand of masculinity, but his Modern Man credentials still leave something to be desired. In August he responded to a question about what sacrifices he’d had to make to become a prime ministerial contender by saying he’d been “an absolutely appalling husband and father for the last couple of years”. This is a variation on the humblebrag answer to the job interview question “what would you say is your biggest weakness?”–“I’m a bit of a perfectionist/a workaholic”. Presumably it was meant to make Sunak sound reassuringly dedicated to the job but not unaware of his domestic obligations or devoid of human feelings (“of course I love my family, but running the country has to come first”). But in fact it just sounded smug and sexist. If a woman in Sunak’s position described herself as “an appalling wife and mother” she’d be criticized for her negligence, not applauded for her self-awareness.
In September Queen Elizabeth II died, and was posthumously recast as a feminist role-model by commentators around the world. A bit like the green M&M, the late monarch had apparently been a “strong, empowered female” who “paved the way for other women to dedicate themselves fully to their careers”. The fact that, as a Queen Regnant, she was not so much a girlboss as an anomaly within an anachronism, seemed to escape those who churned out this vacuous fluff.
October brought, as it does in most years, a brief and ineffectual flurry of concern about the extent of sexual harassment and violence in British schools. Among the 3000 girls and young women who participated in Girlguiding UK’s annual survey, around 20 percent reported that they didn’t feel safe in school. The figures for reported rapes and sexual assaults in schools suggest that these anxieties are not unjustified. But most of the harassment girls experience in school is language and communication-based, which is why I’ve blogged about this issue on several previous occasions. It’s another case where words are no substitute for deeds: we’ve had a steady stream of reports and surveys which all say the same thing, and absolutely no concerted action to address the problem on the ground.
In November the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, met her Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin—an unremarkable enough event, you might think, and certainly not one you’d expect to make headlines around the world, except that a reporter at their joint press conference asked what may have been the year’s stupidest sexist question. “A lot of people will be wondering”, he began, inaccurately, “are you two meeting just because you’re similar in age and got a lot of common stuff there?” Marin kept her answer simple: “We’re meeting”, she explained, “because we’re Prime Ministers”. Ardern on the other hand treated the questioner to a mini-lecture on trade relations, full of fascinating facts about what New Zealand buys from Finland (elevators) and what Finland buys from New Zealand (meat and wine). Points to both of them, but will the day ever come when women who run countries are not routinely patronized by media guys who make Alan Partridge look like an intellectual giant?
In December it was reported that the Cambridge Dictionary, which is designed primarily for foreign learners of English, had updated its entries for woman and man by adding a new sense: “an adult who lives and identifies as female/male though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth”. I expected this to happen, and I expected it to cause controversy, but I didn’t feel moved to weigh in because my own view hasn’t changed since I wrote this post in 2019. It was unpopular then and will doubtless be even more unpopular now, but such is life.
December was also the month when the Taliban barred women from universities in Afghanistan, and when the equally fanatical misogynists who rule Iran cracked down hard on the protests which began in September following the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands if the morality police. It’s hard to feel sanguine about how this uprising will end. But nothing in 2022 was more inspiring than watching these brave and determined women–and the men who are protesting alongside them–shouting “Woman–life–freedom”. Those words cut through the noise and the bullshit: they speak to women everywhere.
So, that was 2022: thanks to everyone who read the few posts I managed to produce, and to all the writers and researchers whose work I drew on. And while I’m not expecting peace, joy and freedom to break out around the world in 2023, I’ll still wish you all the happiest possible new year.