Sexism’s greetings

Last week on Twitter I suggested that if you were looking for a potted guide to patriarchy you could try spending ten minutes in a high street card shop. I meant it, too. Since the 1970s feminists have been relentlessly critical of the sexist messages communicated in advertising, in the packaging of toys and the design of children’s clothes; yet we seem to have had much less to say about the sexism of mass-market greeting cards.

Maybe it’s because cards are ephemeral, displayed for a short time and then discarded. But in Britain particularly, we buy a lot of them: according to industry sources we’re the world’s most enthusiastic consumers of greeting cards, sending about 30 per person per year. Mother’s Day alone accounts for about 29 million sales, and the UK market overall is worth an annual £1.7 billion. Nor will it surprise you to hear that an estimated 85% of all these cards are bought by women. The job greeting cards do–maintaining relationships with family and friends–is a form of emotional labour which is generally considered part of women’s work. And the occasions they mark (births, marriages and deaths, anniversaries and other yearly celebrations) are part of the domestic or personal sphere with which women are traditionally associated. Which makes it all the more infuriating that so much of what’s on sale addresses women in ways that range from patronizing to outright misogynist.

What prompted my comment on Twitter was a photo someone posted of this pair of cards–I assume they’re Valentines, or at any rate intended for courting couples.

card twit

The person who posted the photo commented: ‘ah yes, the two sides of heterosexuality, commerce and toil’. Which is true enough, and sexist enough to be going on with; but what it doesn’t point out is that ‘make me a sandwich’ (or ‘sammich’) is a popular meme in the online manosphere, where it’s used as a put-down meaning ‘shut up woman, don’t you know your place is in the kitchen serving men?’ There’s no comparable implication of subservience in the boy-to-girl card. They might look like two versions of the same thing–one blue, one pink, both displaying the text in the same pseudo-handwriting with hearts instead of dots over the i–but on closer inspection they’re not.

This pair of cards exemplifies three patterns which are common across the whole greeting card genre. First, there’s the fact that the card addresses (or if you’re a fan of Louis Althusser you might say ‘interpellates’) the recipient, and often also the buyer/sender, as a gendered being.  That rule applies at every point in the human life-cycle. Want to congratulate someone on the birth of a baby? Great, but you’ll need to know the newborn’s sex so you can choose the right pastel shade (yep, we’re basically talking about blue and pink again) and the right words–as we all know, there are girl words and boy words. This gendering will continue when you select birthday cards for the child, and later the adult. Even the saccharine verses in birthday cards for older relatives use clearly gender-differentiated language–grandma is sweet and kind, while grandad is funny or ‘brilliant’.

You might think that this gendering is only natural: kinship terminology is systematically gender-marked, and the neutral words that do exist (e.g. ‘parent’, ‘sibling’) feel too impersonal for family occascard friendions. But on its own that doesn’t explain why there’s such a stark difference in the message (the colours, images and words designers select), nor why so many cards addressed to friends rather than relatives are also gendered. The one on the left, for instance, has pink type, butterflies, cupcakes, and the word ‘lovely’–so although it doesn’t say explicitly that it’s meant for a female friend, a competent card-consumer will understand that.

Male friends aren’t ‘lovely’: they don’t listen, understand and support, they joke and josh and take the piss. A quick look at the male friendship cards available via Amazon suggests that humour rather than soppy stuff is the norm,  and offensive humour is particularly favoured (see the masterpiece below, which is described on the site as ‘perfect for male friends and brothers’). card maleThis is the second general pattern–a tendency to make use of the crassest imaginable stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.  Even if you’re looking for a same-sex wedding or civil partnership card you’ll find it hard to avoid gender stereotyping (though you will find rainbows instead of straight-up pink or blue).

But it’s the third pattern that’s most problematic from a feminist perspective:  the use made by card designers of a set of ancient tropes about heterosexual relationships, which appear with monotonous regularity, particularly though not only on cards marking heterosexual milestones (engagements, weddings, anniversaries).  Here’s a husband-to-wife example. card wifeIt’s the old cliché of the ‘battle of the sexes’, the idea of marriage, or more generally heterosexuality, as a never-ending struggle for supremacy between adversaries who also need, desire and depend on one another. From the middle ages to the present, this cliché has often incorporated the idea that even if it’s supposedly men who rule the world, we all know that in reality it’s women who have the upper hand–talking incessantly, bossing men around and spending all their hard-earned money (sorry, what century are we in again?) Men put up with this because they love women: it’s a case of ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’.  Or as this card, spotted a couple of years ago in a university bookshop, put it:


Call me old-fashioned, or maybe just a humourless feminist, but it’s difficult to find this joke amusing when you know that in Britain the number of women killed by men–the majority of them current or former partners–is 2-3 a week. When that point was put to the manager of the bookshop, she agreed, and said she’d stop displaying the card. But most examples of ‘battle of the sexes’ humour aren’t as shocking as this one, and their banal sexism continues to flourish unimpeded.

card christmas maleThe other recurring heterosexual trope could be summed up as ‘all men are only after one thing, and all women are always gagging for it’. This kind of humour is probably most familiar from ‘saucy’ seaside postcards, but it also has a history on Christmas cards (some of them designed by the most famous of the seaside postcard artists, Donald McGill).


Today the language can leave less to the imagination.  card bushcard rudeLike the ‘I’d buy you flowers/make you a sandwich’ cards at the beginning of the post, these two Christmas cards (intended to be sent, respectively, from wife to husband and husband to wife) form a complementary set: one speaks in the voice of a female, the other in the voice of a male. But once again, these two voices aren’t just saying the same thing in slightly different words. As in so many representations of heterosex, the male speaks as an active sexual subject,  whereas the female adopts the receptive position. Incidentally, the website where I found these explains that the designer is a woman: she draws the images, and they are then ‘digitally enhanced by my rather clever husband’. You don’t have to be male to make your living from old-fashioned sexism.

Nor do you have to be female to be a target.  As one man reminded me indignantly on Twitter, cards are prone to stereotyping men as ‘fat, incompetent drunks who only like cars and football’.  He’s right, except that the range of things men are meant to like is slightly wider than cars and football–a glance at any ‘for men’ range will also turn up other objects with engines and/or wheels, such as motorbikes, boats and steam trains. The men who populate ‘humorous’ greeting cards are as one-dimensional as the women; and since anything soppy is off limits, there are even more of these joke cards addressed to men. What those cards don’t do, however, is propose to give men ‘a good stuffing’, or ‘shoot them and bury them in the garden’. Jokes about useless male slobs whose wives boss them around are a rather different thing from jokes about women making sandwiches or waiting for a ‘Christmas male’–because it’s male rather than female dominance that’s built into the social and sexual order. In any case, the feminist analysis isn’t ‘insulting women is bad, but insulting men is good’; these are two sides of the same patriarchal coin.

So what other options do we have?  A number of the women who responded to my tweet reported refusing to buy–and instructing their families not to buy for them–the patronizing, pinkified products on offer for birthdays, anniversaries and Mother’s Day; instead they chose more ‘neutral’ cards featuring artworks or animal pictures, with the inside left blank for the sender’s own message. And you can get actual feminist cards if you’re buying for feminist friends. But as some commenters pointed out, these ‘alternative’ products don’t cater for all the needs addressed by the mass market–for instance, one said she’d found it more or less impossible to source a card congratulating someone on the birth of a child that eschewed the usual gender stereotypes (or even came in a colour that wasn’t either pink or blue).

But while there’s some demand for alternatives to the sexist crap you see on the high street, or on Amazon, what I find really depressing is the continuing buoyancy of the market for sexist crap. Even at its most jaw-droppingly offensive (like the ‘can’t shoot them and bury them in the garden’ card) this stuff just doesn’t seem to generate the same kind of criticism as sexist adverts, toys and clothes. Some women evidently are voting with their purses, but is it time to actually say we’re Not Buying It? Should we be leaving sarky reviews on Amazon, and stickering offensive examples in card shops the way we used to put ‘this ad degrades women’ stickers on dodgy adverts in tube stations? If women really do purchase most of the greeting cards sold in Britain each year, then we ought to be able to send a message to the industry about the messages it’s sending us.













Joking aside

Do you use humour at work? Have you ever cracked a joke to liven up a boring meeting, or kicked off a presentation with an amusing anecdote? Would you agree that the ability to make people laugh is a useful professional skill?

If your answer to these questions is ‘yes’—and if you also happen to be a woman—then I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. According to a recently-published article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, using humour at work enhances men’s status, but for women it has the opposite effect. Whereas men’s humour is seen as ‘functional’, a tool for producing all kinds of positive outcomes (defusing tension, reframing problems, bonding team-members), women’s is more likely to be seen as ‘disruptive’, a sign that they’re lightweights who lack focus and dedication.

How, I hear you ask, did the authors of the article reach that conclusion? The answer is that they conducted an experiment: they recruited a sample of judges and asked them to evaluate a presentation made by a store manager named Sam (in fact the presenter was an actor and the presentation was scripted). Some judges watched a male Sam, others a female one; in each case half of them saw a presentation in which no use was made of humour, while the other half saw a version of the same presentation that included five humorous statements. Their article doesn’t specify what these were, but in a write-up for the Harvard Business Review they do reproduce the first one:

So, last night, my husband/wife gave me some good advice about this presentation. He/she said, whatever you do don’t try to be too charming, witty, or intellectual… just be yourself!

It’s not exactly side-splitting stuff, but subjects did judge both versions of Sam funnier when their presentations included it. However, those who had watched the female Sam rather than the male one were more likely to agree with statements like ‘the humor distracted from the purpose of the presentation’. And when they were asked about Sam’s career prospects (‘in your opinion, how likely is it that Sam will advance in the organization?’), the judges gave higher scores to the funny male Sam than either the non-funny male Sam or the funny female Sam. Female Sam did better on these questions when she was not funny (though she still did less well than her unfunny male counterpart). When she was funny, the judges accused her of, as one put it, trying ‘to cover up her lack of real business acumen by making little jokes’.

The authors explain their findings as the product of gender bias: their study shows, for the n millionth time, that even if the behaviour of men and women is identical, it is liable to be interpreted in different ways and judged by different standards. He is ‘direct’ and she is ‘abrasive’; he uses humour to get things done and she uses it to ‘cover up her lack of real business acumen’. That’s why, as I have pointed out in other posts about language in the workplace, advising women to imitate men’s behaviour is unlikely to solve their problems. These researchers agree, warning that

The potential for women to advance in the workplace may be harmed by the use of humor. Thus, recommending the use of humor to women leaders may in fact reduce their perceived effectiveness and opportunities for career advancement.

But this is not very helpful either, because avoiding humour also has costs. The humourless, po-faced boss or co-worker is not, generally speaking, a popular figure; if she’s female, her refusal to lighten up is likely to prompt the judgment that she is arrogant, or—that cardinal female sin—’unapproachable’. It seems women are damned whatever they do: if they’re funny they’re seen as disruptive, but if they aren’t they’re seen as unlikeable.

The authors say they’re not suggesting women should stop being funny at work, they’re just drawing attention to the problem in the hope  that ‘increased awareness of prejudice can help to reduce its occurrence’. I can’t say I share their optimism: many people have raised doubts about the effectiveness of interventions based on this principle, like unconscious bias training.  As with all discussions which start by asking how women’s behaviour might be holding them back at work, I think the main effect of ‘increased awareness’ will probably be to make women even more anxious and self-conscious than they are already. It’s predictable, depressing and infuriating—but before we throw up our hands in despair and look for new careers as self-employed spoon-whittlers, we should pause to ask if this study tells the whole story about gender and humour.

As the authors themselves acknowledge, their methodology had some obvious limitations. If you ask subjects to judge a scripted presentation delivered by a person they have never seen before, you are maximizing the probability that their judgments will rely on stereotypes: what else, after all, have they got to work with? In real life we usually have information about people that goes beyond obvious characteristics like sex, race and age. Also, in our real working lives our judgments aren’t abstract and decontextualized: rather we assess behaviour in relation to the whole situation—one which we are not just observing at a distance, but are actively involved in ourselves. The question arises, then, of whether the reactions of the judges in the experiment tell us anything very useful about real workplace situations.

As it happens, the use of humour was one of the issues examined in a large qualitative study of gender and workplace talk that Janet Holmes and her colleagues carried out in New Zealand. This study found that although the amount and type of humour people used varied in different workplaces, humour itself was a ubiquitous feature of working life, and its uses were similar for employees of both sexes. In Holmes’s words, ‘Both women and men crack jokes, exchange jocular abuse and tell funny stories at work’. Her account did not suggest that engaging in these behaviours reduced women’s perceived effectiveness. In fact, it suggested that women could use humour as a means of asserting or maintaining their status.

One function of humour is to soften criticism (and other acts that might cause hurt or offence) and reduce the risk of provoking conflict. Making a joke of something renders it both less overtly threatening and more difficult to take issue with (since if you object you risk coming across as humourless). This is what makes humour such a useful resource for sexists: when women protest about jokes or comments they find offensive, they can be met with the time-honoured ‘just banter’ defence (‘we weren’t being serious–can’t you feminists/PC-types take a joke?’) In the New Zealand data, however, there were cases where women used humour as a resource for either contesting sexism or turning the tables on men. For instance, at one project team meeting a woman initiated a humorous exchange that traded on a well-known stereotype of male incompetence:

Clara: he wants to get through month’s end first. He’s –  he can’t multi-task
[Other women laughing]
Peg: It’s a bloke thing
[General laughter]
Clara: [laughs] yeah yeah

The ‘softening’ effect of humour can also make a woman’s authority more palatable. Clara is noted for her direct, decisive and not especially collaborative management style; but one way in which she maintains good relationships with colleagues is by taking it in good part when they jokingly refer to her as ‘Queen Clara’. This nickname, which likens her to a monarch issuing commands to her subjects, is itself evidence of the way women are judged by a sexist double standard. I did once know a man whose workplace nickname was ‘King X’, but he wasn’t just direct and decisive, he was a tyrannical megalomaniac whose subordinates lived in fear of him. But Clara’s willingness to go along with the joke serves a pragmatic purpose: she gets what she wants from her team, while also deflecting the criticism to which all powerful women are vulnerable, that she’s an overbearing stuck-up b****.

The New Zealand study presents evidence that workplace humour is a complex phenomenon which serves a range of different purposes, and that in real-life work situations gender is only one of many factors that shape its use and interpretation. Other contextual variables, such as the culture of the organization, the roles of individuals and their relationships with colleagues, are more significant influences than gender in and of itself. By stripping out all that other stuff, the experimental study almost certainly amplified the gender difference it was investigating, potentially leading women to overestimate the risk that using humour in the workplace would harm their careers.

Methodological limitations aside, studies like this one also prompt the more basic question of why a certain issue is being investigated in the first place. The researchers didn’t pluck their hypothesis from thin air: there’s a long tradition of scientific (or ‘scientific’) discourse on gender and humour, and its starting point has always been that there’s something anomalous about women being funny.

When feminists took up the subject in the 1970s, one of their goals was to challenge the sexism of previous accounts, both scientific and popular, which essentially argued that being funny was a guy thing and women were just no good at it. They were either seen as innately humourless (an accusation commonly levelled at feminists, and even more frequently at lesbians), or else as too dim and ditzy to do humour well. If they tried to tell a joke they’d get confused and forget the punchline; if they embarked on a funny story they’d keep going off at tangents until their listeners lost interest. This thesis came in various theoretical flavours: Freud was popular in some quarters, Darwin in others (the Darwinian argument—that men use humour to attract mates, whereas women don’t need to be funny, they just need to be physically attractive—survives to this day).

One possible response to this argument was to call it out as sexist bullshit. Another, however, which was popular among some feminists, was to say that men didn’t find women funny because they defined ‘being funny’ in a way that excluded women’s distinctively female style of humour.

Descriptions of this style will remind anyone who knows the work of Deborah Tannen of her ‘difference’ or ‘two cultures’ approach, which posits a fundamental contrast between status-oriented and competitive men and rapport-building, collaborative women. Well before Tannen popularized it, this contrast had been invoked to make generalizations about the kinds of humour that were typically favoured by women or men. For instance: whereas men compete to top each other’s contributions, women collaborate to produce intimacy through shared laughter. Whereas men like jokes that climax with a punchline, women prefer less structured personal anecdotes. (If this one reminds you of another much-discussed sex-difference, I can only say you’re not alone.) And whereas men tend to make others the butt of their humour, women are more likely to poke fun at themselves.

A number of linguists I respect have used this framework, and I don’t dispute their observations about the way humour was used by the women and men they studied. But it’s a mistake to generalize about half of humanity from such a limited body of evidence–one that’s heavily skewed towards a particular subset of women, often talking in contexts where you’d expect to see collaborative, rapport-building behaviour (e.g. long-established female friendship groups, feminist ‘rap groups’, and support groups for mothers with young children). Even in the 1970s there were cases that didn’t fit this template—such as Rayna Green’s 1977 study of women’s bawdy talk in the US South, which included one woman’s riposte to a comment from her granddaughter on the sparseness of her pubic hair: ‘grass don’t grow on a racetrack’.* Some later research noted that both women and men used different kinds of humour in single-sex and mixed-sex groups. The New Zealand workplace study documented both ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ styles of humour, but it didn’t find that either style was used by one sex exclusively.

The more examples of humour we look at from different communities and settings, the more difficult it becomes to argue that there are clear-cut gender differences. As usual, there’s a gap between the actual behaviour of men and women, which shows more overall similarity than difference (along with a lot of variation inside each of the two gender groups), and our cultural beliefs about their behaviour, which are much more consistent—largely because they’re not derived from observations of what men and women do, they are expressions of our deeply-held convictions about what men and women are or should be like.

The authors of the study I began with suggest that what’s behind the prejudice against women being funny at work is our belief that men are more agentive, rational and goal-oriented than women. That’s why men’s workplace humour is interpreted as functional, deployed by rational agents as a way of achieving their goals, while women’s is seen as disruptive, signalling a lack of dedication to the business at hand. But this doesn’t really account for the fact that the prejudice isn’t confined to situations like the workplace where humour can be seen as ‘functional’ or ‘goal-oriented’. I can’t help thinking it skirts around some much more general points about humour, gender, sex and power.

Being funny is, in a number of key respects, incompatible with conventional femininity. For one thing, it involves putting yourself centre-stage: when you embark on a joke or a funny story you’re saying ‘pay attention to me’, and when you finish you’re expecting some sort of acknowledgment, like laughter or applause. That kind of attention (and the feeling of power you get from it) is still widely seen as a male prerogative: women who usurp it are not only displaying a lack of feminine modesty, they are also failing to play their prescribed role as supporters and cheerleaders for men. (Some studies have reported that women laugh more at men’s jokes than vice versa; and anecdotally it’s been suggested that when men advertise for a female partner with a good sense of humour, what they’re looking for isn’t a funny woman, but a woman who will tell them they’re funny.)

For another thing, it’s fairly difficult to make people laugh while also projecting the kinds of feminine qualities our culture defines as sexually alluring—like elegance and glamour, or innocence and grace. Funny women and sexy women are frequently presented as different ‘types’. That’s why so many films and TV shows pair a sexually attractive female protagonist with a less attractive best friend/sister/roommate: the sexy woman gets the guy, while the plain, fat or dowdy one gets the laughs. Behind this division of labour is the old idea that humour unsexes or de-feminizes women, and that those who make a speciality of it are trying to compensate for being ugly and unattractive.

Nevertheless, women persist in being funny—and so they should, whatever studies show. What studies mostly show is that women can be criticized however they behave, particularly in the workplace. And if the critics are never going to like what you do, you might as well just do what you like.


*I haven’t linked to Green’s study, ‘Magnolias grow in dirt’, because the source isn’t available if you’re searching from a location in the EU–but it’s discussed in this generally useful review of 20th century gender and humour research. 

Radical notions

Occasionally on this blog I take a moment to look back at some of the feminists who concerned themselves with language in the past. I’ve written about Suzette Haden Elgin, the linguist and science fiction writer who created the women’s language Láadan, and about the feminists who produced alternatives to what Mary Daly dubbed the ‘dick-tionary’.  This post is about someone whose contribution I only discovered recently: the writer and editor Marie Shear, who died at the end of 2017.

You may not know her name, but you’re probably familiar with at least one thing she wrote: it was Shear who defined feminism as ‘the radical notion that women are people’. She came up with that definition in 1986, in a review of Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary. And for years it was Kramarae and Treichler who got the credit: people assumed Shear had just been quoting them, when in fact the words were her own. Such was her enthusiasm for the dictionary’s woman-centred approach, her review (which she herself described as a ‘toast’), took the form of a list of her own alternative definitions, including

men: people who think toilet paper grows on the roll.

overqualified: a job applicant who is not dumb enough for the work reserved for ‘girls’.

pocket envy: women’s unfulfilled yearning for practical clothes.

Though the error persists in some sources, others have now acknowledged Shear as the creator of one of the most memorable feminist slogans of the 20th century. Yet she remains, to use her own sardonic description, ‘a widely unheralded writer’. Much of her writing was done before the digital age, for ‘alternative’ publications like New Directions for Women, a New Jersey-based feminist newspaper whose ‘Media Watch’ feature she wrote for many years (this was also where her review of A Feminist Dictionary appeared). These pieces can still be found, but you have to know where to look: they won’t just pop up in a Google search*. Nor will much information about their author. While writing this post I was surprised to discover that the woman whose words have appeared on T-shirts, badges and bumper stickers around the English-speaking world had no entry in the English-language version of Wikipedia (though I’m happy to say that one has since been created by a reader of this blog).

My own quest to find out more about Marie Shear began when I quoted her definition of feminism in a book, and was therefore obliged by the laws of my profession to go hunting for the full bibliographical details (‘no, you can’t just cite a T-shirt, we need a page number’). As I searched through the records of her published work, I realized her review of A Feminist Dictionary wasn’t the only thing she’d written that I might be interested in. Language, and the problem of sexism in language, was a theme that recurred in her articles, book reviews and columns. It was also the subject of what her obituary singled out as the piece of writing many people would remember her for, ‘”Little Marie”: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language’.

Sexism in language first became an issue in the 1970s, and lot of early work on it was practical rather than academic: it aimed to define the problem and offer workable solutions, most commonly in the form of guidelines for writers. The first non-sexist writing guidelines were produced by publishers for in-house use (the pioneer was the educational publisher McGraw-Hill, which adopted guidelines in 1973), but over the next 15 years many examples of the same sort of advice were published in book form for a wider audience. In 1984 Marie Shear reviewed a selection of these publications for the Women’s Review of Books. The titles she discussed included one that is still in use today, Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, along with the same authors’ earlier book Words and Women, Bobbye Sorrels’s The Non-Sexist Communicator, and Merriellyn Kett and Virginia Underwood’s How To Avoid Sexism. Shear was well placed to assess these texts because of her own involvement, as an editor, in the enterprise they represented–though her influence was mainly exercised behind the scenes, in discussions with and writing for her fellow-professionals. But her interest in the problem–and her writing about it–went beyond the issues addressed by guidelines .

Most non-sexist writing guidelines published between the mid-1970s and the end of the millennium presented the issue of sexism in a bland, depoliticizing way. The goal was to persuade a mainstream audience of the benefits of adopting non-sexist language, and writers did so, in part, by emphasizing how moderate and unthreatening their proposals were. Really, they seemed to be saying, it was just a question of moving with the times. The problem was that English usage had not kept up with the onward march of progress: conventions that had served writers well enough in the past (like the generic use of ‘he’ and ‘man’) were now outdated, inaccurate, misleading and insensitive. Once this had been pointed out, people would immediately want to change their ways: their problem would be purely technical, a matter of not knowing exactly how to do it. Guideline-writers were there to help by suggesting accurate and unbiased alternatives to outmoded sexist terms.

As an editor who both dealt with and sometimes wrote about the technical challenges of avoiding sexism, Marie Shear also had a foot in this liberal camp. But when she wrote about language for a feminist audience her analysis of the problem was much more radical. She wrote vividly, often angrily and sometimes very personally about what lurked beneath the surface of linguistic sexism, and about the damage she believed it did to women.

It’s these qualities that make the piece I mentioned earlier, ‘“Little Marie”: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language’, so memorable. It was published in 2010, when Shear was 70, and it begins with this arresting vignette:

I am lying on a gurney in a hospital hallway, alone, waiting to be rolled into the O.R. for the first of two operations. The surgeon approaches and greets me: “It’s Little Marie!” he exclaims. …Fortunately, I don’t realize until later that a man named Richard who calls a woman “little” invites a reply that minimizes his most cherished protuberance: It would have been imprudent to say, “Hello, Little Dick!” moments before he stuck a sharp knife into my carcass.

Eventually, the same surgeon will address me as “kiddo” and “the little chippie.” A chippie, of course, is a prostitute. He tells the friend who has accompanied me to the exam that he is using the phrase “to bait her (– meaning me –) because I know it gets her goat.”

What’s striking about this is the contrast Shear makes us see between the person she is to herself–an intelligent adult who considers herself the surgeon’s equal–and the inferior, powerless child he turns her into with his familiar use of her first name and his insistence on infantilizing her further by calling her ‘little’ Marie (an unmistakable sign of sexism, since it’s impossible to imagine him greeting an adult male patient as ‘little Donny’). This vignette gives the lie to the liberal account in which well-meaning people inadvertently use sexist language because they don’t understand why it’s offensive. As the surgeon later confirms, there is nothing inadvertent about it. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he’s doing, by his own admission, is baiting her. She refuses to interpret this as just light-hearted ‘banter’ or friendly ‘joshing’. For her, this way of speaking to women can never be taken lightly:

Examined with an analytic eye and a diagnostic ear, sexist language reveals an underlying social disease — contempt for and fury at women. Being literally communicable, the disease both reflects and perpetuates our degradation.

It’s this ‘communicable’ quality which leads Shear to treat sexist language as a serious, even a fundamental, political issue. The words are like the rats that carry the fleas that spread the plague: they may not be the cause of sexism, but they are its privileged vehicles, and their ubiquity ensures that we will all become infected.

Everywhere we turn on an ordinary day — to politics, greeting cards, stand-up comedy, New York Times crossword puzzles, the dentist, the mail, the florist’s messenger and the TV pontificators — we meet words that demoralize and flay us.

These continual verbal reminders of the contempt with which the world regards women have not only an immediate effect, but also, and more insidiously, a cumulative one. Though many individual instances may be minor, the constant, relentless exposure wears women’s resistance down, inducing shame, self-consciousness and self-policing. Even—or perhaps especially—when it’s presented as a joke. ‘As a means of social control’, Shear remarks, ‘ridicule is second only to rape’.

‘Little Marie’ illustrates something else I appreciate about Shear’s analysis. She understands sexist language as a weapon used against all women, but she also recognizes that it is used differently against different groups of women:

Bigots switch instantly from one category of bias to another, compounding sexist condescension with ageist usage … Misogyny also interlocks with usage disparaging people who aren’t thin or physically decorative and parallels usage that insults people who aren’t white.

Though many second-wave writers on sexist language made analogies with other kinds of bias, few took the further step of drawing attention to problematic patterns of usage that resulted from the combination of sexism and other prejudices. (For instance, it was common for guidelines to warn against stereotyping (white) women with hair-colour terms like ‘blonde/ brunette/ redhead’, but I can’t remember any analogous discussion of the skin-colour clichés (‘her skin was like ‘ebony/ mahogany/ rich chocolate’) that pervade descriptions of Black women). Shear was aware of this gap: in the 1984 book review mentioned earlier she discussed not only a selection of non-sexist guidelines but also some addressing other problems like ableism, ageism, heterosexism and racism. ‘Literature like this’, she commented, ‘ought to grow’:

More extensive, authoritative guides to all kinds of stereotypes are needed. A thorough treatment of anti-lesbian gibes, for example, would point out that they often do double duty, simultaneously slandering the lesbian and the uppity straight woman for their wit and grit. Indeed, every group whose members are habitually derided can benefit by instructing the public at large about biased words and images.

This was also a theme in the media columns she wrote for New Directions for Women, where she frequently criticized representations that excluded, stereotyped or insulted Black women, lesbians, older women and women with disabilities.

By the time she wrote ‘Little Marie’ Shear herself was old enough to have become acutely aware of the particular forms of condescension that are routinely directed to older women:

A bus driver watching me haul myself laboriously up his stairs says, “Take big-girl steps.” (Kiss my big-girl Aunt Fanny.) …The sidewalk coffee vendor calls me “dear” twice and calls the male customer behind me “sir.” Reporting for jury duty, I hear a guard at a metal detector greeting every female who arrives with “young lady”; he welcomes no male with “young gentleman.” …The moment I enter a magazine shop in Manhattan, a customer asks, “What are you looking for, darlin’?” I turn and look at him, speechless. Mistaking my incredulity for incomprehension, he rephrases his question: “What are you looking for, sweetheart?” I draw myself up to my full, if negligible, height, assume my 5’10” voice, and tell him sternly, “Don’t call me ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’! It’s patronizing!” Without missing a beat, he replies, “I was just trying to be nice to an old lady.”

The older a woman gets, the more she will be addressed by men in a way that reflects not only the usual sexist presumption of familiarity (any man in any situation may address any woman as if the two of them were intimate, or at least sufficiently well-acquainted to give him an automatic claim to her attention) but also the idea that older women are mentally incompetent, requiring the same verbal accommodations as small children. All women past the first flush of youth are expected to regard ageing as a source of shame, from which it follows that you can always brighten their day with some jocular, faux-gallant comment on how young they look. Age may have withered their bodies, but their vanity is assumed to be indestructible. And any complaint about any of this will be met with that familiar refrain, an aggrieved ‘but I was only being NICE’. (Or that other familiar refrain, ‘no need to be such a bitch’.)

Marie Shear didn’t mince words, and she wasn’t afraid to direct the un-minced kind towards the most exalted of gatekeepers. In her 1984 book review she contrasted the various guidelines she was reviewing with the hopelessly muddled and inconsistent approach that still prevailed in most sections of the press. She saved her finest display of her signature snark for this assessment of the New York Times:

Its stylebook is laden with mugwumpery: elaborate distinctions between “comedian” and “comedienne”; a requirement that ships, but not countries, be called “she”; confusing directives about “coed”; the acceptance of “councilwoman” and the rejection of “chairwoman.” Best of all, there are 24 paragraphs on “Mrs.” and “Miss” –a remarkable tangle of Byzantine niceties and exceptions to exceptions.

Another thing Shear didn’t do was let things drop. She mentions in ‘Little Marie’ that she wrote to the NYPD seven times over a period of five years to demand an apology for an incident in which an officer addressed her as ‘babe’ (it seems she got one in the end). She didn’t stop talking about sexist language when it became unfashionable in the 1990s, and she made no apology for repeating herself, though she was evidently exasperated by the need for repetition:

Women spend our lives explaining the obvious to the uneducable. In the face of daily indignities and humiliations, why must we explain that we are neither prigs nor prunes — just people?

A radical notion, indeed.



* Marie Shear’s writing for New Directions for Women can be found by searching Independent Voices, an open access digital collection featuring ‘periodicals produced by feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Hispanics, LGBT activists, the extreme right-wing press and alternative literary magazines during the latter half of the 20th century’. Thanks to the linguist Alice Freed and the reference librarian Fran Kaufmann at Montclair State University for tracking down this excellent, publicly accessible and free resource. The Women’s Review of Books, another publication Shear contributed to regularly from the 1980s on, has its own digital archive, but to use it you will probably need access to an academic library.  


The illusion of inclusion

My blog and I have been in the news this week. After the Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey complained about the use of ‘hi guys’ as a greeting for mixed-sex groups , a number of news outlets picked up the story, and several of them linked to this 2016 blog post in which I explained why I don’t think ‘hi guys’ excludes women.

This made me briefly very popular with bookers for talk radio, where language peeves of all kinds are the gift that keeps on giving, as is any public difference of opinion between two feminists. But other reactions were less positive. On Twitter I had people telling me to ‘stop invisibilising women’ and suggesting that instead of defending ‘guys’ I should be using my influence to promote other, more inclusive address terms.

Sadly (or maybe not), I don’t have that kind of influence. Changes in everyday usage are very much a bottom-up rather than a top-down thing: linguists can describe and try to explain what’s going on, but what they say will rarely if ever affect the overall direction of travel. What I was hoping to influence when I decided to start this blog was not the language itself so much as the way feminists think and talk about linguistic issues. And in that spirit, I want to revisit the issue at the centre of the argument about ‘guys’: inclusiveness.

Feminists (and other progressive types) talk a lot about ‘inclusive language’, and it’s generally assumed that we’re in favour of it. But what exactly is it? What makes a word or an expression ‘inclusive’? And are feminists’ purposes always best served by inclusive terms?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, feminists criticising conventional usage rarely talked about ‘inclusive’ (or its antonym, ‘exclusionary’) language: we talked much more about ‘sexist’ and ‘non-sexist’ language. As the issue became more mainstream, other terms came into use which were seen as less overtly political and thus more palatable to people of moderate liberal opinions. Many included the word ‘gender’: it became common for institutions to formulate policies and guidelines about ‘gender equal’, ‘gender free’ or ‘gender fair’ language.

The concept of ‘inclusive language’ has become popular more recently, and it represents a further move away from the original feminist critique of sexism. ‘Inclusiveness’ is much more general concept: guidelines on ‘inclusive language’ may address concerns about the linguistic representation not only of women, but also of other marginalised groups like ethnic minorities, disabled people and LGBT people. And while most feminists would probably see this broadening as a good thing in principle, some (myself included) might argue that in defining the problem as ‘inclusion versus exclusion’ we have both narrowed the scope of the earlier analysis of sexism and lost some of its more radical insights.

The non-inclusiveness (or as we used to say, ‘androcentrism’) of conventional ‘he/man’ language was a significant concern in early feminist analyses of sexist language, but it was by no means the only problem feminists drew attention to. Many forms of sexist language did not discriminate against women by excluding them or making them invisible, but rather by over-representing them in distinctive and demeaning ways (consider, for instance, how many words are available in English to objectify/infantilise women—‘chicks’, ‘babes’, ‘blondes’—or express sexualised contempt for them—‘bitch’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’). Even when the issue did concern something we might now call ‘exclusionary’, such as the use of masculine generic pronouns, the older feminist analysis was (as I’ll explain later on) rather different from the one we tend to get now.

So, what is the current analysis? What do feminists mean when they say a word or expression is ‘not inclusive’? Typically, their objection is based on one or more of the following observations:

  1. That the word is formally masculine rather than gender-neutral/unmarked;
  2. That the word originated as a sex-specific term denoting or describing men;
  3. That standard dictionaries describe the word as referring exclusively or primarily to men.

In English (as opposed to languages that make more extensive use of grammatical gender distinctions), particular weight tends to be given to (1). ‘Inclusiveness’ is seen to require the use of ‘neutral’ terms, words which have no overt gender-marking. Jane Garvey, for instance, suggested ‘people’ as an inclusive substitute for ‘guys’. ‘People’ does not invite any of the objections listed above: it is formally unmarked for gender and its dictionary definition makes no reference to sex (according to the Oxford dictionary it denotes ‘human beings in general or considered collectively’). This lack of specificity has also made ‘people’ a popular choice in another context where the goal is to eliminate ‘exclusionary’ language–it’s a common replacement for ‘women’ in expressions which are intended to be trans-inclusive, like ‘pregnant people’.

In this new paradigm, the prevailing assumption could be summarised as ‘gender-neutral = inclusive = good’ and ‘gender-specific = exclusionary = bad’. But I’m going to argue that in practice it’s not that simple. If we turn our attention from the surface forms and dictionary definitions of words to the details of how they’re used in everyday life, it will soon become apparent that neutral terms are not always inclusive, and inclusive terms are not always neutral.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of formally gender-neutral terms being used in ways which are covertly gendered. Here’s a case in point, taken from a report in the Sunday Times:

The lack of vitality is aggravated by the fact that there are so few able-bodied young adults around. They have all gone off to work or look for work, leaving behind the old, the disabled, the women and the children.

The phrase ‘able-bodied young adults’ does logically exclude most of the groups  described as ‘left behind’: old people aren’t young, disabled people aren’t able-bodied, children aren’t adults. But what logic accounts for the presence of women on this list? The noun ‘adults’, like ‘people’, is formally unmarked for gender: in theory the category of ‘able-bodied young adults’ encompasses both male and female individuals. But in this context, clearly, the writer is using the neutral term ‘adults’ to convey the sex-specific meaning ‘male adults’.

A common variation on the same theme can be seen in these examples:

We cannot tolerate attacks on the wife of an American citizen

A 45-year old man has been charged with assaulting his next-door neighbour’s wife

Saxophone-playing vicar’s wife is the C of E’s first woman bishop

What we’re looking at here is a subcategory of sexism which featured prominently in early feminist critiques. In each example a woman is described as a ‘wife’, despite the fact that she herself is also a member of the category to which the speaker or writer assigns her husband. The woman in the first example was a US citizen, the second lived next door to her attacker, and the third was an Anglican priest–if she hadn’t been she would not have been eligible to become a bishop. The ‘wife’ references are thus superfluous from a purely informational standpoint; the work they do is ideological, reflecting and recycling the belief that women exist and must be seen primarily in relation to men rather than as individuals in their own right.

One by-product of this (still fairly common) pattern of representation is that the nouns denoting categories other than ‘wife’—in these examples, ‘citizen’, ‘neighbour’ and ‘vicar’—become covertly gendered (i.e., masculine). This has nothing to do with the characteristics of the words themselves: they are all formally unmarked for gender, and dictionary definitions would not restrict their reference to men. You might argue that ‘vicar’ is more likely to refer to a man because until recently only men were permitted to occupy that role; but that’s not an argument you could make about the other two. There would be nothing unusual or jarring about a sentence like ‘Sue has applied to become a British citizen’, or ‘my neighbour asked if I could feed her cat while she’s away’. On the criteria I listed earlier, these are perfectly inclusive terms. So, how do we explain the prevalence of patently non-inclusive uses like the ones in my examples?

The feminist writer and theorist Monique Wittig once observed that

…there are not two genders. There is only one, the feminine…For the masculine is not the masculine but the general.

One obvious example of this is the way formally masculine terms get used as generics (as with the use of ‘man’ to mean the human species). But Wittig’s point is also illustrated by the opposite phenomenon, the treatment of apparently generic, formally neutral terms as if they only referred to men. The examples I’ve reproduced—all cases where the writer or speaker’s own words make clear that the reference to ‘adults’ or ‘citizens’ is in fact a reference to male adults/citizens—are only the tip of the iceberg. Even when a writer or speaker does intend a formally neutral term to be inclusive, hearers and readers may still interpret it as sex-specific.

This is a manifestation of the ‘default male’ principle. It’s not that we don’t know that ‘adult’ and ‘neighbour’ might in theory refer to a person of either sex, but in practice, if the person’s sex is not specified, we are liable to default to a male reading. This tendency is most marked where formally gender-neutral words are strongly associated with maleness for historical and social reasons (e.g. ‘soldier’), but it is also apparent with words that have no such associations (e.g. ‘neighbour’). If nothing in the context suggests a female referent, we will tend to visualise a male one.

The evidence from actual usage, then, suggests that merely replacing gender-marked with gender-neutral terms does not guarantee inclusiveness. Conversely—and this takes us back to the argument about ‘guys’—the use of masculine terms does not guarantee that women will be, or feel, excluded. Just as neutral terms can be gendered, gender-marked terms can be de-gendered in use.

‘Guys’ is a case in point. It clearly originated as a sex-specific term: lexicographers agree that the original ‘guy’, who gave his name first to men of low and ragged appearance and later to men in general, was Guy Fawkes, the 17th century Gunpowder Plotter whose likeness is burned in effigy on English bonfires each November. But lexicographers also agree that ‘guy’ is no longer uniformly sex-specific. The plural form, ‘guys’, has become gender-inclusive in one subset of its functions—when it is used as a vocative, as in ‘hi guys’, or more broadly to address people in the second person, as in ‘what are you guys doing tonight?’

This de-gendering hasn’t (yet) spread to all the word’s forms and functions. Though some younger speakers might disagree, for me third-person references, both singular and plural (‘that guy over there’, ‘those guys we saw in the coffee shop’) can only be interpreted as masculine. But that doesn’t undermine the claim that ‘guys’ as a second-person address term is perceived by those who use it as gender-inclusive. Shifts in the meaning of a term very often affect some of its uses before others.

‘Guys’ isn’t the only English address term which is undergoing this shift. As I explained in my earlier post, ‘dude’ in the US is increasingly being used by and to women as well as men; in Australia, ‘mate’ (which, though not formally masculine, has historically had strongly male connotations) appears to be following a similar path; in Ireland, ‘lads’ is commonly used as a collective and gender-inclusive address term.

Research suggests that the key factor driving this trend is the uptake of the terms by young women, who are not just passively accepting them in mixed-sex talk, but actively using them in interactions with each other. In the case of ‘dude’, for instance, a study of college students in Pittsburgh found that its most frequent users were, as expected, men talking to other men, but the next-most frequent users were women talking to other women. Overall, I find the evidence quite compelling that these masculine address terms really have been de-gendered for younger speakers. If young women didn’t think they were being addressed when they heard ‘hi, guys’ or ‘listen, lads’, it’s possible they would put up with it from their male friends, but less likely they would adopt it enthusiastically in all-female interactions.

But what’s behind the enthusiasm? Some feminists see it as evidence of internalised sexism, a need to be accepted or approved of by men that leads young women to ‘talk male’, or at least accommodate to male linguistic preferences, in mixed peer-groups. To me this is unconvincing, not least because it overlooks the point that women aren’t just using the terms in mixed groups. It also discounts their own understanding of the terms: women under 30 consistently tell researchers that they regard ‘guys’, ‘dude’ and ‘mate’ as inclusive terms, available equally to address both sexes.

The explanation I prefer (and which I laid out in more detail in my earlier post) can be related to Monique Wittig’s assertion that ‘the masculine is not the masculine but the general’. I would argue that women are appropriating ‘guys’ and its ilk, not to be seen as masculine, but to be included in the category of ‘the general’. They are adopting these address terms to express the same attitudes and feelings men have traditionally used them to express, like camaraderie, solidarity and ‘mateship’. The fact that these attitudes and feelings have historically been associated with men does not mean they are inherently male (any more than historically male-dominated endeavours like science and sport are inherently male). Rather they are part of the repertoire of human attitudes and feelings.

The desire of women to be included in the general category of humans, rather than confined to a subcategory of ‘feminine’ (aka Other and lesser) beings, has often led them to reject female-specific terms. In the case of occupational labels, for instance, they have rejected marked forms like ‘authoress’ and ‘lady doctor’ and demanded to be referred to instead with the unmarked forms ‘author’ and ‘doctor’. This has never prompted accusations of ‘aping men’ or ‘making women invisible’.

‘Of course not’, I hear you say: ‘the two cases are quite different. A woman who prefers “author” to “authoress” isn’t giving herself a male label like “guys”, she’s just swapping an unnecessary and demeaning gender-marked term for something neutral and inclusive’. But if you take the long view, that difference disappears.  .

Words like ‘author’ and ‘doctor’ may always have been (in English) formally unmarked,  but they were not always ‘neutral’ and ‘inclusive’. For much of their history they were sex-specific, applied to men and not to women. To the extent that they have now become inclusive, that’s a historical achievement; they were made inclusive by the efforts of the women who laid claim to them and used them and demanded that others should use them too. That is also what is happening now with address term like ‘guys’, ‘lads’, ‘dude’ and ‘mate’. Women are laying claim to them and their meanings are changing as a result. It’s possible that in a hundred years’ time only language historians and etymology buffs will know that the ‘guys’ in ‘hi guys’ once meant ‘men’.

But I said ‘to the extent that they have now become inclusive’ because even today, as I’ve already pointed out, it can’t be assumed that generic references to ‘the author’ or ‘a doctor’ will automatically be interpreted as including women. In fact, there are no words which cannot be used or understood in a non-inclusive way: even ‘people’ can be covertly gendered (usually in line with the default male principle, though I did once overhear a woman saying she wouldn’t want a rattan coffee table because ‘people might snag their panty-hose’). Where the neutral/inclusive term is the same term that refers specifically to men (a common pattern in many languages, as Monique Wittig points out), there will always be room for doubt about whether women are really included. In that respect, ‘guys’ is no better and no worse than ‘adult’ and ‘citizen’ and ‘doctor’. None of these terms makes women visible as women, and all of them are liable to be interpreted as masculine by default.

The problem of sexism in language isn’t caused by a lack of inclusive terminology. It’s a structural problem, the product of assumptions and habits of thought which have seeped into our culture and our language over centuries, and which would colour the use of any set of terms we might come up with. If we want our language to produce more than the illusion of inclusion, what we really need to change is not our vocabulary, but our ingrained and largely unconscious habit of treating men as the prototypical humans.

They think it’s all over: football v. sexism

And they’re off! As we move into the Season of Endless Televised Sport (this year centring on the month-long FIFA World Cup), some men have started their own competition to find the Most Unconvincing Reason Why We Shouldn’t Have To Listen To Women Talking About Football. I’m tempted to name this contest the Samuel Johnson Memorial Award for Sexism, in homage to Johnson’s famous remark comparing a woman preacher to a dog walking on its hind legs: ‘it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all’. (It also doesn’t hurt that ‘Johnson’ is a slang term for ‘penis’.)

Simon Kelner made an early splash with his suggestion that asking women like Eni Aluko and Alex Scott to offer expert technical analysis of matches played by men was like ‘getting a netball player to discuss major league basketball’.  Er, not really, Simon: netball and basketball are different sports, whereas women’s football and men’s football…well, the clue’s in the name. Scott, who made 140 appearances for England during her career and played in three World Cups, can hardly be said to lack insight; Aluko’s analysis has been incisive enough to prompt applause from Patrice Evra (a patronising gesture which makes him another leading contender for the Johnson award).

Of course it’s true that unlike Evra, these women have never played in a men’s World Cup. But as someone pointed out on Twitter, if you followed that line of argument to its logical conclusion you’d have to leave expert analysis of the Grand National to a panel of horses. Who but a horse can truly understand the physical and mental challenges of this unique event?

Kelner’s article was really just a lengthy whinge that should have been headed ‘Why I don’t like being expected to pay attention to some bird when I’m watching the football’. Other men who felt the same way came up with different justifications. There were several variations on the complaint made by one Mail reader that ‘male commentators have a better camaraderie and banter’. Football-talk just doesn’t have the same laddish, all-boys-together vibe when there’s a woman in the room. But by far the most popular argument–most often produced with the triumphant air of a magician plucking the rabbit of self-evident truth from the hat of mere disputable opinion–was that no one could be expected to pay attention to what the women were saying, because of (stop me if you’ve heard this before) their annoying high-pitched voices.

The woman who bore the brunt of this tediously familiar complaint was not a player-turned-pundit, but the broadcaster Vicki Sparks, who became the first woman ever to commentate live on a men’s World Cup match. While she was commentating on Portugal v. Morocco, John Terry caused a stir by posting on Instagram that he’d been forced to watch with the sound off. He later clarified that this wasn’t because of the commentary, it was because the sound on his TV wasn’t working. But others had already picked up the ball and were evidently determined to run with it (oops, sorry, wrong game).

Their comments came straight from the Bumper Book of Ancient Clichés About Women’s Speech. Here’s a selection taken from the comments section of a Huffington Post piece. (Incidentally, I chose this piece because it was basically positive, deploring the sexism dished out to Sparks elsewhere. Nevertheless, in the comments section the ratio of negative to positive or neutral judgments was approximately 4:1.)

One day they may find a woman with the right knowledge and gravitas to pull it off but that time has still to arrive.

Whatever next…. the commentary done in the style of nagging I expect.

Women commentators just don’t work. Reason is because of the voice rather than the gender (before I get hate). You’d never get a squeaky guy as a commentator, so why have a squeaky woman

Her voice tone wasn’t clear, difficult to listen to, I missed half of what she said, and yet shrill. Not for me.

Sorry I am all for equality but this is one step too far, what a screeching high pitched annoying voice. Had to turn the sound off, please spare us.

Nice to have a woman, but NOT this one. The voice was just too strident. May be more suited to a boxing match. Sorry, but there is a lot of female talent out there that is more suitable

In the same way that a short person is unlikely to make a good basketball player, it should be accepted that a person with a high, shallow voice does not have the necessary attributes to be a good football commentator.

There are just some things men are better at and women are better at and the roar of a passionate crowd being drowned out by a high pitched voice doesn’t work, be it male or female, thank god I’ve lived through the best days. ‘They think it’s all over, it is now’ RIP Football

What I find striking about these comments is that the tropes they use are exactly the same ones that turn up with monotonous regularity in discussions of female political leaders—especially when the theme is ‘why I’m not going to vote for [insert name of woman]’. There’s a tried and tested formula, which goes something like this:

  1. I’m not a sexist: I’ve got nothing against women/ I’m all for equality, but
  2. This woman is not the right woman. I know she isn’t right because
  3. She has a shrill/ squeaky/ screechy/ strident voice which means she (a) lacks the necessary gravitas and/or (b) is unbearably painful to listen to. And after all,
  4. We shouldn’t put a woman who isn’t the right woman in this position: that would be tokenism/ box-ticking/ political correctness.

This is what was said about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election campaign; now it’s being said about Vicki Sparks in the context of the 2018 World Cup. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Politics and sport may be different in many ways, but they are both symbolically masculine domains, arenas for the cultivation and display of symbolically masculine attributes like power, strength, competitiveness and fraternal loyalty. As such they are seen, at least by some men, as sacred turf which women should not be permitted to profane.

This may help to explain the otherwise puzzling fact that women’s voices only seem to become an insuperable obstacle to equality when women are using them to talk about certain things. You could almost formulate it as a law: the more important a subject is to men, the more they feel it defines them as men, the more likely they will accuse any woman who speaks about it with authority of being ‘shrill’.

Why is this line of criticism, making reference to the fact that women’s voices are higher in pitch than men’s, so popular with sexists? Some would say, because it trades on the idea that men are ‘naturally’ more authoritative speakers. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s good evidence that people tend to associate lower pitch with greater authority, and this has often been explained in terms of the natural relationship between larger bodies and lower-pitched sounds. But we’ve known for a long time that pitch differences between the sexes aren’t entirely explained by physical factors–they also have a social dimension. Research has shown that they vary across cultures, and that they emerge in young children before there’s a physical basis for them. They can also change over time: a number of recent studies done in Europe, North America and Australia suggest that the average pitch of the female voice has fallen quite significantly since the mid-20th century. This has not, however, stemmed the flow of complaints about the high pitch and ‘shrillness’ of women’s speech.

I think there’s a simple explanation for this: the complaints were never really about the way women’s voices sound. That’s just a figleaf, a red herring, a proxy for a different kind of concern about women speaking in certain domains. If the issue were really about acoustics–if female voices were genuinely more unpleasant to listen to and more difficult to understand– we would surely expect to hear the same complaints about every kind of public and broadcast speech. But in reality the criticism is selective, and always has been.

I’m old enough to remember when women weren’t allowed to read the news on the BBC because their light, high voices allegedly lacked gravitas. Today people complain that their voices are too ‘high and shallow’ for football commentary. Meanwhile, there are no such criticisms of the female duos who present Strictly Come Dancing and (until recently) The Great British Bake-Off.  Ballroom dancing and baking are already symbolically feminised activities, so in those domains a female voice of authority (or a flamboyantly gay one, as adopted by Strictly’s two male judges) poses no threat to the existing order. Introducing that voice into football coverage is a different matter: for some people it can only mean that the best days are behind us. ‘RIP Football’.

It’s not only football that these people are in mourning for. In the words of another Huffington Post reader (who probably spoke for quite a few of his peers, even if he himself was being sarcastic):

Wow, a woman commentator, they are getting everywhere (except back in the kitchen)

If women are getting everywhere, where does that leave men? From where I’m standing, not too badly off: in football as in life more generally, they’re still getting the lion’s share of the power, the glory and the money. But some of them are evidently brooding on what they feel they’ve lost. They look back nostalgically to the golden age when each sex had its proper sphere: when a woman’s place was in the kitchen and a man’s was everywhere else.  Sorry-not-sorry, guys. If you think that’s all over, I’m pretty sure you’re right.

Cuntroversy: On Samantha Bee and the C-word

On her show last week, as everyone now knows, Samantha Bee used a word which is Not To Be Uttered On TV. Addressing Ivanka Trump, who had posted a photo taken with her child on Instagram while her father’s administration was busy separating undocumented migrants from their children, Bee said:

Let me just say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless cunt. He listens to you.

Later Bee apologised, saying that her use of the word ‘cunt’ had ‘crossed a line’: it was ‘inappropriate and inexcusable’. Plenty of people agreed: even if they shared Bee’s feelings about the President and his daughter, they thought her language overstepped the mark. Not everyone, however, took that view. There were some who defended Bee simply on the basis that they thought her target deserved the epithet; but there were others whose comments focused on the epithet itself, challenging the assumption that ‘cunt’ is, in the words of Grose’s much-quoted dictionary entry,  ‘a nasty name for a nasty thing’.

One high-profile example came from Sally Field, who tweeted:

I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a cunt. Cunts are powerful, beautiful, nurturing and honest.

Another popular riposte (I saw several variations of it on Twitter) was ‘I don’t think Samantha Bee should have called Ivanka a cunt: she has neither the warmth nor the depth’.

This isn’t a new take on ‘cunt’. Feminists over the past 50 years have regularly proposed to reclaim ‘the most offensive word in the English language’ and turn it into a positive symbol of female power.

Germaine Greer was an early advocate of reclamation: initially she thought the goal should be to make ‘cunt’ an ordinary, everyday word, but later she would say that on reflection she was glad efforts to tame it had failed. ‘Unlike other words for female genitals’ she observed, ‘this one sounds powerful. It demands to be taken seriously’. She also expounded a theory that has long been popular in some feminist circles–that the power of ‘cunt’ and its status as a forbidden word derive from the fact that ‘men identified female sexual energy as a dangerous force’.

These sentiments were echoed by Laurie Penny in a 2011 New Statesman column entitled ‘In defence of the C-word’. Repeating Greer’s point that ‘cunt’ is the only non-medical word for the female genitals that doesn’t domesticate or sanitise what it names, she exhorted women to ‘use it and love it’. ‘Cunt’, she rhapsodised, is

a wholesome word, an earthy, dank and lusty word, with the merest hint of horny threat…it’s fantastically difficult to pronounce without baring the teeth.

Unlike Greer, Penny defends not only the use of ‘cunt’ to name the female genitals, but also its use as an aggressive insult. In both senses, she says, it is a ‘word of power’.

I have always had a problem with this kind of cunt-talk, because it depends on what I would argue is a fundamentally patriarchal gesture—defining power, for women, in primarily sexual terms. Men may monopolise all other kinds of power, but sexual power—that magical ability to bend men to your will by provoking desires they cannot control or resist—is held out to women as a consolation prize. It is also used to vilify them and license various measures designed to control their ‘dangerous’ sexuality. The idea that women pose a sexual threat to men, rather than vice-versa, is the foundation for one of the commonest myths justifying rape (‘she aroused me, I couldn’t help myself’); it is part of the thinking behind every religious injunction telling women they must cover themselves to avoid leading men into temptation; it is also, as we have recently learnt, part of the creed of the men who call themselves incels. Why would feminists celebrate any of this?

Emma Rees, the author of  Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, seems rather more sympathetic to it than I am, but she too notes that there are problems with the idea of reclaiming a word which is both a name for the female genitals and a metonymic (part-for-whole) label meaning ‘woman’. Can this second usage ever be positive? Even in a culture that celebrated female sexuality, describing a woman as a cunt would still entail making her sexuality the defining feature of her identity as a person. And yes, you could argue that calling a man a ‘prick’ or a ‘dick’ does the same, but treating the two gestures as equivalent ignores the very different historical positioning of the two sexes: whereas men have never been valued primarily for their sexual utility to women, nor told that their only power is sexual power, that has been women’s experience for thousands of years.

Proposals to reclaim ‘cunt’ do not have to involve spouting mystical nonsense about ‘female sexual energy’. They could be based, and sometimes have been, on the more straightforward argument that if we see nothing wrong with either women or their genitals then we should see nothing wrong with the word ‘cunt’ either. But once again, this skips too lightly over the point that words have histories; the baggage they bring from the past continues to weigh them down in the present. When we ask what gives words like ‘cunt’ their peculiar power (a power that may be entirely lacking in their synonyms—you wouldn’t get the same effect by calling someone ‘a total vulva’ or ‘a bit of a vagina’), the answer lies less in what the words mean than in what they’ve historically been used to do.

There’s a good discussion of this point in a piece by the linguist Ana Deumert about a recent legal decision made by South African Constitutional Court. The case concerned a white man who was dismissed by his employer for using racially offensive language during a dispute about parking at work. Annoyed that another employee had parked too close to his own space, the white man had gone to the person in charge of parking and demanded the removal of ‘that Black man’s car’. He later made a claim of unfair dismissal on the grounds that referring to someone as ‘that Black man’ could not be considered racist; the phrase was purely descriptive, it contained no insulting or abusive terms, and he had not intended it to be offensive.

The Appeal Court had accepted this argument, but the Constitutional Court applied a different test: its question was not what the speaker was thinking when he used the phrase ‘that Black man’, but whether ‘a reasonable, objective and informed person, on hearing the words, would perceive them to be racist or derogatory’. The Court decided that in South Africa, a society still deeply marked by its recent history as an apartheid state, an informed and reasonable person would indeed have grounds to perceive a reference to ‘that Black man’ as racist. Though ‘Black’ is not in itself a negative term, the decision of a white speaker to foreground his opponent’s status as ‘a Black man’ rather than just ‘a man’ during an argument is liable to be interpreted in relation to a whole history of interactions where that gesture was a clear assertion of racial superiority and white power. As Deumert explains:

The performative nature of language – its ability to cause effects – is rooted in its history, in the circulation and repetition of words and phrases across time… [W]ords mean because they have meant before, and, consequently, words also wound because they have wounded before. There is no escape from history, from the meanings we inherit.

This should not be taken to imply that the meanings we inherit are immutable, and will inevitably be transmitted intact to every subsequent generation until the end of time: word-meaning does change, along with the contexts in which words are repeated and circulated. Terms which were once offensive can lose their power to wound, or indeed fall out of use entirely. But people who talk blithely of reclaiming current insults and slur-terms very often underestimate the magnitude of the task, and the time it takes to accomplish.

Last year there was an interesting—and to some, perhaps, surprising—illustration of this point, in the findings of an online survey which investigated attitudes to the term ‘queer’ among members of the LGBT community. 60% of respondents reported that they found ‘queer’ offensive and inappropriate; among gay men the percentage rose to 93%. These are not the kind of figures you can generalise from, since they were compiled from the responses of a small, self-selected and thus unrepresentative sample; but they do suggest that attitudes to ‘queer’ remain more polarised–and more negative–than might have been expected in 2017. The rise of ‘queer‘–which increasing numbers of people are said to prefer to ‘stale and stodgy’ old labels like ‘lesbian‘–has been chronicled at length in pieces on Buzzfeed, Slate et al. Why are some LGBT people–especially gay men–still so resistant to it?

There are some answers in the comments made by survey respondents. In line with the principle Ana Deumert outlines—‘words wound because they have wounded before’—gay men who found ‘queer’ offensive often cited experiences of having it used to and about them in a clearly derogatory and sometimes threatening way. Some of the strongest objections came from men over the age of 60, but negative reactions were not confined to the oldest respondents. Even if they had been, that would still be a salutary reminder that the meanings we attach to words are slow to change: the movement to reclaim ‘queer’ has been going on for 30 years, i.e. for most of the adult life of anyone now in their 60s or 70s. That’s not to say nothing has changed since the 1980s—‘queer’ has certainly become less uniformly negative in its uses and connotations—but it is still far too soon to declare it ‘reclaimed’, or indeed to know whether its older use as a homophobic slur will ever be completely superseded.

‘Cunt’, at least when used to refer to a person rather than a body part, remains unequivocally pejorative, and that assessment is not undermined by the evidence (cited by numerous contributors to social media discussions of Samantha Bee) that in some circumstances it can be used without anyone either intending or taking offence. The comedian Mark Watson remarked on Twitter that he’d been called a cunt while playing Pictionary with friends—one of many comments whose underlying theme was the linguistic (over)sensitivity of Americans compared to Brits or Australians. A linguist I know recalled his surprise when he heard teenage girls in Wales greeting one another (in Welsh) with ‘what’s up, cunt?’ But what cases like these show is that, like other highly offensive words (most obviously the N-word), ‘cunt’ can be appropriated to serve as a marker of solidarity and mutual affection among intimates. This gesture works not in spite of the word’s taboo status in other contexts, but because of it.

Contributors to the social media debate also suggested that in many non-American varieties of English (Scots featured particularly strongly, and Australian English was mentioned too) ‘cunt’ is used so frequently and with so little animus, it has effectively become just another word for ‘person’. Some people referred to this usage as ‘gender neutral’. But the evidence, at least for Britain, suggests otherwise. To the extent that ‘cunt’ can function as a ‘neutral’ word, neither pejorative nor affectionate, its meaning appears to be gender-specific, referring to a male person rather than just a person. More generally, according to Tony McEnery’s analysis of swearing in the British National Corpus, ‘cunt’ is preferentially used by men, and they most often use it when addressing or referring to other men. Men do also use the word in reference to women, though much less frequently, and women sometimes use it in reference to men. But the corpus does not contain a single example of a woman using ‘cunt’ in the way Samantha Bee used it, to address or refer to another woman.

The finding that ‘cunt’ is a much commoner insult for men than for women might suggest that using it against a female target is perceived as aggravating the offence. If so, that would not be surprising: whatever else may be implied by calling a man a cunt, he is not being reminded of his historical or actual status as a commodity for male sexual use. This implication of the word may also help to explain why ‘cunt’ is so rarely a female-to-female insult. Not because women’s sisterly feelings prevent them from hurling sexist insults at one another, but because there are other sexist insults which are better suited to their needs.

As I noted in an earlier post about swearing, both historical evidence from court records and more recent sociolinguistic studies suggest that the words women have most often used to wound each other are terms like ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘slag’, which make distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women on the basis of their (real or imagined) sexual conduct. In the context of verbal conflict between women, the problem with ‘cunt’ may be that it doesn’t make distinctions. When you call another woman a slag you are implying that she’s inferior, both to you and to anyone else who has eschewed the behaviour implied by the term; but if you call her a cunt you’re invoking a status which no one in possession of female genitals can easily disclaim. You’re not just expressing your opinion of her, you’re also recycling an old patriarchal belief about what all women essentially are.

This is why, ultimately, I do not agree with Laurie Penny’s assessment of ‘cunt’ as a ‘word of power’ for women. The power I see in it is largely the historical power of men to define women, to dominate them and to make them Other. (And also–given the evidence that ‘cunt’ is most commonly a male-on-male insult–to weaponise women’s bodies in their dealings with one another.)

So, am I saying we should treat ‘cunt’ in the way polite society has always treated it, as unspeakable? No: I don’t believe that any word is wholly unspeakable, nor am I in favour of banning words. I share the view set out by the African American legal scholar Randall Kennedy in his thought-provoking history of another ‘troublesome word’, the N-word. Though Kennedy has many qualms about its use, he argues that imposing a blanket prohibition just makes it into a fetish, and so does more to increase than to diminish its power. Instead he proposes that every case should be judged on its merits, giving careful consideration to the speaker’s aims, the effect of the word in context, and what alternatives the speaker could have chosen to use instead.

This last point, I think, is an important one for speakers themselves to take on board. In language there are almost always alternatives, and offensive words, words with the potential to wound because they have wounded before, should not be used either on autopilot or simply for their shock value: it’s always worth asking whether a word that carries less baggage might serve our purposes equally well.

In Samantha Bee’s case I think a well-chosen alternative to ‘cunt’, something scathing but not obscene, and more specific in its application to the person being criticised, would actually have served her purposes better. In a different context (like a live performance in a more intimate space) exploiting the shock value of ‘cunt’ might have been effective, but on a national TV show it was always liable to be heard as crass, flouting the rule so memorably stated by Michelle Obama in her own attack on Trump and his supporters: ‘you don’t stoop to their level … when they go low, we go high’. Perhaps what Bee will regret most, in hindsight, is not that she pissed off her sponsors and a large chunk of her audience by using the C-word on TV, but that by doing so she allowed Ivanka Trump to occupy, however briefly, the moral high ground.

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?