Bullshit: the struggle goes on

When it comes to the way she speaks, a woman’s place is in the wrong. It’s a point I’ve made frequently on this blog, and last week brought a reminder of how true it continues to be. On the same day I published a post inspired by criticisms of Greta Thunberg’s ‘strident’ speech to the UN Climate Action summit (‘strident’ being a code-word for women who express their views in an ‘excessively and unpleasantly forceful way’), the Times Education Supplement published a piece complaining that women don’t speak forcefully enough. It started like this:

“I’m sorry, I’m no expert on this but could we possibly…”

Have you ever heard yourself say something like this to your team?

I certainly have and I cringe to think how I must have come across.

Such phrases can make women appear weak or ineffective to colleagues, which in turn may affect whether they are promoted or tapped on the shoulder for forthcoming opportunities. These phrases are also in stark contrast to the way some men big themselves up.

And such linguistic differences have a tangible impact: researchers have found that subjective views of men and women vary enormously, with women far more likely to be described as indecisive, inept and panicky.

This piece is an excellent example of the generic formula I laid out in a 2015 post called ‘How to write a bullshit article about women’s language‘. When I first saw it, I thought: ‘you’ve already dealt with that, let it go’. But then I thought: if the bullshit-merchants have no shame about repeating themselves, their critics shouldn’t either. It’s a bit like the battle to contain infectious diseases: even if you’ve been immunized in the past, you may still need an occasional booster shot. So, here’s a reminder of what makes this article, and others like it, such pernicious nonsense.

Problem 1: do women really talk like that?

‘Have you ever heard yourself say something like this to your team?’ is what my O level Latin teacher used to call ‘a question expecting the answer yes’. But is ‘yes’ the true answer? Do women-in-general really spend their working lives saying things like ‘sorry, I’m no expert, but could we possibly…’?

I ask because the example is clearly invented. It hasn’t been taken from a real-life workplace interaction, it’s been constructed by someone who’s trying to shoehorn the Big Three female deadly sins (apologising, self-deprecation, hedging) into a single utterance. It isn’t, in short, evidence of anything, except our willingness to believe a certain story about the way women habitually talk.

If you’re thinking the evidence will be presented later on, I’m sorry (sic) to have to disappoint you: all we get is an anecdote about a nameless woman-in-a-meeting who allegedly uttered the word ‘sorry’ 32 times in an hour. Even if this is a true story, a single individual is not a representative sample from which to draw general conclusions about half of humanity. And if you feel you recognise yourself or your co-workers in anecdotes like this, remember that your personal intuitions aren’t reliable evidence either—not least because they’ve probably been influenced by reading dozens of pieces just like this one.

Problem 2: do the ways of speaking the writer criticises mean what she claims? 

The people who write these articles take the meaning of the various expressions they castigate women for using to be both obvious and invariant. ‘Sorry’ means you’re putting yourself in the wrong; hedges like ‘could we possibly’ and ‘just’ mean you have no confidence in your own opinion; ‘I’m no expert’ means you’re disclaiming any authority to pronounce on the issue at hand. No wonder, taken together, they make women sound ‘weak and ineffective’!

But this is a massive oversimplification: in reality, the same linguistic form can have several different communicative functions. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, ‘sorry’ and ‘just’ are good examples. ‘Just’ can be used for emphasis, as in Nike’s ‘Just Do It’; the existence of the phrase ‘sorry not sorry’ shows that ordinary speakers understand the potential for ‘sorry’ to be used in thoroughly unapologetic ways (like the snarky way I used it myself earlier on).

The prefatory formula ‘I’m not an expert’ is a similar case. A search for examples on Twitter confirmed that it’s not always used in a genuinely self-deprecating way, to mean ‘ignore me, I don’t know what I’m talking about’. On the contrary, its most common function seems to be (a) suggesting that some previously expressed view is mistaken, and (b) marking the speaker’s own view as obvious common sense. For instance:

I’m no expert in these things but I don’t think people who send death threats tend to write them by hand on monogrammed notepaper

I’m no legal expert but I don’t think Rudy Giuliani is helping his client by going on TV, sweating profusely and voice cracking, saying that he was working on behalf of the State Dept when he pressed Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden.

I’m no expert, but I don’t think removing UK nationality from UK citizens overseas was on the ballot

Used in this way, ‘I’m no expert, but…’ does not downgrade the speaker’s claim to knowledge; rather it implies that the speaker knows better than whoever came up with the claim she’s ‘politely’ (i.e., sarcastically) contradicting.

Of course, there are cases where speakers do want to emphasise their lack of certainty. In the tweets I looked at, they tended to do that by using ‘I’m no expert’, or some variation on it, not as a preface to an assertion, but in a disclaimer following it. There’s an example in the tweet reproduced below, which was accompanied by a photo of an insect:

X found this beauty under our front porch table. My guide suggests Capnodis, a buprestid (jewel beetle). (But I’m no expert, that might be complete nonsense!)

So, what ‘I’m no expert’ communicates can vary, and one clue (though the pattern isn’t totally consistent) is its position in the utterance. As a preface, especially when followed by ‘but I don’t think…’, it’s unlikely to be heard as self-deprecating and ‘weak’.

Problem 3: if ‘research’ is cited, has it been represented accurately?

At this point you might be thinking: OK, but most people don’t subject everything anyone says to a deep linguistic analysis. They go by first impressions, and according to the TES writer there’s evidence that this works against women:

…linguistic differences have a tangible impact: researchers have found that subjective views of men and women vary enormously, with women far more likely to be described as indecisive, inept and panicky.

This sentence invites readers to infer that research has shown a causal relationship between the propositions on either side of the colon. It implies that women’s ‘linguistic differences’ from men are the basis on which they are judged to be ‘indecisive, inept and panicky’. But if you click on the link the writer provides and read the text it takes you to, you soon discover that the research she’s citing does not show, or claim to show, any such thing.

What you get if you click the link is a piece published in the Harvard Business Review, summarising a study in which researchers compared the words that were used about male and female leaders in a sample of more than 80,000 military performance evaluations. Although men and women scored similarly on various ‘objective’ measures of performance, these more subjective assessments of their strengths and weaknesses showed striking differences, as displayed in the graphic below:


This study belongs to a growing body of work which seeks to uncover covert biases in organisations’ hiring, promotion and funding decisions by looking for sex-differentiated and/or gender-stereotyped patterns of word-choice in (for instance) job advertisements, performance evaluations and grant proposals. The existence and potential significance of this kind of bias is not in doubt; but what does it have to do with women’s alleged use of a ‘weak and ineffective’ speech-style?

The answer is, ‘nothing, so far as we can tell’. Apart from being about language, the claims made by these researchers are entirely unrelated to the contention that women’s style of speaking has a tangible impact on the way others perceive them. As is often the case in bullshit articles about women’s language, the allusion to what ‘researchers have found’ is just window-dressing: at best it’s irrelevant, and at worst it’s downright misleading.

Problem 4: is the writer proposing a workable solution to whatever she’s identified as a problem?  

Articles about women’s language are big on avoidance, and many of the things they tell women to avoid are conventional markers of politeness. The writers seem to think formulas like ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and ‘could we possibly’ are mere fluff: they add nothing of substance and can therefore be dispensed with. But while it’s true they contribute little substantive information, they are crucial to maintaining the interpersonal relationships on which successful communication also depends. Dispensing with them will not make you sound, in the TES writer’s words, ‘courageous and authentic’; more likely it will make you sound uncooperative or even hostile.

This problem becomes evident when you look at the way advice-givers tell women to reformulate utterances containing ‘forbidden’ expressions. In the TES piece, for instance, we get these suggestions:

Change “I would like to…” to “I want to…”
Change “If you get a moment, would you be able to…” to “Can you…”
Change “I know you’re really busy, but…” to “This is urgent.”

So, instead of asking a co-worker for a favour like this:

I know you’re really busy, but I would like to discuss your report with John before tomorrow’s meeting, so if you get a moment, would you be able to make a summary and send me a copy by the end of today?

you should do it like this:

This is urgent. Can you send me a summary of your report by the end of today, because I want to discuss it with John before tomorrow’s meeting.

But from a politeness perspective this is terrible advice. You might be irritated by the obsequious tone of the first email, but you’d surely be infuriated by the brusqueness of the second. Is the writer a human or a robot? If the former, who does s/he think s/he is? And that’s not just my own intuitive judgment. Research done during the heyday of assertiveness training found that if you follow the orthodox recommendations (be direct, don’t hedge, don’t apologise or explain yourself, stick to talking about your own needs and feelings), most English-speakers will think you’re weird, rude and obnoxious.

If you’re a woman, following this kind of advice has an additional cost: you may well find that you’ve just exchanged one stereotypically negative judgment–that you’re ‘weak and ineffective’–for another–that you’re ‘aggressive, shrill and strident’. These two judgments may look like polar opposites, but at a deeper level they’re two sides of the same coin. The logic they follow is one in which (1) whatever men are said to do with language is axiomatically preferable to whatever women are said to do with it, but at the same time (2) any woman who doesn’t behave according to stereotype will be negatively judged for her ‘deviance’.

This is what I mean by ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’. Whatever women do with language is always either too little or too much: too passive or too aggressive, too self-effacing or too domineering, too feminine or not feminine enough. The overall effect is to render women’s speech, whatever it may consist of, less legitimate than men’s. And it’s not just about delegitimising women’s speech: criticisms of women’s language function as post-hoc justifications for sexism more generally.  ‘I can’t vote for her because of her shrill voice’/ ‘we didn’t promote her because she’s always apologising’…these are just coded ways of saying that you don’t think women are up to the job. They’re used to rationalise prejudices the critic already holds, and defend decisions which were really made for other, even less defensible reasons.

Articles like the one in the TES help to justify this kind of sexism by suggesting that it’s a rational response to women’s own linguistic inadequacies. If you don’t talk like a boss, you can’t expect to be treated like one. But what that doesn’t explain is the treatment meted out to women who do sound like bosses. Those women, the Hillary Clintons and Greta Thunbergs, are no less harshly judged: they just get accused of a different set of female deadly sins.

The conclusion I draw is that the advice-givers are reasoning backwards. It isn’t women’s speech that causes prejudice against them, it’s prejudice that leads to the devaluation of their speech. Instead of fighting our own alleged bad habits, we should put our energies into fighting prejudice against women speakers. Because that’s the root of the problem: everything else is just bullshit.

In praise of strident women

Here’s what some random man on Twitter had to say about Greta Thunberg yesterday (just to put it in context, he was replying to a woman who had tweeted her admiration for Thunberg following the latter’s speech at the UN Climate Action summit):

But she’s so strident! Just her speaking style, if we can set aside for a moment what’s she’s speaking about, which is critically important I agree. All the more reason to win over a broad base with an agreeable presentation; you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

This was not, by a long shot, the worst thing anyone had said about the 16-year old activist. A pundit appearing on Fox TV called her ‘a mentally ill Swedish child’; Dinesh D’Souza shared an image showing a photo of her alongside an old Nazi propaganda poster featuring a blonde-braided, rosy-cheeked Nordic maiden, and invited us to infer that she was continuing an old ‘socialist’ (aka totalitarian and racist) tradition. And—with the inexorability of night following day, or of targets being missed for the reduction of carbon emissions—US President Donald Trump mocked her in a tweet, which read: ‘She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!’ (It was later reported that Thunberg had upped the ironic ante by incorporating his words into her own Twitter bio.)

Unlike these critics, however, Random Twitter Guy thought he was being constructive. He wasn’t politically opposed to Thunberg’s message; he just thought there was a problem with the way she delivered it. He felt her presentation hadn’t been ‘agreeable’ (which is true: the speech was visibly angry and linguistically accusatory, punctuated regularly by the question ‘how dare you?’): it had too much vinegar and not enough honey. He presented this concern as tactical, a question of maximising the reach of this critically important intervention by taking care not to alienate listeners when you could be recruiting them to the cause.

But we might want to probe what’s behind this perception of Thunberg’s style as alienating to a mass audience. Would Random Twitter Guy have had the same reaction if the ‘how dare you’ speech had been made by a male teenager? I suspect the answer is ‘no’, and the reason for that suspicion has to do with language. It’s not, to my mind, just a random coincidence that the word RTG reached for to describe Greta Thunberg was ‘strident’.

‘Strident’ is one of a number of code-words which have become covertly gendered because of the way they’re most commonly used. Though in principle they are applicable to anyone who speaks in a certain way, in practice they are used significantly more frequently to criticise the speech of women and girls. It doesn’t necessarily matter how the target of this criticism actually speaks, because what’s couched as a complaint about her speech style is really just a way of complaining about the woman or girl herself, while making the speaker’s antipathy to her appear to have some reasonable or ‘objective’ basis. (‘I’m fine with women holding office/ making speeches/ leading movements…it’s just that this particular woman’s voice/speaking style is so horrendously [insert code-word here].’)

Another classic code-word of this type, as we saw in commentary on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, is ‘shrill’ (there’s a graphic here showing the sex-unbalanced distribution). ‘Abrasive’ is popular in some contexts (as Kieran Snyder found in 2014 when she analysed a sample of performance reviews in the tech industry), and ‘bossy’ does the job in others; ‘aggressive’, ‘intimidating’ and ‘pushy’ may also work. A related code uses apparently positive, or at least not overtly negative, terms to express condescension rather than outright dislike—the iconic example would be ‘feisty’. (And somewhere in between the two we find ‘formidable’, as in ‘the formidable ladies of the WI’.)

But back to ‘strident’. What exactly is a ‘strident’ speaker being accused of? The word itself comes from the Latin verb ‘stridere’, meaning to creak (it also covers ‘shriek’ and ‘screech’, which in English show a similar pattern of sex-preferential usage to ‘shrill’), and one thing it can evoke is a loud, rough or grating vocal quality. In relation to Greta Thunberg’s speech, however, we’re probably dealing with another sense of the word, relating to the (metaphorical) tone in which an argument is made or an opinion expressed.  To quote the definition offered by the Oxford Dictionary, being ‘strident’ in this sense means

presenting a point of view, especially a controversial one, in an excessively and unpleasantly forceful way.

Like the rest of the code-words, ‘strident’ used in this way isn’t inherently a gendered or sexist term. The illustrative example given in the OD entry I’ve just quoted is the gender-neutral ‘public pronouncements on the crisis became less strident’. But its well-established use as a criticism of female speakers reflects the sexist tendency to judge men and women by different standards when considering what might constitute being ‘excessively and unpleasantly forceful’. What might be deemed appropriately forceful in a male speaker—taken as a sign of his sincere and urgent concern about the issue at hand—becomes ‘excessive’ and ‘unpleasant’ in his female counterpart, because it diverges from the stereotypical feminine ideal against which her performance, unlike his, is consciously or unconsciously being measured.

‘Forceful’ speech is rather generally disapproved of in women. As Robin Lakoff noted in her pioneering 1973 essay ‘Language and Woman’s Place‘, it’s considered unladylike and unattractive to be too blunt, too direct and too sure of oneself. If women do express opinions, they are expected to do it in a suitably measured and ‘pleasant’ way: to be deferential rather than commanding, gentle rather than aggressive, agreeable rather than accusatory, soothing rather than angry or despairing. Rather than being forceful, women are taught that they should use their charms to get what they want. But that’s a lesson Greta Thunberg seems to have skipped: she doesn’t pose or smile for the cameras, she isn’t sexy or flirty or cute. As commentators have noticed, this is hard for certain men to understand, and some of them are evidently enraged by it.

The philosopher Kate Manne has pointed out that the primary duty assigned to women as a class—taking care of other people, especially male ones—requires them both to suppress their own feelings (which Thunberg, angrily accusing today’s leaders of failing her generation, obviously did not do) and to put inordinate effort into making others feel better–another expectation Thunberg did not meet, giving a speech which some commentators found long on blame and short on hope. ‘Giving hope’, observed Manne on Twitter,

whatever the grim truth of the matter, is a feminine-coded pseudo-obligation that is far too seldom questioned.

Since one of the criticisms ‘strident’ implies is a failure or refusal to meet the linguistic demands associated with ‘proper’ femininity, it is not surprising that the word has a specific history of being used to disparage feminists—women who express Rebecca West’s proverbial ‘sentiments that distinguish me from a doormat’. In my own youth, the pairing of ‘strident’ and ‘feminist’ was a cliché in its own right—it may even have been where I first encountered the word ‘strident’.

Sometimes ‘strident’, when paired with ‘feminist’, was pretty much a code-word for ‘man-hating’, and that association apparently lingers on. Last year, the hashtag #StridentWomen was created in response to a comment made by the (male) Chief Scientist of Australia, who had complained that the real progress being made on sexism and sexual harassment in science was being unfairly ignored by ‘strident’ women. Here, once again, the underlying complaint is about women not treating men the way men feel entitled to be treated—not deferring to their superior knowledge, not expressing gratitude for whatever crumbs we’ve been tossed, not reassuring men we know they’re trying and everything will be OK.

‘Strident’ women, in short, are women who not only speak out forcefully, but who do so on their own behalf, in the interests of their own sex, or in Thunberg’s case their own generation. And the misogynist reaction is, how dare they? How dare women behave so selfishly? How dare they question the official line that things are improving, or suggest that progress needs to be faster? How dare they turn the tables, wagging their fingers and saying ‘how dare you’ to their betters?

Here’s my advice to people like Random Twitter Guy: if you don’t want us to think you’re sexists and misogynists, be careful with words like ‘strident’. The code I’ve been discussing was cracked by feminists long ago: we know what you’re communicating, even if you don’t. And far from shutting us up, what you communicate when you call us ‘shrill’, ‘strident’, ‘pushy’, ‘bossy’, ‘abrasive’, etc., just makes us more determined to go on speaking—as loudly and as forcefully as we think the circumstances require.

Thanks to all the people on Twitter who shared their thoughts and examples.

The battle of the big girl’s blouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold my beer

This week we learned that the organisers of the Great British Beer Festival, an annual event sponsored by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, have taken the radical decision to ban alcoholic beverages with sexist names. The products which were said to have fallen foul of this new policy included a cider called ‘Slack Alice’ slack alice(whose makers describe it, hilariously, as ‘a little tart’), and beers named ‘Dizzy Blonde’, ‘Village Bike’ and ‘Leg Spreader’. A quick trawl of the internet produced a number of other potential candidates, such as ‘Bristol’s Ale’ (‘I’ll let the image reproduced below speak for itself), ‘Top Totty’, and ‘Voluptuous Vicky’.

In my last post, about the sexism of dictionary and thesaurus entries for the word ‘woman’, I pointed out that the vocabulary of English is rich in terms that represent women as men’s inferiors, dependents, servants and sexual objects. The beer and cider names just mentioned cover most of these bases—as with ‘humorous’ greeting cards and ‘saucy’ seaside postcards, there seems to be a particular obsession with double-entendres featuring breasts—but the thing I find most striking is how many of them are drawn from a very specific part of the lexicon of sexism: the extensive and elaborate set of terms which mean ‘an unchaste or promiscuous woman’. One who spreads her legs for any man, or has been ‘ridden’ by every man in the village. Who is ‘slack’, a ‘little tart’, a strumpet, a slut, a whore. bristols ale

As feminists have been pointing out for at least the last 45 years, there is no analogous set of slur-terms denoting men. Men who have a lot of sex are ‘studs’ rather than ‘whores’. ‘Gigolo’ can be an insult, but that’s about it. As Amanda Montell summarises the rule in her recent book Wordslut: (incidentally, I’m not going to get into the debate on reclaiming ‘slut’, but there’s a good concise discussion of the word’s past and present uses in this blog post by Nancy Friedman):

If you want to insult a woman, call her a prostitute. If you want to insult a man, call him a woman.

Even then, as Montell observes, there are far more insults based on the first principle than the second. Where do they all come from?

Quite a few are the result of a process which the linguist Muriel Schulz named ‘the semantic derogation of women’. As she explained:

Again and again in the history of the language, one finds that a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or a woman may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but that gradually it acquires negative implications, at first perhaps only slightly disparaging, but after a period of time becoming abusive and ending as a sexual slur.

‘Tart’, for instance, started out as a term of endearment, like ‘sweetie’ or ‘cupcake’. ‘Hussy’ is a variant of ‘housewife’, a neutral occupational label. ‘Slut’ was always negative, but in its earlier meaning of ‘untidy or slovenly person’ it wasn’t a sexual slur. ‘Slack’, as in ‘Slack Alice’, can be applied to people of either sex, but it only means ‘unchaste, promiscuous’ when it’s used about a woman. If I criticised a man for being ‘slack’ I’d be implying that he was lazy or careless, not sexually incontinent or undiscriminating in his choice of partners. (Similarly, we can talk about ‘loose women’, but not ‘loose men’.)

Female promiscuity and prostitution belong to the set of socially taboo subjects which tend to generate a lot of slang words. The variety and inventiveness of this vocabulary has often been celebrated by lovers of language. There’s a famous literary example in John Barth’s novel The Sot-Weed Factor, a 1960s pastiche of 18th century picaresque novels like Tom Jones, where two characters identified as prostitutes engage in a prolonged verbal duel (it goes on for several pages) consisting entirely of English and French epithets meaning ‘prostitute’.

“The truth is,” said the dealer, “Grace here’s a hooker.”
“A what?” asked the poet.
“A hooker,” the woman repeated with a wink. “A quail, don’t ye know.”
“A quail!” the woman named Grace shrieked. “You call me a quail, you, you gaullefretière!”
“Whore!” shouted the first.
“Bas-cul!” retorted the other.

Amanda Montell also notes that some promiscuous woman-terms are ‘fun to say’. Archaic-sounding words like ‘strumpet’ and ‘harlot’, or newer coinages like ‘skankly hobag’, are colourful, exotic, over the top; other terms are ‘fun’ because, like ‘village bike’, they involve some kind of play on words. In all this celebration of linguistic creativity, it’s easy to forget that what we’re looking at is a long list of sexual, and sexist, slurs.

But why, you may be wondering, would sexual slur-terms be considered good names for alcoholic beverages? What are you trying to say when you call your product ‘Leg villagebikeSpreader’ or ‘Village Bike’? Is it, ‘hey, lads, this one’s as good as Rohypnol if you’re looking to get your end away’? Or ‘this beer is convenient and undemanding–good for a quickie in the car-park, but you wouldn’t take it home to meet your parents’? Or is the point just to associate a product that targets a certain (male) demographic with something else that demographic is believed to be keen on?

Actually, I don’t think what’s behind these names is the old adage that ‘sex sells’ (there’s surely nothing sexy or aspirational about the Village Bike): what they’re selling has more to do with masculinity and male camaraderie. Beer, after all, is the classic male homosocial beverage, the one men consume while engaged in stereotypically male homosocial activities like watching the football on TV or having a night in the pub with the lads. Arguably, what’s being referenced in names like ‘Leg Spreader’ and ‘Village Bike’ is the stereotypical language of male homosocial bonding—our old friend ‘banter’, which, just like the crude beer names, is transgressive, politically incorrect and resolutely non-serious (hence the common coupling of the term ‘banter’ with words like ‘irreverent’, ‘witty’ and ‘light-hearted’).

In support of this interpretation I will cite what I consider to be—at least for this purpose—an unimpeachable source, namely the comments made on the CAMRA ban by readers of the Daily Mail. There were three points that recurred in this set of comments. The first (though in fairness it did not command universal agreement) was that beer is a man’s drink, and that in attempting to make it less off-putting to women, CAMRA was alienating its core constituency. The second point, which did command more or less universal agreement, was that banning ‘Slack Alice’ et al. was ‘PC nonsense’; and the third was that anyone who found these ‘light hearted’ names offensive must be a miserable git with no sense of humour.

Interestingly, a fair number of commenters felt impelled to add that in their experience, women are not at all offended by expressions like ‘village bike’. ‘All the women I know find this funny’, wrote one. ‘My wife’, affirmed another, ‘thinks [the ban] is PC, puerile condescension’. Yet another recalled that his ‘good lady’, an enthusiastic patron of beer festivals for many years, had only ever been put off a beer by its name on one occasion, when someone offered her a glass of ‘Old Fart’.

It’s always suspicious when a conversation about sexism consists predominantly of men making claims about what their wives, female friends and colleagues think, while the women themselves remain conspicuously silent. (The extract I quoted earlier from The Sot-Weed Factor is another case of a man putting words in women’s mouths and attitudes in their imaginary heads.)  But that’s not to say that the Mail readers’ wives, if asked, would share CAMRA’s attitude to ‘Slack Alice’ and her ilk. Women’s relationship to sexual slur terms is complicated: they have their own reasons for tolerating this kind of sexism, and even on occasion for joining in with it.

For many women who are not feminists, men’s fondness for beer, banter and busty women comes under the heading of ‘boys will be boys’. It’s seen as harmless, and they indulge it. It’s also common for casual sexism to be presented in the way the Mail comments do, as ‘light-hearted’, just a bit of fun. If you object to it, you’ll be that humourless person (and if you’re female, worse still, that humourless feminist killjoy) who doesn’t get, or can’t take, a joke. As I’ve said before, the charge of having no sense of humour is a surprisingly powerful one, and women are especially vulnerable to it (since it’s an old sexist stereotype that women can’t tell or understand jokes).

Another reason women may tolerate, or indeed actively embrace, the language of ‘sluts’ and ‘strumpets’ and ‘village bikes’ is to distinguish themselves from the women those epithets are aimed at. It certainly shouldn’t be thought that only men call women whores: there’s abundant evidence that women have been calling each other whores for centuries. What is known in modern parlance as ‘slut-shaming’ has long been, and continues to be, a way for women in patriarchal societies to exercise power over other women. Because of that, as I noted in an earlier post about sex and swearing, exchanges of sexual slurs between women were not usually light-hearted: accusations of unchastity could not be taken lightly, because a woman whose reputation was damaged by them faced real and serious social consequences. In some communities and situations that’s still the case today.

But surely, you might be thinking, you can’t compare the representation of women in beer names and on pumpclips with the slut-shaming of women in real life. ‘Slack Alice’ and ‘Voluptuous Vicky’ aren’t real people: their names may be sexist, but they’re clearly intended to be humorous, and arguably the humour is more affectionate than contemptuous. If you look at their visual representation, you’ll also notice that these women are presented as figures from a bygone age. vickyThey exemplify, in fact, the advertising strategy that the cultural critic Judith Williamson labels ‘retrosexism’, where you use obviously ‘retro’ imagery (in this case it’s most often drawn from the mid-20th century visual language of either the seaside postcard or the pin-up photograph) to locate sexism firmly in the past. The implication is that we all know this isn’t meant to be taken seriously: the past was another country, and we’re enlightened enough now to look back and laugh at the absurdity of it.

As Williamson says, though, in reality the world is still full of entirely unreconstructed and un-ironic sexism. The retro style may be dated, but the substance–objectifying women and judging them by a sexual double standard which is not applied to men–shows no sign of withering away. In her view what retrosexism really expresses is nostalgia: the longing of many men, and some women, for a time when sexism wasn’t just (as it still is) a thing, but an acceptable, taken-for-granted thing. A time when nobody complained that tit jokes were offensive, or lectured cider-makers about slut-shaming, or tried to attract more women to beer festivals.

In Britain in 2019 there’s an awful lot of this nostalgia about—expressed not just in retrosexism but also retronationalism and retroimperialism. In that sense, the popularity of crudely sexist beer-names and 1940s imagery is a depressing sign of the times. I’m glad to see that CAMRA, at least, is not just keeping calm and carrying on.

All the images reproduced in this post are taken from Pumpclip Parade, a blog dedicated to ‘aesthetic atrocities from the world of beer’ 

Dissing the dictionary

This week the Guardian writer Emine Saner drew my attention to a petition on Change.org asking Oxford University Press, the publisher of the Oxford Dictionary, to change its entry for the word ‘woman’.

od def woman

The petition condemns this entry as ‘unacceptable in today’s society’, noting that many of the synonyms it gives for ‘woman’ are derogatory, and the illustrative examples are variations on old sexist themes:

A ‘woman’ is subordinate to men. Example: ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’, ‘one of his sophisticated London women’.

A ‘woman’ is a sex object. Many definitions are about sex. Example: ‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’, ‘If that does not work, they can become women of the streets.’

‘Woman’ is not equal to ‘man’. The definition of ‘man’ is much more exhaustive than that of ‘woman’. Example: Oxford Dictionary’s definition for ‘man’ includes 25 ‘phrases’ (examples), ‘woman’ includes only 5 ‘phrases’ (examples).

The creator of the petition, Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, has found that Oxford’s entry is not an isolated case. In a piece entitled ‘Have you ever Googled “woman”?’ she examines the entries in several widely-used dictionaries and points out similar problems with all of them. Her petition targets Oxford, however, because as well as being, in her view, the worst offender, it’s also got a market advantage: it’s the dictionary you get with Apple’s products and the one that pops up first in searches on Google, Yahoo and Bing.  Her petition calls on the Press

  1. To eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women and/or connote men’s ownership of women;
  2. to enlarge the definition of ‘woman’ and equal it to the definition of ‘man’;
  3. to include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc.

As I told Emine Saner (whose own piece you can read here), I’ve got mixed feelings about this campaign. I do think the entries Giovanardi reproduces are terrible, and I’ll come back to that later on. But the petition is based on ideas about dictionaries–how they’re made, what they aim to do, and how they’re used–which, to my mind, are also a problem. I’ve written about this before, but let’s just recap.

Modern dictionaries are descriptive: their purpose isn’t to tell people how words should be used, but rather to record how words actually are used by members of the relevant language community (or more exactly, in most cases, by ‘educated’ users of the standard written language). What’s in the Oxford Dictionary entry for ‘woman’ does not represent, as Giovanardi puts it, ‘what Oxford University Press thinks of women’. The dictionary is essentially a record of what the lexicographers have found out by analysing a large (nowadays, extremely large—we’re talking billions of words) corpus of authentic English texts, produced by many different writers over time.

I’m not trying to suggest that dictionaries compiled in this way are beyond criticism: they’re not, and that’s another point I’ll come back to. But a distinction needs to be made between the producers’ own biases and biases which are present in the source material they use as evidence. A lot of the sexism Giovanardi complains about is in the second category: it’s the result of recording patterns of usage that have evolved, and still persist, in a historically male-dominated and sexist culture.

For instance, one reason why the Oxford entry for ‘man’ is longer than the one for ‘woman’ is that men have been (and still are) treated as the human default. Men are both people and male people; women are only women. The historical reality of sexism also makes itself felt in the presence of so many degrading and dehumanizing terms on lists of synonyms for ‘woman’. These reflect the social fact that women have been sexually objectified in ways that men have not; they have also been treated, in life as well as language, as men’s appendages or possessions. It’s not even two centuries since that was their status in English law.

If the vocabulary of a language reflects its users’ cultural beliefs and preoccupations, then it’s no surprise that many English words and expressions denoting women highlight their dependence on and inferiority to men, their physical appearance and their sexual availability. (In an early feminist study of this phenomenon, the linguist Julia Penelope Stanley identified over 200 words for ‘woman’ that meant, or had come to mean, ‘prostitute’.)  It’s true dictionaries have a bias towards the usage of men from the most privileged social classes–the section of society that has historically had most access to the means of representation–but in this case it’s not obvious that a more balanced sample would paint a totally different picture. Sexism and misogyny have never been confined to a single class, or indeed a single sex.

The demand to eliminate ‘phrases and definitions that discriminate against or patronise women’ (or other subordinated groups: there have been similar campaigns in the past relating to entries where the issue was race, ethnicity or faith) implies that dictionaries should sanitise the reality of word-usage which is sexist, racist, anti-semitic or whatever, in the hope that this gesture will help to make a better world. Lexicographers tend to be wary of that suggestion, since it goes against their descriptivist principles. They also reject the popular belief that merely by including a certain word or definition they’re somehow endorsing it, giving it a degree of currency and acceptability which it would lack if it were not in the dictionary.

But while I agree this belief misunderstands the aims and methods of modern lexicography, I also think there’s something disingenuous about the standard ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ response. If the public at large treat dictionaries as arbiters of usage, then in practice, whether their producers like it or not, they do have authority, and therefore some responsibility to reflect on how it should be used.

In some areas it’s clear they have reflected, and concluded that some sanitising is justified. You may have noticed, for example, that Oxford’s entry for ‘woman’ doesn’t propose ‘cunt’ as a synonym: that can’t be because it isn’t used as one, so presumably it’s been excluded on the grounds of its offensiveness. In recent years there’s also been a move to eliminate the casual racism and homophobia which were features of some older dictionary entries (today you’ll find fewer references to ‘savages’ or ‘unnatural acts’). Casual sexism, by contrast, has mostly escaped the cull. I may not agree with Giovanardi’s proposed solution, but I think she’s right to raise this as a problem.

What solution would I be in favour of, then? Essentially, a more context-sensitive, ‘horses for courses’ approach. Different kinds of dictionaries serve different purposes and audiences: there are some cases where I think it would be wrong to sanitise the facts of usage, and others where nothing important would be lost by being a bit more selective.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)—the massive historical dictionary which is Oxford’s flagship product—contains an entry for ‘woman’ which is an absolute horror-show of sexism: the senses listed include things like

3a. In plural. Women considered collectively in respect of their sexuality, esp. as a means of sexual gratification.
4. Frequently with preceding possessive adjective. A female slave or servant; a maid; esp. a lady’s maid or personal attendant (now chiefly hist.). In later use more generally: a female employee; esp. a woman who is employed to do domestic work.

Further down there’s a long list of delightful idioms containing ‘woman’ (‘woman of the night’, ‘woman of the streets’, ‘woman of easy virtue’) and a section full of even more delightful proverbs and sayings (‘a woman, a dog and a walnut tree/ the more you beat them the better they be’). And many of the illustrative examples, even some of the most recent ones (this entry was last updated in 2011), are as terrible as you’d expect. Any feminist who reads the entry from beginning to end will want to go out and burn the world down. But in this case I believe that’s as it should be. The OED is designed primarily for scholars, and it’s an invaluable repository of cultural as well as linguistic history. Hideous though the ‘woman’ entry is, cleaning it up would do feminism a disservice: it would erase evidence that needs to be preserved for our own and future generations.

The Oxford Dictionary, however, as accessed via iPhones and search engines, is (or should be) a completely different animal. I said earlier that I thought the entry reproduced in Giovanardi’s petition was terrible, and what I meant by that was not only that it’s terribly sexist, but also that it seems poorly designed to meet the needs of those who use this type of dictionary. The basic definition of ‘woman’ is unremarkable (albeit redundant, since this is a high-frequency word that English-speakers generally acquire before they can read), but the thesaurus section is stuffed with archaic terms which would hardly be usable in any contemporary context. Who, in 2019, calls women ‘besoms’, ‘petticoats’ or ‘fillies’?  And if you did encounter one of these expressions in a novel or period drama, the context would make clear what it meant. So what is this list of synonyms good for? What pay-off would its makers cite to justify its rank misogyny?

But in any case, does anyone in real life use their phone, or Google, to look up common words like ‘woman’? After speaking to Emine Saner, I rather belatedly began to wonder what people do use dictionary apps for, and I put out a call on Twitter asking people to tell me if they used them, what they did with them, and what the last word they’d looked up was. Leaving aside the people who replied that they only ever used either bilingual dictionaries or monolingual dictionaries for languages they weren’t native speakers of, the responses clustered in three main categories. In order of frequency, these were

  1. Checking the meaning and/or spelling of low-frequency words (examples included ‘obviate’, ‘noctilucent’ and ‘eschatology’)
  2. Using the thesaurus element of an entry—or an actual thesaurus app—to find synonyms to use when writing
  3. Searching for words while engaged in word-based leisure activities like doing crosswords or playing Scrabble.

One or two people mentioned other uses, like checking the pronunciation of a word they’d only ever met in writing, or looking into the history of a word, or decoding the slang terms used by their children (for this purpose Urban Dictionary was the go-to source). But no one reported looking up basic vocabulary items whose meaning, spelling and pronunciation they already knew. Of course you can’t draw general conclusions from what you’re told by a self-selected sample of your Twitter followers, but it seems possible the Oxford Dictionary entry for ‘woman’ isn’t exerting a malign influence on our attitudes to women, simply because so few of us will ever look at it.

I’m not saying that makes it OK to leave the entry as it is: I do think the dictionary makers should revisit their synonyms and illustrative examples (they could start by getting rid of any expression that no one under the age of 85 has ever uttered). But if I had to make them a to-do list, revising their ‘woman’ entry wouldn’t be at the top. Dictionaries reinforce sexism and gender stereotyping in other ways, which are arguably more pernicious because they’re not so immediately obvious.

An example is the persistent use of sex-stereotyped illustrative examples in entries for words that have nothing to do with sex or gender. I discussed this form of banal sexism in a previous post, prompted by the row that broke out when the anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan queried the use of ‘a rabid feminist’ in the Oxford Dictionary entry for ‘rabid’. We’ve also got dictionaries for learners of English in which men mop their brows while charwomen mop the floor, and men slip on their shoes while women slip off their dresses. How do these sexist clichés enhance anyone’s understanding of the words ‘slip’ and ‘mop’? Do the entry writers think learners are planning to practise their English on a coach tour of the 1950s?

As I’ve said before, though, my feelings about political activists lobbying dictionaries are mixed: I can see why you might want to put pressure on what are, whether they acknowledge it or not, influential cultural and linguistic institutions, but something that bothers me about this approach (that is, apart from the problems I’ve already mentioned) is its linguistic authoritarianism. It’s buying into the idea that dictionaries can and should lay down the law—that it’s fine for them to prescribe, so long as what they prescribe reflects our own preferences rather than those of our political opponents. I know I’ve used this example before, but let’s not forget that Christian conservatives lobbied dictionaries in an attempt to stop them changing their entries for ‘marriage’ to include the same-sex variety–and progressives applauded when the dictionaries took no notice. In that instance feminists were happy to endorse the principle that dictionaries just record the facts of usage. I don’t think we can reasonably demand that they should be descriptive when it suits us and prescriptive when it doesn’t.

But the deeper problem underlying these contradictory demands is the status we accord to ‘the dictionary’ as the ultimate authority on language. In the past that was something feminists questioned: they were less interested in harnessing the power of what Mary Daly called the ‘dick-tionary’, and more interested in challenging its patriarchal claims to ‘authoritative’ and ‘objective’ knowledge.

During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, a number of feminists produced alternative dictionaries that embodied this challenge in both their content and their form. The compilers of these texts didn’t deny that their selection of headwords, definitions and examples represented a non-neutral point of view; rather they maintained that this was covertly true of all dictionaries (Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary defined a dictionary as ‘a word book. Somebody’s words in somebody’s book’.) Their entries emphasised the variability of meaning—words can mean different things for different speakers—and the fact that it’s contested rather than consensual. Though admittedly they were not much use if what you needed was a definition of ‘noctilucent’.

In some ways, as Lindsay Rose Russell points out in her recent history of women’s contributions to dictionary-making, these late 20th century feminist dictionaries anticipated digital-era efforts to democratise and diversify knowledge, as exemplified by Wikipedia and Wiktionary, and (in a different way) Urban Dictionary. They were anarchic, utopian, and they often featured a multiplicity of voices which they made no attempt to homogenise. They used sources that conventional dictionaries neglected, and tried to amplify the voices those dictionaries had marginalised or muted.

In theory the digital revolution offered an opportunity to develop this tradition further, and perhaps to produce feminist alternatives to the mainstream online dictionaries which most people use today. But in practice that hasn’t happened. Digital knowledge-making communities have been dominated by men, and they can be hostile environments for women—witness the many female Wikipedians who say they’ve been bullied or sidelined by men who treat the site as their turf. Any attempt to create a feminist dictionary online would be a magnet for these mal(e)contents, who would either want to take it over or to take it down. Ironically, there may be less space for feminist lexicography in the limitless expanse of cyberspace than there was in the olden days when dictionaries were books.

But although I regret the fading of the more radical spirit that animated projects like A Feminist Dictionary, I’m not completely opposed to the reformist approach. As Lindsay Rose Russell told Emine Saner, ‘we ought to care what definitions are made most readily available and why’–and we have every right to bring our concerns to the attention of the people responsible for those definitions. Even if Oxford’s public response is defensive or dismissive, I suspect that Maria Beatrice Giovanardi’s petition might still prompt discussion behind the scenes. Its demands won’t be met in full: a descriptive dictionary can’t eliminate all sexism from the record of a language in which sexism is so pervasive. But if it makes the producers aware that a lot of people find their entries for ‘woman’ gratuitously offensive, outdated and useless, they may, eventually, make some changes.* In this case I think they should, and I hope they will.

*since this post was written, the dictionary makers at Oxford have confirmed that they are reviewing their products with a view to getting rid of unnecessary bias in definitions and examples. They also plan to mark derogatory terms more clearly as such–though if those terms are in widespread use they will continue to appear in entries. 

Deeper and down: verbal hygiene for men

Like every other feminist in recorded history, I sometimes get asked, ‘But what about the men? Why do you only write about the linguistic injustices suffered by women?’

The short answer is that we live in a world that treats men as the default humans, and that is reflected both in our use of language and in our public conversations about it. Of course men’s speech may attract negative judgments if they belong to a group that’s a perennial target for this kind of criticism (like ‘young people’ or ‘foreigners’ or ‘speakers with working-class accents’), but they are rarely targeted specifically because they’re men. We don’t, for instance, see men’s employers sending them on courses to learn to speak more like women. And when did you last read an opinion piece in a newspaper criticizing some irritating male ‘verbal tic’?

But while men’s language doesn’t attract the same relentless scrutiny as women’s, that doesn’t mean it isn’t policed at all. Masculinity in general is pretty heavily policed, as any man or boy will tell you who’s ever been bullied for his failure to measure up to its exacting standards. But what those standards embody is the same sexist and misogynist belief-system that oppresses women. They police the boundary between the dominant and the dominated, with a view to maintaining the patriarchal status quo. Hence the Prime Directive of masculinity, from which no self-respecting male may deviate: ‘don’t be like a woman’. Don’t throw/run/play like a girl. Don’t like girly things. Don’t cry, or show weakness, or talk about your feelings. Don’t be a sissy, a pussy, or anybody’s bitch.

There are forms of language policing which are clearly related to the Prime Directive. For instance, while researching my last post, about the woman who allegedly faked a ‘deep baritone voice’, I stumbled into a part of the internet where men seek advice, or offer other men advice, on how to make their voices deeper. This quest is based on a simple assumption: the deeper the voice, the more masculine the man. Going lower is desirable, not only because it underscores the all-important difference between men and women, but also because it enables men to claim a higher status among their peers.

As I explored this subgenre of verbal hygiene, I found two things particularly striking. First, it seems to be an all-male affair, a case of men policing other men. Though I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive survey, I didn’t come across a single case where the advice-giver or self-proclaimed expert was a woman. Second, a surprisingly high proportion of it is undisguised quackery, a mixture of old-fashioned snake-oil cures (‘why not buy my patent voice-deepening vitamin supplement?’) and Viz Comic-style top tips, some predictable (‘breathe deeply and speak from the diaphragm’) and others less so (‘use a mentholated chest-rub when you go to bed and your voice will be lower in the morning’).

Of all the top tips I read, I think my favourite was probably this one:

How to Instantly Get a Deeper Voice

Step 1: Tilt your head back as far as you can.
Step 2: Recite the sentence “Bing, Bong. Ding, Dong. King Kong.” slowly, stretching/elongating the “ng” sound for each.
Step 3: Repeat step 2 but at a deeper pitch
Step 4: Repeat again, this time at your deepest possible pitch.

Congratulations, you now have a deeper, manlier and sexier voice. At least for the next day or so. Enjoy.

Reader, I laughed: it’s difficult not to laugh at the picture this conjures up, of men around the world throwing their heads back and intoning ‘Bing bong, ding dong, king kong’. But while the activity itself may seem harmless (if absurd), what’s behind it is arguably not so funny. What I haven’t told you yet is where I found this top tip: it was posted on a forum for followers of the pick-up artist Roosh V. Like other denizens of the manosphere—incels, MGTOWs, crusading men’s rights activists—PUAs buy into a toxic ideology of masculinity and male power, and their obsession with deep voices is clearly part of that. As the giver of the ‘bing-bong’ advice explains,

A deep voice is an inherently masculine strait [sic], being a symptom of both size and testosterone levels. Deep voices elicit attraction from women and respect from men.

Other sources clarify that these two benefits are linked: what really commands the respect of your peers is the ability to attract the ‘right’ women, the ones men regard as trophies (which is also to say, not as people. In this video, for instance, the presenter promises men who follow his voice-deepening instructions that ‘you’ll have your pick of the litter to sleep with’.) What PUAs call ‘game’, meaning ‘manipulating women for sex’, is a contest that pits men against both women and each other: the gratification it provides is at least as much about power and status as it is about sex per se.

But though the game by definition produces winners and losers, a recurring theme in all the advice I looked at is that everyone can be a winner: alpha-male status is not reserved for a few men who’ve won the genetic lottery, but can be achieved by any man who’s willing to make the effort. This classic self-improvement message makes a lot of voice-deepening advice seem very old-school, reminiscent of those 1950s ads where some former teenage wimp who’d had sand kicked in his face once too often explains how, with the help of Charles Atlas, he turned himself into the Incredible Hulk. Along those lines, the PUA prefaces his ‘bing bong’ advice with some personal testimony:

I was born…with a typical, merely average pitched voice. I was also born with a perfectionist streak which when met with discovering game and self-improvement meant maximizing all my attributes as best I possibly could, so having a merely average pitch voice was no longer good enough.

Mr Bing Bong represents the amateur end of the spectrum; at the other end is the slicker, more professional approach adopted by entrepreneurs like Dr Sam Robbins, the purveyor of a formula designed to deepen men’s voices permanently by increasing their testosterone levels ‘naturally’. As he explains in this promotional video, what he’s offering is a more expensive option than chanting or breathing deeply, but it’s also far more effective. And if you do buy the product, you won’t just be rewarded with the respect of your peers and the attentions of attractive women. Your investment will be repaid in actual money. Like the actor James Earl Jones, who was once paid a million dollars just for uttering the words ‘This is CNN’, you will benefit from the scientifically-proven fact that deeper-voiced men earn more than their higher-pitched peers.

This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the claim that lower-voiced men earn more, and I was starting to wonder where it came from. So I did a bit of digging, and eventually concluded that in this case the source was probably an article published in 2013 under the title ‘Voice Pitch Predicts Labor Market Success among Male Chief Executive Officers’. This article reports on a study that examined the relationship between the pitch of a male CEO’s voice and the size of the company he worked for. Analysis revealed, as the researchers had predicted, that larger companies typically had lower-pitched CEOs. These deep-voiced men did earn more than their higher-voiced counterparts, but the income differential was not directly linked to voice-pitch. Rather it was a by-product of the link to company size, reflecting the fact that big companies generally pay their executives more.

There are a number of problems with this study which I won’t dwell on, because for the purposes of this discussion they’re a side-issue; but even if we took the findings at face value, they still wouldn’t license the conclusion implied by Sam Robbins’s sales-pitch–that men can increase their earnings by lowering their voice-pitch. Apart from anything else, the study only makes claims about one particular group of men, namely CEOs of public companies. Why would we expect a deep voice to confer the same financial benefits on Joe the Plumber or Jon the IT guy? Yet I’d guess it’s mostly the Joes and the Jons who are keeping Sam the Snake-Oil Seller in business.

Clearly, Sam’s business model works because so many men share his enthusiasm for the deep male voice. In America it would be fair to say that this enthusiasm is the cultural norm. But there are a few dissenters, one notable example being Dr Morton Cooper, a practising speech pathologist who is also the author of a best-selling self-help book called Change Your Voice, Change Your Life. Cooper is a controversial figure in his profession, not only because of his celebrity clients and his popular writing, but also because he is seen as a crank. One reason for this is his forcefully-expressed belief that a cultural bias towards deep voices is leading millions of Americans to damage their vocal apparatus by speaking at an unnaturally low pitch.

Not being a speech pathologist, I can’t say whether the preference for lower-pitched voices is having the harmful effects Cooper suggests, but I don’t think he’s wrong to say this preference exists. Apart from the ideological evidence provided by verbal hygiene advice (in both its male and female-directed forms), empirical investigations in a number of countries suggest that the average pitch of the female voice has fallen over time, to a degree which can’t be explained in purely physiological terms (e.g. as a side-effect of better nutrition or increased use of oral contraceptives). If, as some researchers think, it’s a response to social changes which have brought women into more direct competition with men, that could also be a factor driving the popularity of voice-deepening advice among men themselves.

But to judge from the items I reviewed while writing this post, the main reason voice-deepening advice is popular is not that it promises men increased earnings or higher social status; in most cases its central message is that going lower will improve your sex-life. The proposition that deeper-voiced men are more attractive to women is generally presented as a truism: why else, after all, would this form of sexual dimorphism have evolved? As it turns out, though, this is one of the many mysteries of human evolution about which scientists do not agree. There are competing theories, and the evidence is not clear-cut.

One frequently-cited piece of research on this subject is a 2007 study conducted with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer group in Tanzania, which found that deeper-voiced male members of the group (where according to the researchers no one used any kind of contraception) fathered more children than those with average voice-pitch. This is compatible with the theory that women prefer lower-voiced men as mates, but as one of the researchers pointed out, it could also be explained in other ways—it’s possible, for instance, that men with lower voices (which implies higher testosterone levels) begin having children earlier.

The same researcher, Coren Apicella, went on to investigate Hadza women’s preferences directly, by playing them recordings of male voices and asking them whether they thought each speaker (a) was a good hunter, and (b) would make a good husband. Low-voiced speakers were generally judged to be better hunters, but there was no clear preference for them as husbands. In fact, when Apicella divided the women into two subgroups, those who were currently nursing infants and those who were not, she found that the nursing mothers actually preferred men with less deep voices. This was puzzling, because women do less foraging while they’re breastfeeding, and are consequently more dependent on the food provided by men. Why wouldn’t women in this position prefer the low-pitched good hunters? Apicella speculates that less deep male voices might be associated with ‘pro-social behaviour’—there’s no advantage in marrying a good hunter if he’s not committed to sharing.

Some scientists believe that the low-pitched male voice did not evolve to make men more attractive to women, but rather to make them more intimidating to other men; a super-low voice suggests high levels of testosterone, which are potentially associated with high levels of aggression. Evolutionary scientists often assume that women are attracted to aggressive men, but feminists might think there are reasons to question that assumption.

Clearly the evolution question has not yet been definitively answered; but whatever the answer turns out to be, it’s unlikely to change my belief that voice-deepening advice for modern men is bullshit. Not only because the advice itself is bullshit (though I’m certainly sceptical about herbal formulas and mentholated rubs), but also because, like verbal hygiene for women, it exploits and magnifies insecurities which are themselves a product of sexism. The response I recommend to men is the same one I’ve spent three decades recommending to women: don’t buy it, either literally or metaphorically. Don’t let a bunch of quacks, conmen and PUAs tell you what’s ‘manly’. Their ideas on that subject belong in a museum, and their advice belongs in the bin.

Can there be a genderless voice?

Back in the 1990s, I worked at a university where my office was half way up a tower block. There were two lifts, and both had voices—one female and the other male. ‘Sixth floor’, they would announce; ‘doors opening!’ But though their scripts were identical, their personalities were not. The female voice, soft and slightly breathy, addressed the occupants of the lift in a warm and soothing tone. The male voice was very different: there was something officious, even hectoring, about its gruff, staccato delivery. These lift-voices, in other words, were gendered as well as sexed, performing a highly stereotypical version of femininity or masculinity.

These vocal stereotypes weren’t new. In the 1980s, when talking cars were all the rage, Chrysler made one which became famous for the stern, almost parodically deep male voice in which it issued warnings and commands. Its most iconic line, much ridiculed at the time and later immortalized by the Kronos Quartet, was ‘a door is ajar’ (you can listen to some more of its output here). Some models used a female voice, but not all drivers responded well to what they perceived as her nagging (‘fasten your seatbelt!’ ‘The washer fluid is low!’): she was nicknamed ‘Bitching Betty’.

Technology has advanced since then, and disembodied voices are everywhere; but we still seem to associate male voices with authority and female ones with deferential service. During a recent three-day period when I kept a record, I encountered only one disembodied male voice, making a security announcement on the London Underground. The other voices I heard–in lifts, shopping centres, supermarkets, trains and buses–belonged to women who all sounded very similar: white, middle-class (though not aggressively posh), under rather than over 45, and ‘feminine’ in the same ways as the 1990s lift voice. Their speech was generally quite soft, often a touch breathy, and pitched in the mid-to-low part of the female range. In many cases it also had a definite hint of ‘smiley voice’ (smiling can be heard even when the smile itself can’t be seen).

The persona this voice constructs is warm, helpful and ‘approachable’–all, we might think, desirable qualities in someone who’s providing a service. But why are they so often voiced by a woman rather than a man? Would a soft, smiley male voice sound too eager to please? Would a man who spoke in those warm, breathy tones sound inappropriately …well, sexual? As the journalist Barbara Ellen observed recently in a piece about the dress codes imposed on flight attendants, female service workers are often expected to present themselves in a covertly sexualized way. Whereas men can satisfy the demand to look ‘smart’ or ‘well-groomed’ just by wearing a jacket and tie, for women those same words may be code for donning heels, tight skirts and full make-up. It’s the same with vocal self-presentation: for women, ‘approachable’ can become a euphemism for sounding, as Ellen puts it, ‘semi-sexually available’.

This issue has become more salient since the advent of a new kind of disembodied voice, that of the ‘virtual assistant’ who lives in your home or in your smartphone. Whereas we don’t interact with talking lifts and cars, our relationship with Alexa, Cortana and Siri is more personal: one recent study which interviewed people about their use of voice technology found that  ‘Alexa, in particular, was often treated as a member of the family, brought into conversations, and asked for “her” opinions’.

The ‘engaging’ personality which has helped to make Alexa the current market leader is clearly gendered. She’s like a male chauvinist’s dream girlfriend: not just warm and helpful with a quirky sense of humour, but also a good listener who only speaks when she is spoken to. She was originally conceived as female, and it was not until 2018, four years after the product was launched, that Amazon gave users the option of switching to a male voice. (Even then, the default setting has remained female.) Apple has offered male voices for longer, but most users prefer the female Siri. That also seems to be true of the nameless Google Assistant, which, like Alexa, started out exclusively female but launched a male-voiced alternative in 2018.

What’s behind this preference? The industry maintains that customers prefer female voices because they’re ‘warmer and more relatable’–an answer that, even if it’s true, begs the question of why we find female voices more ‘relatable’ than male ones. In other situations we clearly don’t: on planes I’ve seen people blanch when addressed by a female pilot. What these biases really reflect is our cultural beliefs about gender roles. We understand that the function of a virtual assistant, like that of a real-life PA, is to make life easier for someone more important; and we think of that as prototypically a woman’s job.

Some feminists have expressed concern about the increasing number of households where children as well as adults are interacting with disembodied female servants. Welcoming the introduction of male-voice options for Alexa and the Google Assistant, one writer suggested that

bossing around a not just female-voiced assistant seems like a healthy step in teaching [children] gender equality and eliminating traditional gender role expectations.

Well, maybe—but arguably the effect will be limited if the voices themselves remain gender-differentiated in the ways I’ve already described. Though male-voiced assistants may challenge the belief that role itself is female, people will still be getting the message that women have to sound ‘warmer and more relatable’ than men performing the same tasks. Is it time to consider a more radical approach—giving voices to machines that have no gender or sex at all?

That was the aim of a team of researchers who recently unveiled Q, described as ‘the world’s first genderless voice assistant’. As they explain on their website,

Technology companies often choose to gender technology believing it will make people more comfortable adopting it. Unfortunately this reinforces a binary perception of gender, and perpetuates stereotypes that many have fought hard to progress. As society continues to break down the gender binary, recognising those who neither identify as male nor female, the technology we create should follow.

Q was developed by digitally altering the voice of a single speaker (possibly, though it’s not entirely clear, one who ‘neither identified as male nor female’), and the most obvious alteration relates to fundamental frequency (F0)—what we mean when we talk in general terms about pitch. After puberty, when the hormone-induced lengthening and thickening of the vocal folds causes boys’ voices to ‘break’ and become lower, there is a significant difference between the average F0 of men and women (though their pitch ranges overlap, and the mean values move closer as people age). Q has been made to speak with an F0 of 145–175Hz, which is in between the male and female averages (these are usually taken to be approximately 120Hz for men and 210Hz for women). To hear how the voice sounds, have a listen to this clip.

Does Q’s voice sound genderless to you? It doesn’t to me: I hear Q as a woman, albeit one with an unusually low-pitched voice. And in this I’m apparently not alone. When the neuroscientist Sophie Scott tweeted out the clip and invited responses, most people who commented thought Q sounded female. The name ‘Q’, unlike ‘Alexa’ or ‘Cortana’, gives no steer in that direction, and nor does anything the voice says. So, what is it that gave us the impression of femaleness?

It could be a lot of things: while F0 is an important clue to sex, it’s not the only one. Some experiments have shown that if you present people with recordings of a male and a female speaker producing the same sound at the same F0, they’re still pretty good at telling the difference. What they’re probably responding to is a number of subtler differences, some of them related to anatomical factors (e.g., as well as having thicker vocal folds than women, men also have longer vocal tracts) while others are more sociocultural. For instance, a number of studies have found that there’s gender-linked variation in the way English /s/ sounds are pronounced—with the tongue further forward or further back in the mouth. To my ear, the pronunciation of /s/ in the clip suggests femaleness; so does the pronunciation of /t/; so, mostly, does the voice quality. So, while Q’s F0 is ambiguous, there’s other information a listener can use.

In fact, ‘can use’ may be a misleading way to put it: it might be more a case of ‘can’t help using’. Distinguishing male from female voices is something we’re able to do from infancy: even if it isn’t ‘natural’, it’s an ingrained and habitual response. Is it possible to make a voice that people will perceive as ‘genderless’? And what do Q’s designers actually mean by that?

As I said when I was talking about the 1990s lifts, voices are both sexed (shaped by characteristics of the male or female body) and gendered (influenced by cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity). When Q’s designers describe their creation as ‘genderless’, I think they’re probably using ‘gender’ to cover both; but in practice they seem to have concentrated on characteristics which are primarily related to sex. This is possible when you’re using technology to create a virtual voice, but it wouldn’t be so easy for an embodied human speaker. Though there are some things humans can do with their bodies that will perceptibly change their voices (for instance, a female-bodied person who takes testosterone will develop a deeper voice), how they sound will also depend on things that can’t be altered, such as the size and thickness of the skull, the length of the vocal tract and the capacity of the lungs.

Speakers have more flexibility to alter their vocal performance of gender. This is what speech therapists who work with trans women tend to focus on: developing gendered speech-habits that communicate femininity (for instance, articulating certain sounds further forward in the mouth, or using a breathier voice quality). But for people who do not want to sound gendered in any way, the question of what to alter is more complicated. What does ‘genderless’ sound like? I don’t think we have a model, and we evidently don’t find it easy to process human speech without using (binary) sex and gender as reference points. On Twitter and elsewhere, people who’d listened to the ‘Meet Q’ clip invariably compared it with their mental templates for men and women: though they didn’t all come to the same conclusions (most thought the voice was female, but some thought it might belong to a young and/or gay man), no one said they heard Q as simply neutral or unclassifiable.

It’s also instructive to consider our perceptions of the voices given to real or fictional non-human entities. Daleks, for example: as far as I know they don’t have sex or gender,  but I’m sure most people who’ve ever heard one would agree that their loud, harsh and monotonous low-pitched voices sound male and masculine rather than female/feminine. That doesn’t mean, however, that people perceive Daleks as literally male. They understand the Dalek-voice as a metaphor, signifying qualities like aggression, ruthlessness and lack of empathy.

In the clip I’ve linked to above, the actor who voices the Daleks also demonstrates how he varies their voices to symbolize their place in the hierarchy. When he gives orders in the voice of the Supreme Dalek he speaks forcefully, using a markedly low pitch; when he voices the subordinate Dalek’s response, ‘I obey’, the voice is lighter and pitched much higher. Though both voices are male-sounding, the second is ‘feminised’ by comparison with the first. This is another example of the conventionalised use of sex/gender differences to stand metaphorically for other differences–notably, as in this case, asymmetries of power and status.

We could also consider the nonfictional Yuki, a humanoid robot used as a teaching assistant at a German university. Yuki’s creators have decided to make their robot male (its human handlers use the pronoun ‘he’), but they haven’t given it a masculine voice: it sounds like a child who could be of either sex. Once again, the point is not to present Yuki as a literal child (who would want a six-year old giving them feedback on their homework?) Rather it’s to capitalise on the associations of the child-voice, encouraging the students who will interact with Yuki to perceive him as cute and unthreatening.

Having given their robot this voice, the designers could in theory have left its sex/gender unspecified. But in that case, what would students make of Yuki? Would they identify the robot as male by default (the same way people automatically refer to any animal that isn’t self-evidently female, from the squirrel in the garden to the hippo at the zoo, as ‘he’)? Would they take it to be male because it’s a robot, a piece of hi-tech hardware? Would they conclude it must be female because it acts as a human man’s assistant? I don’t know, but I think all these scenarios are more likely than the scenario in which they would simply leave the question open. Some roboticists have argued that it’s unethical to give robots a gender, especially where that might encourage vulnerable people to think of them as human, and perhaps develop feelings for them that they can’t reciprocate. But I don’t think it will be easy to stop people anthropomorphising robots, and therefore ascribing sex/gender to them. Especially, perhaps, if they talk.

By now you’ll have gathered that I’m sceptical about the concept of a genderless (and/or sexless) voice. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy with the status quo. While I have no problem with the existence of identifiably male and female voices, I do think there’s a need to diversify the ways those voices perform gender, and in particular to move away from the female voice I described earlier, the one the industry calls ‘warm and relatable’, and which I call ‘subservient with a hint of sexual availability’.

I’d like to hear a balance of male and female voices (of all ages, and with a range of accents) both in public space and in digital devices, and fewer female voices which have been manipulated, either by technology or by the speakers themselves, to sound softer, warmer, lower or breathier. The woman who informs you of your impending arrival at King’s Cross is not your mother, nor is she auditioning for a porn movie. The way she speaks should reflect the setting and the message–not some voice designer’s fantasy of femininity.

Should we also be embracing synthetic voices like Q’s? Maybe: I don’t think a lift or a virtual assistant needs to sound like a real person. But we shouldn’t imagine that this will automatically take gender out of the equation. A voice doesn’t have to be perceived as human to be (metaphorically) gendered. Nor should we forget that the binary is also a hierarchy. In practice, what’s presented as ‘gender neutral’ or ‘inclusive’ will often be interpreted as male by default. That’s one reason why I don’t see creating genderless voices as a solution to the problem of sexism. Presenting people with voices they don’t recognise as female does nothing to challenge their sexist ideas about how actual female voices should sound.

Q, of course, was not designed to do that: what its makers wanted to challenge was binary perceptions of gender. But it still seems ironic that they ended up creating something which is not a million miles from the stereotypical female service-voice. I would rather have Q than some of the smiley-voiced fembots you hear telling you that ‘all our agents are busy’, or trying to sell you replacement windows. But if we want to change the attitudes that make Miss Smiley-Voice and Ms Warm-and-Relatable such ubiquitous vocal presences, I think we’ve still got a long way to go.


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.


*Green’s study is 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.