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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There go the girls

Until they were officially abolished last month, I had never heard of the ‘walk-on girls’ who accompanied professional darts players onstage at tournaments. Nor did I know that Formula 1 featured ‘grid girls’ (who have also been axed), that cycling has ‘podium girls’, and that boxing employs ‘ring card girls’ to do the vital job (according to promoter Eddie Hearn) of ‘letting people know what round is coming up’. The issue which has suddenly made these ‘girls’ controversial is not primarily about language (it’s more about broadcasters’ #metoo-fuelled unease with overt displays of sexism). But it does, arguably, have a linguistic dimension.

In 2013 the darts blogger Rich Nank devoted a post to what he called ‘the walk-on girls phenomenon’, in which he defended this invented tradition (born in Blackpool in 1994) against the charge of sexism. Queen_Mum_900As he saw it, the introduction of ‘walking on’ marked a softening of the traditional view that darts was strictly for the working man, and there was no place in the sport for women (a somewhat unconvincing argument, given that women had been playing darts competitively since the late 1950s). The walk-on girls made good money, they were popular with fans of both sexes, and some of them had become as famous as the players. Why, they were practically feminist role models! But there was one thing about them that even Mr Nank found slightly dodgy:

I’ve never been comfortable with calling them ‘girls’ mainly because they are grown women, but maybe that’s just me.

Actually, Rich, it’s not just you. Well, it might be just you if we’re talking about darts (along with F1, cycling, boxing, and possibly other sports too niche to have surfaced in recent media reports—are there, perhaps, ‘lawn girls’ in croquet? ‘Octagon girls’ in cage fighting?) But in the wider world this ‘girls’ thing has been a bone of contention for at least the last 45 years. And recently the debate has become more polarised.

In 2011, for instance, a contributor to Radio Times complained about the media’s relentless use of the Ernie K Doe track ‘Here Come the Girls’ (along with the Sugababes cover ‘Girls’):

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever women unite in television observational documentaries or entertainment shows to achieve a purpose, their steps will be dogged by Here Come the Girls… a suppurating bubo of a song, made famous by a series of witless television adverts for Boots.

Does your programme feature more than one woman doing something positive? Then play Here Come the Girls on the soundtrack as lazy shorthand aimed at pin-brains who can’t cope with the fact that women can be serious and grown-up and have purpose and enthusiasms. Or can be called “women”.

This comment references the classic feminist argument against calling adult women ‘girls’: that it belittles, demeans and insults them by reducing them to the status of children. Some feminists will tell you that since ‘girl’ means ‘female child’, it should be reserved exclusively for people under the age of 16 (or 15, or 18–whenever the writer thinks childhood ends). But the reason I’m posting on this subject is because (with apologies to regular readers who’ve heard this line before) I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

If it were really that simple, it would be hard to explain why ‘girls’ is favoured over ‘women’ in contexts like those Boots adverts, where the intention clearly wasn’t to demean women (how would insulting the customer help to shift the product?) but on the contrary, to present them as strong, capable and ‘empowered’. Boots was actually trading on the development which has reignited this long-running controversy: in recent decades ‘girl’, once a reliable indicator of unreconstructed male chauvinism, has come to be associated with a certain kind of feminism.

This may have begun with the Riot Grrrl movement, with its slogan ‘girls to the front’. But while that was very much a young women’s thing, today’s ‘girls’ can be of any age. Think of Oprah’s use of ‘you go, girl!’ and Beyoncé’s ‘who run the world? Girls!’ Think of the recent rash of female-authored bestsellers with ‘girl’ in their titles (like Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train), or TV series like Lena Dunham’s Girls (in which the characters are young, but no longer children) and ITV’s current Kay Mellor drama Girlfriends (whose protagonists are considerably older). These are not cases of men patronising women: the new ‘girl’-users are women, and often they are self-identified feminists. So what are they doing with ‘girl’? Or, to put it another way, what is ‘girl’ doing for them that ‘woman’ can’t?

To answer that question we will need to let go of the idea that ‘girl’ is automatically demeaning because it infantilises women. Some uses of ‘girl’ may do that, and many uses of ‘girl’ are demeaning whether or not they do it (a point I’ll elaborate on later). But as a general explanation of how ‘girl’ works, the ‘it treats adult women as children’ argument is flawed and always has been, because it’s based on an overly literal account of what and how words mean.

Suggesting that ‘girl’ should only be used in reference to actual children is a bit like suggesting that ‘cold fish’ and ‘fish out of water’ should only be used in reference to actual fish. It misses the point that these are metaphors, figures of speech that work by transferring some of the qualities of one thing (a girl, or a fish) to another thing (a woman, or a human). The question is what aspects of the meaning of ‘girl’ are being transferred when the word is used in reference to adult women. The answer may be different in different contexts, and that may help to explain why some uses of ‘girl’ are perceived as demeaning, while others are positively embraced by women themselves.

One element of the context that can affect the meaning of a linguistic form is related to that hardy perennial of sociolinguistics, the distinction between status and solidarity. As I explained in a previous post, it’s not uncommon for the same linguistic form to communicate a different meaning depending on whether it’s being used ‘vertically’, to mark the speakers’ relative positions in a status hierarchy, or ‘horizontally’, as a mark of solidarity, intimacy or mutual respect between equals. For instance, if two people are in an intimate relationship, each may address the other with endearment terms like ‘darling’ and ‘sweetheart’, and in that context the terms are unobjectionable; but it’s another story when the same words are used non-reciprocally, by men harassing female strangers in the street, or by a boss to a female underling who is obliged to call him ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr Smith’. The first usage says ‘we love each other’; the second says ‘I have power over you’.

‘Girl’ can be used in both ways. British readers may remember the outcry last year after the Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale referred to his female office staff as ‘girls’ during an interview on national radio. This was a good example of the vertical, non-reciprocal usage: the staff members in question, all women of mature years, could hardly refer to Sir Roger as ‘the boy we work for’ (just as he wouldn’t feel able to refer to his own boss, prime minister Theresa May, as ‘the girl in number 10’). Another, notorious historical example is the way white Americans in the era of racial segregation (and before that, slavery) addressed African Americans as ‘girl’ and ‘boy’. This racist convention underlined the subordinate status of Black people, and was accordingly resented by them. But that hasn’t stopped African American women from adopting ‘girl’ as a solidary term among themselves. When it’s used horizontally it communicates something different—it’s about female bonding and mutual support.

For solidary purposes, ‘girl’ may seem preferable to ‘woman’ because it’s warmer and more intimate. It works in the same way as endearment terms, or the diminutives we often use as nicknames for the people we’re close to: between intimates, a name that metaphorically makes you ‘smaller’ is a mark of affection. But when it comes from someone with socially-sanctioned power over you, the same metaphor becomes a putdown, a reminder that you are seen as a lesser being.

If the horizontal use of ‘girl’ conveys warmth, closeness and female solidarity, that might explain why ‘girlfriend’ is so often preferred to the more distant-sounding ‘woman friend’. But the closeness/distance contrast doesn’t seem so relevant to cases like The Girl On The Train, or the various bits of mainstream media output which have been soundtracked with ‘Here Come the Girls’. In those cases we might think that ‘girl’ is preferred to ‘woman’ for other reasons–reasons which feminists might find more problematic.

One obvious difference between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ is that ‘girl’ emphasises the quality of youthfulness and ‘woman’ the quality of maturity. In societies which are both sexist and ageist, however, maturity isn’t always seen as positive. So, when adult women refer to themselves and one another as ‘girls’, this may function as a form of avoidance, an attempt to block the less desirable associations of ‘woman’. A ‘girl’ is not, for instance, staid, careworn, ‘mumsy’, a domestic tyrant or a grim old battleaxe. She sounds less threatening than a ‘woman’, and more attractive—not only because of her imagined youthful looks, but also because of her supposed carefree attitude and her implied sexual availability. (It’s not a coincidence that we have walk-on, grid, podium and ring card ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’: women whose job is to project sexual availability are almost invariably referred to as ‘girls’.) Embracing ‘girl’, in short, is one way of dealing with the social fact that women’s value in modern western cultures is reduced rather than enhanced by age and experience.

Though ageism does not affect men in exactly the same way (getting older is not thought to render men sexually undesirable and therefore worthless), there are contexts where terms connoting youthfulness or juvenility are used by/about men as well as women, and often for similar reasons. For instance, we have paired expressions like ‘boys’/girls’ night out’, where the most relevant association of the juvenile term is with being carefree—participants are ‘boys/girls’ rather than ‘men/women’ because they’re putting aside adult responsibilities to concentrate on the pursuit of pleasure. (In that context, as the Radio Times writer pointed out, ‘Here Come the Girls’ has an equally clichéd male equivalent, ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’.) ‘Boys’ can also have the same solidary function as ‘girls’: both terms are frequently deployed as expressions of camaraderie among same-sex workmates or members of the same sports team.

‘Girl’ is a more complicated word than it might seem. A blanket prohibition on using it to refer to anyone older than 15 would be a very blunt instrument, capturing not only the cases which are offensive, but also many which are innocuous, or even positive. Broadly speaking, ‘girl’ is suspect when it meets one or more of the following criteria:

  1. it is used non-reciprocally by a more powerful person to or about someone less powerful;
  2. a reference to an equivalent male person would not contain a word suggesting juvenility, e.g. ‘boy’ or ‘lad’;
  3. subservience and/or sexual availability are important elements of the meaning it is being used to convey.

It’s not surprising that the ‘girl’ terms which inspired this post—‘walk-on girl’, ‘grid girl’, ‘podium girl’, ‘ring card girl’—meet all these criteria: they are labels for women fulfilling a function whose very existence would be inconceivable without sexism. But if ‘girl’ doesn’t tick any of these boxes then I don’t think feminists should have a problem with it. We don’t do ourselves any favours by policing language for no good reason.