2017: the year in language and feminism

Back in 2015, in this blog’s first end-of-year round-up, I noted that the year had started inauspiciously, with Time magazine putting ‘feminism’ on its list of annoying words that deserved to be banned.  The label was overused, they said; celebrities in particular were guilty of ‘throwing it around like ticker-tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade’.

To say that the mood has changed since then would be an understatement. No-one seemed surprised when a leading US dictionary, Merriam-Webster, named ‘feminism’ as its Word of the Year. ‘Feminism’, the announcement explained, was one of the most looked-up words of 2017, and spikes in the number of look-ups coincided with important news stories, from the anti-Trump women’s marches in January to the #metoo campaign this autumn. As for Time, its current cover features ‘the silence breakers’–a group of women, feminists, and in some cases celebrities, who spoke out about sexual harassment and who have collectively been chosen as the magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017.

But I’m not feeling the urge to crack a bottle of celebratory champagne. While it’s good to see the F-word being used without apology, it’s hard to avoid the rather depressing conclusion that what has done most to raise feminism’s profile over the last 12 months is the resurgence of an equally unapologetic anti-feminism. This was not a year when women forged ahead, it was a year when things got bad enough to prompt them to fight back. The display of defiance was cheering; the conditions that produced it were not.

Those conditions were reflected in what I blogged about this year. Looking back, I see that one recurring theme was the way women are let down by the language used to report or comment on sexual harassment, abuse and violence. In July I wrote about the banal sexism of the clichés used in reporting so-called ‘family tragedies’, where a man kills his partner and their children, and sometimes follows this by taking his own life. Later, as attention focused on sexual harassment in Hollywood, in the Houses of Parliament and in a host of more ‘ordinary’ workplaces, I criticised the media’s use of vague, euphemistic terms like ‘inappropriate behaviour’.

Without denying that this is a challenging subject to report on, I’m increasingly convinced that wrapping the ugly realities up in bland, inexplicit language is not the answer. It doesn’t help the ‘silence-breakers’ to feel heard, nor the wider public to understand what’s really happening. What inexplicitness does do, however–and we’ve seen plenty of examples–is make it easier for defenders of the status quo to minimise the problem or recycle popular myths about what causes it (Will Saletan’s suggestion that we should teach girls to ‘say no firmly’ was the starting point for one of my most-read posts this year).

One of the many things that’s wrong with the ‘just say no’ approach is that a lot of men do not respond well to a woman telling them what to do. (Plenty of women don’t like it much either.) Our ingrained cultural resentment of female authority was another subject I addressed in several of this year’s blog posts. This attitude shows up in what I called the gender ‘respect gap’, a tendency to downgrade women’s status which is manifested in, for instance, the non-use of professional titles for women doctors and academics, or the automatic assumption that married women should be called by their husband’s last name. These small insults are difficult to challenge, partly because individual women may not realise that their own experience exemplifies a more general pattern, but also because complaining about them seems petty or self-aggrandising.

There are also, of course, less subtle ways of using language to put women in their place. These are especially common in the political sphere, where they are also difficult to challenge because their targets are afraid of appearing ‘weak’. Women know they are vulnerable to the charge of being ‘over-sensitive’, too delicate to cope with the proverbial ‘rough and tumble’ of democratic debate—though few male politicians have any first-hand experience of the kind of abuse their female colleagues have to deal with.

Speaking in Parliament in July, the Labour MP Diane Abbott quoted one of the many abusive tweets she had received during the recent General Election campaign, saying she should be hung ‘if they can find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight’ (and that was a rare case where the sender didn’t throw in the N-word). The Prime Minister Theresa May has been described by her own Conservative colleagues as ‘mummy’ and ‘a bloody difficult woman’, while the press has depicted her as a stiletto-heeled dominatrix and, in one recent cartoon, the 1950s ‘call girl’ Christine Keeler. You don’t have to admire May or support her party (ditto for Abbott and hers) to see this kind of verbal and visual representation as an attack on all women who hold, or might aspire to hold, positions of authority and power.

On the other side of the gender respect gap live men who have somehow convinced themselves and others that their every random thought, no matter how commonplace, foolish or offensive, deserves our fullest attention and most enthusiastic applause. This year’s notable examples included the whiny and verbose Google memo-writer James Damore, the Uber director David ‘No Filter’ Bonderman (whose response to the idea of recruiting more women to the Board was to worry that more women would mean ‘more talking’), and the PR guru Richard Edelman, who suggested, during an all-male panel discussion at the industry’s annual ‘Hall of Femme’ [sic] event, that if women wanted to be successful they should try ‘speaking up more loudly’. It’s true that these men’s contributions did not go unchallenged (Damore was fired, and Bonderman resigned), but it’s also true that their brand of masculinity—glib, cocky, untroubled by self-doubt—remains our cultural prototype for what leadership looks like.

Mary Beard has pondered this phenomenon in her recently-published book Women and Power: A Manifesto, where she points out that its roots are very deep: ‘as far back as we can see in Western history there is a radical separation—real, cultural and imaginary—between women and power’.  She doesn’t, however, advocate the liberal solution which I’ve criticised so frequently on this blog, encouraging women to be more like men. As she observes,

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

Changing the structure has always been the project of feminism, at least in its more radical forms. But as we’ve seen very clearly over the last year and a half, patriarchal power structures are resilient: they persist, and they adapt. We will need to do the same. Happy New Year, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

 

Words of the year

And now to the second part of my end-of-year round up (ICYMI you can read the first part here). As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to choose some Words of the Year.

Actually, I’m a bit late to this party: like Christmas adverts, the WOTY announcements are getting earlier and earlier. We’re still waiting to hear from the American Dialect Society, the originator of the whole WOTY phenomenon, which doesn’t pick its winners until its annual meeting in early January. But it wasn’t even December when the lexicographers at Oxford University Press bestowed the annual accolade on something that isn’t even in the dictionary—the emoji ‘face with tears of joy’. Their counterparts at Collins chose ‘binge-watch’, while Merriam-Webster went for the suffix ‘-ism’, on the basis that their online dictionary’s most looked-up entries included a number of isms—‘capitalism’, ‘socialism’, ‘terrorism’ and, yes, ‘feminism’ among them.

This marked an improvement in the fortunes of ‘feminism’. A year ago, it was one of the items shortlisted in Time magazine’s poll for the year’s worst word, the one readers would most like to ban in 2015.  Also on the list were ‘bae’, ‘I can’t even’, and—oddly—‘kale’.

If this blog could ban a word in 2016, that word would be ‘banter’. Banter cropped up in the news several times during 2015, and on each occasion it revealed itself, once again, as a term whose main function is to normalize misogyny. Of course it’s true that getting rid of the word wouldn’t eliminate the thing itself. But it might make it harder for people to pretend that sexist verbal abuse is just a bit of harmless fun, in a totally different category from the racist or homophobic equivalent.

One traditional place for the ‘harmless banter’ argument to surface is in discussions of the shit that gets said to and about women by sportsmen, sports fans and sports pundits. In March, when the FA made a statement condemning sexist chanting at football matches, women involved in the Beautiful Game were supportive, but also sceptical. Carolyn Radford, the Chief Executive of Mansfield Town, contrasted attitudes to racist abuse (which was condoned for far too long, but is now subject to a zero tolerance policy) with the endless trivialization of sexism and misogyny. ‘Because it’s “banter”, so to speak’, she said, ‘I’ve got to flick my hair and just accept it’.

Yet it’s possible the tide is turning. In December there was a row about the inclusion of the boxer Tyson Fury on the shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, after he made a series of sexist and homophobic remarks. He did try the time-honoured ‘light-hearted banter’ excuse, but this time a lot of people were unimpressed. A petition to take him off the shortlist attracted around 130,000 signatures, and on the night (when he didn’t win) he was forced to make an apology of sorts.

But perhaps Fury’s big mistake was combining sexism with homophobia: you’re taking less of a risk if you stick to dissing women and girls. That point was made clearly in October, when a report commissioned by the Institute of Physics identified sexist language in schools, and the failure of the school authorities to deal with it in the way they deal with other forms of bigotry and harassment, as a factor contributing to gender inequality in the uptake of STEM subjects. Depressingly, large sections of the media presented the report’s recommendations as a case of humourless feminists trying to put a stop to the age-old tradition of ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’. It’s not bullying, it’s BANTER. Flick your hair and move on.

Just to be clear, I’m not really in favour of banning words. On the contrary, one depressing feature of this year has been the continuing determination of some feminist organizations to purge their political vocabulary of terms that refer to women as a class. A proposal to drop the word ‘sister’ from future campaigns was approved at the National Union of Students’ annual women’s conference. The Midwives’ Association of North America rewrote its core competencies document replacing the phrase ‘pregnant women’ with ‘pregnant individuals’. As more and more organizations campaigning for abortion rights took the word ‘women’ out of their literature, the Nation columnist Katha Pollitt wrote:

it feels as if abortion language is becoming a bit like French, where one man in a group of no matter how many women means “elles” becomes “ils.”

My first ever post on this blog pointed out that ‘woman’ has a long history of being treated as a ‘dirty word’, and that reclaiming it from silence and euphemism was one of the goals of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The new argument for avoiding it (that it’s exclusionary) may look different from the old one (that it’s ‘indelicate’), but if you’ve been around for long enough to remember when the old one was common-sense, you’ll find it difficult not to notice certain similarities. There is a persistent distaste for the idea of embodied femaleness which has deep historical and cultural roots. And that, I believe, is something feminism must continue to challenge.

But back to the words of the year.  As you’ll have gathered from the list of already-announced 2015 WOTYs at the beginning of this post, a WOTY doesn’t have to be a whole word, a single word or even a word at all; nor does it have to be either novel or otherwise linguistically remarkable. Choosing WOTYs is more like reading tea-leaves: they’re the items that jump out at you when you turn the year over and contemplate its linguistic detritus. So, what might we see in the tea-leaves this year that’s significant for feminist politics?

I’m going to start with online memes. In the hashtag subcategory, my 2015 winner is #distractinglysexy, women scientists’ riposte to the embarrassingly sexist comments made by Tim Hunt during the summer. In the ‘non-hashtag’ subcategory I’m giving another well-deserved shout-out to ‘Congrats, you have an all-male panel’,  the tumblr that got people to notice that all-male panels were still a thing, and that it was high time to make them a thing of the past. Because, as the newly-elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said when he was asked why half his ministerial appointments had gone to women, ‘it’s 2015’. (If this were a quote of the year contest, Trudeau would be in the running.)

And now to words (and phrases and morphemes). In a pre-Christmas radio interview, Ben Zimmer, who chairs the American Dialect Society’s new words committee, tipped a number of gender-related items as possible WOTY contenders: he mentioned singular ‘they’, the gender-neutral title ‘Mx’ and the word ‘cisgender’ (I touched on the rise of ‘cisgender’ in a post about dictionaries earlier this year; pronouns and titles are among the subjects I’ll be tackling in 2016.) Of the three, I’d say ‘they’ has the best claim: it’s both acquiring a new use (in specific references to non-binary individuals, as in ‘Lee called to say they were running late’) and being officially recognized in the use it has had for centuries (indefinite and generic reference, as in ‘has everyone picked up their badge?’). So, ‘they’ makes it into my own top five.

After Merriam-Webster went with ‘-ism’, I thought about nominating the suffix –ette. As I wrote earlier in the year, it’s making an unexpected (and from my perspective, not entirely welcome) comeback in words like ‘stemette’. But I decided that instead I’d go for the first authentically English word in which it appeared—‘suffragette’, originally coined in 1906 as a derogatory term for the militant campaigners of the WSPU.

As 2018–the 100th anniversary of (some) British women getting the vote–approaches, we’ll doubtless be hearing more of ‘suffragette’, but this year the ground was prepared by the film of that name, which arguably did something to change perceptions of ‘suffragette’ as a label. Specifically (and whatever anyone thought of the film overall), it made more people aware of three important points: (1) feminism wasn’t invented a few years ago or even just a few decades ago, (2) British women were not just handed their civil rights because they asked the nice men nicely, and (3) most suffragettes bore no resemblance to Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins.

Next, and based on a completely unscientific poll of my own feminist network, the word most in need of being reclaimed. My own choice would have been ‘woman’, for the reasons already discussed; but my respondents went for ‘sisterhood’, in its political meaning of solidarity among women.

Also on my list is ‘tampon tax’, the phrase that became shorthand for the treatment of sanitary products as ‘luxury’ items. Feminists in the UK (and elsewhere) held protests against the tax which were visually as well as verbally inventive; though they didn’t get the tax removed, the response to their efforts did reveal that a lot of supposedly modern men have some pretty old-fashioned ideas about menstruation. Add Donald Trump’s comments on the subject (and women’s response to them) into the mix, and you could almost say that 2015 was the Year of the Period: periods figured in public and political discourse in a way they haven’t for quite a while.

And finally, ‘feminism’. You’re probably thinking, ‘really? What a boringly predictable choice’. But for the F-word, the year has been anything but dull. It began 2015 at the centre of the controversy around Time magazine’s proposal to ban it, and it ended the year by polarizing opinion in a YouGov survey which showed that a majority of British people support the core goals of feminism, but only a minority are willing to use the word.

31% identify with the term overall, but this only rises to 35% for women – half (50%) of all women would not call themselves a feminist. And people are more likely to consider calling someone a feminist as an insult (19%) than a compliment (15%).

I sometimes think it’s more of a compliment when it’s meant as an insult. But the point is that ‘feminism’ is a word that makes waves. First, second, third, fourth… just kidding, I mean a word that stirs strong emotions. No term is more contested among feminists themselves, and few terms are more controversial in the wider world. It’s loved, it’s hated, it’s claimed and it’s disclaimed, but above all it’s talked about: on a blog called Language : a feminist guide, ‘feminism’ is the obvious choice for my first Word of the Year.

So that’s it for 2015. But before I sign off, I’d like to thank everyone who’s read, followed and shared this blog over the last seven-and-a-bit months. When I started it I had no idea if anyone would want to read it, and I’ve been truly amazed by the number of people who did (as well as the number of locations they read it from). I’d also like to thank my fellow-linguists, and all the other researchers whose work I’ve made use of. The words and the opinions you read here are mine, but the research I write about comes from many sources. So, to everyone who’s contributed and everyone who’s taken an interest: thanks, happy new year, and I hope I’ll see you again in 2016.