Pussy riot

Last week was Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and the NHS’s myGP app used its Twitter account to suggest that women could raise awareness about the importance of regular screening by using the hashtag #myCat to share ‘an image of the cat that best reflects your undercarriage/flower/bits (technical term, vulva!) current look’. The accompanying image of three cats–long-haired, hairless and short-haired–was captioned ‘Bushy, bare or halfway there’.

What, we might ask, do pubic hairstyles have to do with cervical cancer prevention? An answer eventually surfaced: in a survey of over 2000 women, a third of the respondents said they would avoid going for screening if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their ‘bikini area’. So, #myCat is intended to address a real issue. But it’s an odd way to go about it: who, confronted with this survey finding, would think, ‘I know, let’s reassure these women that no one’s going to judge them by running a campaign that invites them to share the current state of their pubes on social media, through the ever-popular medium of a cat pic?’

The ‘no one’s going to judge you’ message has been conveyed in other ways too. In verse, for example: ‘The nurse isn’t fussed/ if you haven’t had a trim/ She’s looking at your cervix/ not your lovely hairy quim/ The nurse don’t care if it’s jungle or fluff/ It’s about saving lives/ not a nice neat muff/’.

As well-intentioned as all this may be, it points to a serious problem with the language of health messaging on this subject. In an effort to make the messages more ‘relatable’, their creators persistently resort to language which is either vague and euphemistic (‘undercarriage/flower/bits’) or overtly sexualised-slash-pornified (‘quim’, ‘muff’). #myCat manages to be both at once: ‘cat’ is being used here as a euphemism for ‘pussy’, which may have originated as a euphemism itself, but is now a sexualised term not only for women’s ‘bits’, but also for women themselves, imagined as men’s collective prey (‘he spends his life chasing pussy’).

To many women (as their Twitter responses made clear) this language, in the context of a cancer prevention campaign, is not relatable, it’s offensive. Are men ever addressed in such a coy and cutesy way? One woman on Twitter, @iseult, addressed that question with a male-oriented riff on #myCat:

Share an image of the chicken that best reflects your chicken tenders, beanbags, gangoolies (technical term testicles!) current look. Use the Hashtag #myChickenBalls. Tell and tag your friends to let them know

@Iseult is right: It’s hard to imagine this getting onto, let alone off, the drawing board.

But as I pointed out back in 2015, men and women aren’t in the same position when it comes to talking about their ‘bits’. Large numbers of people are profoundly ignorant about female sexual anatomy: one of the studies I discussed in my earlier post (conducted in 2014) found that 50% of women under 35 could not locate the vagina on a diagram. In another study, 65% of respondents said they avoided using the words ‘vagina’ and vulva’, which they regarded as embarrassing or offensive. Yet another study suggested that most words for female sexual organs are perceived to be degrading (the main exception was ‘vagina’). And there is little agreement on what nonclinical terms like ‘pussy’ and ‘fanny’ actually refer to.

These findings do pose a problem for health messaging, in that the language health professionals might prefer to use may be unacceptable, or unintelligible, to the women they are trying to reach. With men this is less of an issue: they might not know what or where their epididymis is, but they’re not going to confuse their penis with their testicles, or be too embarrassed even to utter those words.   

It might seem that the solution is straightforward: education. No girl (and actually, no boy either) should leave school without having learned both the relevant anatomical facts and the associated terminology. And I do think that’s important, but it’s not as simple as it sounds, and on its own I don’t think it’s enough.

The underlying problem here—the root cause of the ignorance, the reticence, the retreat into vagueness and euphemism—is shame. And school is often where that starts. Research has found that girls in school are routinely subjected to body shaming and sexual shaming, which–to quote one girl who was interviewed for a recent report–they ‘just have to put up with, because no one thinks it’s a big deal’. A teacher who was quoted in the same report specifically referred to boys harassing and shaming girls with intrusive questions about their pubic hair—how much they had and whether they shaved it. Is it any wonder young women feel the anxieties which the poem I quoted earlier decries as trivial?

Perhaps it’s to myGP’s credit that they don’t pile shame on shame by simply castigating young women for their stupidity; but what they’ve chosen to do instead is not much better. The suggestion that women should tell the world (in cat-code) if their pubes are ‘bushy, bare or halfway there’ has something in common with the kind of harassment I’ve just mentioned: in both cases women are being sexualised in a context where that’s incongruous and unwelcome. Seriously, did no one at myGP see how weird this is? If someone’s actual GP commented on her ‘bushy undercarriage’ she’d have grounds to make a formal complaint, and I don’t think the doctor would get very far by saying ‘well, I’d heard that a lot of women are self-conscious about their pubic hair, so I was just trying to be reassuring’.

MyGP is not, of course, an actual GP, but it does represent the NHS, and its mode of address to women should reflect that. I’m not saying that public health messaging has to be rigidly factual, humourless, and couched exclusively in coldly clinical language. But women are not children, and the cancers which affect them are not cute, sexy or a joke. I don’t know if #myCat will raise awareness about cervical cancer, or persuade more women to turn up for screening; but it has certainly made me even more aware than I was before of the sexism that still pervades both our language and our institutions.

Forever 21

Like every other woman on social media, I am constantly bombarded with promoted posts about losing weight. Mostly I just scroll on by; but last week I saw something which stopped me in my tracks.  Here it is in all its glory:


What caught my eye wasn’t the diet advice (which I can’t even read because the type is so small). It was those drawings of the Five Ages of Woman, which as everybody knows are ‘super hot’, ‘hot’, ‘less hot but still trying’, ‘sexless frump’ and ‘decrepit granny’. They may not be a great advertisement for the keto diet, but they’re a good example of what I want to talk about in this post: the intimate, complicated relationship between ageism and sexism.

In ageist societies, getting older, frailer and less independent entails a loss of status and  respect. Old people, of both sexes, may be addressed familiarly by total strangers, offered unwanted and patronising ‘assistance’, and generally treated as incompetent or foolish. It’s often been suggested that women, whose status is lower to begin with, are treated even more disrespectfully than men. Marie Shear, for instance, who wrote incisively on this subject, recalls struggling to board a bus and being told by the (male) driver to take ‘big girl steps’—a humiliating injunction which it’s hard to imagine being addressed to a man in the same situation (‘big boy steps’?) But the tendency to belittle and infantilise old people does not affect women exclusively.

There is, however, another kind of ageism that is sex-specific (and specifically sexist), and which reflects the way women in patriarchal societies are defined by and valued for their sexual and reproductive functions. This form of ageism kicks in earlier–long before its targets could reasonably be described as old. It affects women of all ages, and shapes their experience of sexism at every point in their lives.

Consider, for instance, the peculiar linguistic etiquette which (in my culture, at least) dictates that one should never mention or inquire about an adult woman’s age. I was taught as a child that this was unspeakably rude: ‘ladies’, people said (because it was also rude to call them ‘women’), ‘are forever 21’ (this wasn’t a reference to fast fashion: at the time 21 was the age of legal majority). When I became an adult, this rule was applied to me too. I wish I had £10 for every time someone with a legitimate reason for wanting to know my age has either apologised for asking or made some awkward joke. It took me a while to realise that what was presented as courtesy (or when men did it, chivalry) was really no such thing. By treating references to a woman’s age as what politeness theorists call ‘face-threatening acts’, requiring either avoidance or elaborate mitigation, the culture I grew up in was sending the message that ageing, for women, was shameful.

Of course, that was several decades ago; but I don’t think the basic message has changed. If anything, the endless expansion of consumerism and the advent of digital media have made us even more obsessed with youth and beauty. Just as a woman can never be too rich or too thin, so she can never be–or at least appear to be–too young. ‘She doesn’t look her age’ is a compliment; ‘she really looks her age’ is an insult. The fact that we consider it a cruel humiliation to tell a woman she looks as old as she actually is speaks volumes about what we value in women, and think that women ought to value in themselves.

To see how ageism, as I put it before, ‘shapes women’s experience of sexism at every point in their lives’, take a look at any random collection of women’s magazines, newspaper problem pages or cosmetics ads. You will soon discover that the beauty industry defines ageing as something that begins in a woman’s late 20s. That’s when she’s told she should start using products designed to delay or disguise its effects. It’s also roughly the point at which she’s expected to start worrying if she hasn’t yet found a partner and started a family: the biological clock is ticking and her time is running out. Later she will be urged not to ‘let herself go’ and give her husband a reason to trade her in for a younger model. And later still she will be instructed in the art of growing old ‘gracefully’—accepting her devalued status and behaving/dressing accordingly.

We can follow this narrative through the images reproduced above. The three younger women are sexualised: they have long, flowing locks, wear tight-fitting clothes and heels (the first two also flash some skin, though the third is more covered up), and they are depicted in a classic ‘look at me’ pose—head tilted up or to the side, one leg bent at the knee, hand on hip. They’re desirable, they know it, and they take pleasure in being admired. The two older women, by contrast, are desexualised. Their hair is pinned up or cut short; their clothes are shapeless and unfashionable. They are walking rather than posing, clutching shopping bags in their hands, and looking down or away from the viewer’s gaze.

Language tells a similar story. In English we have numerous labels for women–for instance, ‘babe’, ‘chick’, ‘MILF’, ‘yummy mummy’, ‘spinster’, ‘cougar’, ‘biddy’, ‘bag’, ‘hag’—which locate them on a continuum of increasing age and decreasing desirability. From a feminist perspective all these labels are sexist, but the most overtly negative ones are those referring to the oldest women. This relationship is less clear-cut in the case of men. Though there are some insults for men that imply a connection between negative qualities and advancing age (e.g. ‘old coot/git/fart’), there isn’t the same insistence on categorising and judging men by their perceived sexual attractiveness. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that old men must be sexually undesirable. As women in the acting profession have been pointing out for years, ageing male stars go on being cast as romantic leads long after their female age-peers have been relegated to supporting roles.

But we shouldn’t overlook the point I was hinting at when I said that all the labels on my list were sexist. The hierarchy of value in which young women are worth more than old ones exists within a larger system of male dominance and female subordination. The objectification of babes and chicks is as much a part of that system as the contemptuous dismissal of old hags; they are two sides of the same patriarchal coin. Though ‘hag’ may be considered more insulting than ‘babe’, it’s really no great privilege to be a babe.

That’s why I’m not a fan of one now-common way of pushing back against sexist ageism —by insisting that older women can also be beautiful and desirable; or put another way, that women should maintain their status as sexual objects into their 50s, 60s and beyond. This idea has been taken up enthusiastically by the beauty industry, which sells it as a way of ‘empowering’ older women. Some companies have modified their branding to project a more positive attitude: instead of advertising ‘anti-ageing’ products which will make women ‘look x years younger’, they now promote ‘pro-age’ products which will ‘repair the damage’ or ‘reduce the signs of ageing’.

In her book about modern beauty norms, Perfect Me, the philosopher Heather Widdows is critical of this approach. She points out that what’s presented as a personal choice (‘getting older doesn’t have to mean losing your looks’) can easily turn into a moral obligation (‘getting older is no excuse for losing your looks’). Today, a woman who ‘lets herself go’ after having children, or after menopause, risks being shamed not only for her unattractive appearance, but also for her failure to ‘make the effort’. Far from pushing back against ageism, Widdows suggests, this message actually intensifies it.

But surely, you may be thinking, women are capable of seeing through this, and of resisting the pressure if they so choose? Clare Anderson, who has studied both the beauty industry’s discourse and women’s own talk about getting older, thinks it’s complicated. Many of the women she interviewed were indeed critical of the beauty industry, saying they knew it exploited their insecurities to sell them products. But they also said they bought the products anyway; and when they talked about their own experiences they often reproduced the industry’s ageist/sexist narratives (e.g. ‘ageing is decline’ and ‘it’s important not to let yourself go’). Whereas the men Anderson interviewed often said they felt more at ease with their bodies in their 50s than they had in their 20s, most women reported the opposite. Being aware of ageism, and in principle opposed to it, did not mean that in practice they could simply rise above it.

That’s also how I would interpret the responses I saw on social media to the ‘What to eat on keto’ image. Many critical comments were made by older women who objected to the stereotyping of their age-group as unattractive, shapeless frumps. Often they drew attention to the inaccuracy of these representations: ‘I’m over 50/over 60 and I don’t look anything like the woman in that drawing!’ And I’m sure they don’t (for the record, at 61 I don’t favour perms and shapeless slacks myself); but this line of criticism misses the point. It fails to acknowledge that the devaluation of women who do look old is fundamentally unjust; it also fails to connect the unjust treatment of visibly older women with another injustice that affects women in general, namely our culture’s insistence on judging them, at every age, far more by their looks than their achievements.

These responses underscore the point that attitudes which are damaging to women may be internalised by women themselves. And feminist women are not exempt. Having a feminist analysis of sexist ageism does not, on its own, destroy its power to wound you. And at the other end of the age-spectrum, as Claire Heuchan (aka the blogger Sister Outrider) recently reminded her followers on Twitter, a commitment to feminism may not prevent young women from weaponizing ageism in political conflicts with older ones.

What prompted Heuchan’s thread on this subject was noticing how much of the criticism recently directed to JK Rowling made use of ageist/sexist language. Rowling, now in her 50s, was called (among other things) a ‘dried up prune’, a ‘dried up old tart’, a ‘tired old bitch’ and ‘a bitter old hag who’s pissy because she doesn’t get as much attention anymore’. Noting that some of the people who used this language were women, Heuchan commented:

It can be difficult to unlearn ageist misogyny. In particular when there is a social reward (male approval) attached, and the opportunity to exceptionalise yourself through making demeaning comments about older women. It is patriarchal conditioning. But that doesn’t excuse it.

It’s not hard to understand young women’s desire to ‘exceptionalise themselves’. The trouble is that ageism makes no exceptions. Every young woman will—barring catastrophe—grow old; at some point her ‘youth privilege’, such as it is, will be revoked, and she too will become a target for ageist and sexist insults.

The good news is that this cycle can be broken. We can’t change the fact that people get older, but we can change the conditions–the attitudes and practices and social structures–that make ageing a source of fear and shame. Rejecting the kind of language I’ve discussed in this post–language that age-shames through avoidance, condescension  or outright contempt–would be a modest step in the right direction.


Postscript: the day after this was published a reader sent me a screenshot of another diet ad which uses the same format as the ‘What to eat on keto’ one–but this one targets men. The difference is instructive (and so obvious I don’t think I need to comment further):

Screen Shot 2020-06-23 at 2.03.35 PM

Many thanks to Brittney O’Neill for this example.


Slanging match

In 1960 the lexicographer Stuart Flexner declared in his preface to the Dictionary of American Slang that ‘most American slang is created and used by males’.

Many types of slang words – including the taboo and strongly derogatory ones, those referring to sex, women, work, money, whiskey, politics, transportation, sports, and the like – refer primarily to male endeavor and interest. The majority of entries in this dictionary could be labeled “primarily masculine use.”

This view reflected more general assumptions about women, men and language. Forty years earlier the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen had suggested that linguistically as in other respects, the two sexes were complementary. Women’s role in the development of language was to exert a civilising influence through their ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Men, by contrast, were responsible for ‘renewing’ language to ensure that it did not become ‘languid and insipid’. Slang, from this perspective, had two defining masculine qualities: much of it was ‘coarse and gross’, but it was also inventive and continuously changing–a product of the linguistic creativity which Jespersen assumed that men possessed and women lacked.

Feminists, of course, have questioned this account. Like the related idea that women don’t swear, ‘women don’t create or use slang’ sounds suspiciously like a combination of wishful thinking and sexist language-policing (‘we don’t think women should swear/use slang, so we’ll insist that it’s not in their nature’). But in that case, why are dictionaries like Flexner’s so dominated by the vocabulary of men? Does that just reflect the historical fact that slang has flourished most conspicuously in the ‘underground’ subcultures of (for instance) thieves, conmen, gangsters, gamblers, soldiers and sailors—all groups in which women were un- or under-represented? Or is it a reflection of male slang-collectors’ limitations, either their inability to access women’s slang or their insistence on defining slang in a way that excluded female speech?

This long-running debate has recently been revisited by the slang lexicographer and historian Jonathon Green, in a book entitled Sounds and Furies: The Love-Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. Having dipped into it last year, I’ve now (thanks to the current lockdown) had time to digest it properly. At over 500 pages it’s not a quick read, but if you’re interested in the subject it’s full of fascinating detail. It is also (IMHO) a welcome corrective to the nonsense that has been talked for decades about women’s (non)contribution to slang.

Women’s supposed avoidance of ‘coarse and gross expressions’ is obviously a myth, contradicted by evidence about both the present and the past. We have many historical records of the abuse uttered by women during arguments with their neighbours that sometimes landed them in court, not to mention the Billingsgate fishwives whose obscene invective gave their occupational title a secondary meaning of ‘foul-mouthed woman’. However, slang encompasses more than just insults and obscenities: it also includes the informal terminology used by specific in-groups, especially those outside or on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society. On this question Green suggests (though cautiously, since most records of the speech of marginalised groups were written down by outsiders, making it difficult to gauge their accuracy), that what’s often been presented as male in-group slang was most likely known and used by both sexes, to the extent that they participated in the same activities and social networks.

Crime is the prototypical example of an in-group slang-generating activity (the precursors of slang dictionaries were glossaries of ‘thieves’ cant’, which began to appear in England in the 16th century), and it is one that has always involved women as well as men. Some women played supporting roles as men’s wives, girlfriends or accomplices, but others (like Mary Frith, aka ‘Moll Cutpurse’) engaged in daring exploits that made them (in)famous in their own right, or played influential roles behind the scenes. Early writing about these women represents them using the same cant as their male counterparts, and this is hardly surprising—if your business was robbing or conning people, you’d surely know the vocabulary of the trade. Later on, though, the conviction that women didn’t use slang (or obscenities, or nonstandard dialect) would lead writers to clean up the language of both real and fictional female criminals, creating such implausibly ‘well-spoken’ examples as Dickens’s Nancy in Oliver Twist.

One criminalized activity in which women were always over-represented was the sex trade, but some male authorities have gone out of their way to deny that prostitutes have created slang: as one put it, ‘they lack the sophistication to make and acquire an artificial language for themselves’. But the evidence Green reviews suggests, again unsurprisingly, that women who sell sex have developed their own ‘work-specific jargon’—including a list of terms describing their customers as fools, suckers, losers, sexual inadequates, perverts and scumbags. Perhaps they chose not to share this lexicon with the male researchers who sought them out—or perhaps the researchers didn’t ask. A similar point can be made about lesbians, another ‘outlaw’ group who have been said to have no slang of their own. The folklorist Gershon Legman put the dearth of lesbian material in his 1941 glossary of ‘the language of homosexuality’ down to lesbians’ ‘tradition of gentlemanly restraint’, but he doesn’t seem to have had much evidence about the way lesbians talked among themselves.

Slang is not, in any case, the exclusive domain of ‘outlaws’ or people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Green also discusses family and nursery slang (much of it probably female-coined), the slang of ‘respectable’ female occupations like nursing, and a number of historical cases where young women—not infrequently from the higher echelons of society—were the prime movers in the development of an identifiably female or female-centred form of youth slang. In these cases no one suggested that girls and women were incapable of inventing their own language; on the contrary, their linguistic creativity was used as a stick to beat them with. The Burlington Free Press complained in 1879 that

The poorest, feeblest and most vicious slang….is the fashionable slang which pollutes the lips of young girls. ‘Awfully jolly’, ‘Immense’, ‘Aint he a tumbler?’ ‘He has a great deal of the dog on today’.

This writer was talking about the in-group language of the young middle-class women who were referred to, disapprovingly, as ‘fast young ladies’. The term ‘fast’, applied to men, meant a hedonist who devoted his life to pleasure; applied to young women, however, it meant

one who affects mannish habits, or makes herself conspicuous by some unfeminine accomplishment—talks slang, drives about in London, smokes cigarettes, is knowing in dogs, horses, etc.

The slang-using girl was seen as rejecting femininity, and with it her prospects of future happiness. ‘She thinks she is piquante and exciting’, complained one (male) writer in 1868, ‘and will not see that though men laugh with her they do not respect her, though they flirt with her they do not marry her’. He called for the return of the ‘simple and genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesty’.

The panic about ‘fast’ girls did eventually fade away, but complaints about young women’s slang lived on, finding new targets in the girls who featured in (and read) the early 20th century boarding school stories of Angela Brazil (‘Right you are, O Queen, it’s a blossomy idea!’) and in the slightly older figure of the 1920s flapper. Frivolous, flighty and ‘loose’, with her trademark bobbed hair and lipstick, the flapper had an elaborate slang lexicon for discussing her main preoccupations, which included dancing, drinking, money and men. Among the expressions she either coined or popularised are some we still recognise, even if we no longer use them—like ‘the cat’s pyjamas’, ‘the bee’s knees’ and ‘for crying out loud’ (a ‘clean’ version of ‘for Christ’s sake’: the avoidance of actual obscenity does seem to have been a feature of middle-class girls’ slang).

Flapperdom was the first in a long line of 20th century youth subcultures with a distinctive style that included slang. In some cases this argot was either male-centred or shared by both sexes, but in others, like the ‘Valley Girl-speak’ that emerged in California in the 1980s (‘gag me with a spoon!’), it was created and primarily used by young women—who were promptly criticised, like fast girls a century earlier, for being vacuous, frivolous, pretentious and superficial.

These recurring complaints underline the point that slang is not and never has been an exclusively male preserve. But each generation of critics has presented young women’s slang as if it were a wholly new phenomenon, a worrying departure from the relatively recent past when girls were allegedly ‘genuine’ and modest. As usual with verbal hygiene, there is more at stake here than language. Disapproving of girls’ slang has often been a coded expression of a deeper unease about social change. Whether she was a middle-class flapper or a working-class ‘munitionette’, the slang-using young woman symbolised female emancipation, and as such she was a threat to the patriarchal status quo.

Complaints about young people’s slang have continued into the 21st century: in the past few years a number of British schools have gone so far as to ban slang expressions like ‘peng’, ‘bare’, ‘bait’, ’emosh’ and ‘fam’. But today the anxiety youth slang provokes seems to have more to do with class (and sometimes race) than gender. Girls are no longer accused of ‘affecting mannish habits’, or warned that they are jeopardising their chances of finding a husband. Rather, both they and boys are told that their slang is holding them back academically and damaging their future employment prospects.

Yet the old sexist prejudices have not completely disappeared. Two years ago, when the Metro newspaper asked if swearing made a woman less attractive to men, not only did many men answer ‘yes’, some added that they were also turned off by women who spoke with strong local accents or used ‘colloquial slang’. Two years earlier, Faima Bakar had complained in a piece for Gal-Dem about young men telling young women not to talk ‘street’. Jespersen’s idealised woman (or rather, ‘lady’), with her ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’, lives on in these judgments—as does the idea of slang, along with nonstandard speech, as rough, tough and therefore male by definition.

This view of slang as ‘rough talk’ doesn’t just exclude women as legitimate users of slang, it also excludes certain kinds of in-group language used by women from the category of slang. As the lexicographer Katherine Connor Martin has pointed out, this makes the argument that women use slang less than men entirely circular. A full picture of women’s slang would require researchers to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and consult a wider range of sources. One source Jonathon Green looks at is Mumsnet, whose users, predominantly middle-class women with children, are pretty much the opposite of ‘outlaws’; yet they’re prolific creators of in-group terminology, and an excellent source for nursery slang (including terms for both sexes’ genitals: the male slang collector who confidently asserted in 1811 that ‘it is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of “twiddle-diddles”’ evidently hadn’t checked with his mother).

It has sometimes been suggested that women avoid what’s generally thought of as ‘real’ slang not because they’re prudes, but because so much of it is sexist and misogynist. But while that might be a consideration for some of us, there’s abundant evidence that woman-hating language has been weaponised by women as well as men. ‘Whore’ and its many synonyms have been the go-to woman-on-woman insults for centuries. Conversely, women’s in-group slang is often rich in disparaging terms for men. The flappers had various words for men who were reluctant to spend money on a date; contemporary female college students have produced a range of unflattering terms describing men you wouldn’t want to date in the first place—for instance, the unattractive ‘craterface’, the overweight ‘doughboy’, and—my particular favourite—the tedious ‘Mr Dry Guy’.

And what, we might ask, about feminist slang? While I was checking the opening quote from Flexner’s preface, I unexpectedly found myself in the manosphere–more specifically, on the MRA hellsite that calls itself A Voice For Men--where Flexner had been approvingly quoted in a 2017 post celebrating slang as ‘the original voice of men’. The writer points out that men’s rights activism has an extensive slang lexicon–‘cuck’, ‘mangina’, ’emotional tampon’ (no, me neither)–whereas feminists, he says, have only ‘prosaic’, quasi-academic terms like ‘benevolent sexism’ and ‘toxic masculinity’. ‘Feminism’, he comments,

is an ideology, and ideologues are not noted for their sense of humor. Also, wit is a trait only rarely associated with women, though they do excel at making catty remarks.

The supposed nonexistence of feminist slang also shows that feminists are the establishment, whereas the men who invented ‘cuck’ and ‘mangina’ are rebellious outlaws. But hold on a minute, dude, if you’re going to boast about ‘mangina’, how about ‘mansplain’, ‘manterrupt’,  ‘manspread’ and ‘mantrum’? And while you’re waxing nostalgic about the 1960s, may I remind you that the feminists of that decade called men like you MCPs, which stood for ‘male chauvinist pigs’?

The truth is, as Green says in his conclusion, that slang is ‘an equal-opportunity employee’. Though men and women may have different slang repertoires, they employ them for the same basic purposes: bonding with in-group members while excluding outsiders, entertaining their friends and insulting their enemies. Those aren’t just things that men do: for better or for worse, they’re things that humans do.

A matter of opinion

I feel like opinion pieces on the state of the language are getting more annoying all the time.

If you’re wondering where that came from, the answer is that I’ve just read a New York Times opinion piece published this weekend, in which the history professor Molly Worthen complains that young people preface everything they say with ‘I feel like’.

[They] don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.

The contagion she’s talking about is relativism: we no longer deal in facts or principles, only personal feelings which brook no argument or disagreement. Also—although this might seem to be in tension with the first, ‘no arguing with my feelz’ point—we’re not willing to commit to our beliefs because we’re worried about causing offence. According to a student Worthen quotes, saying ‘I feel like X’ is ‘an effort to make our ideas more palatable to the other person’.

The student has a point. Hedging–using linguistic devices that reduce the strength of your commitment to a proposition—is often done for purposes of politeness, or in other words to make whatever you’re saying or doing ‘more palatable to the other person’. That’s why we often write something long-winded and tentative like ‘I was just wondering if you’d got my email’ rather than the blunter, slightly accusatory ‘did you get my email?’ Or respond to a caller we don’t know with ‘I think you’ve got the wrong number’ rather than just ‘wrong number!’

This is normal linguistic behaviour, and you might think it’s preferable to showing no consideration for anyone else’s feelings. But people who write opinion pieces on language (or give ‘expert’ advice on language) have got it into their heads that hedging is the enemy of effective communication. According to them, it’s clutter. It’s ‘weak’.  It detracts from your message and undermines your authority. And–not coincidentally–it’s the particular vice of women.

Opinion pieces on this subject invariably feature women who’ve seen the light and repented of their sins. They’ve cut down on ‘just‘ and taken ‘sorry‘ in hand. In Molly Worthen’s column there’s another quote from a student who’s trying to cure herself of ‘feel like’:

I’ve tried to check myself when I say that. I think it probably demeans the substance of what I’m trying to say.

In 2013, Jezebel ran a piece entitled ‘Ladies, what’s up with the “I feel like” verbal tic?’ The writer begins with a confession: she’s searched for the phrase ‘I feel like’ in her Gmail inbox, and been overwhelmed by the number of results. Her correspondence is full of sentences like, ‘I feel like I look too meek in my profile picture’. Or, ‘I feel like I’m being unhelpful’. She comments:

We are feeling so many feelings, and we are very aware that we are feeling these feelings.

Ah yes, feelings. As everyone knows, women are emotional creatures who talk endlessly about their feelings–whereas men by implication converse in a mixture of syllogisms and statistics. The writer suggests that ‘I feel like’ sounds ‘indulgent, verging on narcissistic’;

when I say “I feel like” I feel like (ha) a touchy-feely liberal girl who learned to talk about her feelings in school.

It’s this self-indulgent touchy-feeliness that bothers Molly Worthen. She downplays the association with women, saying that men in her classrooms also say ‘I feel like’ all the time. But she continually invokes the opposition between thinking and feeling, reason and emotion, which in western thought, as many feminists have pointed out, is gendered through and through. As Genevieve Lloyd puts it, ‘rationality has been conceived as transcendence of the feminine‘.

Worthen’s argument that we’ve become too touchy-feely rests largely on an observation about the contemporary use of words–that ‘feel like’ is now preferred to ‘think’–and on closer inspection this is linguistically naive. The phrase ‘I think’, which she takes to be both completely different from and self-evidently preferable to ‘I feel like’, actually does the same job: it too can be used as a hedge. So can other verbs of knowing or sensing, like ‘believe’, ‘understand’, ‘guess’, ‘imagine’, ‘see’, ‘hear’. We often use them to indicate that something we’re saying might be speculative, provisional, open to doubt or disagreement. (‘She’ll be 90 this year, I believe’. ‘I imagine you’ll want to put this on the agenda’.)  And then there’s ‘seem’, as in ‘it seems to me…’. It may sound a touch more formal, more the sort of thing a middle-aged academic would say, but otherwise, how exactly is prefacing a point with ‘it seems to me’ any different from beginning it with ‘I feel like’?

I suspect Worthen’s preference for ‘think’ reflects the simple idea that the core meaning of ‘think’ is about cognition whereas the core meaning of ‘feel (like)’ is about emotion. At one point she worries that ‘the more common “I feel like” becomes, the less importance we may attach to its literal meaning’. But that ship sailed long ago: when they’re used in the way she’s talking about, the sense-perception verbs ‘feel’, ‘see’ and ‘hear’ are metaphors for more complex cognitive processes. If you tell someone ‘I see what you mean’, you haven’t literally ‘seen’ anything, you have grasped the import of something. Similarly, many uses of ‘feel’ carry little or no trace of either the ‘touch’ or the ’emotion’ senses of the word–they are metaphors for inferring or judging (‘Members of the jury, you may feel that the prosecution’s evidence…’)

The Jezebel piece included various quotes from women repeating the same folk-theory about ‘I feel like’ privileging emotion over reason and inoffensiveness over rigorous argument.

It takes the teeth out of any argument you make and makes it okay for you to be wrong. Like you don’t have to stand by your opinion because it came from a temporary, emotional place. I use it a lot when I don’t want to offend anyone.

I feel like is used for girls to tentatively express their opinion in a nonthreatening way, in a way that can either be added on to or diminished depending on how the other person reacts to it.

Is it, in fact, for girls? The writer of the Jezebel piece contacted the linguist and blogger Mark Liberman to ask whether it was true that ‘I feel like’ is used mostly by women and millennials. Using data from a corpus of telephone conversations, Liberman found that the the short answer is ‘yes’: younger speakers use ‘I feel like’ more than older ones, and female speakers use it more than male ones. However, the gender gap is probably explained by something I’ve mentioned on this blog before—the tendency for young women to be linguistic trendsetters, adopting innovative ways of speaking before their male age-peers. If something really is a trend, the men will eventually catch up.

The alternative explanation—that women use ‘I feel like’ more because it’s a hedge and women hedge more—was not supported by the telephone corpus data, which suggest that men hedge just as much as women, they just use different linguistic forms to do it. For instance, men use ‘I guess’ more often than women. (Though not ‘I think’, where it’s the women who are slightly ahead.)

Most people are small-c conservatives when it comes to language: they rarely hail new usages with delight, and often spend decades denouncing them as abominations. What bothers me about this isn’t the reaction itself, it’s the accompanying tendency to construct elaborate justifications for it. Instead of just saying ‘I find this way of speaking annoying’, pundits insist that it’s a symptom of some larger social disease. Vocal fry is a sign that young women are throwing away all the gains of the last 50 years. ‘I feel like’ threatens the foundations of democracy because it’s ‘a means of avoiding rigorous debate’.

This is overblown nonsense, and it also has the effect of making the most innovative language-users, young people and especially young women, into objects of relentless criticism–and not only of their speech, but sometimes also of their character. Criticism which they internalize, as is illustrated in some of the quotes I’ve reproduced. When young women are worried that the way they express themselves demeans them, when they’re berating themselves for being ‘indulgent verging on narcissistic’, it might be time for the people who write this stuff to consider keeping their opinions to themselves.


Guys and dudes

Some years ago in North Carolina, students taking a class on gender inequality designed a card that could be left in restaurants or shops where staff made a habit of addressing women as ‘(you) guys’. The card drew attention to the problems with that expression. As Sherryl Kleinman, who had taught the class, explained:

While being labeled “one of the guys” might make [women] feel included, it’s only a guise of inclusion, not the reality. If we were really included, we wouldn’t have to disappear into the word “guys.”

‘Guys’ is not the only offender here: women can also be addressed as ‘man’ and ‘dude’. And Kleinman is not alone in finding this problematic. Many feminists regard these address terms in the same way they regard words like ‘chairman’, which purport to include women but actually don’t (most English-speakers in most contexts interpret the –man suffix as meaning a male person rather than just a person). For Kleinman, the women who accept these appellations are displaying internalized sexism. They’re flattered to be treated as honorary men.

I don’t dispute that words like ‘chairman’ are sexist, but I think address terms like ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are a more complicated case. For one thing, they are slang, whereas words like ‘chairman’ belong to a formal, official register. One reason why –man words continue to be used is because of the belief that inclusive alternatives (like ‘chair’) are ‘incorrect’. By contrast, no one says ‘guys’ or ‘dude’ because they’ve been told to: these are colloquial terms which speakers have adopted for their own reasons. Whatever those reasons are, they’re unlikely to be the same ones that motivate the use of the generic masculine in formal contexts.

There’s a clue to the reasons in the observation that ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are most often used gender-inclusively when they’re being used to address people directly.* Addressing people directly brings the interpersonal function of language into the foreground: you’re choosing your words to say something about how you see yourself, the person you’re talking to, the situation you’re in and the relationship between you. In the case of greeting people, for instance, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen’ establishes a more formal and distant relationship than ‘hello, everyone’, or ‘hi there, folks’. And it’s not just a question of formality: different address terms convey other, more nuanced meanings. ‘Hi, guys’ is in the same informal territory as ‘hi there, folks’, but it’s not an exact equivalent. Like ‘folks’, ‘guys’ is relaxed and friendly, but where ‘folks’ has a warm vibe, ‘guys’ keeps things cool.

‘Dude’ is a similar case. In an article on the way it’s used in contemporary American English, Scott Kiesling argues that the attitude or stance ‘dude’ expresses is one of ‘cool solidarity’. Addressing someone as ‘dude’ suggests a solidary relationship between equals—friendship, camaraderie, mutual respect—but it does not imply intimacy or sexual interest. (A colleague’s students once told her that if a woman addresses a man as ‘dude’ that’s a clear sign she isn’t interested in dating him.) It’s casual rather than intense, nonchalant rather than passionate, cool rather than hot.

‘Dude’ is also ‘cool’ in the sense of ‘anti-establishment, rebellious, non-conformist’. It was first used as an address term in the 1930s by African American zoot-suiters and Mexican American pachucos (both subcultures known for sharp dressing—an earlier meaning of ‘dude’ was ‘dandy’), and since the 1980s it’s become associated with the surfers and slackers of the post-baby-boomer generation.

Kiesling’s research, conducted with students at the University of Pittsburgh, found that ‘dude’ was typically used between non-intimates of the same sex. It was used most frequently by men talking to other men, but the second most frequent ‘dude’-users were women talking to other women. Cross-sex uses, in either direction, were significantly less common. The purposes for which men and women used ‘dude’ were more similar than different. Men made much more use of it as a greeting (‘hey, dude’, ‘what’s up, dude’), but both sexes used it as a token of sympathy or commiseration (like an oral equivalent of the sad face emoji), and to soften the potential offensiveness of speech acts like criticisms and commands (‘dude, turn-signal!’)

Here I want to pause and make a general point about the relationship between language and gender. The fact that a linguistic form is used more by men than women, or vice-versa, does not justify the conclusion that what the form actually expresses is masculinity or femininity. In many cases, what the form directly expresses is what linguists call ‘stance’: an attitude, a feeling, a point of view. But since many attitudes and feelings are culturally coded as either ‘masculine’ (e.g. aggression) or ‘feminine’ (e.g. modesty), the forms which communicate them may acquire a secondary association with gender. This is how Kiesling approaches the meaning of ‘dude’. What ‘dude’ directly expresses is not masculinity, it’s cool solidarity. But it’s associated with masculinity (and used more frequently by men than women) because its primary meaning, cool solidarity, has been culturally coded as a ‘masculine’ attitude.

I’m making this slightly theoretical point because it helps to explain why I don’t agree with Sherryl Kleinman’s suggestion that women who use terms like ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are trying to claim ‘honorary man’ status. Rather I agree with Scott Kiesling, who argues that women use ‘dude’ for the same reason men do: because they want to express cool solidarity—especially, the evidence suggests, with other women. Rather than displaying internalized sexism, they’re like the little girl who sometimes wants to play with toy cars rather than dolls. It’s not that she wants to be a boy, she just doesn’t see why girls shouldn’t play with cars.

The question feminists should be asking about women calling each other ‘dude’ or ‘you guys’ isn’t why they’re talking like men (they aren’t), it’s why they can only express cool solidarity with other women by using prototypically male address terms. Aren’t there any female terms that would serve their purpose just as well?

Thinking about that, the only serious candidate I could come up with was the African American ‘girl(friend)’. If we leave aside obscenities and formal titles, most of the terms used to address women in English are terms of endearment: ‘baby’, ‘cookie’, ‘darling’, ‘doll’, ‘duck’, ‘hen’, ‘honey’, ‘pet’, ‘sweetie’, and so on. When they’re used between female friends these terms convey intimacy rather than cool solidarity, and when they’re used to women by male non-intimates, they also convey that the addressee is being belittled, sexually objectified, or both. Either way, they don’t do the same job as ‘guys’ or ‘dude’. Or ‘bro’, ‘bruv’, ‘buddy’, ‘fella’, ‘mate’ and ‘pal’. The difference between ‘bro’ and ‘baby’ is like the difference between a fist-bump and a pat on the head. Perhaps that’s another reason why women have adopted male address terms: to avoid being patronized, infantilized and sexualized.

The abundance of male solidary address terms, and the dearth of female equivalents, speaks to the differing attitudes our culture has historically held towards male and female homosociality (i.e., same-sex, but non-sexual, relationships). As many feminists have observed, male homosocial relationships—forged in institutions like boys’ boarding schools, college fraternities, sports teams, the armed services, trades unions, Masonic lodges, etc.—are important for the functioning of patriarchal societies, and they’ve been celebrated in everything from folksongs to Hollywood blockbusters. Female homosociality, by contrast, has been hidden, trivialized and negatively stereotyped. Women have traditionally been taught to value heterosexual and family relationships above female friendships; they have also been portrayed as catty, quarrelsome and incapable of solidarity with other women.

On the other hand, women don’t experience the same pressure as men to keep their same-sex relationships ‘cool’. It’s OK for women to depend on one another emotionally; it’s OK for them to express affection both verbally and physically. For men, however, these ways of relating to other men are at odds with the norms of heterosexual masculinity. In her book Deep Secrets, the psychologist Niobe Way has documented the process whereby boys who, as young teenagers, would say without hesitation that they loved their closest male friends, turn away from intimate same-sex relationships as they progress through adolescence. They fear being labelled gay: ‘“no homo” becomes their mantra’, Way tells us. She also tells us that many of her subjects found the loss of their emotional connections with other men a deeply painful experience.

Though it is part of the apparatus that maintains men’s social dominance, the ‘be independent, be cool, no homo’ ethos evidently has costs for individual men. It also has costs for women, since men who subscribe to it see their girlfriends and female friends as the only acceptable source of emotional support.

But just as men sometimes want more intimacy in their friendships, women sometimes want to turn down the emotional temperature. Cool and casual has its attractions for both sexes. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If women want to be addressed as ‘guys’ and ‘dudes’ I’m not going to tell them they’re betraying the feminist cause. (Particularly if the alternative is being addressed as ‘babes’ and ‘dolls’.) In language as in life, you do your best with whatever you’ve got.

* Just to clarify (since the point has been raised on Twitter): I‘m not suggesting that all uses of ‘guy(s)’ and ‘dude’ are inclusive. When they’re used as address terms these words usually include women, but when they’re used for reference (‘the guys in the office’, ‘that dude who works in the coffee shop’) the reference will usually be understood as male-only.  There are some signs that may be changing, but for now, if you’re talking about people rather than directly to them, it’s still good feminist advice to go easy on the ‘guy’-talk.