Bidisha and feminist language policing

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Yesterday I saw an article by feminist novelist and arts commentator Bidisha promoting a feminist language-policing site called Name It, Change It which presents a pyramid of misogynistic language, with “severe misogyny” at the top and common, supposedly sexist language at the bottom. What sticks out is that, while much of the language cited is obviously very offensive, other words are mixed in which aren’t, or may not be depending on who is using them and in what spirit and what context. She claims that it represents “men’s creativity” in coining terms to degrade women; many of them probably weren’t coined for any such purpose, if at all.

It’s obviously an American website; the form for reporting sexist incidents in the media, for example, require you to give what American state or region you’re in, and was intended to expose sexist commentary in the media regarding female candidates in US elections. So, calling a female candidate “attractive”, a judgement on her appearance which is totally irrelevant to her politics, but is this really confined to female candidates? In the recent election, much of the criticism of Gordon Brown centred on his poor communication abilities and John Major was widely caricatured as a dull man in a grey suit, so it’s not just the women although, for reasons I’ll explain later, there are reasons why women’s appearance gets criticised in the media more than men’s. I followed the links, through the Women’s Media Center to an article in the Washington Post which covers NICI’s campaign, and is linked to a video calling a Democratic candidate a “mama grizzly”.

Bidisha totally ignores the whole context of the website and treats it as if it were about denouncing these words in everyday usage as sexist. Her commentary has typically been along the lines that many, if not most, men hate women and that women’s lives are one long battle against this hatred (see here for a recent example). To someone with this mentality, practically any word which has any gendered connotations is going to be insulting to women. Take the inclusion of “girl”. Of course, that can be used as a put-down, much as “boy” can to a man, although “girl” is used more commonly. However, a lot of women refer to women their own age or younger as “girls”, probably just because they have been doing so since they were growing up when their contemporaries actually were girls.

A year or so ago, Shahidah Siraaj wrote about an incident in which a Black woman came to her workplace looking for a job, and commented, “Oh, you’re all girls! That’s wonderful”, and after she had gone, the supervisor insisted that she not be hired because “it was obvious she didn’t understand the feminist leaning of the organization”. This may or may not have been an excuse — the supervisor said she preferred to hire a Latina, and perhaps she just didn’t like the interviewee — but it is one particular view common among white feminists which doesn’t hold true for everyone and especially not to Black American women who, as Shahidah said, used it as a term of endearment. I commented that, in my experience, white women use it all the time as well and there are numerous examples of groups of women being called girls: Golden Girls, Indigo Girls, Spice Girls and so on. I have often used “the girls” to refer to my female cousins (all but one of them adults) without any objection.

Similarly, “babe” has its place — as a term of affection from one partner to another — but it doesn’t have one in the workplace; but it’s just as annoying when used from a female member of staff to a more junior male, as I have often encountered while working as a driver (and having spoken to other men, many of them find it annoying also). Over-familiarity is generally off-putting and intimidating, because it relies on the person using it having a position of power that the person spoken to doesn’t. I don’t dispute that women experience this more than men do, but it does happen the other way round.

“Comments about a woman’s appearance”, in the context of a political campaign (and when the woman’s appearance is not outrageous), are inappropriate as already acknowledged, but since Bidisha seems to think that the reference is to such comments generally, one might ask why they happen. The simple answer is that women have more choice in what to wear to any formal or work-related occasion than a man does, so there is simply more to talk about. Some of the papers where this happens are mostly read by women, who it is assumed will be interested in discussing the merits of this or that outfit. When men get it drastically wrong, such as Michael Foot with his “donkey jacket” disaster at a Remembrance Day wreath-laying ceremony in 1981, it can be terribly damaging for them. For men, the standard dress for any “sitting-down” work and any formal occasion is a suit, usually with a tie.

A couple of years ago, I was sent for what I was told was a certain job at an air-conditioning company here in New Malden, and my agency told me that I should wear a shirt and tie, so I did. When I arrived, I noticed that, while all the men were buttoned-up, the women were wearing pretty much what they like, much of it not looking very formal at all and a lot it was quite revealing. I personally find shirts and ties dreadfully uncomfortable and they remind me of my much-hated school uniforms, so I found it galling that anything went as far as women’s dress in that office was concerned. However, however much it goes on in the media, it actually isn’t polite to criticise what a woman wears (particularly for a man), even if the dress is plainly inappropriate. I have previously told about my experience of trying to keep my eyes off a middle-aged woman’s body as she tried to sell me a computer at the Linux Expo; a lot of feminine clothing (as opposed to clothing that’s just made for women) is very revealing, with cleavage being pretty much universal at the moment (these maxi dresses are a case in point), even for older women that it just doesn’t suit. It can be pretty embarrassing.

So, it’s not all about misogyny. I’d dispute that, any time you hear a man talk disrespectfully of a woman, you can assume that he actually hates or even despises women; it’s more likely that he is just inclined to talk disrespectfully about anyone. I’ve often heard women say that they find men easier to talk to, but how they talk when there aren’t “ladies present” is another matter. As for some of the other terms (bitch, ice queen etc.), they sometimes reflect the fact that we regard different types of behaviour as becoming of a woman than what we find acceptable in a man; this has caused problems for women in positions of authority and we can debate how fair each case of this may be but again, it is not the same as hating women generally. Besides completely misunderstanding what the whole pyramid is for, she has followed them in mixing up unquestionably offensive language with some which is quite innocent in her quite ludicrous effort to dictate and police how people talk about women. Amid all the reactionary nonsense in the Guardian’s comments, I found this quite well-reasoned one:

We know, of course, why the Guardian publishes these articles - because they present an extreme, no holds-barred, take no prisoners opinion, and because Bidisha isn’t afraid to hold a position without diluting it, and because she’s happy to make extreme statements about how men hate women. It’s all good fodder for the blogosphere, and is bound to create a reaction. I have no doubt there’ll be hundreds of comments on this blog by the end of the day, and Bidisha will have a little tick next to her name in the editorial review for writing a “popular/provocative” talk piece. …

What Bidisha fails to appreciate or differentiate between is the use of language which may be perceived as patronising towards women (Jamie Oliver’s “girlies” comment, perhaps), or inappropriate for the situation (talking about “MILFs” in a business meeting is, I agree, not cool), and comments which are overtly sexist and stated with the intention of demeaning women. She also fails to recognise that in the real world, social interactions between men and women are varied and complicated, and people use language for a variety of reasons, sometimes without even understanding how their language affects others.

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