1.1. Overt Sexism and Indirect Sexism
Sexist language is a term used to denote a wide range of very different elements, from the use of such items as generic pronouns such as `he', ( when used to refer to both males and females); word endings such as `-ette' used to refer to women (for example `usherette’), nouns referring to men and women (such as `landlord’ and `landlady’, `manager’ and `manageress’, which seem to have a different range of meanings), insult terms which seem to differ for men and women, the names we are given and those which are used for parts of our bodies, and so on. The term sexism is, however, also used to categorise a set of stereotypically beliefs about women which cannot be directly related to a certain set of linguistic usages or features. Take this example from a humorous magazine entitled The Joy of Sexism which is presented in the format of a newspaper report on world records:
`Car Parking: The smallest kerbside space successfully reversed into by a woman was one of 19.36m, 63ft 2ins, equivalent to three standard parking spaces by Mrs Elizabeth Simpkins (GB) driving an unmodified Vauxhall Nova `Swing’ on the 12th October 1993. She started the manoeuvre in Ropergate, Pontefract and successfully parked within three feet of the pavement 8 hours and 14 mins later. There was slight damage to the bumpers and wings of her own and the two adjoining cars, as well as a shop frontage and two lamp posts’ ( (Donald, n.d. : 6)
This is followed by another world record report entitled `Incorrect Driving’ which states:
`The longest journey completed with the handbrake on was one of 504 km 313 miles from Stranraer to Holyhead by Dr Julie Thorn (GB) at the wheel of a Saab 900…The journey also holds the records for the longest completed with the choke out and the right indicator flashing’ (Donald, n.d.6)
These humorous reports are based on the assumption that women are bad drivers, an assertion which can be classified as sexist for most people, since it seems to be asserting that gender is an important element in driving ability. Because this is a stereotypical view of women’s driving, it is available for use by individual speakers and writers. However, it is important to note, as I will be making clear later in this book, that stereotypical statements do not go unchallenged, and part of the discursive framework within which statements such as this are made, are feminist interventions about sexism. This often makes the sexist statement itself one which might be mediated, for example by humour, nervous laughter and hesitation. As Cameron notes in her work on sexual politics, we need to analyse the `contending forces that are active around gender relations’ (Cameron, 2006: 3) both the sexism, the feminist responses and the anti-feminist discourses.
However, it is practically impossible to categorise these jokes about women’s driving as sexist linguistically (as would be the case with certain pronouns or word-endings) and it seems that we need to be able to distinguish between those statements which can be categorised as sexist ( on the basis of the stereotypical knowledge or gendered discourses that they seem to be based on) and those linguistic features which seem to be indicative of sexist beliefs in most contexts. Within each context, we will always have to analyse the cues that could lead us to consider a statement to be sexist. As Cameron puts it :
`"sexist language" cannot be regarded as simply the "naming" of the world from one, masculinist perspective; it is better conceptualised as a multifaceted phenomenon occurring in a number of quite complex systems of representation, all with their places in historical traditions' (Cameron, 1990: 14).
Cameron suggests that this multifaceted nature of sexism makes it difficult to analyse, as the feminist linguist is often dealing with many different linguistic and non-linguistic elements in any one analysis. But this should not make it impossible to isolate sexism; what we can analyse is the process whereby certain items become associated with sexist or discriminatory opinions, the history of their usage, their affirmation or contestation by institutions, the use that is made of them by individuals, the challenges that feminism makes to them and the judgements which are made about those usages.
What I shall be distinguishing between in this book is overt sexism and indirect sexism. Overt or direct sexism is the type of usage, which can be straightforwardly identified through the use of linguistic markers, or through the analysis of presupposition, which has historically been associated with the expression of discriminatory opinions about women, which signals to hearers that women are seen as an inferior group in relation to males. This is the type of language usage which has been most contested by feminists and which has, as a result, become stigmatised by most language users. Hearers have the option of ignoring this type of language use but they may draw attention to the fact that this type of language use is sexist and hence will draw attention to the fact that they consider the person who has used these terms conservative or chauvinist. 6 This type of overt sexism still exists but it is seen by many as anachronistic and signalling very conservative views of women, which are at odds with current views of gender relations. However, I will argue later in Chapter 5, that because overt sexism is difficult to articulate these days, because of this sense of a general change in views on women, a more indirect or discourse level of sexism has developed which manages to express sexism whilst at the same time denying responsibility for it. For example, sexist terms are now often used in newspapers, and on certain radio and television programmes, whilst at the same time being undercut by humour or irony, signalled by, for example, exaggerated or marked intonation or stress. This indirect sexism is largely associated with young men as Benwell (2006) has shown, and with publications and programmes associated with them. For example, Chris Moyles, a UK BBC Radio 1 DJ regularly insults female colleagues and female listeners with terms such as `stupid cow’ and ` daft slapper’. He also makes assertions about females which can only be classified as sexist and stereotypical (women are no good at football; any sport associated with women, for example, netball and hockey, are stupid games and men who play them are emasculated and gay, and so on). When listeners complain about these views and the terms of abuse that Moyles uses on his show, it is asserted that Moyles does not believe these views himself; they are used for humorous effect and they constitute part of a public persona which Moyles has constructed. When recently Chris Moyles used the term `gay’ to mean `rubbish’ (as in `That’s so gay’), the BBC responded to complaints about this, by stating that `gay was widely used by young people to mean “rubbish”’ (Cashmore, 2006: 34) Thus, for the BBC, Moyles is not individually responsible for the meaning of this term, but is simply using a term which is current amongst his audience, a strategic response which is often used to deny homophobia (Leap, 1997). Thus, Moyles can use sexist and homophobic terms but, because they are widely used, he can deny responsibility for the offence that they caused. However, this type of indirect sexism is not restricted to the speech of young men and as I will show in Chapter 5, there is evidence of indirect sexism in many other contexts.
1.2. Responses to Sexism
Accusations of sexism can be problematic: when the term sexism is used to accuse someone of having made a stereotypical comment about women in conversation, it can often be seen as a way of attacking someone’s beliefs and standing within a group. Accusations of sexism can be seen as confrontational and may be interpreted as the taking of a moral stand. On a personal level, such judgements may be difficult to accept.
Furthermore, we should not imagine that sexism is easy to categorise. Some women play with stereotypical beliefs. I recently saw a woman driving a car which had a sticker in the rear window which said in pink `Dippy Tart’ and which featured a cartoon illustration of a doll-like girl. Both `dippy’ and `tart’ are terms which have been associated with overt sexist beliefs in that both of them have been largely restricted to reference to women, stereotypically asserting that women lack intelligence and competence, and that if they are sexually active or are seen to dress in a way which is interpreted as sexually provocative, they should be viewed negatively. In a similar way, I saw a woman carrying an umbrella recently which had a picture of a cow on it with the phrase `Stroppy Cow’ on it. Obviously, these women are unashamedly embracing these terms to describe themselves ironically or jokingly. This strategy of appropriating negative and stereotypical terms about yourself as a woman has a long history within feminist activism and theorising, for example, lesbians often refer to themselves as `dykes’, which was originally an insult term; `Virago’ was originally used to refer to troublesome women, but was then used as the name of a women’s publishing press. Mary Daly suggests that this should be a strategy which can help to subvert some of the negative words which have been used about women (Daly, 1981). Judith Butler equally sees the ironic usage of insult terms as a way of combating racist and sexist language (Butler, 1997) . Jane Mills argues that:
`There are many problems about the attempt to reform language. I might for example wish to impart a positive sense when using the word “cunt” but if this meaning is not understood by my reader then we’re back to square one: in the minds of sexists, language can always be sexist. But this is not to believe that there can be no change in either language or society. For me, one of the reasons for studying the history of word meaning, as well as to analyse the way in which patriarchal society defines and thus controls women, was to draw attention to the past and present masculinist bias of conventional usage. Definitions are not static and closed, they are subjects for rational discourse. With almost every word we utter, we have a choice’ (Mills, J 1989:xvi).
Women have a range of options when responding to statements or texts which they consider to be sexist. And this multiplicity of response to sexism also poses problems for any simply notion of reform. Sunderland (2004) discusses an incident in a workplace, where a poster was made of a woman colleague and e-mailed to others. It was the woman’s birthday and the picture showed the woman’s head superimposed on a naked body. One of the woman’s female colleagues protested about this image as degrading to women but the women figured e-mailed everyone saying `I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all my friends and colleagues who made me feel very special on my 40th birthday’ (Sunderland, 2004:195) In this case, the colleague who complained felt that, if there was potential damage to one woman in this image, it was in some ways damaging to all women, as Sunderland argues: `the damaging potential of a given discourse must be relevant to more than just an individual’ (Sunderland 2004: 196). However, Sunderland argues that this multiplicity of response to sexism, whilst making reform difficult, may have positive effects; she states :`whereas some individuals may be damaged by sexist discourse, others will recognise it for what it is, resist it, laugh at it and/or become empowered in the process’ (Sunderland, 2004:194)
Thus, there are a number of ways of responding to sexism, which do not involve anger and condemnation but rather draw on irony and humour; in this book we will analyse the effectiveness of these responses.
1.3. Problems of reform
As I mentioned above, the model which up until now has been used to describe sexism has assumed that sexism resides in individual words and phrases and that the solution to the problem of sexism is to reform the word, that is, to propose an alternative non-sexist usage. In certain cases, that is the most effective strategy, for example, when the generic pronoun `he’ is replaced by `s/he’ or `they’ (as in `the patient or his carer must complete this form’ can be rephrased as `Patients or their carers must complete this form’ or the more long-winded `The patient and her/his carer must complete this form’). Here, simply replacing the pronoun with another one which signals its inclusive reference and signals an awareness of the problematic nature of sexism for both women and men, has a major impact on a workplace or institution and has an impact on the way that some women see their relation to institutions (for a fuller discussion, see Chapter 2) However, for some nouns which appear to be problematic, a simple replacing of the noun with another seeming non-sexist one is not always possible. If, for example, the term `spaceman’ seems to be a male-specific noun which is used generically to refer to all astronauts, then one strategy would be to replace that word with a truly generic noun such as `astronaut’. However, as Cameron (1990) has argued, what if, because of the highly specialised and military nature of much space training which has resulted in most astronauts being male, the term `astronaut’ itself is used as a term which refers to males only and females in the profession are then termed `female astronauts’. Similarly, how can we believe that reform is a viable option when the non-sexist word that has been developed to replace a sexist term, for example `chairperson’ is then only used to refer to women. Although `chair’ and `chairperson’ have been adopted fairly widely throughout institutions, it seems that the lower-status term `chairperson’ is used to refer to women and low-status men (Sunderland, 2006). Furthermore, how can feminist linguists deal with those who adopt these reformist measures at a superficial level and mark their superficial acceptance of these terms by intonation or stress. For example, from my own experience, at a primary school governors’ meeting where the chair was female, several governors asked the elderly treasurer (a renowned sexist and conservative) if he would mind referring to the chair as `chair’ or `chairwoman’ rather than calling her `chairman’ or worse `madam chairman’. Since there was general acceptance in the meeting that this was something which many of the women and men present approved of, he grudgingly agreed to change his usage. However, each time he thereafter referred to the chair he took a very audible intake of breath and pronounced `chair’ with a great deal of aspiration, which seemed like a sigh of despair at the inanity of this type of `political correctness’. On the surface, at least, he could not be criticised, as he had acceded to our demands by using the term `chair’. However, he made it abundantly clear by his facial expressions and by his pronunciation of the term that he was only doing so at a very superficial level and his beliefs about women and about language reform were entirely unchanged.
A further problem with reform can be illustrated by examining the case of Italian where feminists have argued that professional women should not have to refer to themselves using names referring to men. Thus, a female lawyer in the past would have to refer to herself as `avvocato’ , a female Minister as `Ministro’ and a female mayor as `sindaco’, the `o’ ending here signifying a male referent. Because of feminist campaigns, it has become possible for women to refer to themselves as `avvocatessa’, `Ministra’ or `sindachessa’, using newly developed feminine endings. However, most Italian people have not adopted these terms, because, it is argued, they sound very `forced’. 7 In addition, they seem to emphasise the fact that the referent is a woman, rather than stressing her professional status. Thus, the proposed language reforms seem ridiculous to most people speaking the language and they have not been widely adopted (pers.comm.Schirru, 2007).8
Whilst, in the 1980s, feminists hoped that it would be possible to reform language and, as I show in Chapter 3, the reforming strategies of feminists in a range of different countries have proved very effective in changing certain types of linguistic sexism, reform of sexist statements is now seen to be more difficult to achieve and more fraught with problems (see Pauwels, 1998, 2001). Cameron (1998b) argues that for reform to be effective, it is necessary to have it accepted by the gatekeepers of language, that is the dictionary compilers, the newspapers, and editors who provide guidance on writing style for publishers and so on. Reform can only be effective if it is accepted and promoted by those in positions of influence. In fact, the alternative terms suggested by feminists have been largely adopted by these gatekeepers, since publishers, trade unions and universities have generally adopted policies in relation to sexist and racist language. However, Sunderland reports on an anti-sexist language policy which was issued at the Lancashire Polytechnic, UK in 1987; critics of the policy argued that it displayed `cultural dictatorship’ and these critics claimed that it had been written by `frustrated spinsters’ (Sunderland, 2006: 11) Other institutions, such as right wing newspapers, have ridiculed the proposed alternatives as `politically correct’ and they have therefore not been adopted. Others have revelled in their sexism, terming it `politically incorrect’.
In considering the effectiveness of reform, we need to ask whether sexism is a reflection of social oppression or a mediation and factor in oppression ? If it is a simple reflection of discriminatory social practices, then changing the social system will lead to sexism disappearing, and simply changing the language items themselves will have no impact whatsoever – those who are sexists will simply find other ways to be sexist. If sexism is a mediation of or a factor in oppression, that is, if the way that language is used systematically represents women as secondary to men, then perhaps if the language is changed, it will change the common-sense assumptions that people have about women and, in turn, social discrimination will diminish. I would argue that in some ways these two positions on language, which have often been polarised in the past by feminist linguists, should be seen as both true, since language does change when social systems and structures change,9 and equally changes in language, especially when they are affirmed by institutions, can have an impact on the way that women are considered and treated. Thus, language is neither simply a reflection of or vehicle for social values, nor solely a catalyst for social change, but because of its role in the construction of identity and roles for both individuals and groups within society, it should be seen as a resource which informs the way that people think about their positions in society. Linguistic reform, therefore, has an impact on the way people feel that they can express themselves about others, as I discuss in more detail in Chapter 3, but it also has an impact on wider social values by leading the way in enabling challenges to stereotypical thinking
1.4. Changing nature of feminist impact
In recent years it has become clear that there has been a major change in the role of feminism (Gormley, 2008 forthcoming). There has been much discussion of the fact that for many women, feminism is not a term that they would use to refer to themselves, even though they would probably agree largely with a feminist agenda. In the university system, there are now few Women's Studies courses available either at undergraduate or postgraduate level. 10 In the 1980s and 1990s I regularly sat on interview panels within the institutions in which I then worked as the obligatory female representative, as it was deemed important to foreground gender issues within the interviewing process - this is no longer standard practice. Furthermore, on many of the committees which I attended in the 1980s and 1990s, ` Equal Opportunities’ was frequently a standard item on the agenda, and under this topic we would discuss the implications of what had been decided at the meeting for equal opportunities. Whilst there are still equal opportunities officers within institutions, this focus on equal opportunities as an integral part of everyday business has changed. However, despite this decrease in the status of feminism within the academy, there are still strong professional bodies associated with the study of feminism (for example, the International Gender and Language Association) and there are numerous feminist journals, (for example, Gender and Language, Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Review, Gender and History, and so on). For Cameron, however, `though feminism remains strong in the academy, its cultural influence outside academic circles has declined along with the organised women’s movement and that has also changed the academic conversation’ (Cameron 2006:8). This changing relation of academic feminism to a wider public and to institutions has had a great impact on the way in which sexism is thought about. Whereas in the past, there was a popular Women’s Movement outside the academy, which campaigned against pornography, protested against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common and `reclaimed the night’, it is difficult to discern a clear women’s movement now. Some of these protests have become institutionalised, for example, most European governments have established Equal Opportunities Commissions and Ministers for Women; and there are a great number of highly efficient and professional feminist campaigning groups, such as the Women’s Environmental Network and the Fawcett Society. However, for many people, there is no longer a popular feminist movement, since feminism has achieved its goals of equal opportunities and discouraging discrimination. We are, in short, for these people, in a post-feminist era. Popular feminism seems for some to have lost its edge and vigour, as Gauntlett argues: it appears like a `radio friendly remix of a multi-layered song with the most exciting bits sampled and some of the dense stuff left out’ (Gauntlett, 2002, cited in Gill 2007: 2).
1.5. Changing status of women
Since the 1970s and 1980s, women’s position in British society has changed immeasurably, most notably the proportion of women in the workplace and in full-time work. This has made a major impact on the way that women are viewed, but it has also posed a threat to those men who have stereotypical views of women and who contest the access which women now have to careers and promotion. It has also made a major impact on the way that women behave and the way that they view themselves. Because of increased financial independence and status within the workplace, women are less likely to tolerate sexist comments and discrimination. But this does not mean that women are treated as equals to men. Gill notes that there is a curious schizophrenia about women:
`Confident expressions of “girl power” sit alongside reports of “epidemic” levels of anorexia and body dysmorphism; graphic tabloid reports of rape are placed cheek by jowl with adverts for lap-dancing clubs and telephone sex lines; lad magazines declare the “sex war” over, while reinstating beauty contests and championing new , ironic modes of sexism; and there are regular moral panics about the impact on men of the new idealised male body imagery, while the re-sexualisation of women’s bodies in public space goes virtually unremarked upon. Everywhere, it seems feminist ideas have become a kind of common sense, yet feminism has never been more bitterly repudiated’ (Gill, 2007: 1).
Levy also comments on the rise of what she terms `raunch culture’, in contemporary society, where those forms of sexual behaviour which second wave feminists condemned as exploiting women are now embraced as part of women’s empowerment: `this new Raunch culture didn’t mark the death of feminism [friends] told me; it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved’ (Levy, 2005: 3). Thus, so empowered are women that they can enjoy going to strip clubs and lap-dancing. For Levy, `raunch culture is a litmus test of female uptightness’ (Levy, 2005:40). She also adds that : `embracing raunch culture is a way for young women to thumb our noses at the intense fervour of 2nd wave feminists’ (Levy, 2005: 74).
Men and women have changed, because of the impact of feminism and the changes which have come in the wake of women’s integration into the work force. As Talbot argues, changes in institutions result in changes in the way individual see their roles:
`masculine and feminine identities are effects of discursive practices. Masculinity is not an individual property or attribute; it is formed within institutions and is historically constituted. Like femininity it is discursively produced and its articulation spans institutions’ (Talbot, 1998: 191).
Men have had to change their roles and attitudes and for some this has been difficult. Some have welcomed the changes, but often these new, more progressive roles have been mocked. For example, the New Man has been much derided. Goodwin has decsribed the New Man as `the toxic waste of feminism' ; she goes on to argue that: `The worst of it is that these men are so unappealing, so unaesthetic, so unsexy. Once you see through the dubious charms of someone “who really understands women” what you’re left with is a man… who is so busy trying to be supportive that he has probably forgotten what an erection is for’ (Goodwin, 1993, cited in Gill 2007: 210)
The integration of women into the public sphere has not been achieved without conflict and resistance from men. It is clear that women are not treated equally even now within the public sphere, but the sheer visibility of women in all sectors of the public sphere has changed the type of language which it is possible to use. It is no longer possible to address a departmental meeting at a university by saying `Gentlemen, shall we start, now?', (something which happened to me in the 1980s when I was the only female in a department). There have also been institutional and legal changes which make many types of sexist statements appear aberrant, and which have conferred on women, in theory though not in practice, the same legal status as men, (the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the reforms of the divorce legislation in Britain). Finally, there have also been feminist campaigns in Britain and America which tried to draw attention to the problems associated with sexist language; many of these campaigns received support from institutions, such as trades unions, and institutions, such as publishing houses and universities. Thus quasi-legalistic measures were taken by institutions to reform language use and whilst these reforms are not without their difficulties, they have meant that individuals have a certain amount of institutional support when challenging the use of overt sexism. All of these factors together have resulted in a fundamental change in the nature of overt sexism and the way that sexism operates in Britain, Australasia and North America today. It could be argued that these changes have meant that overt sexism has been `driven underground' and that other more subtle forms of expression which are equally pernicious and discriminatory have been used instead.
It has also become clear that, given the more sophisticated models of gender and language use that are currently being deployed in language and gender research, (see for example Holmes and Meyerhoff, 2003; Eckert and McConnel-Ginet, 2003), it is no longer possible to speak about sexism in the simplistic way that feminists did in the 1980s and 1990s (Miller and Swift, 1982/1989). The term sexism implied a model of the relation between the sexes which is necessarily antagonistic: all women pitted against all men in the `battle of the sexes’. Women were presented as the victims of male aggression, fear and hatred. Sexism was seen to be determined by patriarchy - a social system which privileged men at the expense of women. Whilst being keenly aware of the persistence of structural inequalities between men and women, and emphasising the notion of institutional sexism, the notion of a global homogeneous patriarchy is simplistic. Lazar (2005) suggests that we see patriarchy as ` an ideological system that interacts in complex ways with…corporatist and consumerist ideologies’ (Lazar, 2005:1). Thus, we need a much more complex notion of male power and the way it is buttressed by other forces. Sexism is better understood as a set of discursive practices and stereotypical knowledge which changes over time and which can be challenged, rather than as the reflection of a fixed and unchanging patriarchy. Furthermore, rather than assuming that all men are contemptuous of women, we need to be able to see sexism as a resource available to men but which not all men draw on. Working with more complex models of the differences within gender categories and trying to integrate models of gender with factors of race, age, education and sexual orientation, has led many feminists working on language and gender to move away from a concern with sexist language, precisely because of these problems of essentialism. So, whilst in this book I will be drawing on analyses of sexist language which show that overt sexism is still prevalent, I will not be assuming that all women will interpret an utterance which seems to be sexist in the same way, nor will I assume that are all women affected in the same way. I will instead analyse the range of meanings that statements may have and the way that meaning is not always clearly defined - misunderstanding and conflict over meaning is more common than clarity in this area (Pauwels, 1998; Wodak,1998). In fact, the conflict over resources, the conflict over women working in the public sphere, and antagonism to feminism has often led to a strategy of using language items which cannot be seen to be openly sexist but which can be interpreted as functioning as sexist at the level of implicature (Cameron, 1998a). Interpretation is one of the key elements here, as is the assessment of what we assume someone's intentions are.