Robyn Vinter 14th November 2017
There’s nothing more annoying than when you’re speaking passionately about a subject and someone picks up on the way you’re speaking, rather the content of your speech.
There will be some men who have never experienced that but it’s unlikely there are any women who don’t know what I mean. For every teenage boy who is freely allowed to go about their daily business by society, there’s a teenage girl who gets pulled up every time she says “shit”, “fuck” or in Millie Bobby Brown’s case “bitchin”. When she tweeted that word last week she was publically called out by Netflix’s official US Twitter account, a twee and gimmicky branded embodiment of the Steve Buscemi “how do you do, fellow kids” meme.
Whether the Browns are comfortable with their child swearing is entirely up to them (hopefully they encourage her to say anything she wants), but it’s not our job to police the language of a teenage girl, especially when “bitchin” is an absolutely excellent choice of word.
It’s just a joke, right? Well, it would be if jokingly pulling a woman up on her “bad language” didn’t have the exact same effect as being sincere. It indicates that even after decades of feminism women are still being monitored for how “ladylike” we are. When you make these jokes, it shows that your focus is more on the fact the person you’re speaking to is a woman than what they’re saying, even if you don’t really believe that there’s a difference in what language men and women should use. It’s, at worst, infuriating and, at best, an unfunny inconvenience that we can do without.
It’s something you’ll hear a lot if, like me, you’re a woman who likes to swear. Granted, my swearing vocabulary is pretty small and very unimaginative and mostly used in mundane situations. Possibly out of habit, I frequently reach for “fuck” and “shit” where a softer “bugger” or “bastard” would suffice, which might be why, in my teens, boys would accuse me of “swearing for effect”, even though they swore much louder and more frequently than I did.
Yes, women do swear “for effect”. Men swear for effect too. That’s really what swearing is all about.
It’s unsurprising that we’re still focused on these silly stereotypes, given that, for example, in movie scripts, the language written for men and women is so different that a computer can tell the difference between whether a random line is spoken by a man or a woman with 74% accuracy. This research by Cornell University confirms multiple findings that show male characters have language peppered with swear words, while women use more greetings and words like “please”.
Of course, everybody has to temper their language in certain circumstances, but exclusively calling out women for how she speaks, especially in public, can be damaging.
It’s not just swearing either – a few months back, I was on the train with a couple of friends when a man aged about 40 came over to us, interrupted mid-sentence and said he had needed to move seats, away from us, because the amount I used the word “like” in conversation with my friends was unbearable to him.
He obviously hadn’t expected us to stick up for ourselves – we’re all nearing 30 but perhaps look a few years younger – as he was shocked when his “I’m not being rude…” was met with “actually you are being rude”. He eventually went away baffled and a little angry. But despite knowing he was an idiot, I felt uncomfortable speaking for the last bit of the train journey and it’s still stayed with me. I think about it every single time I’m speaking in front of people or when something I say might be broadcast.
Of course, this isn’t exclusive to how we speak – men feeling entitled to have a say in how a woman conducts herself stretches past words and into the everyday things we do. I’ve had men on public transport sigh dramatically when they see I’m putting mascara on – as if it somehow affects their day that my makeup wasn’t perfect before I dared show my face to a busload of people.
But speech is particularly important because it’s no secret that women’s voices feature less in parliament, business, in the media and almost every element of the public sphere. Criticising how a young woman expresses herself is adding another completely unnecessary hurdle for her to overcome on the way to becoming one of those voices. Joking about how a “lady shouldn’t swear” might not seem like a big deal but every instance her speech is criticised compounds. Ultimately, even the most resilient women can be less inclined to deal with the hassle of speaking up, despite often having something valuable to say.
Robyn Vinter 14th November 2017