Writes Like A Girl

Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post thinks President Obama speaks like a girl. Yeah.  There’s so much fail in that piece, I almost don’t know where to begin.  But let’s start with this one:

When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama’s speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

Now, Parker doesn’t explicitly say that passive voice constructions are a feature of female speech or writing (actually, the editorial is so screwy that it’s hard to figure out exactly what she is saying), though as the Language Log helpfully reminds us:

The first thing to say is that there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are “feminine”.  Women don’t use the passive voice more than men, and among male writers, number of passive-voice constructions doesn’t appear to have any relationship at all to real or perceived manliness. The “passive is girly” prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive, misinterpreted by people who in any case mostly wouldn’t recognize the grammatical passive voice if it bit them on the leg.

And let’s not forget that Obama’s head speech writer is a dude.  Parker’s larger point seems to be that women favor a more conciliatory rhetorical style, while men favor a direct, assertive style, and I guess she’s sort of saying that that’s both a good and bad thing:

The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama’s rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to “plug the damn hole,” as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn’t. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

Indeed, while she seems to be suggesting that the backlash against Obama’s handling of the Gulf Coast crisis is in some way sexist (?!?), her own tacit criticism of these acts suggests that she shares the belief that men cannot adopt a girly girly rhetorical stance without harming themselves politically.  I think.  I mean, really, WTF?

The idea that women write differently from men has been around for a long time and has even, to a certain degree, been adopted by feminist theorists.  French feminists like Julie Kristeva, Helene Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, coined the term Écriture féminine to describe a writerly voice that is distinctively feminine.  That distinctive voice, however, was more about rejecting the notion of the phallus as the source of an author’s power , a notion metaphor that appears consistently in male writing ever since women dared compete with them as authors. Gilbert and Gubar’s famous essay, “The Queen’s Looking Glass: Female Creativity, Male Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity” begins with that observation:

Is the pen a metaphorical penis?  Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to have thought so.  In a letter to his friend R.W. Dixon in 1886 he confided a crucial feature of his theory of poetry.  The artist’s “most essential quality,” he declared, is “masterly execution, which is a kind of male gift, and especially marks off men from women, the begetting of one’s thought on paper, on verse, or whatever the matter is.”  In addition, he noted that “on better consideration it strikes me that the mastery I speak of is not so much in the mind as a puberty in the life of that quality.  The male quality is the creative gift.

You can read just about anything by Philip Roth or John Updike for a modern example. Discovering the écriture féminine has largely been about centering women’s bodies and women’s experiences in writing.  But there are problems with this particular aspect of feminist theory, namely, it’s tendency to essentialize about the relationship between gender and style.  For example, Irigaray’s asserts that women’s experience cannot be depicted using the linear, logical mode that dominates male writing.   It comes awfully close, in my opinion, to rooting women’s distinctiveness in stereotype:  Men are logical, linear, prosaic.  Women are non-linear, emotional, jouissant, poetic.  To reify those categories is to at least partially deny the social conditioning that codes rationality, order, and science as masculine and feelings and all that shit as feminine.

Let’s return, for a second, to Parker’s assumption that women employ a less direct, less assertive, more conciliatory style in their writing and speaking, and let’s think for a second about why that might be.  Consider this post on The Awl about the ways that men and women pitch stories for their site (via Feministe).  Inquiries from dudes look something like this:

“Do you take pitches? Should I just write something and send it? Do I have to tickle the balls? I want to write for the awl, dammit.”

While pitches from women tend to look like this:

“As an long-time admirer of your site (and non-too-frequent registered commenter), I’ve been too shy to pitch as I’ve never felt like my work measured up to your fine standards.”

Every female blogger who has commented on this Awl story has confessed that they are guilty of framing queries like this, apologizing up front for taking up the editor’s time and for the inadequacies in their work.  Women frame their requests in a less assertive way because that is how we are taught to enter the world:  don’t be too aggressive, don’t be arrogant, don’t bother people, don’t make people upset, don’t step on anyone’s toes, don’t don’t don’t.  I also walk around with considerable anxiety any time I ask a professor to read an article I’m working on, or serve on my dissertation committee, or even just help me talk through some ideas.  While I also don’t wish to essentialize, I’ve noticed that my male colleagues walk around with a greater sense of confidence and entitlement (a healthy sort of entitlement) in this regard, and as a result, their work gets out there.  Now, that’s a bit of social conditioning that I am trying to overcome, as it will hurt my career if I don’t, but just the fact that I have to wrestle with it means that in the marathon that is a scholarly career, I am walking around with a concrete shoe on one foot.

But even though women tend to undersell themselves, that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of using commanding rhetoric when the occasion calls for it or that they will automatically compromise their ideals in order to avoid conflict or confrontation.  Consider the statements of Dawn Johnson, who recently stepped down as the nominee for The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, having spent a year waiting for Senate confirmation.  In a statement to the press (via NPR), she had the following to say:

In the current climate, even if you attempt a crass political calculus about how to live your life, you may as well say what you think because they can always find a footnote to twist and distort in a 20-year-old brief. […]  The one thing you didn’t want people saying at your funeral was she went to her grave with her options open.

I don’t think Obama used the passive voice in his speech on the oil crisis or seeks to conciliate Republicans and conservative Democrats because he has some inherently feminine qualities.  I think he does that because he is a politician who calculates each daily move according to polling data, according to how relationships on the Hill will help or impede his agenda, according to the impact an act or spoken word will have on re-election.  Obama does what many politicians do and is, perhaps, not as ready to cover it up with bluster and belligerence.  Suggesting that these acts are somehow womanly does nothing but gender-essentialize based on stereotype and tar women with some of the more uncomfortable and unsavory realities of political behavior.

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5 thoughts on “Writes Like A Girl

  1. Let’s say you cannot define what the difference is, but in fact, when you read superficially, for instance while surfing, you would mostly or even always know whether you are reading a man or a woman; wouldn’t you?

    And a friend of mine recently in an exhibition of some 70 local hobby painters could also tell whether the painter was she or he. I know very little about painting and yet I think I can also tell mostly, but not always.

    I am not sure whether I could also tell the difference in academic writing. Probably I can’t, maybe because that language is prefab.

    It would be easy to find out how many people can tell the difference with what kind of accuracy. But from there to actually defining or describing the difference….no way.

  2. I don’t recall confessing anything of the kind, though I was one of the commenters. I did, however, remark that my name is considered feminine in English, though it’s gender-neutral in French. That doesn’t make my writing passive but it can play into editor’s preconceptions.

    1. I think you’re over-interpreting (and personalizing) that statement a little bit. The author of the Feministe post responding the that Awl article as well as several (not all!) female commenters admitted to apologizing upfront when pitching their work because social conditioning makes it a reflex. I’ve done it before too.

  3. I apologize too much. It annoys me, and some of my friends, but I’m aware of it at least, and getting better at getting over it and also at self promoting.

    For some reason, a lot of people tell me that my “writing voice” on the net sounds like a guy. I blog about feministy and sexuality issues, so my content is usually pretty damn feminine, but my style apparently… is not?

    1. There used to be (and maybe still is…too lazy to look right now) a website where you could enter a block of text, and via some algorithm it would spit out the gender of the author.

      One of my friends in college ran a passage from Shakespeare through it. The website thought he was a lady.

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