I spy… I don’t want to be sexist but..


The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrightsIn Metro,  12 and 15 Dec 2016

Language and PC

Sara Mills (2008) in her book Language and Sexism writes that language is a product of negotiations over meaning of past and present language, creating a pool of meanings. Each individual and community of language users interpret and inflect language items in different ways. Some meanings are accepted by the institutions but those that do not, don’t simply disappear, they are available as a resource. For example: chairman or weathergirl haven’t disappeared even though we use them less nowadays. These forms have become stigmatised, and this stigmatisation has an effect on related, current forms: past meanings and usages affect current usage.


Sexism is not a question of individual language use, but a complex negotiation between an individual’s sense of what is appropriate within a particular context or community, which are affirmed or challenged by institutions such as the media, government or the educational setting. For example, McElhinny (1998) notes that the masculinised environment of the police force affects the speech style which individuals deem appropriate. The expression of sexism is dependent on the assumption that the context is a masculinised one where the utterance of such beliefs will be acceptable.

Indirect sexism

Overt sexism is stigmatised within public discourse. In the context of media, sexism is very apparent. Examples are abundant: In GQ magazine, women are represented as sexual objects and sexism assumes that men and women are ‘naturally’ different. So today, the way to go about sexism is through ironising sexism: it challenges overt sexism while keeping it in play. A salient example is the program Top Gear where presenters display overt and indirect sexism in a show that is directed at young males.

Indirect sexism is one which attempts to deny responsibility for an utterance that is sexist, usually through employing irony or disguising the  force of the utterance with humour (my grandmother always used to say that a joke is 90% truth), innuendo, presupposition or prefacing the utterance with a disclaimer such as: I don’t want to be sexist, but… It is much harder to deal with this type of sexism because the person challenging an utterance like that may be labelled humourless.

Mills gives an example of indirect sexism in institutional representation practices: How British newspapers represent women in positions of power. Mills examined the representation of Margaret Beckett when she was appointed Foreign Secretary in the Labour government, in the Guardian 2006. She found that the Guardian employed different features representing Beckett in indirectly sexist ways:

  • Collocations: she was described as survivor, savaged, undermining – this sends a message that women do not belong in the public sphere.
  • As well as stressing her success, the article gave the message of how difficult it is for women to succeed:
    • survivor against the odds’
    • First female foreign secretary
    • She is compared to Margaret Thatcher
  • Beckett was characterised as unfit for the role because she was concerned with trivial things (that the article chose to focus on:
    • Beckett’s holiday caravan
  • Her capabilities were not seriously assessed. Additionally, in the quote below, she is characterised as overly feminine (cat, claws) but not of the type that is appropriate for public life:
    • If she were a cat, she would be the scratching kind
    • Adjectives were employed such as: feminine, courteous, charming
  • She is also accorded masculine characteristics, which are seen as inappropriate for a woman:
    • menacing, undermining her colleagues

Women’s role in the public sphere was always contentious before they were given the parliamentary franchise and allowed to hold office as MP, says Dr Sarah Richardson in BBC History’s January issue. There was a general attitude that political commitment was unfeminine. Richardson gives the example of when Victoria came to the throne in 1837 (the question of whether there should be a monarch will be discussed in future posts, I promise), there were ballads around the ‘the power of the petticoat’.

Hostile attitudes towards women were also present in working-class movements. Richardson gives an example of leaders of radical groups putting pressure on their female colleagues to compromise their political demands in order to ensure male-led campaigns. Suffrage campaigners of the 19th and 20th century were depicted as man-hating spinsters (similarly to today’s feminists).

Women in politics are undermined through focusing on appearance, ridiculing them for being either or both too feminine or masculine. On a more positive note though, the Guardian published a letter of a reader who criticised the article, which shows that the newspaper acknowledges that its representation of Beckett was problematic.

Another example is a comparison of two texts in The Independent. One text was about Baroness Blackstone, the vice chancellor of University of Greenwich, the other about Paul Mackney, a trade union officer. While Mackney’s qualities as a leader as well as his background and experience were described, Blackstone’s beautiful suit was given focus and her being a grandmother and a formidable woman was reported.


Ursula von der Leyen, a senior German politician, was reported in Metro to have angered Saudis for not wearing a hijab when visiting Saudi Arabia. Her suit is described, which seems redundant since the reader can see this clearly in the photo. This exemplifies what was said above, namely that women in politics are often reported on in conjunction with their clothing. It should be noted, however, that the hijab polemic in Germany coincides with van der Leyen’s decision not to instruct her delegation to wear a hijab or abaya during their visit. Although we are discussing indirect sexism in news reporting, let us segue and ask:  If Leyen was asked to wear a hijab, are foreign men also requested to wear the traditional garments?

Another reporting of a powerful woman’s clothing appeared in Metro four days later, this time less sexist (on the surface, at least) but outrageous in another sense. Theresa May is reported to be wearing £995 leather trousers which, due to their extravagant cost, were criticised by Nicky Morgan (ex-education secretary). Not getting into who spends more on what over at No 10, the real criticism here should clearly have been directed at the leather aspect of the trousers, as well as the cost. Additionally, the disagreement reported on between these two public figures was represented like a cat fight, making these women seem like they are concerned with trivial matters, like our example above suggests.

Here are some more recent examples of women in powerful positions (note: not powerful women) reported on what they wear:

Metro, January 18, 2017: “May arrives in a tartan suit to give her speech”
In Metro, January 18, 2017: “Kate, in an Erdem dress, and with Harry and William at briefing”



Mills, S. (2008a) ‘Chapter 2: Overt Sexism’, in Language and Sexism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, .

Mills, S. (2008b) ‘Chapter 5: Indirect Sexism’, in Language and Sexism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, .

Richardson, S. (2017) ‘Are Women winning their long battle against misogyny?’, BBC History, , p. 16.
The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s