Seen but unnoticed

Deborah Cameron wrote about default male today, in the wake of Green Party Women’s “non-men.”

The idea behind substituting ‘non-men’ for ‘women’ was to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary people. It will be news to nobody that this is a contentious issue in contemporary feminist politics. But whatever position you take on the issue itself, ‘non-men’ remains problematic from a linguistic point of view. It cannot easily be made to function as an inclusive, feminist or non-sexist term, because it repeats the most basic and ubiquitous of all sexist linguistic gestures: treating men as the default human beings while relegating women to what the radical feminist linguist Julia Penelope dubbed ‘negative semantic space’. ‘Non-men’ defines a subordinated group in relation to the dominant group, ‘men’: consequently it ends up, in today’s jargon, ‘centring’ the dominant group, even if that isn’t the intention.

She then discusses a study that found Disney princess movies had given more dialogue to the female characters in the past than they do now.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with the ‘default male’ principle, the answer is, quite a lot. According to the researchers, what’s mainly driving the trend for male characters to dominate the dialogue isn’t primarily a change in how much the central female characters speak. It has more to do with the move (first made in TheLittleMermaid) to Broadway musical-style ensemble casts featuring more supporting characters–the majority of them, as it turns out, male. In Karen Eisenhauer’s view, what’s behind the imbalance is an unconscious form of male bias:

My best guess is that it’s carelessness, because we’re so trained to think that male is the norm. So when you want to add a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper is a man. Or you add a guard, that guard is a man.

Ahhh yes, the generic male in addition to the default male. Everybody’s male except for a few aberrant females, whom you have to explain and who thus distract from everything.

It isn’t just the people at Disney who display this ingrained tendency to imagine the prototypical representative of a category like ‘shopkeeper’ or ‘guard’ as a man rather than a woman. We all do it. We only have a female prototype for roles which are very heavily stereotyped as female (like ‘secretary’ or ‘witch’). By contrast, the tendency to assume that a ‘generic’ X will be male doesn’t just apply to the most stereotypically male roles (like ‘drill sergeant’ or ‘construction worker’), it applies to any role that isn’t almost exclusively reserved for women.

And not just humans, either; people do this to animals. Any random animal or bird is a “he,” because…well because it would be weird if it were a she. When I worked at the zoo I heard people referring to Nina the gorilla as “he” – including when she had her infant actually on the nipple. People always called the elephants he, when all four of them were female.

Then Cameron goes on to an extremely interesting analysis of a couple of cartoons and why it’s hard to get away from default male without ruining the cartoon. I can’t summarize it so you have to read it and look at the cartoons.

These are not overtly sexist cartoons. They aren’t making a point about women, or male-female relations; the women (where there are any) aren’t being mocked or belittled or objectified. Yet I’ve been arguing that they are, in fact, examples of low-level sexism. What they exemplify is the kind of pattern ethnomethodologists call ‘seen but unnoticed’: like the background noise in a coffee shop, we tune it out so we can concentrate on the important stuff in the foreground. I tuned it out: they all made me laugh. But should feminists be so willing to tune it out?

When we criticise sexist representations, or look for alternatives to them, we are typically—and understandably—most concerned about what’s in the foreground. Our first question when choosing books or films for children, for instance, will often be whether there’s a ‘strong’ female central character, someone active and resourceful who doesn’t just waft about looking pretty. Contemporary producers often share that concern. In the case of Disney princess films, as Karen Eisenhauer notes,

If you watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries, there’s so much explicit discourse on what the princess is going to be like, and always it’s a feminist discourse in some way. They want her to be powerful.

The trouble is, as she also says, that this kind of discussion ‘never, ever seems to have gone beyond the princess’. Concerns about sexism and stereotyping do not extend to the depiction of the larger social world which forms the backdrop to the central character’s story.

We have to worry about the princess (or the warrior or artist or whatever she is) and everyone else – the crowds, the people on the bus, the shopkeepers, the chorus.

Social change only really succeeds when new ways of thinking, speaking and acting become normalized, taken for granted and treated as unremarkable. To put it another way, when the background changes. When we stop needing extra time to process a sentence that refers to the boss as ‘she’. When we don’t think ‘hey, a woman!’ if it’s a female voice that addresses us from the flight-deck. When the minor characters in stories and jokes—generic shopkeepers, guard dogs, stone-age people or space aliens—are as likely to be female as male, and no one thinks anything of it. When no-one is a ‘non-man’—or more importantly, a non-person.



19 Responses to “Seen but unnoticed”