Deborah Cameron has written a post that explains everything about Trump and That Tape and banter and structural sexual inequality. Drop everything and read it.
She starts with the first part of the tape.
In this sequence Trump is not boasting about having sex: he’s telling a personal anecdote about an occasion when he didn’t manage to have sex (‘I failed I’ll admit it’). He then returns to what seems to be the original topic, how to assess the woman’s physical attractiveness. The first speaker’s turn suggests that this has diminished over time (‘she used to be great’), but whereas he thinks ‘she’s still very beautiful’, Trump’s reference to her ‘big phony tits’ implies that he no longer finds her as desirable.
What’s going on here is gossip. Like the young men’s gossip I discussed in my earlier post, this is judgmental talk about an absent other which serves to reinforce group norms (in this case, for male heterosexual behaviour and for female attractiveness).
This is what people with PhDs in linguistics are for innit – bringing into focus things we’d sort of seen but only sort of. I’d sort of seen that all this bro talk about which woman is hot and which is below their high standard was an established ritual of some sort, but I hadn’t seen quite that – that it’s judgmental talk about an absent other which serves to reinforce group norms (in this case, for male heterosexual behaviour and for female attractiveness). They bond via judging the hotness of women. Judging strictly is part of it – it wouldn’t do to bounce like a puppy over every eligible (i.e. under 35) woman, because that would be naïf and weak. Real Men will admire only the best.
Then the “just kiss them…grab them by the pussy” section.
Trump’s contribution to this extract looks more like the ‘sex boast’ of the news headlines. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that this too is an enactment of male bonding. Trump, the alpha male of the group, takes centre stage, but the other men support him throughout with affiliative responses–saying ‘woah’ and ‘yes’, echoing his sentiments (‘Trump: you can do anything’/ ‘Bush: whatever you want’), and above all, greeting his most overtly offensive remarks with laughter. They laugh when he says he doesn’t wait for permission to kiss a woman; they laugh again when he mentions ‘grab[bing] [women] by the pussy’. (You can listen for yourself, but my assessment of this laughter is that it’s appreciative rather than embarrassed, awkward or forced.)
I think it’s a little bit embarrassed as well as appreciative…or not so much embarrassed as…a little startled? There’s a tiny pause before the burst of laughter – it sounds like “Oh no you didn’t!” Not disapproving, but maybe surprised that he would be that disinhibited with them. Shock jock stuff, in short.
What Cameron says about it is brilliant.
The transgressiveness of sexual banter–its tendency to report markedly offensive acts or desires in deliberately offensive (or in the media’s terms, ‘lewd’) language, is not just accidental, a case of men allowing the mask to slip when they think they’re alone. It’s deliberate, and it’s part of the bonding process. Like the sharing of secrets, the sharing of transgressive desires, acts and words is a token of intimacy and trust. It says, ‘I am showing that I trust you by saying things, and using words, that I wouldn’t want the whole world to hear’.
That confirms the way I heard the laughter at “grab her by the pussy” – they were startled that he trusted them, when he’s the alpha and they’re underlings.
Anyway the point is that men [of this type] use contempt for women to bond with each other. No wonder misogyny is so entrenched.
This, Cameron goes on, is why the perps get so indignant that their “banter” is being taken out of context.
Public exposure does literally take this kind of conversation out of its original context (the metaphorical ‘locker room’, a private, all-male setting). And when the talk is removed from that context, critics will focus on its referential content rather than its interpersonal function. They won’t appreciate (or care) that what’s primarily motivating the boasting, the misogyny, the offensive language and the laughter isn’t so much the speakers’ hatred of women as their investment in their fraternal relationship with each other.
Oh, that “click” of recognition. Yeah.
Of course, I’ve had a lot of practice in recognizing this pattern over the past few years – watching a crowd of mostly male people creating a sibling relationship with each other via misogyny and laughter. The internet is a device for making a million locker rooms public space.
As I said before, though, that’s not meant to be an excuse: I’m not suggesting that banter isn’t ‘really’ sexist or damaging to women. On the contrary, I’m trying to suggest that it’s more damaging than most critical discussions acknowledge. Banter is not just what commentators on the Trump tape have mostly treated it as–a window into the mind of an individual sexist or misogynist. It’s a ritualised social practice which contributes to the maintenance of structural sexual inequality.
I want to quote every word of this but it’s Deborah’s, not mine; be sure to read the whole thing. I’m tempted to memorize it.
She points out that all the public men now rebuking Trump and invoking their daughters have very likely done the same thing themselves.
Whatever their actual attitudes to women, as members of the US political elite these men have had to be assiduous in forging fraternal bonds with other powerful men. And wherever there are fraternal bonds there will also be banter.
And this, you know, is one of many reasons it really is necessary to engineer things so that women are present in the workplace. We break that shit up. I’ve seen it happen.
Feminists generally refer to the social system in which men dominate women as ‘patriarchy’, the rule of the fathers, but some theorists have suggested that in its modern (post-feudal) forms it might more aptly be called ‘fratriarchy’, the rule of the brothers, or in Carole Pateman’s term, ‘fraternal patriarchy’. Banter is fraternal patriarchy’s verbal glue. It strengthens the bonds of solidarity among male peers by excluding, Othering and dehumanising women; and in doing those things it also facilitates sexual violence.
Yes yes yes.
I’m just going to stop abruptly there, because there’s nothing I don’t want to quote. Read it.