3.1 Indirect sexism

It seems as if there is now a certain instability within sexism itself, so that  whilst Second Wave feminism saw sexism as  a clearly defined set of practices which reflected a particular set of attitudes towards women, in fact now sexism has a range of meanings for different people. This makes sexism much more difficult to context. Now it seems that sexism in English is largely  "indirect sexism", that is, sexism which manifests itself at the level of presupposition, and also through innuendo, irony and humour, or which is prefaced by disclaimers or hesitation (Mills, 1998)  For example, in the British television programme Men Behaving Badly, the two central male characters use the term `top totty' to refer to women. This is such an exagerrated form of sexism that within the terms of the programme it cannot be objected to as sexist as it is intended to be humourous and tongue-in-cheek. Sexism at the level of presupposition is also much more difficult to challenge as Christine Christie has demonstrated, since it is necessary to make overt the assumptions upon which the sexism is based; the reason this indirectness is in fact chosen is to mask the sexism and to give the speaker the potential for denying any intended sexism (Christie, 2001). For example in the phrase `So have you women finished gossiping?' there are a number of presuppositions about women and talk which would need to be unpacked before the phrase could be responded to (for example, that women's talk is trivial, that women engage in gossiping more than men, that two women talking together can be assumed to be gossiping, and so on). Imelda Whelehan has described the difficulty for feminists of watching television programmes such as Men Behaving Badly and Never Mind the Buzzcocks,  or listening to radio programmes such as Radio 1's Chris Moyles, where overtly sexist statements are made about women, but because these statements are made in a very knowing ironic way, it is to be assumed by viewers that they are not taken to be as sexist, or at least not in any simple way (Whelehan, 2000). For many feminist viewers, not wishing to be seen as puritanical and lacking a sense of humour, there is little possibility of contesting these ways of presenting sexist ideas, even though sexism is still kept in play by these means. To give another example of the instability within sexism at the moment, we might consider the television advertisements for Yorkie chocolate bars.  The advertisements, following on from the association of Yorkie bars with truck-drivers, claim that Yorkies are `Not for Girls'; a woman disguised as a male builder with a hard hat and false moustache goes into a sweet shop and tries to buy a Yorkie bar.  The shopkeeper tries to test whether she is a man or not by asking her to define the off-side rule in football, to decide whether stockings or tights are better, and  finally, he manages to show that she is female because she responds to flattery. If this advert had been shown in the 1980s, the feminist response would have been clear; classifying the product as `not for girls', suggesting that women are not `man enough' to eat large chunks of chocolate would have been seen as sexist.  But this advert is playing with stereotypes; the woman is not disguised convincingly as a man; the advertisement  ridicules men as much as women, suggesting that men are obsessed with football and sex. So if we laugh at this advert  because we think it is ironising sexism,  we could be seen to be buying into sexism, i.e.  rejecting femininity and valuing masculinity, or if we don't laugh at the advert and take it as sexist, we could be seen as humourless and unable to see the overt playfulness  and critique in  the advert (Mills, 2003).

Added to this instability within sexism which results in difficulties countering sexism, there is also an instability within anti-sexism. Anti-sexist campaigns have been destabilised in recent years because of the existence of   "political correctness".  Many people feel that there is a confusion or overlap  between anti-sexism and "political correctness". To clarify, "political correctness" is often seen as an excessive concern for the sensibilities of minority groups (women, the disabled, lesbians and Black people) which is manifested in  a set of media-invented absurd, terms, (such as `vertically challenged' instead of `short' ; `follically challenged' for `bald' ; `personhole cover' instead of  `manhole/inspection cover') which no anti-sexist or anti-racist campaigners have argued should be adopted.  These are often  listed alongside  `Ms'  and `chairperson'  which feminists have campaigned to be adopted.  This overlap and confusion has led to an undermining of attempts to reform language; some argue  any intervention is impossible or politically inexpedient (Cameron, 1995).  It is necessary to distinguish  anti-sexist practices from "political correctness", which is an abstracted set of rules extrapolated by the media from these practices and generalised to absurdity. However, for  anti-feminists,  "political correctness" is perceived to be the same as anti-sexism and consists of a real set of rules which  should be challenged in the name of free speech (Matsuda, et. al. 1993).

To sum up, linguistic practices can only be interpreted as sexist in particular contexts but these local meanings depend on a notion of an outdated and highly problematic form of overt sexism against which these indirect sexist meanings are negotiated.  However, we must also differentiate between different types of sexist practice, so that some sorts of linguistic routines can be seen to be more sedimented than others, such as the use of the generic `he' pronoun to refer to men and women. [18]   It is only through the use of a Second Wave feminist analysis which can describe global systematic uses of language that these uses of language can be combated and changed.  In other contexts, where the sexism is a particularly local context-specific type, where for example, the sexism is ironic or difficult to generalise about, then a Third Wave feminist linguistic approach is more productive.  However there has to be a close relation between these different forms of analysis.  Whilst one demands a general campaigning and reform, the other demands a more local and immediate response.  Anti-sexist practices are therefore necessarily complex and feminists differ on what they see as the most effective way of dealing with those elements or practices which they consider to be discriminatory.  It is not possible to agree on what is sexist; in that sexism is an evaluation rather than an inherent quality there will be disagreement about what constitutes sexism. Vetterling-Braggin was one of the first to remark upon the fact that labelling someone's statements as sexist involves taking a moral position in relation to them and their beliefs, and may provoke a breakdown of relations with that person (Vetterling-Braggin, 1981). However, it is not quite as simple as this, since often sexism, anti-sexism and "political correctness" are hypothesised positions which we attribute to others and which then act on our own sense of what it is possible for us to do or say.  Thus, in forming our own assessments of  what is sexist, we try to map out the parameters of the beliefs of others which would allow our own beliefs to be acceptable (Volosinov, 1973). Rather than seeing sexism solely in terms of abstracted general sets of words where the sexism is considered to reside in the words themselves, we must be able to see that there  are also local interpretations and strategic responses to what is evaluated by participants as sexist.  Thus, rather than seeing Second and Third Wave feminist analysis as simply chronological, we might perhaps see them as each suited to particular types of sexism.  Second Wave analysis can analyse those sedimented forms of sexism which seem to be embedded within the morphology of the language system itself, whereas Third Wave feminism is better able to analyse the ambivalences and uncertainties about and within sexism, within particular contexts.

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