Does doing difference deny dominance? (vocal fry, sports sex testing, and resting bitch face edition)

Does women’s behavior make them less equal?

“Guess what,” Camille Paglia said the other day in Salon. “Women are different than men!”

Usually when people point out gender differences, they don’t just mean men and women are different, they mean “women are different from men.” As an archetypal example, in “Do women really want equality?” Kay Hymowitz argued that women don’t want to model their professional lives on male standards, and therefore they don’t really want equality:

This hints at the problem with the equality-by-the-numbers approach: it presumes women want absolute parity in all things measurable, and that the average woman wants to work as many hours as the average man, that they want to be CEOs, heads of state, surgeons and Cabinet heads just as much as men do.

So the male professional standard is just there, and the question is what women will do if they want equality. Of course, what women (and men) want is a product of social interaction, so it’s not an abstract quality separate from social context. But also, I’m no statistician but I know that when there is a gap between two variable quantities (such as men’s and women’s average hours in paid work), moving one of them isn’t the only way to bring them closer together. In other words — men could change, too.

What about vocal fry and uptalk?

Naomi Wolf would add these speech patterns to the list of women’s self-inflicted impediments:

“Vocal fry” has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine these women’s authority in newly distinctive ways.

So the male speech pattern is just there, and the question is what women will do if they want equality. In opposition is the argument made here:

Teaching young women to accommodate to the linguistic preferences, a.k.a. prejudices, of the men who run law firms and engineering companies is doing the patriarchy’s work for it. It’s accepting that there’s a problem with women’s speech, rather than a problem with sexist attitudes to women’s speech.

So some feminists want more respect for vocal fry, saying: “when your dads bitch about the way you talk it’s because they’re just trying to not listen to you talk, period, so fuck your dads.” This stance is not just feminist, it’s young feminist:

[Vocal fry] is the speaking equivalent of “you ain’t shit,” an affectation of the perpetually unbothered. It’s a protective force between the pejorative You — dads, Sales types, bosses, basically anyone who represents the establishment — and the collective Us, which is to say, a misunderstood generation that inherited a whole landscape of bullshit because y’all didn’t fix it when you had the goddamn chance.

Elevating vocal fry to a virtue would be more persuasive if the common examples weren’t mostly rich women talking about basically nothing. As an old dad who has done nothing to fix society, I personally bitched about the way the two women interviewed for this NPR story fried and uptalked their way through an excruciating seven-minute conversation about the awesomeness of selfie culture.

Of course, this being a patriarchal society, double standards abound. Men fry their vocals, too, and no one cares. (I myself transcribed this awesome piece of run-on from a young man on the radio once, but I didn’t blame him for holding all men back.) And then there’s resting bitch face, “a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless,” according to Jessica Bennett (whose RBF is not to be trifled with). But only for women:

“When a man looks stern, or serious, or grumpy, it’s simply the default,” said Rachel Simmons, an author and leadership consultant at Smith College. “We don’t inherently judge the moodiness of a male face. But as women, we are almost expected to put on a smile. So if we don’t, it’s deemed ‘bitchy.’ ”

Many men feel that RBF is a blight on their scenery — one they have the right to demand improvement upon — which is why they tell random women on the street to smile. Plus, they just like exercising informal personal power over random women who aren’t conforming with various social rules, including the rule that you show your love for patriarchy at all times.

Sometimes women should act more like men, because some of the behavior that men would otherwise own is about power and access and self-determination and other things that women want and deserve. And some gender differences are just little pieces of the symbolic architecture that helps establish that men and women are different, which means women are different, which means men are dominant. Difference for its own sake is bad for gender equality.

It’s tricky because we don’t have different audiences for different messages anymore, but we need two true messages at once: It’s wrong to discriminate against and shame women for their speech patterns, and it’s a good idea not to undermine yourself with speech patterns that annoy or distract men and old people.

What about sports?

One process people use to essentialize sex categories — to enhance rather than downplay gender differences — is sex segregated sports (which I last wrote about with regard to Caster Semenya). As is the case with many gender differences, our sports establishment and culture is built around male standards, which is why women are granted a protected sphere of difference . Writes Vanessa Heggie in a fascinating historical review of sex testing in international sports:

Sex testing, after all, is a tautological (or at least circular) process: the activities which we recognise as sports are overwhelmingly those which favour a physiology which we consider ‘masculine’. As a general rule, the competitor who is taller, has a higher muscle-to-fat ratio, and the larger heart and lungs (plus some other cardio-respiratory factors) will have the sporting advantage. It is therefore inevitable that any woman who is good at sport will tend to demonstrate a more ‘masculine’ physique than women who are not good at sport. What the sex test effectively does, therefore, is provide an upper limit for women’s sporting performance; there is a point at which your masculine-style body is declared ‘too masculine’, and you are disqualified, regardless of your personal gender identity. For men there is no equivalent upper physiological limit – no kind of genetic, or hormonal, or physiological advantage is tested for, even if these would give a ‘super masculine’ athlete a distinct advantage over the merely very athletic ‘normal’ male.

Heggie adds that, for every claim of gender fraud that turns out to be “true” — that is, a male or intersex person with an unfair advantage competing as a woman, which is vanishingly rare — there are countless cases of “suspicions, rumour, and inuendo” regarding women who are simply unusually big and muscular. As in wide swaths of the professional world, men are the standard, and successful women often look or act more like men — and then they are shamed or penalized for not performing their gender correctly.

There is a sex versus gender issue here, however. When men’s behavior or activity is the standard by which all are judged, there are gendered (social) reasons women have trouble competing — such as exclusion from training, hiring, promotion, and social networks, or socially-defined burdens (such as childcare) impeding their progress toward the top ranks. And then sometimes there are sex (biological) reasons women can’t win, such as in most organized sports.

Here are the world record times in the 800-meter foot race for men and women, from 1922 to the present:

For all the fuss over Caster Semenya’s natural hormone levels, she never got to within two seconds of Jarmila Kratochvílová‘s 1983 record of 1:53.3. It’s presumed that Kratochvílová was taking steroids, but not proven — though the longer the time that lapses since her record was achieved, the more that seems likely.

It’s very telling that no woman has beaten Kratochvílová’s record. In fact, after women made steady progress toward equality for four decades, men’s lead has increased by almost a second in the last four decades. In this contest of physiology, the fastest women apparently cannot compete with the fastest men. This makes a strong case for sex not gender as the difference-maker. But, as I’ve argued before, that does not mean we’re outside the realm of social construction, because the line has to be drawn somewhere to create the protective arena in which women can compete with each other, and that line is defined socially.

We solve the problem if we “stop pawning this fundamentally social question off onto scientists,” say Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis. They want to “let all legally recognized women compete. Period.” But if it is fundamentally social, instead of biological, why are men’s times so much faster?

Aside: How deep a difference

Thinking about all this, I was half interested in what Camille Paglia had to say in Salon about the similarity between Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby — in some ways obvious, in some ways an obvious overreach — and I might even have looked up her book, Sexual Personae, if she hadn’t said the book “of course is far too complex for the ordinary feminist or academic mind!” So that rules me out.

Anyway, in the interview she goes beyond the idea that men and women have different preferences and habits. Here is “why women are having so much trouble dealing with men in the feminist era”:

equality in the workplace is not going to solve the problems between men and women which are occurring in the private, emotional realm, where every man is subordinate to women, because he emerged as a tiny helpless thing from a woman’s body. Professional women today don’t want to think about this or deal with it.

Not recognizing such inherent conditions is a problem for modern feminism, she believes:

Guess what – women are different than men! When will feminism wake up to this basic reality? Women relate differently to each other than they do to men. And straight men do not have the same communication skills or values as women – their brains are different!

In this view, which you could (she does) loosely call Freudian, the sex difference and the gender difference are nearly unified, because the psychological basis for difference is universally present at birth. The short-sighted feminist attempt to erase gender difference thus makes both women and men miserable:

Now we’re working side-by-side in offices at the same job. Women want to leave at the end of the day and have a happy marriage at home, but then they put all this pressure on men because they expect them to be exactly like their female friends. If they feel restlessness or misery or malaise, they automatically blame it on men. Men are not doing enough; men aren’t sharing enough. But it’s not the fault of men that we have this crazy and rather neurotic system where women are now functioning like men in the workplace, with all its material rewards.

What is out of whack is women entering men’s sphere, apparently.

The political stakes attached to the nature and extent of difference between male and female people makes it an ever-important question. It underlies, for example, the opposition to marriage equality, as demonstrated in the terrible Catholic video series called Humanum, where you might hear such nuggets of wisdom as this:

In every human being there is a masculine part, and a feminine part, and as a man I get this feminine part from my mother or from the maternal image in my family, and I get this masculine image from the paternal part, from the paternal image in my family. And I get to make some equilibrium inside. And without this equilibrium my humanity is not really sane.

There is a difference between saying there is a difference between men and women and saying there is such a difference between men and women that your humanity is not complete unless you have both a mother and father.

Difference and dominance

Times like this, like it or not, are good times to revisit Catharine MacKinnon’s essay, “Difference and dominance: On sex discrimination.”*

There is a politics to this. Concealed is the substantive way in which man has become the measure of all things. Under the sameness standard, women are measured according to our correspondence with man, our equality judged by our proximity to his measure. Under the difference standard, we are measured according to our lack of correspondence with him, our womanhood judged by our distance from his measure. Gender neutrality is thus simply the male standard, and the special protection rule is simply the female standard, but do not be deceived: masculinity, or maleness, is the referent for both.

Between the rock of neutrality and the hard place of special protection. Difference and dominance.

In reality … virtually every quality that distinguishes men from women is already affirmatively compensated in this society. Men’s physiology defines most sports … their socially designed biographies define workplace expectations and successful career patterns, their perspectives and concerns define quality in scholarship, their experiences and obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art, their military service defines citizenship, their presence defines family, their inability to get along with each other — their wars and rulerships — defines history, their image defines god, and their genitals define sex.

So, check that referent. Of course, those women who work more hours, adopt male speech patterns and facial expressions, and run faster, may do better than those who do not (under the risk of overstepping). But why can’t women embrace gender difference in things like speech patterns, and wield them in the service of equality? They might. But under these conditions, enhancing gender differences works against inequality.

* There are several versions of this essay available by Googling. I’m quoting the one published in her 1988 book Feminism Unmodified.

18 thoughts on “Does doing difference deny dominance? (vocal fry, sports sex testing, and resting bitch face edition)

  1. There’s at least one area of U. S. social life where men and women, or in this case boys and girls, don’t do difference, and where there is something of a genderless meritocracy: Spelling. The National Spelling Bee, which has been around since the 1920s and is on ESPN, making it a sport, I suppose, has produced nearly equal numbers of male and female winners over the years. Actually, there have a few more female winners, but there have been years where boys went on long winning steak. Also, the number of contestants are about equal male and female, at least that was the case from the most recent contest. And this year a boy and a girl tied for the spelling championship.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Isn’t it possible that upper middle class teenage women in the 80s began up-talking as a form of indirect speech, a way to introduce interpretive ambiguity in their performances, that ultimately leaves them with plausible deniability and a bargaining advantage in conflicts? Isn’t it possible that men sometimes admonish women to smile in a friendly way because men are — like women — prosocial and empathetic, want people around them to feel good, and feel more comfortable expressing their emotional vulnerability to women? Isn’t it possible that vocal fry deliberately performs indifference and projects the status of women: “you present me with a sincere performance, I may or may not accept the validity of that performance and act like I care.” Isn’t it possible that women, since at least the 80s when Labov did his sociolinguistic studies in Philly, have had a demonstrated power in shaping linguistic change, and that these developments are a way that women, who do much more talking than men, stay ahead of men in interaction rituals? Doesn’t McFarland’s speed dating study, that shows the way men match tone and cadence of their prospective dates, imply that women are higher status than men in courting? No. Because patriarchy.


      1. I’m just saying, Philip, that these are interesting developments to note, but when you insist on invoking patriarchy and double standards to explain everything related to gender, you take an interesting phenomenon and turn it into a completely uninteresting analysis. Everything I said above comes out of Goffman and some of the best established evidence on female vocal innovations and dynamics of the last thirty years. But you insist on starting the analysis with “in a patriarchal society.” I’m not the one answering his own questions before he’s asked them.


    1. The Valley Girl accent, which features uptalking, emerged in the 1970s in the San Fernando Valley. Moon Zappa noted in her 1982 hit “Valley Girl” that it was stronger in the Valley, such as Sherman Oaks, than in more adult-oriented West Hollywood where she lived with her father Frank. One of my readers moved to the north San Fernando Valley around 1974 and noted it existed there but not yet in other places where he had lived. But, he says, it was strongest in the more affluent southern Valley near Ventura Blvd.

      My guess is that the Valley Girl accent emerged due to the huge number of teenagers in the Baby Boom San Fernando Valley, and especially due to the number of affluent girls with private phone lines on which they could chat with their female friends for hours.


    2. My impression is that young men in America have been following the lead of young women toward uptalking and other less masculine forms of speech. One interesting theory for the rise of non-American leading men in American movies (e.g., British, Australians) is that young American actors have a hard time sounding highly masculine since it’s not favored all that much in upscale American schools these days, whereas foreign actors learn their American accents from studying, say, 1970s De Niro movies and Nicholson movies.


      1. Interesting. The acting hypothesis is a little elaborate to argue over or find evidence for (lots of moving parts not of great consequence). I agree that masculinity has become much more feminine, some parts of that better developments than others, but I’m not sure male voices have raised in pitch. The acting voices of lots of male characters in old black and whites are pretty choir boy ish. That’s not to say we’re not adopting other female innovations like uptalking and fry, though.


  3. In most sports competition such as those involving running, jumping, throwing, tests of strength and endurance men are indeed the standard. Men developed these forms of competition because they display their unique abilities. And why shouldn’t they?

    As you correctly point out, the biological differences between men and women give men a consistent advantage in these activities. I have never heard a professional female athlete demand that separate leagues for women should be abolished in favor of mixed competition. And the gender-testing that goes on is usually demanded by women competitors to protect them from unfair competition.

    When women compete in the very same sporting events, as men, they invite being “measured according to our lack of correspondence with him, our womanhood judged by our distance from his measure,“ as Catharine MacKinnon said.

    It is not men that are requiring women to compete in these events, however. It is often feminist activists who demand that all events that men compete in are also available to women. They also often deride events that showcase abilities in which women excel, such as synchronized swimming, figure skating, and even the women’s events in gymnastics. Should a woman occasionally be invited to try out for a men’s team, there is general rejoicing in the press with claims of barriers being broken. Yet these cross gender competitions usually end badly for the women or girls involved.

    Certainly women should be free to play whatever sports they want. But the development of athletic events that accentuate women’s physical advantages would be a better feminist goal than demanding that girls be put on the boys football team.


  4. Concealed is the substantive way in which man has become the measure of all things.

    Sure. Because until the 1950s, “keeping house” was really time consuming. No time to run faster, discover new continents or build empires when you’re pregnant and boiling clothes in a huge kettle, while hoping that you still have enough firewood later to cook dinner (which will itself take many hours).

    Of course, when men are the “house husbands”, which is the measure against which they are compared?


  5. You might find interesting my 1997 article in National Review, “Track & Battlefield,” which was the first to subject to quantitative analysis the then conventional wisdom that women would catch up to men in running speed. I demonstrated that the gender gap had actually grown from the 1988 Olympics to the 1996 Olympics, almost certainly due to better PED testing and the collapse of the East German steroid-industrial complex:


  6. Another fascinating and great read Philip! Thanks so much. Also women’s results/achievements in long distance swimming is an event where women’s records can and do beat men’s records (provided equal conditions).


  7. Your chart is a little misleading because it dates from back when it was anything goes regarding drug taking in sport especially in East Germany.


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