Submissive behaviors, being “taken seriously” and wanting to have it both ways


One of the most puzzling and annoying things about our gender system is the paradoxical way femininity is constructed as both deserving of special protection from society (read men)  as if they were children and yet simultaneously so morally superior to masculinity that it entitles women to judge men on their performance of masculinity and their manners and behavior in general.  I came across an article that illustrates this double-bind nicely.

Marybeth Seitz-Brown has an article up at Slate decrying a perceived expectation that women talk like men if they want to be taken seriously.

Point of confusion – Seitz-Brown goes into a lot of detail showing that uptalk is actually not exclusively or even predominantly something women or young women do. Fine. Her problem is she thinks the problem with uptalk is that it is stereotyped as female, when the real issue is that it is read as juvenile and submissive, that it signal subordination. It does not matter either that she can name off varieties of English where men do it as much as men, if those varieties don’t apply in the US setting she is discussing. It really doesn’t matter how men in Belfast talk when you are discussing how speech mannerisms are going to be interpreted in a US corporate setting.

If all you have is a hammer…. If all you have is a gender lens, everything looks like gender. So Seitz-Brown says:

“It seems like there are always new features of women’s speech that need to be corrected, be it uptalk, vocal fry, higher pitch, swoopy intonation (believe it or not, that’s the technical linguistic term), using discourse markers like “like,” or simply speaking too much.”

“But even if women did uptalk more than men, we’ve all heard enough uptalk to know that its rising intonation doesn’t indicate a question. No one’s actually confused. So why should anyone have a problem with it? The thing is, this pastime of critiquing women’s speech is not limited to American English speakers”

The problem here is the same as above. Seitz-Brown is a pretty sloppy observer of speech behavior. No one is mistaking this intonation as signaling a question, it is taken to be a request for agreement or confirmation. Again, this is how subordinates act in conversations. Watch junior and senior men interacting in the military, especially in a briefing. In those settings the signal isn’t uptalk, but there are plenty of other speech signals of subordination. In that setting no one is confused about the social roles and no one carps at a colonel’s ideas being taken more seriously than a lieutenant’s.

Speaking of the military, this absolutely is not about women having to sound like men to be taken seriously. Anyone who has heard a female officer in front of her unit knows this. That officer may belt out her commands in a high-pitched voice, but that voice is going to sound like an icepick, not a mosquito, and it will sound authoritative. And it will never sound like it came from a man.

Social neoteny as a feature of the female gender role – Neoteny is the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood. Here I am using it is a social sense. Here I am using it to mean the expectation on women and the permission they have to act in childlike ways and thereby also to be able to call for the prerogatives of a child – provision and protection to the point of putting the child’s interests and physical safety before one’s own. It is an appeal to privilege.

This is already enough of an appeal to privilege, but it goes further, because on top of demanding permanent protection of the sort that only children are entitled to, Seitz-Brown almost assuredly does not think women should be subject to the limitations children normally are.

There are a couple of things going on here. The first one is what I call a cult of daintiness. Some people define their femininity in terms of weakness, fragility and the duty of care and protection that enjoins on other people. It’s really just a dishonest control mechanism – actually, no – it’s a firmly entrenched cultural norm.

This cult of daintiness comes out in all kinds of ways. we see it in the Princess and the Pea hair-trigger sense of permanent outrage and the demand for trigger warnings on everything, and the priggish policing of terminology. We see it in the drama around “street harassment, most racistly expressed recently in the Hollaback fiasco.

And we see it in submissive speech behaviors like uptalk, but not just uptalk. A similar behavior that is relatively recent is rather privileged young white women speaking in a high -pitched staccato fashion, almost to the point of incomprehensibility. The incomprehensibility probably serves as an in-group signifier and has value just in that, but it also signals smallness and subservient status to everyone else, on an instinctual level.

This brings me to the second thing: I think this is a mostly American thing. When I came back to the States after being stationed in Germany for three three-year tours, a long time away from American civilian life, one of the first things I noticed was the shrill, squeaky voices a lot of American women put on. I think they even talked this way to each other.

Why would this be? Why would some of the most privileged, empowered people on the planet accentuate their youth and frailty, their subservient status? Why would they simultaneously act submissive and yet expect to be treated as equals rather than trivial children? Well they would do it if it helped maintain their gender identity and yet did not compromise their actual social power. They would do it if it served the purpose of maintaining their protections, and it does. “Never hit a woman (no matter what she does to you…) is a thing. They would do it if they thought they could get away with it.

And they do get away with it, and it’s not their fault that their gambit works. They have enablers, without whom the whole game would wheeze to a stop, and the enablers are at least as much to blame.

Jim Doyle
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