Saturday, 14 April 2018

An old dinosaur - Louise Boland

Every morning (ok, some mornings...) I follow a spin class on you tube. There is a particular one I turn to which is just the right pace and length for me, and which is taken by a cheeky chappie who always makes me smile. As you cycle, the camera often turns upon the class members, who look like a young cycling team in training. 

This morning, as I followed the class, I suddenly realised I’d always misheard one of the leader’s jokes and that realisation led to something of an epiphany moment for me.

Towards the end of the class, when everyone is hot and bothered, the trainer jokes, 'check your hair looks ok..' when he spots one of the young lads tidying up his hair.  Then I always thought he said next… 'check the girls look ok.'

I always found it funny, if a bit sexist, as the exhausted boys in the class shyly turn to look at the exhausted girls, the tension is broken and everyone, though tired, smiles.

But this morning I must have had slightly less blood pumping in my ears, because I realised what the coach actually says is 'check the girls are ok.'

I re-evaluated: not a sexist joke, but a trainer making sure the weaker team members were ok - which is when  I had my epiphany.

At first I thought what he said was nice because girls are physically less strong than boys, he was being chivalrous, but then it occurred to me that among those young people I would bet anything that the best of the girls were faster and fitter than the worst of the boys, and if the trainer had wanted to teach them to work as a team and look after the weaker members he could have said 'check your team mates are ok.'

Now I've never been very politically correct. I roll my eyes at speeches from right on feminists, I chuckle over Rod Liddle and Camilla Long's columns and I'm the sort that would write to the Telegraph about how ridiculous it is to use the word chairperson rather than chairman, but now I've had a change of heart. 

As someone who identifies as a writer, surely I should understand how powerful language is, across even those five words little words, 'check the girls are ok'.

I was once taught by a very excellent creative writing tutor, called Patrick Collins, who teaches writing for theatre. He was insistent that we use no stage directions in our writing, and believed that by forcing us to convey status and conflict through dialogue alone we would come to understand how powerful the words that are said can be. 

And how right he was. By saying 'check the girls are ok,' the coach created status (the girls are all now in a team B, with everything that follows from that) and undoubtedly from there, comes conflict - for those girls are now going to have to fight twice as hard to get the sponsorships, the kit, the training...

So I think it's time for this old dinosaur to mend her ways. I'm not going to stop laughing at politically incorrect jokes, but I am going to admit that I was wrong to roll my eyes in the ‘80s at people who say it should be chairperson rather than chairman.  Its not good enough for me to tell myself that when we say ‘chairman’ we mean ‘chairman and chairwoman’ because we don’t.  That isn’t what the word is, and as I learned from Patrick words convey status. It follows that if you want to change status – fix the glass ceiling and the pay differential between men and women that still exists here in the UK – you have to start with the words.


Alex Marchant said...

I can't help but agree wholeheartedly. Oppression starts with language in many cases. All of us need to 'check our privilege' too - while hopefully not getting too hung up about everything. I remember a friend using the term 'chairperkin' (because per-son is of course masculine too...) I might not choose to go quite that far...though I've been pleased at being able to chart the almost total acceptance of the use of gender-neutral language in the academic books I edit in my day job - though I do occasionally come a across an old-school author who allows 'she' to slip in for Britain or a ship...

Umberto Tosi said...

Insightful: Language truly is powerful, and has a life of its own. I'm a fan of George Lakoff who theorized that all language is built upon successive layers of metaphor. I imagine a herd of goats or maybe cats (sheep would be too easy) that we must nudge and cajole constantly our way as we adjust our values and perceptions. Thank you, as usual, for a thought-provoking post!

Jane said...

Language and the stereotypes that glom onto meaning lay buried deep inside our craniums like fossils. We need to be vigilant and pry them all loose to question them with new eyes.