Tamar Iveri follow-up - sexism, anti-female bias, and misogyny

Last week I wrote a piece about the incident surrounding Tamar Iveri, the soprano who issued a letter containing offensive and anti-gay language to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili via her Facebook page. The news of the language of this letter led to a vehemently angry response by people in the LGBT and opera communities, and ultimately to Opera Australia releasing her from a contract. The point I made in my piece is that while Iveri (and/or her husband) made a grave mistake in her actions, it doesn't serve the greater LGBT community to have her pelted with hateful language. You can read this post here.

In the thousands of comments on Iveri's Facebook page, I noticed two main themes:

  1. anti-female language.
  2. hateful language.

Often the two types of language would overlap. In my post, I dealt mainly with the hateful language, and said I wanted to address the anti-female language at a later date.

This post is my attempt to do so.

I realize that discussing language and sex bias gets me into a treacherous area of discourse, full of emotional responses from everyone who has ever considered the question of language and gender dominance. My opinion of English, as an imperfect system of communication, is that it favors male identity. I realize I'm not breaking ground by saying this. Male nouns are considered neutral whereas female nouns are accessories to male nouns – consider the words “actor” and “actress”, “master” and “mistress”, “male” and “female”. Because of the structure of our language, native English speakers have been conditioned to conform to a male-dominant view of the world. Possibly because of this precondition, it has been much easier to create language that is anti-female than it has been to create language that is anti-male.

If you're reading this, you've likely thought similarly and/or have some well-formed thoughts to augment and/or correct my above statement.

I think that the Tamar Iveri incident is important because it reveals anti-female language so clearly and because it creates a springboard from which to discuss the issue of sexism. I don't know much about the demographics of the commenters on Iveri's Facebook page, but it is safe to assume that they are likely either involved to some degree in the arts and/or opera, or identify as LGBTQ, or both. I'm making a large assumption here, but I would wager that many of these people would view themselves as socially progressive and in favor of equality. So then, why were there so many sexist and misogynist posts against Tamar Iveri? (By the way, here is a great piece by The Guardian about the difference between the terms “sexist” and “misogynist”.) Would there be as many masandrist (that's the opposite of misogynist) posts if a Georgian tenor had made the same comments? Would these people use similar language toward women they know personally? Or do they use sexist language in a particular context of retribution and/or intimidation?

My guess is that we see so much anti-female language thrown at Tamar Iveri because it is so easy to create negativity towards women. In the wake of recent stories including the Elliot Rodger killings in Santa Barbara, the kidnapping of over 200 girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram, and this week's US Supreme Court ruling indicating employers do not have to provide birth control to employees, it is easy to create a picture of a world in which powerful and/or malignant straight men restrict the progress of women. However, I think that straight men are not the only perpetrators here. I think gay men are prone to carrying out anti-female language and action as well. In a lengthy essay entitled The Myth of the Fag Hag and Dirty Secrets of the Gay Male Subculture, Rohin Guha (who identifies as a gay male), posits that as gay male symbols (think of characters in Will and Grace) became normalized in America over the course of the last decade, it became accepted for gay men to consider females as their accessories (and vice versa). He outlines several examples of occasions when gay men sexually harassed women and then used the excuse “it's okay because I'm gay” to justify their actions. (A notorious example is the 2010 incident in which Isaac Mizrahi groped Scarlet Johnansson at the Golden Globes.) Because we gay men are not sexually attracted to women, the skewed logic then dictates that objectifying women is okay. In addition, we gay men might often use misogynistic terms like “bitch” or “cunt” jokingly among ourselves, only to forget what the consequences of these words are in a larger context.

Just last week my husband and I were discussing our own latent sexism. We were considering the word “crazy” and how we often will apply it to women, but not to men. The term, “Oh, she's crazy,” can refer to a variety of actions that a woman might perform. We asked ourselves, if a man performed the same actions would we remark, “Oh, he's crazy”? Perhaps. What we reasoned is that we would likely use a more specific adjective plus an explanation to define a man's actions, such as “Oh, he's irrational and we have to have a discussion,” or “Oh, he's violent and I need to get away from him,” or “Oh, he's insecure and therefore is acting out.” By using more specific language for men, we give more agency to them in our minds, thereby carrying out our own internal and ingrained sexist bias.

I don't know if this example applies to only us, or if other people might have noticed something similar (please leave a comment either way), but I bring it up to indicate that we all have ingrained sexism and I think we need to carefully examine how we use language and what the consequences of our language use has on gender relationships.