Trippingly on the Tongue

I’ve always liked the poetry of metaphor with its imagery revealing nuances hiding shyly in the background. Words alone sometimes convey their meanings too narrowly, whereas metaphors allow imagination to roam more freely, only loosely tethered to definitions. After all, depending on the context of its use, meaning is often reliant on Weltanschauung. Such is communication; language is only the messenger.

Usually one can imprison meaning, of course -confine it in a cramped little box from which, should it ever escape, it would cease to be useful. Indeed, it would be a Pandora’s box from which it escaped. And yet, even there, what remained inside after all the mischief and malevolence had escaped, was Hope. Maybe that’s what metaphors are: unexpected colours leaking from behind the bars… Liberations.

Of course, metaphor is value-laden as well as culture-dependent. One society’s metaphors do not always translate into that of another -hence the difficulty of truly understanding and appreciating the poetry of another nation, especially if it must be converted into a different language. It made me wonder whether there may be similar disparities with gendered interpretations of metaphor.

There was an interesting article in BBC Future a while ago that caught my eye: It made me realize that there are many ways the genders differ. Of course, it may be that when we hear an unusual expression for the first time, we (either sex) cling too firmly to denotative -definitional- aspects of the words for interpretational safety, when the more imaginative and unexpected connotative sense is what was intended all along. And it’s in the connotation -the metaphoric significance- where we differ…

For example, what is a ‘glass ceiling’? ‘Originally popularised by Gay Bryant at the height of the feminist movement in the 1980s, it’s a widely used term today that describes an invisible barrier that keeps women from occupying executive positions. The metaphor suggests that women should aspire to ‘break through’ the ceiling – but the problem is that it describes only the women reaching up, rather than, say, the men that are peering down from the top. This arguably places unfair responsibility on women to smash the ceiling, rather than focusing on the role of men in creating and maintaining it.’

There are other metaphors in use of course, often involving glass -presumably to convey the idea of invisible barriers to movement for women. So, the ‘glass cliff’ which depicts the idea of  ‘how senior women are often hired for risky and precarious roles at times of crises’ and therefore making them look bad if they fail to succeed. Or, the non-glass example of the ‘sticky floor’, which describes how women often feel stuck in low-wage jobs where career ascension is unlikely.’ 

But, handy as they are in explaining often complex topics, metaphors -in these contexts anyway- tend to oversimplify the problems ‘offering only a specific angle or viewpoint that isn’t the full picture.’ They confine us to viewing the world through a narrow aperture -a spotlight that illuminates only one small part of the stage. ‘“Women are the effect to be explained,” says Michelle Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Exeter. “We never talk about men being overconfident, we always talk about women being underconfident. And we never talk about men having privilege or finding it easy; we always talk about women finding it difficult.” Ryan believes that the metaphors we’re using to describe women at work reflect the world’s androcentricism [sic] – our insistence that, even in 2017, we consider the male experience as “the norm”’

The issue is not entirely one-gendered, though. There is the concept of the ‘glass escalator’, a term occasionally applied to men in female-dominated industries that ascend to upper ranks more quickly than women. And yet, as Caren Goldberg of Bowie State University in Maryland points out, metaphors are employed when there is an “exception” to the rule or gender stereotype.’ So in the example she cites, it was applied to a male nurse (in a predominantly female dominated profession at the time) and implied that he probably chose nursing because he wasn’t able to get in to medical school.

‘The obvious upside of any these metaphors, however, is that they highlight social phenomena that might otherwise remain invisible and therefore impossible to resolve. But in order to address the circumstances that lead to women being held back, and men rising seamlessly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that metaphors simplify complexity.’

In an admittedly convoluted way, it reminds me of a woman I met the other day at a bus stop. I suppose I only met her by default, really -nobody would stand beside her because she was exhibiting a rather odd behaviour -probably Tourette’s syndrome, I’d thought at the time. She would be standing quietly at the curb, and then suddenly bend forward and seem to be vigorously cleaning and polishing something above her. This would last for a few seconds, often becoming more and more frantic, and then subside, leaving her once again peaceful, although by the look on her face, perhaps not content.

She was in her thirties, I would guess, and dressed quite respectably in a blue pant-suit, with a spotless white blouse and short stubby earrings that would be unlikely to achieve any unwanted momentum during her seemingly randomly timed tics. Her auburn hair was sensibly short and her makeup intact as far as I could tell. Apart from her odd movements, she seemed like a typical business woman on her way home from work.

And, when she moved beside me in the now-disrupted line up, she smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said -hurriedly, I thought, in order to explain herself before she was once again overcome by the movement. “It’s just my latest tic…”

At that point and without any obvious warning, she launched into another bout of scrubbing something invisible over her head. I tried to pretend I didn’t notice, but she wasn’t fooled.

“I think stuff at work must have kicked this one off,” she said and then blushed.

“What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely interested.

She stared at me for a moment, perhaps wondering if it was something appropriate to confess to a stranger at a bus stop. Then her smile returned briefly before the tic arrived again.

“They’re all used to me at work,” she explained when she was able to. “But the boss isn’t.” She risked a sigh to indicate her frustration. “I mostly just repeat words to myself so they’re not as disruptive. But occasionally a movement takes over, and that’s what he doesn’t understand… Or like. I think he wonders if I’m actually mentally handicapped, or something.

“Anyway, even though I’ve been working there as an accountant for almost ten years, he’s never promoted me. I’m well regarded by my colleagues, and they’re almost all men…but…”

I could see a sudden change in her face as she leaned over the curb and the tic began again.

“But my friend Amrita thinks it’s just the glass ceiling that’s holding me back,” she said, once again in temporary control. “And yet, I’m not certain that reassures me…”

Her bus pulled up suddenly, and she stepped onto it like any other passenger, and was gone. I saw her smile at me through the window when she found a seat though, and I nodded in a friendly recognition of what she’d shared with me. But, like her, I’m not sure her friend was right -ceilings are not the only battles.


Barbie in the Mirror

As an Ob/Gyn specialist I have been, I suppose, more than a passive observer of women over the years. But society has not been passive, either. Depending on where you live and in what cultural milieu, issues such as our sizes and shapes have become sources of real anxiety. Unrealistic expectations of morphology no doubt arise from multiple origins, but the end result is often the same -many of us don’t even come close to meeting them.

And as if that worry wasn’t enough, there has now been added the perhaps more troublesome issue of health. Despite the euphemism ‘plus-sized’ there is no disguising the stigma of the special term for many women –particularly when it comes wrapped with innuendoes of obesity and diminished well-being… not to mention beauty. Shakespeare would have us believe that ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.’ But does it? Once again, morphology rears its stilted head.

But we are a curious lot, we humans, influenced as we are by fashion and culture. Fickle in our choices, mercurial in our attitudes to those who fall outside the norms, we deride those who fail to satisfy the arbitrary boundaries –temporal though they may be.

Some have argued that one of the barometers of expectation is the shape of dolls –Barbie dolls in particular. They become, after all, the matrix of imaginary play and serve as proxies for the roles the children are trying to understand.

A fuss seems to have been engendered by the release of three new types of Barbies: curvy, petite and tall. There are also skin colour differences, presumably to reflect the diversity in modern societies. But also, one could argue, to deflect the criticism of pandering to the thin, blond phenotype so prevalent in their models up to now. ‘Mattel [the makers of the doll] argues Barbie shouldn’t be expected to represent average proportions in the first place. “Barbie is a doll. She is not meant to reflect a real woman’s body,” says Sarah Allen from Mattel UK. “The purpose of introducing three new bodies into the range is variety and differentiation. When you look at the dolls collectively you can see the range in relationship between the dolls. “’ It’s a start, I suppose.

Therein lies the problem, of course, and it seems to me that it is hydra-headed. On the one hand to portray a doll that is truly representative of the reality that the child sees around her, would be to normalize –legitimize, really- the scourge of the 21st century: obesity and all of the health risks that entails: ‘[…]were Mattel required to accurately reflect the average British and American woman across all ages, the dolls would be overweight or obese.’ And yet, from a more modulated perspective, ‘Lenore Wright, from Baylor University, Texas, conducted a study in 2003 that explored the role of Barbie. She found Barbie’s shape didn’t really matter to children – her function was more important.’ Dolls, in other words, are just pretend –they’re substitutes that are merely assigned the role the child is exploring. The child knows they are not real.

But ‘Wright adds that Mattel’s new line has been criticized by some feminist scholars for reinforcing an old stereotype – that women are defined by their bodies.’ As I suggested, there are many divergent perspectives but remember that a Minotaur waits at the center of the labyrinth. We must be careful not to wander too far in our approach; we must not let our zeal mislead us.

It seems to me that children have always played with dolls and represented them according to their needs. To criticize a stick-doll, for example, or to confuse it with the reality the child apprehends is to stray dangerously far into revisionism. We are not children and we do not think as children. In a world where dolls are doctors, and dogs are patients, we are now strangers. Adults. Other… Forgive me for referencing Corinthians, but I think its advice was prescient: ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’

Amen to that.