I know I have posted before about the “Killing Us Softly” series by Jean Kilbourne. She was one of the first to discuss the way advertising portrayed women, and the cultural messages it transmitted about women’s bodies and being “feminine”.
One of those portrayals is the “silent” woman. She may have her mouth taped over. Or there may be ad copy suggesting you don’t need to speak if you are just pretty enough, or the model may be shown without a face or head … all things indicating that a woman without a voice or means of communication is a normal and good thing.
I’ve discussed previously how the push for thin women is all about control and subordination, and how there is almost always a deeper subtext about gender ideologies when masculinity or femininity is “performed” in the media. Well, the subtext in the silent woman is all about not making a fuss and therefore not pushing back against the gendered violence and bullshit inherent in a patriarchal system.
The patriarchy makes women pay for the “crime” of speaking in their own defense. Women are “punished” when they report a rape because they have to prove it was a “legitimate” rape and they did nothing to “provoke” it. Women (and men also) are punished when then embrace feminism; they are mocked and called names indicating they hate men and/or want to destroy the family. People, especially women, who openly disagree with the patriarchal hegemony are socially punished with denigration and attempts at shaming.
Look at what happened to Sandra Fluke when spoke up before Congress and said that women would like birth control to be covered by their insurance companies, thank-you-very-much, for medical reasons as well as to manage their own fertility. She was vehemently castigated as a slut. The name calling was nothing more than an attempt to ensure that other women knew what would happen to them (very public condemnation which all humans are hard-wired to fear) if they spoke up about it, too. When there was a negative reaction to the attacks on Fluke, she was accused of being a “leftist political plant” and thus cast as someone sneaky – even deviant.
Training women to modify their communication starts young. Little girls are taught not to be “bossy”, a term almost never applied to young boys. Girls are expected to modulate their voices when boys are often tacitly encourage in loud play because “boys will be boys”. The “silent” women in the advertisements are just visual representations that reinforce what girls are already learning.
Women are taught by sociocultural example that speaking up, speaking out, and speaking loudly make them less feminine, less attractive, and less worthy of love. When is the last time you heard of a man being called a “loud-mouth”? Or having a “big, fat mouth”? Or being “pushy”? Only women and minorities can be pushy. White guys who do it are straight-shooters or alphas, or at worst aggressive or domineering. Women who try to dominate their subordinates are called bitches, witches, and or devils who wear Prada.
Badgering women into silence is part and parcel with telling them they are only as good as they look, because either way the patriarchy has set the parameters on what is import, what has value, for feminine success and worthiness. Women who “talk back” are accused of being “ugly” just as often as they are called a “bitch”. The patriarchal hegemony needs people to be complicit, which is best expressed as silent obedience, if it is to remain in control.
Think about it, the next time you wonder if you should hold your tongue.
In hindsight I know why when I was a young teen the song “Voices Carry” by ‘Til Tuesday both enthralled me and yet made me slight nervous. I didn’t know it, but it was a message to fight back against those who would silence me because of my gender, which was too strange and scary to process for a the good little girl that I was. It was only later that I would find my voice.
I have not shut up ever since.