Recognising Gender Based Censorship: Shut Up! You Stupid, Ugly Mutt

by HollieT

Have you ever wondered why some men will allude to your 'looks' or level of education in a negative way during a disagreement? How to identify gender based censorship.

For some women, the term gender based censorship conjures images of an unbridled Orwellian state, or a Saudi like society where gender parity on any or every level is shockingly absent .

The truth is, women silencing is not just an alarming indictment of gender inequality in distant lands, but a harsh and sometimes even brutal reality for women in the western world, too.

Defining Gender Based Censorship.

Firstly, the author acknowledges that the act of censorship, both implicitly and explicitly, is not exclusive to the lives of women. The author further acknowledges that, not only are some women pro-censorship, but may also engage in censorius acts themselves. Censorship exists in every society to varying degrees and, of course, also pervades the lives of other social, political and religious groups which include men. However, in order to make the distinction between gender based and other forms of censorship, we first need to establish what, exactly, censorship means.

According to Wikipedia:

"Censorship is the suppression of speech or other public communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body. It can be done by governments and private organizations or by individuals who engage in self-censorship. It occurs in a variety of different contexts including speech, books, music, films and other arts, the press, radio, television, and the Internet for a variety of reasons..."

Wikipedia then goes on to suggest that there are occasions where censorship can be used to protect children, in the interests of national security, to prevent libel, slander and so on. And that, whilst some forms of censorship may be legal, others are not.

What then, do we mean by gender based censorship? In the broadest sense, gender based censorship involves the silencing of womens' experiences, perspectives and ideas, by preventing them from reaching any intended or potential audience. However, gender based censorship extends beyond that which is removed from the book shelves, or overlooked for display at the art gallery. Rather, censorious social mechanisms exist on every level; structural, personal, political.



Throughout history womens writings, artwork, ideas and experiences have been censored and their freedom of speech and expression severely curtailed, or completely denied.

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, for example, was considered to be a dangerously subversive text at the time of publication, so dangerous in fact, that it was banned from girls schools well into the late 19th Century.



Ironically, Bronte's novel opens with an assault on a girl at the hands of the male heir to the household. Whilst the girl is reading, the male takes her book from her and then assaults her with it. Were these Jane's experiences, or Charlotte's?

Recognising the importance of language, expression and perhaps to some degree self imposed censorship (Woolf, 1929) asserted that the " Man's sentence is unsuited for a woman's use." Similarly, Woolf's A Room of One's Own examines the potential life of Shakespeare's sister, what she might have achieved had she lived in different times. Woolf describes her as a poet who never wrote a word. Clearly Woolf envisages a future where women can openly, and as a collective, talk about their experiences and share their feelings without fear.

" For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think;"

Accepted, But Not Heard.

Today, women in the west are routinely reminded how far they've come, how much freedom they've  attained and how they are able to write, paint, read and study as they chose. And whilst it is true that within both a cross-cultural and historical context, women in the western world are far less likely to be subject to official forms of censorship from the government or military in comparison to women from other cultures or different times, these statements however, neglect to recognise that gender based censorship also occurs through a culture of exclusion. It is cultural, it is structural.

It is also no coincidence that some religions still refuse to ordain women. Womens groups have long argued that religion has been used for centuries as a vehicle for social control. Excluding women's voices from the upper echelons of any religious institution only perpetuates religion and spirituality as seen through the eyes of men. Thus womens experiences of, or expectations from, religion, religious institutions and discourse are silenced by exclusion.

Nor is it a coincidence that women authors who write critically about gender issues and the current social order will invariably struggle to find publishers for their work. Nevertheless, as the women's movement gained momentum in the 1970's, so to did the emergence of women only publishers such as Virago Press. Yet still, both prominent and emerging authors are often ignored by literary editors who flagrantly and unashamedly favour male authors. When Publishers Weekly compiled their top ten best books of 2009, not one women author was included on the list and this was a year in which books published by acclaimed authors such as Margaret Atwood, Alicia Ostriker, Lorrie Moore, Rita Dove and others had emerged. 

And the world of art is also notoriously unbalanced when it comes to gender, curation, collections and value. In fact, in Linda Stein's piece entitled Art World Insiders Struggle to Address Disparity it is noted that in 2009, less than one third of New York's solo exhibitions feature women.

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Be Quiet, Be Pretty, Be Good!

By all intents and purposes, the emergence of the internet created a space for women to freely publish their art and share their experiences without banging their heads on the glass ceiling. 

The internet offered, not only a platform for women writers and other artists, but anonymity- should it be required.

Initially, although not necessarily by design, the freedom to publish on the world wide web began to tip the scales of the social arrangement. Not only did women bloggers, artists, journalists and scholars have a platform from which to freely share their experiences and opinions; but women outside of the public sphere were able to engage in the discussion, too.

The inclusive nature of publishing and commenting on the internet appeared to render the somewhat nuanced and westernised forms of woman silencing null and void. Womens voices were becoming louder; they could no longer be ignored.

And whilst the anonymity of the internet empowered many women from the around the world, unfortunately, it also invited some deeply embedded misogynistic strategies to silence; insults, intimidation and threats.

These tactics are as old as the hills. Frequently used, not just when women present a strong and credible argument and not just when women ask men uncomfortable questions which may or may not be related to gender arrangements, but just because a woman has dared to speak.

This form of gender based censorship generally follows a well established pattern. The aggressor will attempt to dehumanize; a woman who resembles an animal is too ugly to be taken seriously; she is stupid, demonise, discredit and finally silence. He will also present himself as virtuous in comparison to his female opponent, he will remind her of her place in relation to his.

In the video below, David Starkey, a rather controversial British Historian, is accused by Laurie Penny, a well known British journalist and blogger who writes from a feminist and left leaning perspective, of playing Xenophobia and national prejudices for laughs. The debate focuses on Britishness and what it means to be British. Note his reaction.

Without hesitation, David Starkey presents himself as virtuous in comparison to his opponent. He was prepared to work without charging a fee, whereas she had the audacity to ask for payment. She is mean and grasping. The attempt to demonise.

He compared her to some runt comedian. The attempt to dehumanise, also never to be taken seriously. She is stupid.

He described her as a jumped up public school girl. She needed to be reminded of her place, she is but a girl, a child. He will not be lectured to by her. She also needed to be reminded of her place in relation to his.

He has the emails. She must be the only one telling the truth, and everybody else must be lying. The attempt to discredit. 

Subliminally, David Starkey is warning Laurie Penny that she must Be Quiet, Be pretty, Be Good.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the video above has been edited. Starkey's aggressive male posturing emerged, not immediately after Penny accused him of playing Xenophobia and national prejudices for laughs, but when she asked him where he was domiciled to for tax purposes. Perhaps a pertinent, albeit uncomfortable question for Starkey. The footage can be found here.


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Seen, Heard and Targeted.

And it isn't just controversial historians who launch attacks on women in the public eye. Many prominent women who publish work on the internet are frequently targeted. Starkey's viscous personal attack against Laurie Penny could almost be seen as tame in comparison to some of the hate mail and threats that she receives on a daily basis.

In a piece for the Independent Newspaper entitled A woman's opinion is the mini-skirt of the internet. Penny discusses the alarming frequency and intensity of the threats made against her.

"You come to expect it, as a woman writer, particularly if you're political. You come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats. After a while, the emails and tweets and comments containing graphic fantasies of how and where and with what kitchen implements certain pseudonymous people would like to rape you cease to be shocking, and become merely a daily or weekly annoyance, something to phone your girlfriends about, seeking safety in hollow laughter.

An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they'd like to rape, kill and urinate on you."

Again, these are very old tactics and the purpose is clear. Not only do some male sections of society wish to drive womens voices from the internet, but they wish to make an example of women like Laurie Penny who, not only dare to have opinions, but dare to voice them in a public space.

The same holds true for women who comment or engage in debate in public forums. Few will have escaped the vitriolic language or the attempts by swarms of aggressive and ill informed men to silence every woman who dares to disagree. When some anonymous misogynist sends death threats to Laurie Penny, we are all being threatened. We are all being told to shut up or else!

Which is why we must keep writing, we must keep talking, we do have a voice and other women want to hear it. 

The personal is political.

Updated: 05/28/2013, HollieT
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HollieT on 03/25/2013

Yes, I agree that the comment regarding her schooling was about class, as he compared her background with his own. However, he also referred to her as a 'girl' which is demeaning in itself, particularly when he addressing a woman, not a girl.

Rob on 03/25/2013

The UK still has a fairly strong class system and the comment 'jumped up public school girl' is not about gender, it is about class. The implication is that because she went to public school, she is from a privileged background and therefore has no understanding of the 'real' world. It is fairly common to see references to David Cameron and George Osborne being 'public school boys' making precisely the same point.

HollieT on 01/28/2013

I agree that calling people out in the moment can be an effective to way to hear all voices. Unfortunately however, this simply doesn't happen enough and there are good reasons for that. Many men have also been silenced when they attempt to speak out on behalf of women who have been censored. :)

cazort on 01/27/2013

Apologies for the slow reply, I really agree with what you wrote, HollieT, that people who dismiss women's perspectives (or perspectives of any one group) are more likely to dismiss other people on the basis of not being part of some group as well (race, religion, political identity, age, etc.). That fits with my experience.

I try not to speculate as to why people are dismissive--often I think people (especially men) are not conscious of it, but if you try to draw attention to it in general (like saying: "I notice you seem to be dismissive of what women say in meetings.") I've found it often elicits a defensive reaction. Instead I think it's most helpful to call people out on it immediately--right as it is happening. For example, if a man interrupts a woman who is making thoughtful comments, interrupt the man and say: "Hey, please let so-and-so finish her point. I think her perspective is valuable and I want to know what she has to say."

It can be hard to speak up in the moment, but I've found that this is the time when it's most likely to actually get through to someone that what they're doing is harmful and unwanted. My experience with people suggests that people usually selectively remember what happens in conversations and meetings, and if someone is being dismissive of or disrespectful of women, they often don't even remember the specifics of what the woman was saying, because they were ignoring the women or not focusing on her perspective.

I also think calling people out in the moment can send a strong message to everyone present, that everyone's perspective is important, and that people don't tolerate the sort of dynamic in which louder or more aggressive people dominate a conversation.

HollieT on 01/21/2013

You're absolutely right, we do need a media revolution- And I'm optimistic that that will happen. I have every faith in the generations which are coming up behind me- they're the future editors, producers, directors and more. :)

HollieT on 01/21/2013

Hi Bethany,

Thank you! :) I do believe that many of the younger generation are exposed to such tactics more frequently than I was when I was younger because of the internet. And awareness definitely helps when it comes to opposing any form of sexism or censorship. :)

HollieT on 01/13/2013

Hi Morgan,

Even though I know that this exists it still shocks me too. I can well imagine how women in the video game industry are shut down when they attempt to develop strong and independent female characters. I find it staggering that in this day and age there are those who still feel so threatened by such a scenario.

I was reading a blog a few weeks ago where the author had a piece he'd written in support of a feminist rejected by his editor (in his day job). The first piece he had ever had rejected! He later wrote other pieces declaring that he was a feminist and attempting to discuss issues such as gender based censorship. All the pieces were rejected and he later resigned. You're absolutely right, so many negative connotations have been attached to the word feminist that many women will actually say "I'm not a feminist but" As as if that declaration needs to be made before any form of criticism or dissent is voiced.

Thanks for stopping by.

HollieT on 01/13/2013

Hi Jo,

Thank You, I'm really glad you stopped by. We've no doubt come across many women who've encountered this form of censorship- the good thing is that they're still writing though! :)

Morgan E. Ashton on 01/13/2013

A male friend of mine and I have fairly frequent discussions on this, particularly in regards to forms of media that are generally thought of as masculine. I've heard a lot of horror stories about the kinds of things said to female video game developers, or comic authors, and it really baffles me how things like this still exist.

It extends further into the stifling of a female presence in media. Phrases like, "Nobody wants to play a game starring a strong woman," are horrifyingly common. And God help a woman who tries to complain! "Feminist" has gained almost insult status, and it's thrown around apmost every time a woman presents a dissenting opinion. Possibly even more surprising is that men who try to speak up for women are just as quickly discredited! It's just sad.

JoHarrington on 01/13/2013

Very, very well said!

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