In a recent blog, Deborah Cameron explains and extends the notion of the ‘default male’. To give the most basic and well-known example, in language it is about using for example the male pronoun in reference to the generic person. Speakers, social actors, addressees etc. would have been referred to by the default ‘he’. But I find the example of ‘ethnic jokes’ particularly compelling; the ‘Englishman, Irishman’ kind of jokes, though for me it would be the Pole, the German and the Russian – all with nouns in the masculine grammatical gender. It is precisely the masculine form that makes them ‘transparent’, and we know that the joke is about nationality. Introduce nouns with the feminine form (there were a few like that) and you immediately know that it is about women and nationality. But Cameron takes the argument further showing that the default male assumptions are also made in visual representations. I think her argument is very well made. But I would like to point to an aspect of the ‘default male’ perspective which, I think, tends to be overlooked. The ‘default male’ cuts both ways and it is as unwelcome from (at least some) men’s perspective.
When I was considerably younger and still lived in Poland, I was subject to the national service. Because I went to university, I could go only for a year of ‘graduate national service’, which was somewhat less demanding, at least after the first 3 months. Graduates were supposed to be officer material. And, boy, was I not! Needless to say, like just about every (and I do mean ‘every’) other young man I knew, I wanted nothing to do with the military service. And yet, I often heard that the military service would be make me a (real) man, that without the army one is not really a man and (idiotic) things like that. The word ‘soldier’ was so saturated with masculinity that masculinity had to contain the ‘soldier’ bit. Incidentally, my response always was: if you want, go bloody serve yourself and swear allegiance to socialism and the Soviet Union.
A digression. This actually was part of the oath every soldier took in communist Poland. On the day of the oath, it was quite funny to hear the very marked drop in the volume of uttered words, as most soldiers didn’t particularly want to swear to defend the Soviet Union. The army was prepared, though; you had to sign a piece of paper. Incidentally, defending ourselves (and the USSR) meant attacking West Germany (Germans in the GDR were the good ones). I must also admit that we thought that the only way we could win, was that when they (the West Germans) saw us, they would die laughing at us….
Well, I did do my national service. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, I hated it, on release I could not speak, dream, think of anything but the military service for quite a long time. Somehow the soldierly default maleness didn’t do it for me. And I would happily have continued to be half the man without having to learn how to use the AK-47.
But the default male goes way beyond the soldier. Whenever I watch a crime/action drama or movie, when the police-officer characters talk about ‘perps’, killers, murderers, terrorists, rapists, they use the pronoun ‘he’. Occasionally, if the story line allows, someone says – hey, how do we know it’s a ‘he’, like it was this revolutionary idea worthy of a Nobel. Otherwise, ‘he’ is suspected of every imaginable crime by default, as if only men were capable of committing them. But the word I really dislike is ‘creep’. It is always explained by reference to a ‘detestable person’, and yet, I have not found a sentence exemplifying its meaning with the pronoun ‘she’ (I did focus on online sources only). And yet, women can be creeps – I confirmed it by asking a number of native speakers, all of whom very confidently said so.
Another example I want to point to is the ‘default male’ in announcements of casualties. When we hear of a tragedy where lots of people died, the announcement usually is something like: a thousand people died, including women and children (sometimes it’s children only). The latter reference makes the tragedy more tragic, profound, awful. So, if only one thousand men died, would it somehow be more ok, well, ok-ish? Are we really simply more dispensable, and our lives matter less? Yes, if the tragedy is related to a military conflict, I can see the argument that it is mostly men who wage wars (and the likes of Mrs. Thatcher are in minority), still, as I don’t particularly want to shoot anyone (that does include the West Germans, despite the Polish army’s best efforts), I really don’t care who wages the war. I want to opt out and not be part of the more acceptable male death toll.
There is another digression here. As I get older, I pay more and more attention to the valuation of elderly life. And it seems that the older you get, the more acceptable your death is, and no one really cares that an old person dies. They seem to have had their share of life, so who cares?
I occasionally show students two photographs. One is of an ill old person (there are medical paraphernalia in the photo) and a very young child in a similar situation. Inevitably, the former photo is greeted with no reaction, and the latter with sounds of ‘aaaahhh’ full of sympathy and empathy. I then point out that the old person has the wealth of life experience, knowledge, and has contributed to the society for decades (in taxes and other ways), while the child might, for all we know, be the next Hitler, Pol Pot or Dr Mengele, but it is ignored. The old person can die without us batting an eyelid. I also find this quite unacceptable. Digression over.
I am suggesting that ‘default maleness’ is related to what the linguist Sally Johnson called ‘the universal male oppressor’ in a chapter in Language and Masculinity. It’s the idea of universally oppressive masculinity that always benefits from the patriarchal society. She rejects this idea. Just like women, men are not a homogenous group of people and the ‘default male’ can be harmful to them. I think in particular of men in depression I wrote about in the previous post. They know very well that they are supposed to be the architects, managers, directors and soldiers – they also read maleness into them. Except they can’t be and in effect they are failures. As I argued in Men’s Discourses of Depression, they can’t even be properly ill. Instead, they are no longer men.