Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What a Difference a Word Makes...

Recently I was driving to work and listening to the radio, as one does, when I heard a sentence by Mary Coughlan, our gaffe-prone Tanaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, which led me to muse on the way a single word can make such a difference to a sentence, and can reveal a huge amount about the speaker. (The interview is here.) She was waffling on about the problems facing our food and drink industries in light of the economic crisis, and began a comment about supermarket prices by stating, "Any woman in the country who's been out shopping has seen ... a reduction in prices..." The word "woman", of course, stands out like an orangutan in a symphony orchestra, and the immediate question that leapt to my mind was: why not "person"? Or "consumer"? Does Mary Coughlan live in a world where only women do grocery shopping (or, to be more blunt, is she, as a notedly conservative TD from the rural hinterland, appealing to her base by only being interested in social set-ups where women do the shopping except in very unusual circumstances (as in that a man's wife has died or become disabled?)) It's an interesting frame of mind for an ambitious female politician... (and in fairness to her, she does say later in the same interview: "I've spoken to a lot of people in the consumer side, and they still want to have consumer choice and blah blah blah" (It's hard to concentrate when she talks for any length of time, to be honest! But that's a more general, sound-byte style statement, unlike the specific linkage of "women" and "shopping" above.))
One is inevitably reminded of the episode of Father Ted where Ted and Dougal are shown reduced to tears after practically destroying the kitchen in a vain attempt to make a cup of tea, or where Ted cautions a bunch of middle-aged women to return to their husbands before they attempt any kind of domestic task ("Remember the time your Jim tried to make a cup of tea, and burned the house down?" (or something; I'm quoting from memory)). So, in Coughlan's Ireland, where are the men? That's simple: a single man has his food purchased and cooked for him by his mammy (outside of takeaway from either the petrol station (the indigestible breakfast roll) or the chipper, and the occasional visit to a restaurant (either for a wedding or to impress a potential wife)). Said mammy also washes his clothes, cleans his room, and ignores the porn in his wardrobe, until (or if) he gets married, in which case these tasks fall to his adoring new wife. If he doesn't find the right woman, of course (with good, child-bearin' hips) he stays with the mammy until one of them dies. No self-respecting Irish man could be let loose in a supermarket unsupervised: his head might spontaneously combust at the mindbending difficulty of having to find the proper toothpaste or kitchen roll, or he'd just sweep armfuls of products into the trolley in his oh-so-masculine way, then become confused and aggressive when his overloaded trolley costs him E1,000... Obviously, in Coughlan's Ireland where only women do the shoppin', there isn't much of a place for the single man living away from home (or worse, the single father), the gay couple (as she said on the legal status of same-sex parents: "My personal view is that this country is not ready for that, and may never, ever be ready for it." Unlike, of course, Fianna Fail's continued support (I view it as nothing else) for organisations involved in the decades-long cover-up of physical and sexual abuse of children), or a domestic situation where the woman works and the man cares for the children, because who'd do the grocery shopping then? Never mind the fact that whenever I do the week's shopping I'm likely to see as many men as women pushing trollies about.
I should point out here that there is nothing wrong with a man living at home until he get married, or a woman doing the shopping exclusively, and so forth, if that's what they want to do. My objection is when such a set-up is championed to the exclusion of all others, something which has always happened in Ireland. Curiously, it is Coughlan's party which, while by and large championing such traditional values, has caused the massive increase in the cost of living over the last decade that has forced both parents of countless families into work to make ends meet, whether they wanted to or not, thus destroying the happy-family stereotype that Fianna Fail celebrate so fulsomely.
If you think I'm being a bit pedantic by picking out something like this, I'd like to point out that gender-swapping the sentence is not likely. Would the Minister have said: "Any man in the country who's been out shopping has seen ... a reduction in prices..."? I can't see any reason, other than what I've outlined above, as to the use of the word "woman" (instead of the gender-neutral "person") in this particular context, except by someone who believes (or affects to believe) that certain tasks fall naturally to men or women (cutting the grass is a man's job, while washing clothes is a woman's job, and so on). Words have power, and reveal a lot about the speaker and their society. And it's as depressing as it is unsurprising for me to see that the kind of thinking as revealed by such a slip still thrives in our wonderful gombeen country. Anyway, here's a song in keeping with the above:

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