Poor, beleaguered men. Wherever they go they are surrounded by swarms of nagging women, sucking at their very lifeblood like a cloud of banshee mosquitos. And now it’s become even worse: what was seen as simply an irritating affliction is now apparently a fatal one. “You really can be nagged to death!” squeals the Mail, while the Telegraph warns that “nagging could cost the lives of hundreds of men”.
It’s the result of a report released this week by the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health on stressful social relations and mortality, the conclusion of which is that “stressful social relations are associated with increased mortality risk among middle-aged men and women.” This risk is higher amongst men, and particularly men “outside the labour force”.
None of this is particularly shocking news: we all know that social relationships can cause stress, and we know that stress leads to potentially fatal issues such as cardiovascular disease. We also already know that men are more susceptible to these diseases: about one in five men die of coronary heart disease, compared to one in eight women.
But it’s hardly surprising that the headlines have opted for the rather more sensationalised conclusion that women are nagging men to death.
‘Nag’ is part of a long linguistic tradition of invalidating women, in the same vein as ‘ball and chain’ and the dreaded ‘missus’. These words hold the idea of woman whose constant scolding forbids the henpecked husband from staying out for another pint lest he ‘get into trouble’. They can be whipped out as a handy excuse to allow a man to avoid the notion that he might – imagine it! - actually enjoy spending time with his partner.
Mary Beard’s brilliant lecture on the silencing of women throughout history “Oh Do Shut Up Dear!” covers this cultural phenomenon in detail. "Do those words matter? Of course they do – because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say. It's an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere… it trivialises their words.”
Linguistic traits such as this aren’t limited to the domestic space, but bleed over into every area of public and professional life. When women speak, they’re often described as ‘strident’, ‘shrill’ or ‘whining’, especially if they dare to do so within traditionally masculine spaces, such as politics.
Consider David Cameron’s patronising suggestion that MP Angela Eagle “Calm down, dear”. These words are designed to undermine and invalidate women’s voices, painting our concerns as trivial, irrational and overbearing.
There are a lot of interesting things which we could talk about as a result of these research findings. We could talk about the relationship between stress and masculinity, and the damaging societal expectation that men bottle up rather than express feelings. We could talk about the pressure of trying to live up to the traditional male role as provider, sole breadwinner and head of the household, compounded by dealing with the evolution and cultural shift away from these roles.
The study’s finding that unemployed men are most at risk of going to an early grave – those “outside the labour force” - is certainly one that’s worth exploring, especially given the current heightened levels of 'nagging' from the government, as dole-seekers are forced to sign-on on a daily basis, complete mandatory work-placements and generally jump through more hoops than Crufts’ most put-upon poodle.
But rather than explore issues around the construction of gender roles and expectations, and the negative effects which these might be having on all of us, we fall back time and time again onto old and familiar narratives, reinforcing them as we do so.
Women nag, men don’t talk about their feelings, and eventually we’ll all drive each other into an early grave. Until death do us part.