What is banter and why is it a sexist term?

The term has been described as a ‘get out of jail free card’ to mask abusive behaviour

Olivia Petter
Monday 29 October 2018 16:29

Banter is a word that means different things to different people.

For some, the term carries a playfulness that describes the very British tendency to lightly tease those closest to you as a form of affection.

But others will say it carries much darker connotations, conjuring up memories of humiliation, ridicule and slander.

A person’s definition of "banter" often depends on whether they’re on the giving or receiving end of it: what the former thinks is a joke, the latter may interpret as bullying.

“Banter is an important means of social bonding,” explains Dr Natalie Hanna, lecturer at the University of Liverpool, “but it becomes problematic when vulnerable groups become the target of jokes by more socially powerful, or dominant groups.”

It can be particularly damaging when marginalised groups are victimised under the guise of “banter” via sexist or racist language, she tells The Independent, as it encourages group bonding via discrimination of another group, consequently perpetuating structural inequalities.

It's even more precarious at work, where professional hierarchies create natural power imbalances between employees that render one person more vulnerable than another.

For example, if a senior employee were to engage in a “banterous” exchange with a junior colleague, depending on the nature of the comment, it could either be perceived as a joke, or as sexual harassment.

Speaking to The Independent, sociologist Rosalind Gill explains how “banter” can be used to mask workplace sexism.

“Asking female colleagues if they are 'naughty girls' or 'need their bottoms slapped', referring to them as 'sweetheart' or 'love' instead of by their names are blatant examples,” she says.

“Dubbing them 'banter' is part of a long tradition in which women are abused and undermined and then, if they complain, told they don’t have a sense of humour.”

The term “banter” is itself gendered, argues UCL gender studies professor Katherine Twamley, who tells The Independent that while women obviously engage in similar communications, the word is more typically associated with men - Urban Dictionary entries align it with "lad" culture.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, she explains, because most people are able to engage in good-humoured conversations without causing offence.

I know plenty of men who can ‘banter’ without racially slurring others or making misogynistic comments,” Twamley says.

However, when the word is used to mask behaviour that is fundamentally abusive, vindicating it as “just a bit of fun”, banter becomes a damaging concept that can result in victims feeling silenced.

“If I am to point out some offensive talk, a quick and easy riposte is that it is ‘banter’," she continues.

“Then I conveniently become the ‘problem’: the one who is too ‘uptight’, unable to discern ‘harmless’ funny chat from actual harmful behaviour, spoiling the fun of others.”

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

This kind of attitude can normalise verbal and physical abuse to the point whereby people on the receiving end are made to feel foolish for taking offence because they simply don’t “get the joke”.

Sarah Green, co-director at the End Violence Against Women Coalition, concurs that banter is a "tired term".

"It's is the oldest excuse in the book for rubbish behaviour and attitudes," she tells The Independent, "time to move on".

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments