Harriet Walker: Women have their own brand of sexist banter


Harriet Walker
Thursday 08 March 2012 01:00

All aboard for a spot of banter-bashing! To briefly re-cap, banter or "bants" is the preferred humour of the graceless half-wit, the sort that might have bought the sexist trousers that surfaced so delightfully on the internet this week (under washing instructions, the offending label read "give to your woman").

The comeback "oh , it's only banter" has reverberated around the giggle-less void after so many rape jokes and domestic violence gags in the past few months that it has become, officially, the last refuge of the numbskull. Thank goodness, finally, that we have been able to ascribe so precisely the Clarksonian characteristics of witlessly aggressive verbiage and slogan T-shirts to one 17th-century word.

"Banter" is a specifically male concept – and I don't say that pejoratively, it just is. It's the equivalent of the fist-bump and the jeering that follows a comment about someone's knockers; it's a pot noodle consumed outside polite society's delicatessen of jokes. Jonathan Swift used it, and we all know how he loved to embarrass and belittle the ladies. Just think what he wrote about Celia: that is the very definition of banter.

But these days it's more loaded, so we're quite right to call it out as loathsome rather than – as its champions insist it is – "just a bit of fun".

How strange then that its female counterpart shouldn't also be strung up for being just as charmless and invidious. Those oddly patronising Mother Hen gags that so much of our daily life is predicated on – the concept of "man flu" for instance, or any one of those vile "we know better", eye-rolling Boots ads that tip the shuddersome wink to the widely acknowledged ineptitude of men and the "I-don't-know-how-she-does-it" superhero powers of the almighty modern mum.

If I were a man, I'd find these adverts uniquely insulting – just as I find most "banter", in fact. True, they're not as aggressively offensive as, say, a chauvinist pair of chinos or a nudge and a wink that makes light of wife-beating, but they're odious in their lowest common denominator tactics: the simple act of pitting women against men. The truly funny among us realised long ago that the "him indoors" joke is every bit as tired and unhelpful as the mother-in-law genre.

Whenever men get in on a female concept, we make a cutesy portmanteau of it – "manscara", for example, or "mankini". "Womanter" might not be terribly catchy, but do bear it in mind, because it's every bit as bad as "bants".

Do what you feel like, Sergei

Gone are the days of starting your career as a clerk and working your way up. The Royal Ballet's former principal dancer Sergei Polunin has declared his intention to give up dancing by the age of 26. He's 22 and has already scaled the heights, so what's left for him?

Polunin is part of a strange new generation that does phantasmagorically in its early years, then decides it has mastered everything and strides off in a new direction. Polunin is not just any twenty-something. But even for the rest of us, careers are more fluid; vocations less of a notion: you can decide what you want to be and go for it, regardless of skills, training or experience. Let's just hope Polunin doesn't find his next metier as a political blogger.

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