Washing instructions: banter, misogyny and low intensity conflict


In the wake of International Women’s Day (I am enough of an old lefty to lament the disappearance of ‘Working’ from the name, but that seems to be a lost cause), it seems time to turn some thoughts to sporting gender and the cultural politics of sexist oppression. One of the biggest problems it seems to me we have in struggles to bring about change in this question is our contemporary sense of cynicism. I’m not talking here about the ancient Greek philosophical school – those of rough behaviour who spent time haranguing (barking at) crowds and denouncing hypocrisy, but the modern kind that is pervasive, self-serving and more than a little dangerous. I don’t mean the nihilistic outlook of the ‘don’t vote, it only encourages them’ kind, but the ‘world weary, seen it all, nothing can surprise me any more’ arrogant kind; the kind we academics seem to exude so well in bad times. Say what you like about the current political climate with green shoots of ‘hope’, be it Syriza, Podemos, the Pirate Party or, if you’re of the more mainstream variety, claims to indications of economic recovery – these are bad times for progressive and lefty types seeking social change.

This world weariness seems also to sit alongside a dominant view in sport that addressing the problem of gender inequality and sexism is about building ways to get women and non-heteronormative men into a sport system on the same basis as those men who perform the dominant, approved of, hegemonic (depending on your politics) forms of masculinity: it is a kind of liberalism that looks to treat us all equally without looking also to change the power structures of an unjust social order. This presents all sorts of problems, most especially the one where one of the major things keeping women and many men marginalised in sport cultures is that dominant masculinity. There has been an awful lot of academic and other writing about the characteristics of the masculine sporting culture, its valorisation of pain and violence, its contempt for women and all those men who don’t fit the model and its vigorous policing of the borders of its homosocial world.

The politics of the language of border policing in sport has tended to focus on high profile, high impact language and has resulted in such things as the Australian Football League’s important policy and actions against racial vilification; we’ve been less good at addressing sex and gender oriented vilification – just look at the sexist chants regularly directed at Chelsea FC’s team doctor Eva Carneiro and lazy homophobia of many sports cultures – and even worse at ‘low level’ but potent vilification.

I find the military doctrine of low intensity conflict (LIC) helpful in this context. Emerging from US counter-insurgency programmes from the late 1960s onwards, LIC was defined by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1985 as: “a limited politico-military struggle to achieve political, social, economic, or psychological objectives. It is often protracted and ranges from diplomatic, economic and psycho-social pressures through to terrorism and insurgency. Low-intensity conflict is generally confined to a geographic area and is often characterized by constraints on the weaponry, tactics, and the level of violence.” This is not a military doctrine of all out war, although in recent years the boundaries have become blurred – consider the experiences of the invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003. In the border policing we see around sports’ masculinist cultures most of our discussions focus on explicit hostility of the kind athletes such as Katie Hnida who played football the University of Colorado, and many other women experience in masculinist sports worlds – again, consider Dr Eva Carniero. This is important, but it is not enough.

One of the things that seems to have been underplayed in these discussions of masculinist border policing is any explicit exploration of what is often passed off as banter in this world of the bloke. But let’s stop for a moment and look at banter, described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks”. ‘Teasing’ seems to merit a closer look, turning again to my trusty OED, we find it to be “make fun of or attempt to provoke in a playful way”, which brings me to the common word, playful – to be “fond of games and amusement, lighthearted”. A slightly more elaborate definition of banter appears as the Urban Dictionary: “Supple term used to describe activities or chat that is playful, intelligent and original. Banter is something you either posses (sic) or lack, there is no middle ground. It is also something inherently English, stemming as it does from traditional hi-jinks and tomfoolery of British yesteryear.”

In each of these definitions we find an implication of gentle, affectionate, sometimes loving teasing; in the final definition we also find a sense of creativity. All of these are almost certainly good things, but they also undermine the justification for the low intensity conflict of border policing as banter – or in common English parlance, ‘having a bit of a laugh’. I’ll admit that I am not a regular frequenter of the closed world of sport nowadays, but the reports I hear from its denizens, often my students, both men and women, is of the cruelty, the denigration, the desperate desire to maintain a fragile hold on social power that often accompanies and seems to lie behind this ‘banter’ in both men’s and women’s team sport environments. Notably, there is little in the way of exchange (see the OED above) in many of these cases.

What makes this low intensity defence of the borders of masculine homosociality so non-banter-like, so devoid of games and amusement, of light-heartedness, of play is the position of power that its speakers come from or claim. This is especially so in the context of what seems to be a resurgence of sexism and misogyny more generally. This is a position that often results in that short step from denigration to oppression and exclusion – after all, the goal all too often is to defend the homosocial world of blokiness, a culture that seems widespread also in some women’s team sport settings, at least according to those I hear from.

The day after International Women’s Day a photo, apparently of a sport clothing label, did the rounds on several social media sites. It’s in no way ‘funny’ and it certainly lacks intelligence and originality: if we were to use adjectives such a mean spirited or reactionary we might be closer to the mark. I’ll admit that I can see an argument for playfulness here, its ‘ironic’ subversion of the usual washing instructions but leaving the usual symbols of fabric care in place negates that claim to subversion. washing sports clothesIt is certainly not witty – or at least it is not from my outlook – and most of the social media postings of the picture I saw took for granted that we would also find it offensive, or at least unfunny: the accompanying comments were largely devoid of explicit condemnation (I am leaving aside here the orientalist ’gosh-aren’t-they-retrograde-in-Indonesia’ elements).

Yet this is precisely the thing that a masculine homosocial border patrol is likely to write off as just a bit of banter, a bit of a laugh. This is not ‘banter’ but reactionary, back to the kitchen misogyny, a call for women to be put ‘back in their proper place’ and for the existing power order to be maintained. That it seemed to do the rounds immediately after International Women’s Day niggles at my inner conspiracy theorist; it is a powerful juxtaposition.

In recent years we have come to make great claims for changes to women’s place in the world of sport, but often it seems without recognising or at least being explicit about the shortness of the journey made given the distance still left to travel. What we also often miss is the banality of the tools of oppression, especially the power of low intensity conflict in the form of this ‘banter that isn’t banter’ to protect sport as a masculine homosocial space; we have very little idea of how it works, the research in the area is minimal – and that applies to ‘banter’ in general, not just in sporting contexts. We’ve started to do good work on vilification and hate speech, but this is a form of high intensity conflict; if we want to make progress against this sexist system of exclusionary power, we need to confront low intensity conflict as well, and this kind of ‘banter’ seems to me to be a good place to start.

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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and is currently Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport and Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.


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