How sexist language is undermining efforts to improve public health
posted on 06/11/2012
If you want to quash your opposition's argument on a given topic quickly and effectively, you could try several different approaches: Use research and logic to support your point of view; use research and logic to counter your opposition's point of view; or call your opponent a woman.
Yes, the third approach is sexist. Sadly, it's also the one that seems to work best.
The tactic appears every time critics of public health measures use the phrase "nanny state" to evoke fears about the U.S. government exerting too much control over people's lives. (Never mind for a moment that we elect leaders based on the shared understanding that the government is supposed to make decisions that protect the general welfare, including our collective health.) And recently, as debates about the soda industry heat up, they are getting extra mileage out of the phrase.
Following a proposal from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would limit portion sizes of soda in public places in an effort to curb the costly health consequences, such as Type-II diabetes, of consuming too much sugar, critics placed a full-page attack ad in The New York Times featuring a Photoshopped image of Bloomberg dressed up like a woman. The title reads, "The Nanny".
The rest of the text on the ad is spare, likely because little explanation is required. Even with few extra details, the ad has done its job. It has evoked a limited and stereotype-driven definition of femininity that, according to blogger Torie Rose DeGhett, functions as a stand-in for what is "bad and wrong and stupid." In the case of debates about food, the nanny is the equivalent of a nagging woman, telling you what you can and can't eat and taking away your freedoms. The association, wrote DeGhett, goes like this: "Someone irritating telling you what to put in your mouth? Women stuff. Dieting? Women stuff. Worrying about sugar? Women stuff."
This leaves public health advocates in a tight spot. How, in the face of this rhetoric (and the deeply embedded sexist attitudes it reflects), do advocates gain more support for policies to improve health? Clearly, sexism is at the root of this issue, but telling advocates to eradicate sexism is about as practical as telling affordable housing advocates to wipe out poverty. That deep level of transformation takes generations.
It may be tempting to think that the solution lies in presenting more research on the link between soda consumption and poor health. But, as important as logic and facts are, they don't speak for themselves. We see this in the outcomes of presidential elections, which are often won or lost based on appeals to voter values and emotions, not fact sheets and statistics.
Public health leaders, then, need to get better at figuring out the values they want to express and then doing so consistently across their efforts. That way, when an issue like soda enters the spotlight, the message that public health leaders present will get interpreted through a frame that emphasizes values like fairness and equality and solidarity. In the absence of those values, phrases like "nanny state" -- even when used as part of a rebuttal or attempt to reframe the term -- get interpreted from the opposition's perspective. In this case, that perspective is one that devalues women and health.