The Subversive Power of Female Silence

By Kitty Grady

From calling out and speaking up to mansplaining and ‘calm down dear’, the dynamics of contemporary sexual politics are increasingly being defined through a schema of silence, speech and being heard.

Whilst historically the voices of women have been silenced or overpowered, with the recent spate of allegations against sexual harassment, today they appear to have reached a deafening crescendo. The #MeToo hashtag has been used tens of millions of times on Facebook and Twitter, harmonising with their counterparts #balancetonporc in French, #YoTambien in Spanish, وأنا_كمان# in Arabic and #quellavoltache in Italian.

With this proliferation of womens’ voices, leaps and bounds have been made against the structural oppression and institutional silencing of women in Hollywood, Westminster and the European Parliament. The literal and metaphorical noise made by so many courageous women jars with the guilty silence of sexual predators such as Weinstein, and the failure of response hashtag movements #IHave or #ItWasMe to properly get going.

In this clatter we are starting to hear every micro-instance of misogyny being called out. Hosting an episode of Have I Got News for You, Jo Brand silences the schoolboy giggles of her male panellists who scoff at women’s accusations against unwanted sexual behaviour: ‘these are hardly high-level crimes’, chortles Ian Hislop. Killing their ‘joke’, an unimpressed Brand calls them out, highlighting the in fact pernicious and grinding effect of such unsolicited treatment.

And long may this continue. Yet within this noise, it is also important to analyse the immense and insidious power women can gain through a pronounced, dignified and unadhering silence. Especially when speaking out doesn’t necessarily mean you are being heard.

In Emma Sulkowicz’s subversive endurance piece, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) (2014) she carried the mattress on which she had been raped by a classmate around the Columbia campus as long as he was still a student there with here. Feeling ignored by the Columbia University authorities after speaking out, Sulkowicz decided to impose herself physically. Keeping a dignified silence like that of Christ carrying the cross, the fifty-pound mattress was also a way to physically explain what she was fed up of explaining as well as demonstrating the physicality of her trauma and the burden that she was forced to carry around with her.

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Emma Sulkowicz’s 2016 piece ‘Emmatron’

In a follow up piece, Sulkowicz created her robot counterpart, ‘Emmatron’, who, on request of exhibition-goers, recites answers to the questions that Sulkowicz, sitting mute next to the robot, is tired of answering as a sexual assault survivor in the public eye. For Sulkowicz silence is a matter of self-preservation.

When arguing feminist matters with those who simply fail to acknowledge the underlying fact of misogyny and women’s oppression, I have personally found it more rhetorically powerful to disengage and stay silent. Admittedly this is partly for fear of being labeled an ‘angry feminist’ or told to calm down. Yet from a self-care perspective, silence saves me emotional energy that would be better used elsewhere.

In a recent red carpet interview, a clearly livid but poised Uma Thurman was asked to comment on the recent sexual harassment scandal taking over Hollywood, responding:

“I don’t have a tidy sound bite for you because I’ve learned… I am not a child… and I have learned that when I have spoken in anger I usually regret the way I express myself, so I have been waiting to feel less angry, and when I am ready I will say what I have to say”.

The power of her non-response lay in its fertile calm, its suggestion of prospective vengeance and her dignified understanding that any trace of ‘hysteria’ or anger in her expression could be used against her. In a recent episode of The Guilty Feminist podcast entitled ‘Silence’, Deborah Francis-White examines the power of a well-timed, silent stillness when negotiating with men: ‘Silence is everything. It’s such a power move […] think about lions in a nature documentary: they sit and wait’.

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Uma Thurman refusal to comment on Hollywood sexual harassment scandals: “When I have spoken in anger I usually regret the way I express myself”.

The type of silence I am describing speaks volumes. It is a form of communication which is powerful for its implied destructive potential. Women who practise silence in this way make themselves difficult, stubborn, unpredictable and uncontainable. Silence allows women to simultaneously contradict and conform to norms of social comportment. A dignified silence also highlights the claterous din of misogyny.

Powerful women have been doing it for centuries. Many of Jane Austen’s heroines are defined by their ironic silences; unyielding and dignified against the mindless chatter of the polite society that contains them. The silence of the eponymous heroine that concludes George Sand’s nineteenth century novel Indiana, as she adheres to the whims of her wimpy, mansplaining husband, is problematic for many feminist critics. However, I would argue that herein lies her heroine’s subversiveness. Her silence is like a knowing wink to her feminist readers in centuries to come.

Silence is historically something we see as being imposed on women: the passive object of a dominant patriarchal silencing. However, choosing to remain silent might also be a way of re-appropriating an imposed oppression for one’s own subversive means.

Main image: Emma Sulkowicz, Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight) (2014-15)

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