Chloe Newbold

Hi, I am Chloe and I am a sucker for apologising.

I am unsure when my tendency to apologise a little too much became an addiction. It is difficult to explain how the word “sorry” moved from a linguistic term to a central component of my identity. Somehow in nineteen years I had come to equate my own existence and the space I occupied as something that needed to be excused or qualified.

As 2018 ended, I decided that it had to mark a turning point in my relationship with apologising. It took until this Michaelmas to realise how it had come to infiltrate my everyday interactions, with most of my time being spent attaching my apologies for causing any “inconveniences” to emails and hedging supervision contributions with the qualification that my participation represented a distraction. I even started to apologise to people who should have been apologising to me; the friend who forgot to pay me back, the boys who made unwarranted sexual comments, to the person who had taken away my right to consent. It snowballed into a compulsive habit; a method of protection against failure, an excuse for existence, an explanation for the incomprehensible.

To clear my head whilst writing this, I pulled out a dictionary from the shelf, which provided me with a simple definition of an apology. It is “a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure.” These two last words, offence and failure, both possess a similar characteristic – they are external to the individual to which they refer. I realised that to ‘fail’ or to ‘offend’, I break or fall short of achieving a goal, law, expectation or convention which is utterly separate to me. This includes self-imposed standards too, ones which I internalised from the values and criticisms I can see around me in society- there is nothing more alienating than imposing those upon your own body and abilities.

When I became aware of the interactive element which is tied to the act of apologising, it became a lot easier to realise the consequences that this had for both my relationships with others and myself. Saying “sorry” refers to more than a direct discourse, but represented a deeper communication to myself, those around me and with society itself.

Where does society come into all of this? By apologising for my failure to match up to ideals and expectations set by my wider social environment, I give them greater legitimacy. It can be in the small unconscious apologies for my appearance; showing up to group engagements in sports gear, for forgetting to shave my legs, for the simple fact that my hair was too frizzy in a picture. Each of these scenarios gives weight to an external standard of behaviour to which I conformed each time I apologised for failing to fall in line. Attempting to excuse my appearance is just one way in which I had become an active participant in legitimising expectations that a woman should dress and behave in a certain way. Ironically, I had always considered myself to be in active rebellion against the ideal of the “nice girl” in embracing an individual dress sense and voicing my political opinions. Ironically, by apologising for these acts of rebellion I was endorsing the status quo, making a girl willing to voice her opinions as something that needed to be explained and a divergence from formal expectations.

One of the common consequences of an addiction is its impact on personal relationships. We never really stop to consider the subconscious assumptions underpinning the word “sorry”. Every time that we apologise directly to another individual, we unknowingly and often unfairly attach a series of attitudes and opinions to them. It was hard to discover that over the past year I had been doing this exact thing to some of the people closest to me. During a series of panic attacks this term I felt it necessary to constantly apologise to a close friend both during and after the event merely for seeking her help. What I failed to understand was that, through my incessant repetitions of “sorry” and “are you sure it’s okay”, I was projecting a series of unfair assumptions. Returning to the definition of an apology, it runs deeper than a mere acknowledgement of an objective offence but assumes that the one we apologise to feels “offended”. Every time I asked for her forgiveness, I was subconsciously assuming that a good friend would feel inconvenienced or be unwilling to be there for someone they care about. My addiction had blinded me to the genuine affection and agency involved in providing love and support to a friend in time of need.

The most inaudible message communicated in an apology is ironically the loudest of all. Greater than a mere acknowledgement of offence or failure, this mode of communication tells someone that they are an offence, that they are a failure. Whether it be for speaking during a supervision, my appearance or even reaching out for help, I was consistently devaluing myself. The form of self-criticism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you don’t believe in your opinions and abilities than how are they supposed to succeed? Like many women around me, I find the obstacle of self-doubt an everyday struggle in fully acting on the potential opportunities and experiences that life has to offer.

We are now in the very early days of 2019 and I wish to propose a collection of resolutions, which diverge from the typical variety one sees on their various social media feeds. Rather than striving towards an instantaneous transformation, this list represents a messy experience of learning and reflection as I struggle against my addiction to apologising. In response to the three levels at which this addiction manifests itself (society, relationships and the self), I propose three goals which will start now:

  • Resist all expectations, without explaining myself.
  • Substitute “sorry” for “thank you” in order to acknowledge love and support.
  • To myself: be kind, not critical.


(Featured image source: Tumblr)

New Year, Same Me

Why I’m changing the way I do New Year’s resolutions.

Ciara Dossett

It’s that time of year again. That odd no man’s land between Christmas and New Year’s. A time of lazy reflection on the year gone by. But, being the often self-critical human beings we are, this rarely goes anything like ‘hey, congrats on a fab year, let’s reflect on the things that went really well’. Instead our internal monologue more often resembles ‘we talked about this last year, you promised to be better and we all know you’re not. This year: pull it together’. And from this toxic internal chatter emerges the trusty New Year’s Resolution, or as my younger sister used to call them, New Year’s Revolutions (arguably equally as apt).

I consider myself to be a relatively determined person and yet I have never managed to successfully implement a New Year’s Resolution. Not one single time. Why not? Firstly a year is really quite a long space of time, a whole 365 days if you didn’t know, and sometimes the prospect of keeping something up or going without something for this long seems so daunting a prospect that I don’t even really bother to start. I’m not alone in this: roughly 80% of people apparently give up on their resolution by February. This seems unsurprising as January can be a pretty miserable month and how anyone manages to get through this while going to the gym everyday or without eating chocolate is frankly baffling.

My New Year’s Resolutions have often been too vague. Peaking nervously at the list I made this time last year I wonder how I ever thought I’d achieve any of them at all: exercise more regularly, go on social media less, eat more healthily. The problem with these type of resolutions is that it would be almost impossible to know if you’d achieved them at all and if, like me, you’re quite self-critical you’re more likely to decide that you didn’t reach these lofty heights of self-improvement. If you really want to achieve these things experts (of which, you may have gathered, I am certainly not one) say it’s better to set clear, short term goals so you can measure and celebrate your success.

Mostly, however, I think I never successfully implemented any of these changes because, deep down, I never really wanted to do them at all. Rarely did I choose meaningful resolutions which I really cared about or felt motivated and excited to fulfil. Instead, I often felt guilt-tripped, both by myself and by my surroundings. Instagram is flooded with #newyearnewme type inspo pictures, gym membership adverts appear to pop up like vermin and virtually every publication appears to feature a piece entitled ‘What Resolutions You Should Make in 2019’ (translation: what things you should beat yourself up about not doing this year).

This time of year seems to come packed with pressure to be a better version of yourself, often resulting in an unsustainable approach to change. A lot of resolutions come from the wrong place: a short-term desire to lose weight to look a certain way, a need to appear a certain way in front of certain people or a wish to be someone you know you’re really not. Rather than being a celebration of something or an exciting challenge, resolutions can end up being a form of self-punishment and something we later feel a little guilty about not seeing out.

So this year I have decided to embark on a revolution in resolutions. I started by considering all the things that had gone well in 2018 so my resolutions came from a place of positivity rather than self-flagellation: I may still not be able to speak fluent French but I did fly 3000 miles away from home by myself! I then began thinking about what I actually want to change, rather than what I was being told I needed to change. I have decided to set resolutions which excite me and which I actually want to carry out. These will be verifiable, so I can clearly judge whether or not I succeed. I will set attainable changes which I am more likely to implement.

And here comes the really revolutionary bit: to make it less daunting and more interesting, these resolutions will be for one month only. I will make a new resolution each month, as, like dogs, resolutions are not just for Christmas. Hopefully, these will become habits which last even longer. I will not beat myself up if I don’t always succeed but simply pledge to try my best. So here is my first (hopefully attainable!) resolution for January 2019: I will run at least twice a week, not in pursuit of looking a certain way but as an exciting physical and mental challenge. Let the revolution begin!

(Featured image source: onewomanproject.org)

A time to reflect, part 2

Cambridge Girl Talk committee 

Following on from A time to reflect, this post continues with reflections by the other three committee members.

Alicia, co-events coordinator

This year has been big and busy, full of transitions and lessons and new experiences. Finally throwing myself into extracurriculars has been a major highlight of my year. Finding communities like Girl Talk has made university feel a lot more like home in the last few months of the year than it did in the first. Learning how to build a support network from scratch, and how to work hard without going crazy are two of the biggest lessons I have learnt this year, both of which came from looking outside of the library window and getting involved.

New experiences and new friendships have made this year one of growth and of going outside my comfort zone. Things have shifted and altered many times this last year, as they are bound to do. I’ve never been very good with change, but as I settle into the routine of university life and enter 2019 with a year’s worth of experience behind me I’m beginning to look forward to whatever changes the next year throws at me too.

Blanca, co-director and blog editor

This year was one filled with so much love and new adventures. Love flourished, new friendships solidified, I visited new countries and cultures, and I grew to know and be truer to myself even more after the confusing transition of school – gap year – freshers.

Leaping outside of a comfort zone has always been difficult for me, particularly since acknowledging my anxious tendency. In the past I would be brave in conventional senses, but I would often recline when more rare experiences presented themselves. This is something I still struggle with, and I look at the planning of any moment or period, such as my year abroad, with apprehension, whereupon I beat myself up for this lack of positivity and ingratitude for my privilege. Yet I am trying more than ever to see things with happiness, rather than dread, in their context rather than as an overwhelming collection.

I am trying to apply this to every moment, really wanting to make sure I think ahead less unless it is with excitement. The last term was interesting and amazing, but also difficult with many personal situations that did not let me fully breathe. In the holidays it has been hard to transition away to a state where I could relax completely, allowing myself time without guilt.

As our artist in residence, Anna, said in her reflection – every moment has its own context and should be rooted in it. I want to observe and acknowledge this, whether by creating, recording or simply slowing down and living!

Julia, blog sub-editor

I like to track time with music. I create playlists for all the months and weeks which pass, adding in the songs and pieces of music which I associate with them. Music can become a deeply sentimental thing, when one attaches enough memories and associations to it- when I press play on a particular playlist or song, I can close my eyes and imagine a younger version of myself listening to it, in whichever season or mood I once did.

Spotify only indulges this nostalgia, particularly their 2018 Wrapped playlists. DakhaBrakha’s Baby was on there and I remembered with particular vividness the white blanket of snow which muffled up the world, and how I walked through the rugby fields behind college when the light was fading into blueness and thistles were framed against the darkening sky. H.E.R’s Focus was next and immediately I thought of the transition between winter and summer, and the masses of white flowers all mixed up with one another, growing beside each road and melting into a rush of colour when I cycled past.

Then I found the songs which I would listen to walking down from the Barbican towards the river in the evening, the ones which made me think of the aches in the back of my neck and the UL’s dusty bookcases, the ones which I would listen to whilst looking at the Granta’s lights reflected in the water below, bubbles and currents crumpling up the little glitters of light.

The last one to come on was Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace. That was summer for me, the very hot evenings which I spent on my grandmother’s roof. Below me, there would have been walnut trees pressing their leaves into one another in the heavy atmosphere and I would have been looking out at the glowing horizon, counting the glimmers of trains, listening to their thunder as they crossed from one end of the horizon to another. My 2018 wasn’t governed, of course, by the music I decided to listen to, but to hear the songs which I matched up with my circumstances replayed helped me pick up all of these feelings and images, and pack them up in a box, to replay again once more, when the time was right.

If you would like to be involved in writing, creating, reflecting for Cambridge Girl Talk, please do get in touch with us.

(Featured image designed by Soli Rachwal, source: femmagazine)

Top books of 2018 written by women

Lucy Bell

This is a list of my favourite books written by women from 2018 – those I’ve read this year, rather than those published this year, although most fit into both categories. With starting to study English at Cambridge, my reading for pleasure has probably declined a bit – however this is something I’m now consciously trying to rectify, especially by keeping up with some new releases.

Vox by Christina Dalcher

Vox imagines a world in which women have been limited to only 100 words a day – say any more, and they are electrocuted by a counter fitted to their wrists. Reminiscent of both Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and, more recently, The Power by Naomi Alderman, Vox is both brilliant and terrifying. The world it creates feels so incredibly real and a lot of the events and characters hit uncomfortably close to home.

Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill

This collection of poetry, short stories and what could perhaps be described as musings, reimagines classic fairy tales with a feminist retelling. A personal favourite is “Why Tinkerbell Quit Anger Management”. The subtitle of this collection is “and other stories to stir your soul”, and this rings true. At times sad, funny, angry and heart-breaking, Fierce Fairytales keeps the essence of the tales whilst twisting them into something new and exciting.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The perfect cosy winter read as you’re filling that space between Christmas and New Year, or the gap before returning to Cambridge. The characters of this novel (recently adapted into a film starring Lily James) make it what it is, as you are unable to not love them. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is set after the end of the Second World War and is made up of a collection of letters between the author Juliet and her publisher and friends as she discovers the fate of Guernsey during its German Occupation. Despite the, at times, upsetting subject matter, this story is heart-warming at its core.

Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J Maas

This Young Adult series, which begins with Throne of Glass, remains a guilty pleasure of mine- particularly considering the rushed essay I handed in because I’d spent half my week devouring this final instalment. Maas’ heroine and her supporting cast show a journey throughout the series and it is brilliantly rounded off here.

If We Were Villains by M.L Rio

Perfect for fans of dark academia novels such as The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, If We Were Villains tells of a group of students at an elite college where their drama course revolves around the plays of Shakespeare. In this, their third and final year, they are finally being allowed to tackle tragedy. When their real life becomes startlingly close to the plays they are performing, friendships start to unravel. I loved the dark nature of this narrative, and the many Shakespeare references added to the theme beautifully.

The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo

“”Magic doesn’t require beauty,” she said. “Easy magic is pretty. Great magic asks that you trouble the waters. It requires a disruption, something new.””

This is another collection of fairy tales, this time, set in the universe of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy and Six of Crows duology. This collection draws out both the magic and the darkness which make a traditional fairy tale and create something entirely new.


(Featured image by Ada Thilén, source: Biblioklept)

A time to reflect

Cambridge Girl Talk committee

With the new year around the corner and all of its traditional self-renewal expectations, we thought we would sit down individually and jot down a few thoughts on what we have learnt or been thinking about in our personal lives or selves these last few months of 2018. These reflections are not really meant as strict resolutions or agendas, but ideas which could help to clear our pathways.

Here are the first few by three of our committee members.

Anna, artist in residence

There is something I can’t get used to about the rhythm of a year punctuated by sporadic Cambridge terms. The dramatic change in tempo, the moving in and out, the need to create a home in two completely different types of environments. The post-Cambridge term hangover is something I still can’t figure out how to solve. Every time I return home after term I spend a few weeks in a strange state of high anxiety, completely unable to get used to the lack of structure, stimulus and need for self discipline which is so characteristic of Cambridge life.

I think part of the uneasiness of returning to life at home comes from an inability to feel like I can build a coherent picture of what my life in Cambridge actually is. I am completely unable to come up with a summary of my term. I remember general manic busyness, a few highs and lows here and there but the moment I leave Cambridge the whole place and experience feels like its own self-contained and make-belief world. A lack of time to reflect and record during term (I’m terrible at even taking photos) reinforces this disconcerting impression that my life is split into two distinct halves.

My aim for next term is to place the Cambridge world firmly within the context of real life. Cambridge should not feel like its own planet where it is expected that one moulds one’s values and ideas about what constitutes a good life in order to fit with the institution’s. I hope that by spending a little bit more time recording and reflecting during my next term will help to put the Cambridge bubble into the proper perspective of a wider world and therefore reduce the jarring unease of leaving for holidays next term.

Phoebe, co-events coordinator

For all that Christmas and the end of the year is ‘the most magical time of the year’, I’ve always found it a bit melancholy. It’s a time to reflect on memories of the year: the successes, friendships, trips and things gained, but also the things that was lost. To me, this year feels like the fastest a year has ever passed, but last Christmas also feels worlds away.

As I think about the person I was, I am grateful for the wonderful people that I still have in my life – now close in ways I could not have imagined. I am proud, and lucky, to have recovered from things that were dragging me down. My actual degree doesn’t feel like torture any more (most of the time). I’m more confident, more focussed, more self-reliant.

I am also possibly less soft than I was, with less time to spend really caring for the friends whom I love. I am probably a bit more of a pessimist than an optimist, now aware of the limits of what Cambridge is and who I can be within it. I also remember the friendships I’ve lost; some naturally, some due to a lack of effort, some disrupted by various events.

It’s both the good and the bad that form a year, and in a sense it’s healthy to remember a mixture of both. Let’s hope I can be as profound as this in 2019.

Bea, co-director

To reflect on this year I thought I’d share some moments I’m proud of, some rather trivial ones and some moments I wish I could correct. I also want to acknowledge the fantastic people in my life who have made my year enjoyable and the tough bits bearable.

Firstly a couple of glory moments, the obvious one for me being passing First Year Natsci, a horror story in itself. I’m also proud of myself for being braver and taking the time to start conversations with strangers and engaging with them. I’ve tried harder this year to carve out more time for my friends too and to try and be more thoughtful to others.

A few mistakes – one being cycling to 3 miles outside of Cambridge just to buy myself a more exciting potted plant for my Uni room (her name is Titania and she is almost worth it).

I wish I had taken more time to relax, to wind down fully and be present for a few hours simply watching a play or Netflix.

There have of course been a few more substantial mistakes, most of which could have been avoided if I’d taken a few minutes to breathe before speaking, (especially to my family to prevent arguments) something I’m still working on.

The thing I’m most proud of, really, is getting involved in Girl Talk. I’ve already learnt a lot – especially those “soft skills” people always talk about – and its been overall incredibly fun to collaborate with some truly inspirational women and make other women’s voices sound a little bit louder.

Christmas is traditionally a time spent with family and I’m so grateful for mine. They are some of the funniest and most loving people I’ve met and without them I would probably be a mess.

Reflection has reaffirmed my adoration for my friends; home, uni, lifelong and new, they have all filled my year with laughter and I am so grateful for them.

Most of all reflecting on this year has made me excited for the next and everything it has in store.

If you would like to be involved in writing, creating, reflecting for Cambridge Girl Talk, please do get in touch with us.

(Featured image designed by Soli Rachwal, source: femmagazine)

An exhibition of one’s own

Phoebe Day 

In feminist art theory, the one-woman retrospective is a contentious issue. Whereas some feminist art historians believe that the format enables women artists who have been excluded from the patriarchal western canon to be reassessed, others believe that it is a mistake to try to accommodate women artists into a format designed to celebrate ‘Great Men.’ Whatever side of the debate you are on, 2018 was undoubtedly a great year for retrospectives of modern and contemporary women artists. Here is a brief summary of my five favourite one-woman exhibitions from 2018, and the five that that I am most looking forward to in 2019.

Exhibitions you (may have) missed in 2018:

1. Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, V&A, London

Instead of focusing on Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, this unorthodox exhibition explored how the painter fashioned her iconic image. The exhibition was based on Kahlo’s extraordinary collection of possessions and clothes that was unearthed in 2004, fifty years after her death, in the bathroom of the Casa Azul – her home in Mexico City – now known as the Frida Kahlo Museum. Despite its popularity, the exhibition was not without controversy. Some critics have accused the curators of fetishizing Kahlo’s disability – she was disabled by childhood polio and a bus crash when she was an adolescent – and of conflating her artwork with her biography. Others have praised the curators for foregrounding Kahlo’s disability.

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Nickolas Muray, Frida Kahlo with Olmec Figurine, 1939. Source: V&A

2. Anni Albers, Tate Modern, London

Whereas the Kahlo exhibition explored a well-known artist through a new lens, this exhibition introduced us to an historically marginalised artist. Although Anni Albers has posthumously been overshadowed by her husband, the abstract painter Josef Albers, she was his artistic equal during her lifetime. Her tactile, chromatic, and geometric weavings blurred the boundaries between traditional craft and fine art. During the 1920s, Albers studied and taught the weaving workshop at the radical Bauhaus art school in Weimar. When the Bauhaus closed under pressure from the Nazi Party in 1933, the Albers couple moved to North Carolina and joined the first generation of teachers at the Black Mountain College, another radical art school.

3. Tacita Dean: Still Life, Portrait, Landscape, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy, London

2018 was a good year for the British artist Tacita Dean, who curated a three-part meditation on the genres of portraiture, landscape, and still life at three major London art galleries. The centrepiece of Landscape was Antigone, Dean’s new 35mm film which was shown as two simultaneous cinemascope projections. This experimental, multi-layered film is best explained as a meditation on Dean’s relationship with her sister, the eponymous Antigone. The film was inspired by the undramatized action between Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, in which Antigone leads her blind and lame father, Oedipus, through the wilderness. Much of the film follows Oedipus, who is played by the actor Stephen Dillane, as he wanders alone through disparate deserted landscapes, blinded by tinted glasses made for viewing the eclipse.

4. Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, The Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield

This was the first exhibition to focus on the British photographer Lee Miller’s involvement with surrealist circles in Britain in the late 1930s. This is surprising since, together with her husband Roland Penrose, she played a pivotal role in organising the International Surrealism Exhibition that took place in London in 1936. In my favourite of Miller’s photographs from the exhibition, two glamorous women model fire masks on the steps of an air-raid shelter during the blitz. This photograph, which Miller took for American Vogue, demonstrates her ability to blur the boundaries between documentary and fantasy to create disquieting images.

Screen Shot 2018-12-27 at 13.07.54

Lee Miller, Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. Source: The Guardian

5. Egon Schiele/Francesca Woodman: Life in Motion, Tate Liverpool

Although this juxtaposition of Egon Schiele’s erotic paintings and Francesca Woodman’s intimate photographs was not wholly successful, I am always grateful for an opportunity to see Woodman’s work. Woodman was a precociously talented photographer who died by suicide in 1981 when she was only twenty-two. Her blurred black-and-white photographs capture women, either herself or female models, in a surreal world of deserted, decaying interiors.

Exhibitions you shouldn’t miss in 2019:

1. Louise Bourgeois, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 22 January 2019-24 March 2019

This exhibition is intended as an introduction to the French artist Louise Bourgeois’ diverse oeuvre. Through her semi-autobiographical paintings, sculptures, installations, and prints, Bourgeois unravelled the complexities of familial relationships.

2. Dorothea Tanning, Tate Modern, London, 27 February-9 June 2019

If you visit one exhibition in 2019 then I recommend that you visit this one, though  I admit that I am slightly biased because this exhibition is co-curated by Dr Alyce Mahon, who is one of my supervisors at Cambridge. This is the first large-scale exhibition of the American surrealist Dorothea Tanning’s paintings and sculptures for over twenty-five years. Tanning became involved with the surrealists when they moved from Paris to New York in the 1930s and, in 1946, she married the surrealist artist Max Ernst. The exhibition will not only include Tanning’s early surrealist paintings, but her ballet designs, uncanny fabric sculptures, installations, and poems amongst other lesser known works.

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Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943. Source: Tate Modern

3. Emma Kunz, Serpentine Galleries, London, 23 March-19 May 2019

Like Anni Albers, I had never heard of the Swiss artist Emma Kunz before the Serpentine Galleries announced this exhibition. Although Kunz was known as a natural healer during her lifetime, the she has posthumously been celebrated for the spiritual, geometric drawings which she created using graph paper, pencils, and oil pastels.

4. Natalia Goncharova, Tate Modern, London, 6 June-8 September 2019

This exhibition promises to be the largest ever UK retrospective of the Ukrainian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. The exhibition will include Goncharova’s set and costume designs for the Ballets Russes, fashion designs, and avant-garde films alongside her paintings.

5. Dora Maar, Tate Modern, London, 20 November 2019-15 March 2020

Dora Maar is often referred to as one of Picasso’s lovers and muses, despite the fact that she was a talented photographer in her own right. This exhibition, which will be the largest ever UK retrospective of Maar, restores her photomontages to their rightful place in the narrative of surrealism.

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Dora Maar, Untitled, Untitled, c.1940. Source: Artsy.net

(Cover art piece by Louise Bourgeois. Source: tit-assets.s3.amazonaws.com) 

“Women talk.”

Jess Molyneux 

It’s not the only example of casual gender stereotyping in F.R.I.E.N.D.S which makes re-watching your favourite teenage TV show a revealing and uncomfortable experience. Ross is annoyed at Chandler for spilling the beans to his girlfriend Janice (who in turn spills them to Ross’s girlfriend Rachel) on his secret ‘hug and roll’ technique. And in his frustration, he seizes on the cultural trope of ‘gossipy women’ for blame.

There are quite a few of these intriguingly pervasive, and more intriguingly unfounded, myths about female speech floating around. Here we’re dealing with the idea of women who just can’t stop themselves sharing, which isn’t too far from that stereotype of ‘the loud mouth’, the fishwife, that inane, mundane female babbler. There’s this perception that little girls are chatterboxes and continue to be so into womanhood. Looking into the actual research in this area, though, is confounding because the linguistic reality is so at odds with our cultural perceptions.

In a study by linguist Marjorie Swacker, both men and women were asked to describe the events in a picture, and while female participants managed it in an average of just over three minutes, their male counterparts took over thirteen. Spender did a similar experiment, this time in an online environment with higher stakes: the topic in discussion was men’s literature. Over the course of 5 weeks, men contributed around 70% of the total words in the discussion. There were two days in that whole period where women said more than men – and on both of these days male participants actually complained about being drowned out. Woman don’t talk more than men. (Recognising, of course, that we can never really say ‘what women do’ and ‘what men do’ without generalising and homogenising, but speaking in terms of tracked trends.) But they do talk more than silence, and plenty of female linguists have come to the conclusion that that’s what we must be measuring women against whilst this myth continues to pervade.

We also have this idea that what women talk about is different from what men do. Words like ‘gossip’ are gendered, and we tend to assume that female conversation revolves around feelings, people, and other small-talk, rather than ‘things’ and politics. We might consider, if this is true, what it has to do with how gendered roles influence the conversation at our disposal, or we might think about how ridiculous it is to have an idea of what ‘female conversation’ looks like that could possibly come close to capturing the content of every woman-to-woman conversation in all the contexts of all the conversations taking place right now and throughout history.

Finally, we still like to believe certain things about the way women speak. Ever since linguist Robin Lakoff published her list of ‘women’s language’ features (based purely on anecdotal evidence) the linguistic community has, like the general one, had a script from which it assumes women will speak, and according to which it can judge and analyse their deviance from the male norm. Women, as propounded by Lakoff and the cultural consciousness from which her ideas sprung, use more empty adjectives, more super polite forms, more hedging, more conditional constructions. In short, fewer of the features that we would traditionally see as ‘powerful’.

But let’s think about what the reality might be. Some amazing studies by feminist linguists like Pamela Fishmann and Victoria DeFranscisco have shown us pretty damningly that it is women who ‘do the conversational shitwork’. That they’re certainly not the ones who are responsible for the majority of delayed, minimal, or absent responses. That they’re likely to ask more questions, to use more attention beginnings (‘Guess what?’, ’This is interesting…’), and more facilitative tag questions (‘wasn’t it?’, ‘wouldn’t you say?’) in order to engage their conversational partner. Male ‘statements’, by the by, which tended to be speaker-focussed and require far less conversational effort than women’s questions, were still, in the studies, two times more likely to elicit a response. This speaks volumes for the way we value the contributions of one gender in conversation.

In short, women have been proven to work harder to facilitate conversation than men, not least because it is expected of them, because it is viewed as part of ‘gender activity’. Those ‘powerless’ features that are supposedly characteristic of women, those maybes and coulds and don’t-you-thinks, might be better described as co-operative, considerate, facilitative, listener-oriented. Maybe it seems like women talk more because they’re the ones, as Fishmann puts it, who are doing ‘the active maintenance and continuation work’ in most of our conversations.

Maybe we’d do better to see ‘women’s talk’ as a valuable form of social interaction, and a necessary one when we think about the intersections between conversation and mental health. Maybe there’s something incredibly productive about talking, something uniquely important about natter. Maybe we’d do better to start celebrating and encouraging those voices which are keeping our conversations going.

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