Non-linguist commentators on language heap scorn on “passive writing,” but are curiously poor at identifying passive constructions. The passive is not, as sometimes understood, any sentence that omits the instigator of the action, or a sentence that “just doesn’t sound very active”; rather, it is a specific grammatical construction. This is a passive sentence:

The dog was kicked by Mary.

And so is this:

The dog was kicked.

But this is not:

Someone kicked the dog.

I agree that in, for example, journalism, actors should not get a pass for their behavior; the writer should not conceal Mary’s active participation in this craven act. However, simply eliminating passive sentences won’t accomplish that goal. The identification of actors doesn’t actually covary very reliably with use of the passive. By Mary in the passive sentence above clearly identifies the culprit, while someone in the active sentence does not.

In fact, some of the most common and egregious examples of obscuring responsibility via linguistic choices are accomplished with active constructions. Compare these examples:

The suspect was shot.

The suspect suffered a gunshot wound.

Although the sentence with was shot is a passive, and omits the shooter, it retains the implication of a shooter. The sentence with suffered leaves the idea of a finger on the trigger out of the story entirely. Look what happens when we introduce the idea of intentionality into the two sentences:

The suspect was intentionally shot.

The suspect intentionally suffered a gunshot wound.

In the passive sentence with was shot, blame is placed on an implied shooter; in the active sentence with suffered, we find that, grammatically, we are blaming the victim.

Now, I’m not defending frequent use of passives. I agree that passives have earned their place in the rogue’s gallery of language used to obfuscate, exonerate, or conceal, or to provide a veneer of intimidating prestige. But let’s place the blame where it belongs: on the writer, not the words.

I’ve got a flash fiction piece up at Five:2:One today. Take a look if you’re so inclined.

I initially had quite a bit of trouble figuring out what Hilton Als was getting at in his review of a production of the musical version of “Sunset Boulevard.” Then, in the last paragraph, I encountered this, and it clicked:

… it takes a long time for Norma to express her masculine rage …

Apparently we are, indeed, to read Als’s line of argument literally: he truly is evaluating how well Glenn Close portrays a man in drag playing the role of Norma Desmond. And this makes sense to him as the right approach because he truly is asserting that the character’s femininity is based not on some extant model of femininity associated with, you know, women, but rather on (a particular brand of) drag, which is (his term!) sui generis.

(I’m reminded of this perplexing comment about drag that appeared in the same magazine in another context:

… it’s all about dressing up and being pretty without the baggage of gender coding.

Sure. And minstrelsy is all about dressing up and being funny without the baggage of the Triangular Trade.)

To sum up: Als’s take is that, despite the repeated casting of women in the leading role, “Sunset Boulevard” is actually about a man, mistreated by men, and played to a male audience.

OK then. Just so we’re clear.

Moving on: it seems that Mary Beard has persisted in writing and publishing articles, despite warnings and explanations. Oh, this is interesting:

… my basic premise is that our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male.

You think this kind of “mental, cultural template” might have something to do with Als’s characterization of Norma’s rage as “masculine”?

[W]e have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.

And Als doesn’t even like “Sunset Boulevard.” Jesus.


Pondering the hermeneutical process that landed Gone Girl on a list of feminist books.

In re: How to Win at Feminism: etc., both the linked review and the book under review:

When review author Becca Rothfeld writes that “a straightforward acknowledgement of investment is the least forgivable gaffe,” she–inadvertently?–cuts to the heart of why parody and irony are ineffective as tools for social change: it is the essence of parody and irony to call attention to phenomena without acknowledging investment.

As Rothfeld is certainly aware, “8 Brands More Responsive Than Your Boyfriend” can be read as an incisive take-down of the ways in which women involute their emotional lives in response to societal pressure, sublimating their human needs for affection and recognition into a consumerist sphere that offers products to  enhance their lovability, and finally trapping themselves in an approach/retreat cycle with–not the male object of affection directly, but rather–their own sexuality, or (worse) a reification of gender anxiety that replaces their authentic sexuality, as they pursue a false idol of The Relationship that exists only as an artifact of a femininity constructed to satisfy the strictures of a patriarchal mainstream culture.

Of course, “Your Bra Insert Is The Only Makeup Sponge You’ve Ever Needed” can be read in the same way. But I venture to guess that it generally isn’t.

It’s widely noted that parody highlights problems, rather than proposing solutions; it tears down, rather than building up. Parody, by its nature, lacks “a straightforward acknowledgement of investment” of the author in the author’s intended reading of the text, or indeed in the subject matter as a whole. Parody stands apart, pointing and laughing.

There is, however, a deeper issue with the pragmatics of parody. In parody, the author says one thing but means another. She uses the device of asserting the ridiculous to signal that a subtext is present, and the nature of the ridiculous content to imply the content of that subtext. However, as parody crucially omits assertion of any authentic opinion or worldview, the assumption that the reader can recover the author’s intended subtext relies on the assumption that the reader will accurately identify what the author intended as a ridiculous, and why. That is, the success of parody–taking “success” in the sense of conveyance of the author’s intended message to the reader–relies on the assumption that author and reader share the same opinions and worldview.

Parody, then, assumes an audience of “us.” Parody not only eschews persuasion; it is not only incapable of persuasion: it is hostile to the very possibility of persuasion, or of dialogue more generally. Parody is the walking-three-steps-behind-your-parents-rolling-your-eyes of political discourse. We all know what the right answer is, it says, and if you don’t know we’re certainly not going to tell you.

But, you know, it’s not the seventies! Feminists don’t have to be shrill and ugly anymore, amirite? I don’t want to come across as some humorless “you’re-oppressing-me-with-your-penis” feminazi deploying reasoned, supported argument in grammatical complex sentences. Then he definitely won’t text me back.


Cf. Charles Krafft. Also, I recall reading a similar argument about ironic racism in The Stranger a while back–essentially, that if it’s indistinguishable from actual racism, it is in practical effect just racism–though I couldn’t find the article in a quick search.

Gin and Tacos


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