Recently, in their efforts to educate me, my cats have been bringing me dead shrews. I’m curious about shrews because of Shakespeare’s play. Finding a live shrew shrieking in my living room, I started to ask questions about the comparison between a small, feisty, loud-mouthed insectivore and women who are insulted for apparently having similar characteristics.
When someone says that a woman is “shrewish” they make a statement about both the woman and the shrew. Often we only question one side of a metaphor but take the other for granted. Thus we think we know about shrews, and think we are only influencing our view of women in comparing the two. However, in truth each side of the metaphor informs the other. Not only do we start to see women as shrews – we start to see shrews as women. And the metaphor acts as a filter. We see only the characteristics we think the two have in common and ignore all the others. Hear a woman shriek and liken her to a shrew, hear a shrew shriek and decide it’s like a woman and ignore whatever other features the two may have. But why is the behaviour of either mocked? Why is it that women and shrews “shriek” whereas men “shout”?
Insults are often gendered – women are criticised for behaviour which is accepted in men. How often have you heard a man criticised for being “bossy”? Men are expected to be the boss, women are not, therefore for men to be the boss is a compliment whereas women are construed as “bossy”. Likewise how often have you heard a man described as: strident; hysterical; outspoken; emotional; a fishwife (is there a male equivalent?); catty; an attention seeker; forthright; histrionic; feisty. Is aggression criticised in men or is it more likely to be seen as normal, possibly just assertive behaviour? When women express themselves, perhaps forcefully, the behaviour is criticised and social norms are used to help prevent that expression. Female expression can be hysterical or emotional. It can be catty, bitchy, made nasty and trivial. Or it is strident and bossy, i.e. the woman is overstepping the mark by being, in some way, too loud, too dominant, too opinionated. If a man is ever described as opinionated I can guarantee he’ll either be working class, young, non-white or a combination of the three. White men, particularly those of more mature years, are expected to have opinions and are free to express them.
Witness this exchange between Caroline Criado-Perez and a Twitter follower. After CCP was the victim of harassment on Twitter, a Twitter silence was organised for her. Whilst she was grateful, she didn’t agree with it. I really cannot imagine one man telling another man he was adopting a bold tone, or that he had earned the right to disappoint someone. Women are expected to behave in rather different ways.
I often hear the expression “boys will be boys”. Yet when growing up I was told “girls are more difficult”. Consider the difference in these two expressions. When boys misbehave, it’s written off as an inevitable part of their gender. When girls misbehave, they are “difficult”. I found the idea that somehow by being a girl I was more problematic very odd. I didn’t think I was doing anything more difficult to deal with than my brother was. As a teenager I decided it wasn’t that girls were more troublesome, it was that society often didn’t like the way they behaved and so labelled them as such. My parents were beside themselves if I was 10 minutes late back home, even if I told them where I was, who I was with and what the problems were with getting back. My brother could not return all night and they were unconcerned. Yet objectively, my brother was far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than I was. Girls are no more difficult, people are just less accepting of what they get up to.
The more I consider the gendered insults intended to curb women’s behaviour, the more I think they are connected to attempts to keep women out of fully occupying the public sphere. Certainly the abuse women get on Twitter is intended to keep them away or just shut them up (and women are often told that they could just shut up and the abuse would go away, as if silencing a woman is ever the answer to the problem). Women are often told not to go out alone. If I go into a pub on my own it’s OK for a man to try to chat me up, and if I’m not interested just saying so won’t work. The best way to get rid of him would be to say I was with someone else. If that someone else then turns up, the man will apologise to my partner, not to me, despite the fact that it is me who feels insulted and told him to go away in the first place. Men occupy public space unhindered yet is acceptable to hinder women if they are in public. The argument that women should stay at home to avoid being attacked, rather than men stay at home to avoid attacking them, reinforces this notion that public space is not for all. Public space is male space and women are only allowed into it if they abide by certain rules.
This curbing of women’s behaviour is not healthy for them. Dr Christiane Northrup, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Health, argues that there are implications for both physical and mental health if women are unable to express themselves. Personally I think that aggression is often discouraged in women and portrayed as unfeminine. Thus women will frequently resort to indirect aggression —behaviour not overtly aggressive but with an aggressive intent. That can take the form of sulking, refusing to talk and learned helplessness amongst others. This behaviour seems quite childish because when women are criticised for expressing themselves in certain ways, they are not being allowed to grow up. Which brings us back to the shrew. It’s small, it’s comical, its level of outspokenness is worthy of laughter because it’s so preposterous.
Moving away from the metaphor, what else do we know about shrews? My cats were bringing in both common shrews and the more unusual water shrew. They weren’t eating them because shrews have glands on their skin from which they exude a foul-tasting liquid. Shrews need to eat very frequently to live but in winter the common shrew actually shrinks in size so that it requires less food. I don’t mean it loses weight, apparently even its skull gets smaller, which is a neat way of getting through the winter.
The water shrew apparently immobilises its prey with toxic saliva. If disturbed, litters of shrews will move in a caravan, each shrew grasping the tail of the one in front. The fact that I found most odd was probably this one:
A bizarre and unexplained specialization is shown by the African Scutisorex somereni. It has additional and enlarged lumbar vertebrae interlocked by numerous bony spines, forming a flexible and very strong backbone. This shrew can support the weight of a person (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/542010/shrew)
Not bad for a small shouty animal. Shrews evolved over 40 million years ago, so they are survivors. Indeed shrews resemble the earliest mammals so in terms of body plans, it’s highly successful. Shrews are apparently the fourth most successful family of mammals. And, after my encounter with a live shrew in my living room, I’m impressed by them. I’m impressed by any animal that small that refuses to accept its weakness but instead raises its voice in protest. Neither shrews nor women should be mocked for expressing themselves. For their own health, women should feel able to express opinions without the implicit criticism of being told they are bossy, opinionated, outspoken or bold. But for myself, if anyone ever calls me a shrew, I shall agree. They are intriguing, fascinating, unafraid to shout and they are survivors.