Yesterday I heard a TV presenter use the phrase “the Battle of the Sexes” yet again. It’s a set of words which tends to slip by me as just another meaningless piece of journalese. Like politicians “slamming” a policy, or someone “going on a journey” or anything at all involving the adjective “budding” which doesn’t pertain to plants. It’s filler. “Battle of the Sexes”. Here is a thing that will involve some women and some men, and we’ve decided that’s our gimmick.
But yesterday I noticed it, probably because yesterday was also the first entry in Karen Ingala Smith’s Counting Dead Women project for 2016. It’s a curious phrase, “the battle of the sexes”. It implies there are two sides lined up against each other, or at least two forces marshalling all their efforts to defeat the other. It suggests strategies, orders, munitions, intelligence, and central command. There’ s something to be fought over, and both sides want it.
It might sounds as if I’m being pedantically literal about all this. That’s because I am. I know that TV presenters, film reviewers and other journalists who talk about “the Battle of the Sexes” don’t think that there is an actual battlefield with lots of men dressed up in blue DPM and women in the pink equivalent. They’re not seriously suggesting that men and women are currently dialling up airstrikes on each other’s positions. But I do think that metaphors shape the way we think, and how we deploy them in public discussions guides the directions in which those discussions can go.
So there is no “Battle of the Sexes”. Not that there isn’t plenty of violence, if you wanted to regard this as a war. Karen Ingala Smith’s Counting Dead Women, which I mentioned above, gives a bleak glimpse into the day-after-day reality of male violence towards women. Hundreds of deaths a year are logged on that site, all of women killed by men close to them, or men who killed them, in some sense, because they were women.
According to the Crown Prosecution Service figures over the last few years, nearly 95% of violent crimes against women were committed by men. Men’s violence is an incredibly destructive force in our society. It is certainly possible to divide up men and women in terms of violence, but the resulting pattern is not a battle. It’s a massacre. One “side” is attacking, and one “side” is dying, and the same has been happening for years. So why is our public discourse full of glib references to a “Battle of the Sexes”?
In fact it’s in one group’s interests if this is framed as a “battle of the sexes”. I think this works in two ways. Firstly, if one group has majority control of the economy, the military, the political system and the civil institutions, it’s in their interest to frame any conflict as if it is happening on equal terms. The background hum of the metaphor of the “battle of the sexes” keeps a vague idea alive that men and women are competing for the same resources and are posed against each other.
According to this metaphor, if a woman gets a job in the boardroom of a FTSE-100 company, then she has taken it off a man. If a gallery puts on an exhibition of female artists, this is the spoils of war. This background metaphor allows men to exert their power in reactionary and unjust ways, because they can perceive themselves as under attack from women. The old-boy network, the all-male drinking club, the misogynist jokes between friends; these all cease looking like bastions of male power and injustice, and are reframed as resistance to women’s “encroachment” on “our” territory.
This metaphor obviously favours those who already have disproportionate power. It is easier to “mobilise” your strategic advantages if you’re part of a group which earns more on average for the same work, makes up the large majority of political representatives, and controls more of the corporations. The idea of a battle makes these advantages seem like hard-won symbols of victory, rather than deriving from accidents of birth combined with centuries of oppression. Their use to deprive other people seems justified.
The second way this metaphor serves men’s interests as a group, I think, is in the smokescreen it provides. Whilst framing men’s dominance of the economic, political and cultural spheres as a struggle against an equal opponent, it draws attention away from the actual violence which is committed by men against women. As I suggested earlier in this article, taking the metaphor literally sounds stupid. There isn’t a men’s army and a women’s army. There are no call-signs or battle-lines.
Because of the ludicrous quality of the literal meaning, it obscures the relentless deployment of lethal violence by one group against another. The metaphor does its work on a background level, whilst making it more difficult to identify the actual killing and dying which goes on, divided along gender lines. The “battle of the sexes” makes violence obviously metaphorical, packaging it in a way which encourages assumptions about competition and privilege, whilst looking firmly away from male violence and its fatal consequences.