What do women talk about with their friends? What conversations take place on a girls’ night out? Yes, you got the right hunch. They be gossiping obviously.
We have all come across the typical derogatory and denigrating comments designating women as only capable of engaging in gossip when holding a conversation. Especially conversations with other women. Gossip, perceived as bad-mouthing, rumour-mongering, and often the result of women’s insecurities and competition with one another, is understood as a faulty characteristic found typically in women. Thus, gossip is assigned to locations that in Western tradition are frequented by women: the home, the hair salon, the nail parlour, grocery shops etc. Men don’t gossip. They engage in so-called ‘locker room talk.’ Well, mostly cis-heterosexualCis-heretosexual describes a person whose gender identity is the same as their sex assigned at birth and is attracted to people of their opposite sex.close men do.
The term ‘locker room talk’ implies being part of a group, a selected club, one that is manly and virile and engages in sports. Not to be confused with gossip. It is considered a bonding experience, a harmless one at that, because, as we all know, “boys will be boys.” It is a club that women at times strive to be a part of, since, well, again, you know, “I only have guy friends because girls are too much drama.” However, as mentioned above, primarily cis-heterosexual guy friends. Since, as it is common knowledge, gay men engage in gossip and are just as vicious, if not more, than women. Well, hello there stereotypes.
If, for whatever reason, you have not come across this piece of practical conventional wisdom, don’t you worry; Hollywood will diligently and enthusiastically help remind you of it. Following the tropes of the promiscuous bisexual and the queer-coded villain comes the trope of the gay best friend. The gay best friend engages incessantly in gossip, to a greater extreme than his women counterparts. What is more, his whole personality is based on this characteristic.
A pattern seems to be unfolding here, do all people who are not cis-heterosexual men engage in gossip? Are conversations only worthy and interesting if held by cis-heterosexual men? The answer to these questions from a patriarchal standpoint is evident; however, taking a closer look at the history of the term gossip enlightens this topic further.
The scholar Silvia Federici, in her Feminist and Marxist interpretation of the Witch Hunts of the early modern period in Europe, analyses how the term gossip was used as a misogynist, oppressive tool against women. Federici recounts that by the sixteenth century in modern England, gossip, a term that had been commonly used during the Middle Ages to indicate a close female friend, turned into a denigrating term signifying idle talk.
During the Middle Ages, sociality among women prevailed, most activities were performed collectively, and a tight-knit community emerged. In the sixteenth century, with the destruction of the guildsA guild is an association of craftsmen or merchants formed by mutual aid and protection of their professional interests. Guilds flourished in Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries and were an important element of the economic and social fabric in that era.close, industrialisation, the emergence of capitalism, and, coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) the violent Witch Hunts, women started to be excluded from society leading to a feminisation of poverty.
The Witch Hunts demonised most interactions amongst women. Women were surveilled, marginalised and feared. Friendships amongst women became an object of suspicion, denounced, and understood as subversive. Women were portrayed as scolds, too domineering of their husbands, witches, and worse… Gossipers! And thus, the harmless stereotype of women as innate gossipers emerged.
I use the word harmless sarcastically for many reasons. An obvious one is that a torture instrument was designed with the sole intention of punishing those women involved in gossiping. This instrument called the scold’s/witch’s/gossip bridle was an iron muzzle that locked onto the women’s head and mouth, pressing their tongue down to prevent them from speaking. Furthermore, the term gossip has been used to not only destroy traditional female practices, collective relations and systems of knowledge but also erode women’s rights and devalue women’s labour. Today, it continues to be used to reinforce the gender binary, infantilise certain actors, and construct certain conversations as worthless.
Gossip is a tool used by women and other marginalised people to share information that other systems often won’t consider. Gossip keeps our communities together, it keeps us safe, it equips us with important knowledge. The personal is political. Our intimacies are political. To gossip is a subversive act, an anti-capitalist act, and a feminist act. Let’s reclaim this act, get together and gossip! After all, what do we have to lose? We are all witches in their eyes anyway.