My response to the whole ‘bus babe’ thing is now online at the Guardian. Sadly when I submitted it I was warned the comments might get a bit heated and it looks like they are. Contrary to some of them I wasn’t paid for my response.
This is my original submission:
In the past week I’ve been to the cinema twice (The Artist & The Descendants – both fairly good), stocked up my fridge (meatballs & pizza on the menu this week) and arranged to catch up with friends. Oh and been called “an irate woman”, “a daft woman”, a “silly, silly woman” told I “must look [like] the old back of a bus”, to “GET A LIFE” and that “I need an operation, to remove the chip from [my] shoulder” – all by people I don’t know and have never met.
What is my crime? Just politely contacting my local bus company to let them know that I don’t like it when their bus drivers use terms such as ‘love’, ‘darling’ and ‘babe’. I pointed out that I generally find their drivers friendly and courteous but that when some of them use that language I find it demeaning. I wasn’t angry, I didn’t ask to make a formal complaint, I wasn’t trying to get anyone into trouble, I’m not trying to get anyone fired, I didn’t threaten legal action – I just thought they might like to know how the actions of some of their staff made me feel.
I received a prompt and friendly response agreeing that it wasn’t really appropriate language and not something the company would condone. They promised to let drivers know that this sort of language isn’t appreciated and I didn’t really think much more of it until my local radio station mentioned on Facebook that drivers had been asked not to call people babe. From there I spotted it in our local newspaper, the Metro, the Mail Online, found it was discussed on Loose Women and various local radio stations.
The thing I find weird is that I don’t really think this is news; I just sent some feedback to a company. It seems that people find the idea that language can affect others a bizarre concept and that it is ‘just political correctness gone mad’ (that gem came up a few times). Much of the coverage and comments paints me as some angry woman who should be grateful for the apparent compliment. I didn’t make it a gender issue, the coverage and comments created a gendered issue.
Thing is though, I personally find terms like ‘babe’ coming from men over-familiar, sexist and patronising. I’m allowed to interpret their words in that way, it doesn’t make me irrational or over-sensitive. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of humour or that I should be grateful for the attention. It is interesting to note that lots of the critical comments are from men.
I’ve had lots of feedback from other women saying that they feel the same on this issue and that they’re glad that I bought it up. I’ve also been insulted by complete strangers online. When considering my response to the issue and coverage I was worried that I might be the target for further criticism and insults. There is a sense in some of the comments that I should just shut up and ignore it when people use language I don’t consider appropriate. I wonder how much of this is because I am a woman and am expected to ‘get over it’ because it is ‘just banter’.
I’m not suggesting that bus drivers or other men who say babe to women they don’t know are evil misogynistic women-haters and I’m equally not saying that all women should be furious if it happens to them. I am suggesting however that language changes over time – there are words in common use 20 years ago that wouldn’t be accepted now – and that, as a woman, I should not be expected to meekly accept words from men that make me feel uncomfortable. I should also be happy to provide this feedback without being attacked.
I’m not expecting to change the language and behaviour of everyone, just as when I contacted the bus company I didn’t expect (or want) them to issue a list of ‘approved’ words and turn the drivers into robots (the latter is an accusation levelled at me by an unnamed driver). I just hoped it might make some people reconsider how their words might be interpreted by others.
You can join in the conversation about this on Twitter using the #dontcallmebabe hashtag