The Problem with Gendered Language is Not Sexuality, It’s Stereotypes.

gender stereotypesTom Wark, in a recent post, came to the defense of renowned whiskey writer Jim Murray, who was accused of sexism by a colleague because he employs sexually-charged imagery when describing the experience of drinking particular whiskeys.

I must say that, with one reservation, I agree with Tom’s defense of Murray because the accuser Betty Paskin misses the point of critiques of sexist language.

Here is a sampling of Paskin’s account of the offending language used by Murray:

In the 2021 edition there are 34 references to whisky being ‘sexy’ and many more crudely comparing drinking whisky to having sex with women.

Penderyn is made by an all-female team of distillers and blenders, yet this is how he refers to their whisky: “If this was a woman, I’d want to make love to it every night. And in the morning. And afternoon, if I could find the time… and energy…” (Penderyn Celt)

And again: “This celebrates maltiness in the same way a sex addict revels in a threesome.” (Penderyn Single Cask)

Murray refers to Canadian Club Chronicles, Water of Windsor as: “Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not.”

As vulgarities go, this is all pretty tame. Of course some people are offended by vulgarities of any sort, but given the F-bombs thrown around in public these days by women and men, the standards for what is publicly acceptable have decisively shifted towards the permissive side. No doubt Murray’s descriptions of sexual encounters are written from a male point of view. But what other point of view should he write from? He’s male. Surely our ability to communicate would not be enhanced by removing sexual expressiveness from the topics writers are allowed to exploit.

More importantly, it isn’t obvious how writing enthusiastically about sex in the context of a review demeans women or causes harm. This is not equivalent to using such language in the workplace where power relationships and potential exploitation would raise real questions about harm. Paskin is right that in the workplace this is unacceptable.

Women working in the industry continue to be asked if we even like whisky, with ambassadors and female whisky makers often enduring leering comments during whisky tastings and festivals.

But leering at someone in the work place is not like using sexual imagery in a review—there is no one being leered at in a review.

But here is my one reservation. Paskin goes on to list additional offending passages:

“If whisky could be sexed, this would be a woman. Every time I encounter Morangie Artisan, it pops up with a new look, a different perfume. And mood. It appears not to be able to make up its mind. But does it know how to pout, seduce and win your heart…? Oh yes.” (Glenmorangie Artisan Casks)

Here Murray is trading on stereotypes that are provably false. I doubt that women are on the whole less decisive than men. But even if there were some sort of statistical relationship between gender and decisiveness, characterizing over half the human race as indecisive demeans the legions of women who don’t fit the stereotype and sets inappropriate expectations for how women are supposed to be.

This issue of gender stereotypes is important in the wine world as well. Wine writers have long described soft, gentle, elegant wines as feminine and powerful, muscular wines as masculine. But thankfully this practice is waning because these old stereotypes simply don’t apply any longer. They no longer help us understand the world and thus don’t belong in a review.

Paskin misses the mark because she focuses her ire on mild vulgarities and baseless analogies rather than keeping the focus on harmful stereotypes.

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