Thursday, December 1, 2011

Getting Tough On 'Tough'

Recently, I had a little bit of fun with the media's usage of a certain term, 'surviving Thanksgiving'. At least, I hope to God you recognized that for what it was.

However, that isn't the only media term that's gotten on my nerves. There's a certain word that is used in far more serious circumstances, and through its very use colors the coverage of those circumstances.

That word is 'tough'.

When you see the word 'tough' take a prominent position in a news story, at least one outside the sports world, most of the time it's going to be in the context of someone proposing, or enforcing, a notably stringent policy. This is a typical example. The headline, from AFP, is "US Senate advances tough new detainee rules". The rules, as the article notes, require military detention of people suspected of terrorism, and confirm through law that American citizens, though not included in that, can be detained indefinitely without trial if they join such a group. (Obama has threatened to veto it, by the way.)

Outside the headline, the word 'tough' is used three different times in the article itself, all performing the same basic function, though for different proposals. Domestically, the word finds very common usage when referring to Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who has titled himself "America's Toughest Sheriff". He picks up the word here from the New York Times when endorsing Rick Perry for the Republican nomination for President. The headline: "Perry Gains Endorsement From an Arizona Sheriff Tough on Immigration".

The endorsement, by the way, did not go well, as Perry mispronounced "Arpaio" and then incorrectly referred to the voting age as 21. (It's 18, for those non-Americans in the audience.)

Here's the thing, though. There are a lot of other words you can use. I used one just three paragraphs up, 'stringent'. You write for a living. I assume you know how to find a thesaurus. You can find one, for example, by just typing "thesaurus" into your address bar and tacking ".com" onto the end. Though here we'll use the Merriam-Webster page. There's harsh, strict, stern, firm, rigid, stiff, severe. All will serve the purpose fine.

'Austere' is another, but 'austerity' has been earmarked for economic stories and is out of play for purposes such as this.

Some of the other synonyms, though, begin to illustrate the point. The words I just used are really rather neutral; they get the point across as to the nature of the policy, but don't really take much of a side. Some of the other synonyms can't say the same. Were you inclined to paint these policies in a negative light, you might choose words such as oppressive, heavy-handed, hostile, authoritarian. If you really wanted to go on the attack, there's brutal, cruel, inhuman, murderous, crushing, merciless. All of these words paint the proposer as a power-mad dictator. There's also 'crackdown', a frequently-used word, though this is a very mild negative, if it can be considered a negative at all as opposed to a neutral word, and only tends to get used when authorities have turned violent.

If you wanted to paint things in a positive light, though, you might use words invoking images of strength in the face of terrible foes: strong, formidable, unflinching, unyielding, tenacious. But 'tough' is by far your best choice.

Why? Think of where, within the last generation, it's found the most political usage: the phrase "tough on crime", or "tough on" whatever else. "Tough on crime" has been drummed into the national psyche as being a good thing, something that, if pressed, you almost have to promise you'll be if you want to win public office. This is further illustrated by the word's chief antonym in this context, "soft", as in "soft on crime". Someone who is referred to as- or, more to the point, accused of being- "soft on crime" is normally done so amongst imagery of the most dangerous criminals one can imagine being released from their prison cells and placed back on the street, where, presumably, they will make a beeline directly for your house, and, it is often added, your children. Then the released criminals will have their way with you and your family while, presumably, the person "soft on crime" is caught up in a particularly enthralling round of Minesweeper, because this all came into vogue in the 80's and Angry Birds hadn't been created yet.

And of course, golly gee, that's a bad thing! Whether or not that scenario has anything to do with reality! And that's the guy who's "soft" on crime? I don't want that! Better to take the guy who will keep my children safe from these criminals! Better to vote for the one who's "tough" on crime!

In short, a fear-based reaction.

There's a little more to it than fear, though. 'Tough' is also a very masculine word. It's used in ad slogans to invoke blue-collar masculinity. Built Ford Tough. Tonka Tough. It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. It goes, in the process, right alongside all the other blue-collar ads, most notably the Miller Lite 'man up' campaign. In that campaign, and the Miller High Life campaign with the beer truck guy bestowing and removing licenses to sell that brand, Miller goes into varied detail, ad by ad, about what exactly constitutes manhood, and pressures men to not only conform, but to- naturally- drink Miller products while they do so. Fail to conform, and you're not really a man, or at least not sufficiently so.

This, of course, extends beyond the ads. As a personal example, you'll recall here how I've crossed into the realm of Taylor Swift fandom. When first mentioning this elsewhere, I was told by one person to "turn in my man card" and to purchase a Volvo (considered an unmanly car). That's just for being a fan of a certain musician. (The man-card concept in and of itself gets way too much play. As if you need to have your gender meet official, licensed approval.)

And men are supposed to be tough. Remember back at the beginning of this article when I had to qualify the word's usage in news articles by first removing all the sports stories. Athletes, after all, need to be tough, physically and mentally. Sports are, in society, still considered a very masculine thing; while women's sports are gaining support by the year, it is still in many cases a very fits-and-starts proposition. The most prominent sports typically have the men's product galaxies ahead in development from any women's equivalent (see also: Lingerie Football League), and even the sports in which women are the primary athletes (such as gymnastics), or in which the two are seen as roughly equals (such as skiing), tend to be those you only think about every four years at Olympic time, if even that. Only tennis really bucks the trend to any appreciable degree. The two genders are still a long, long way from sports equality. And until that changes- and here's to hoping it does- sports, and the toughness inherent in them, are going to remain, subconsciously, a masculine thing.

And while women are making increasing amounts of headway, positions of power in media and politics remain largely a men's world as well, and the headway made isn't nearly as much or as quickly made as women would like to see. This particular topic has been the subject of the recent documentary Miss Representation, which made it into Sundance this year and which gets play once in a while on OWN. Add all that up- media in the hands of men, politics in the hands of men, sports in the hands of men, and advertising pressuring men to value their sports and a certain ideal of manliness- and the word 'tough', among other things, is able to maintain a very positive reputation, especially in comparison to its antonym 'soft'. Being soft means being a wimp, and you're not a wimp, are you?

This all leads back to our original point: the use of the word 'tough' to describe a policy. To do so is to give the policy a form of tacit approval, and to subconsciously tell those listening to approve it as well. It's really a low-key form of campaigning more than anything else. And that's likely the aim in some cases. In which case, the listener should consider this an advisory warning. But if it's not, if you're a writer not trying to take sides, and you're trying to figure out a way to describe a policy that makes things significantly more difficult on those who run afoul of it than they were beforehand, honestly, it's time to stop leaning on one word and put some new ones into your toolbox.

And if you can't handle that, tough.

1 comment:

Pinyan said...

I feel like expanding on the paragraph about sports, specifically the given counterexample of tennis. Though tennis is perhaps the sports whose women's version is given the most similar coverage to the men's version at present, it still succumbs to the same pitfalls of "sports = tough = men".
Who won the most recent women's singles major, the 2011 US Open? Umm, it was, uh, that French woman, right? Samantha Stosur, actually, an Australian. I might not have remembered that if I hadn't recently led the Sports Illustrated article about the US Open; I already didn't remember her first name (thought it was Stephanie). In fact my effort to find her first name inadvertently leads right into my second point (below). But where I was originally going with it was that if anyone remembers something from that event, it's Serena Williams going crazy and screaming at the chair umpire. The Williams sisters are the most famous people in women's tennis by a mile, and the most common insult levied towards them, especially on our mutual stomping ground Fark, is that they are mannish. This is an illustration of point #1: any woman athlete who achieves a certain level of prominence is generally referred to as "mannish".
I was originally going to remark about Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova here, but in fact Samantha Stosur proves the point even better. If you type "Stosur" into google, the second suggested completion is "stosur gay". And there isn't any evidence or truth to the suggestion, it's just an example of point #2: any woman athlete who achieves a certain level of prominence is generally referred to as a lesbian.
So in these regards, even the most popular female sport still serves (in the popular consciousness) to reinforce the "sports = tough = men" meme.