Graham Norton and his wax double (Photo by Ferdaus Shamim/WireImage)
Artillery Row

The silence of women

Shouldn’t a talk show host be good at listening?

Self-censorship is like housework: the vast majority of it is done by women, and men only notice when they think we’ve missed a bit. 

A recent example of this was provided by Graham Norton, in conversation with Mariella Frostrup at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Asked about cancel culture, Norton resorted to the all-too-familiar cop-out of suggesting that people who’ve always been able to say what they like just don’t appreciate being held accountable. 

All men notice are the inconvenient truths we do choose to utter

When Frostrup responded with the example of JK Rowling, pointing out that for her, being held “accountable” for expressing views on sex and gender has meant a deluge of rape and death threats, Norton was unrepentant.

“I add nothing to that discussion,” he said, implying that if there was something he didn’t know about being a woman, Rowling couldn’t possibly know it, either. Ignoring Frostrup’s suggestion that the position of a famous man is not the same as that of a famous woman, Norton claimed the conversation should be left to the “experts”. 

“It’s free speech, but not consequence-free,” he opined. “I’m aware of the things I say.”

Watching Norton ramble on in his self-satisfied way, I was reminded of Liz Lochhead’s poem, “Men Talk”. In it, the poet distinguishes between characterisations of men’s speech — careful, informed, considered — and women’s ignorant babbling:


Rabbit rabbit rabbit women

Tattle and titter 

Women prattle

Women wiffle and witter 

[ … ]


Think First, Speak Later.

Men Talk.

It’s a stereotype that runs through portrayals of “the trans debate”. On the one hand, there are the Norton-approved experts: clinical, considered, usually male. On the other, there are the women, shooting their ill-informed mouths off on Mumsnet and twitter, high on moral panic and the belief that they — they! — should be able to influence debate. 

As far as Norton is concerned, someone such as Rowling just doesn’t know her place, whereas he, a fellow famous person, does. The idea that as a woman and a feminist, Rowling might have more insight than him — that she, too, might count as an expert — does not seem to cross his mind. Nor does the fact that for all the things she has written about this topic, there may be plenty of others she has decided not to express. 

This is true not just about discussions of sex and gender, but female experience both in the home and in public space: there is so much we do not say, to which men remain completely oblivious. They do not appreciate all our silences, all our accommodations. All they notice are the inconvenient truths we do choose to utter. For those, we are damned. 

The first time I wrote about gender identity, I did not fire off a pitch on a whim. I’d been thinking and reading about it for several years, trying to persuade myself the concept was less sexist than it first appeared (and indeed is). The piece I finally did write — a personal one, based on my own relationship with my body — I first shared privately with a small group of women, who encouraged me to make it public. 

I did not barge into this topic for the lolz. I knew that after writing that piece, I would be called names and threatened (earlier that year I’d spoken at a student conference that had been sabotaged by trans activists for booking Julie Bindel). I still wrote it because for me, it had reached a point where I could no longer write with integrity about the things I cared about — female body image, eating disorders, reproductive rights, male violence — whilst pretending gender identity trumped biological sex in terms of political salience. 

Women have no more silence left to give

I had been silent, with increasing misgivings, for some time before then. I even filed a ridiculous piece on abortion in which I used gender-neutral terms throughout, which nearly made me lose my mind. I wrote that piece in 2013, back when many of the men now telling women like me to pipe down were still busy making “tranny” jokes. Me? I was ploughing through Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. Believe me, I have listened to trans people. When I say “listen”, I mean it, which I suspect is the problem. For someone such as Norton, I suspect it means “uncritically nod along”. 

I am not an uncritical nodder, much as I know that is many men’s ideal woman. I am critical and I am informed, as are most of the women I know. These include the women who message me to tell me they can’t speak out on this topic; the women who use “liking JK Rowling’s latest” as a code to test the waters; the women who compare not being able to speak freely about the politics of their own female bodies to not being able to talk about a whole host of other subjects in front of the men in their lives. 

It includes the women who, like me, grew up in constant oscillation between being told they were silly little girls who knew nothing, and arrogant bitches who knew too much; the women who find their depth of knowledge about this subject merely leads to being told they are unhealthily obsessed; the women who, like Jane Clare Jones and the group Murray Blackburn Mackenzie, produce vast compendia of academic research that is swept aside by people who’ve skim-read Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis once in Waterstones. 

Female inner lives and embodied experiences will always remain unknowable to males — this drives much of the rage of today’s trans activists — but there is so much else that they do not know: all the things we have not said, and all the things we could say still. This is what makes such a mockery of Norton’s et al’s “if they were really being silenced, we wouldn’t be able to hear them”. Of course you don’t hear them, Graham. They’re not going to send that anguished, apologetic DM — “I’d really like to say something in my workplace, but just can’t” — to you. 

I suppose the thing that appals me most is the lack of gratitude. Graham Norton and his friends have no awareness of just how restrained and polite women have been whilst being told we are nothing more than ambulatory penetrable holes or ideas in men’s heads. Why should I write thousands of carefully considered words explaining why I’m more than that? Yet I, and countless others do, whilst many more women never get that far. 

Again, it is just like housework. You get a whole room — a whole lifetime — of pristine female politeness and all men notice is that one speck of dirt, that one moment when we women choose to say “no”. They’d best get used to it, though. We have no more silence left to give. 

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