Is gossiping a bitchy female past time or is that just misogyny?
Debunking the myth of gossiping.
December 29, 2021
The Cambridge Dictionary defines Gossip as “conversation or reports about other people's private lives that might be unkind, disapproving, or not true.” We are socialized to associate gossip with nosy women prying into the lives of others. When I was 12, the 2007 rendition of Gossip Girl was my favorite TV show. The Gossip Girl blog posted the secret, illicit affairs of a group of elite teenagers in New York and played a part in ruining many friendships, relationships, and careers. This show was so successful that it was rebooted this year which is renewed for a second season. Though the original “Gossip Girl” was Dan Humphrey, a man, the notion of gossiping is linked to girls, right in the name of the show.
Back before communities had the news or law enforcement, gossiping was a crucial way to keep members in check. Robin Dunbar, an Oxford professor of evolutionary psychology, defined gossip as the discussion of social topics and theorized that it was a tool used by growing communities to convey social norms and subdue bad behavior. It would have helped our ancestors know if their neighbor was a good person or someone who didn’t contribute to the community. It was a tool that allowed them to learn from others’ deeds, good or bad.
The word ‘gossip’ is derived from the Old English word ‘godsibb’ which originally meant ‘godparent’, as, during childbirth, female relatives and neighbors would gather and idly talk. ‘Gossip’ was used to neutrally describe the female friends present at birth, and over time, came to mean chatter about others. In communities before the sixteenth century, women had a significant degree of social power, were not dependent on men for survival, and had solidarity with other women in their communities in group activities such as sewing, clothes washing, and giving birth. By the sixteenth century, the social position of the woman was diminished and the word gossip had a negative connotation. The patriarchal dominance in the household and community strengthened while women became increasingly punished for their independence and female friendships.
Appearing in the 1500s in Britain, the ‘scold’s bridle’ or ‘gossip bridle’, approved by the church, was a device used to publicly punish outspoken lower-class women who were perceived as gossips and suspected of witchcraft. This humiliation rendered the woman unable to speak and husbands were known to drag their wives around the village to subject her to humiliation and ridicule. Women could be brought to court to be fined for their gossiping, were expected to obey their husband’s every word, and were discouraged from having female friends. In 1547 there was a proclamation “forbidding women to meet together to babble and talk” and ordering husbands to “keep their wives in their houses.” The patriarchal society deconstructed female friendship and labeled gossip as a harmful female pastime all while constricting their former freer lives to the household.
Despite the negative socialization, a UC Riverside study in 2019 that explores the nuances of gossipers and their topics shows that women don’t engage in negative gossip more than men. In fear of female independence and solidarity, the patriarchy vilified gossiping from its original purpose and considered it an immoral trait. Hopefully, we can reclaim female friendship and community and have open discussions about imperative social topics such as feminism without the negative man-hating connotations. Our solidarity continues to be crucial to our fight against gender inequality.
About the Author
Hi! I'm Hughlyn and I come from Hong Kong. I'm a 17-year-old junior at Hotchkiss School. I have been a feminist since middle school and conceptualized gender inequality. I'm part of Bluestockings, the gender equality club at school, and last summer I attended the Women in Leadership program at Brown University. As a teenage Asian girl, there are many topics that I feel "typical" feminist spaces don't discuss and I created this blog as an intersectional and safe area to talk about feminism and other random topics.
Cambridge Dictionary. “Gossip Meaning.” Cambridge Dictionary, dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/gossip. Accessed 29 Dec. 2021.
Chadha, Kashish. “History of Gossip: The So-Called ‘Women’ Thing.” Eat My News, 19 Oct. 2020, www.eatmy.news/2020/10/history-of-gossip-so-called-women-thing.html.
Federici, Silvia. “How the Demonization of ‘Gossip’ Is Used to Break Women’s Solidarity.” In These Times, 31 Jan. 2019, inthesetimes.com/article/the-subversivefeminist-power-of-gossip.
دوري, جيسيك.“Gossip May Have Played a Role in Human Survival.” Vice, 2 May 2018, www.vice.com/en/article/ne9ae8/gossip-may-have-played-a-role-in-human-survival.
University of California - Riverside. "Myths about gossip busted: Study explores nuances of who gossips, and what they gossip about." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 May 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190503100814.htm>.