Use of the word “sissies” (Complaint from Mr. Akim Adé Larcher, Equity and Diversity Co-ordinator, Egale Canada)

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

You wrote to complain of a report on CBC Newsworld concerning then-Leader of the Liberal Party, Stephane Dion.

The report was a live “q & a” between host Suhana Meharchand and reporter Julie Van Dusen that aired on October 15, 2008. It was aired on the day after the recent election in which the Conservative Party was returned to power in a minority situation. Much was being made in all media whether Mr. Dion would be able to survive as leader after losing the election. The loss was compounded by the fact that the Liberals returned fewer elected members than before. Mr. Dion's performance in the campaign and the prospects for his continuing leadership were being openly discussed. That was the subject of the interview on CBC Newsworld.

You objected to the following comment by Ms. Van Dusen:

It was his (Dion's) first campaign. He got better and better as he went along. He improved after the debates, but the bottom line is he lost 19 seats, kind of all over the place. And, so, it is what it is. And politics is not a game for sissies. So, I'm sure people are sitting there going, “Stéphane, you're a nice guy, you're unfailingly polite and everything else, but this is what happened….” Specifically, you objected to the use of the word “sissies” as pejorative.

REVIEW: The word “sissy” originated in the 19th century. It is probably British and not American in derivation. Three prominent dictionaries agree with the meaning that has not changed since the word entered the language.

  • The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, 1993: noun. 1. A sister. 2. An effeminate person; a coward. Adj.: Effeminate, cowardly.
  • Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th edition, 2000: noun.1. [Informal] a) An effeminate boy or man, b) A timid person or coward. 2. [slang] A homosexual: term of mild contempt.
  • Random House Dictionary of American English, 1997: noun. 1. A boy or man who appear feminine. 2. A timid or cowardly person. 3. A little girl. 4. (of a man or a boy) appearing feminine. 5. Cowardly, timid. Beyond the etymological origins, the word “sissy” has significant cultural implications especially for the gay community.

According to the website, “GLBTQ Social Sciences: an Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Queer Culture,” the word in question is about power relationships with implications that have had consistently negative connotations:

The term is pejorative, and its use as such has powerful effects on male behavior generally. It serves as a kind of social control to enforce "gender appropriate" behavior. Indeed, so strong is its power that, in order to avoid being labeled a sissy, many boys--both those who grow up to be homosexual and those who grow up to be heterosexual--consciously attempt to redirect their interests and inclinations from suspect areas such as, for example, hair styling or the arts toward stereotypically masculine interests such as sports or engineering. In addition, they frequently repress--sometimes at great cost--aspects of their personalities that might be associated with the feminine.

The use of the term as a pejorative has as a goal, an effort by both gay and straight people to stigmatize effeminate behavior in order to gain a measure of social control. According to the website:

Being regarded as a sissy by peers or by family members is most often a painful experience. The insistence on gender-specific behavior is pervasive and overwhelming in most societies, and young men and boys who are effeminate are often severely stigmatized and, sometimes, physically and mentally abused.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. In 1980, however, when the APA published a new Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM III), in place of homosexuality was a new diagnosis, “Gender Identity Disorder in Childhood," also known as "Sissy Boy Syndrome.” To be diagnosed with the disorder, a child must strongly identify with the opposite sex, and he or she must also behave in ways associated with the opposite gender. While the psychiatric community is divided over whether gender identification constitutes a mental disorder, the gay community is adamant that it is not.

Newsroom Management Response

Cynthia Kinch's timely response to Mr. Larcher's complaint is complete as far as it goes.

Ms. Kinch said that the report is implying that Mr. Dion was avoiding the media since “he was talking to friends, advisors and party officials about his future.” But that does not indicate either cowardice nor effeminacy, only perhaps prudence. Neither Ms. Kinch nor the report clarifies that.

Ms. Kinch's key response is in the following sentence: To say politics is not a game for sissies is a platitude, but it is not specifically referring to Mr. Dion

But a reasonable viewer might reasonably infer the opposite. If the phrase concerning “sissies” did not specifically refer to Mr. Dion, why did Ms. Van Dusen introduce that term of opprobrium at that point in the report?

Ms. Kinch additionally attempts to dismiss the term as being of little consequence and mentions that the term is a platitude. Clearly for many in the gay and lesbian community, the word is freighted with connotations that, even as a platitude is still perceived as pejorative. Over the last 50 years, we have realized that many expressions previously accepted as ordinary or platitudinous by segments of the community can carry emotional weight for other segments. Careful writers and talkers have sought better ways of expressing ourselves. Finally Ms. Kinch attempts to explain the tone of the report as being

an informal report, more a conversation, as you can see, than a report prepared and written before hand.

But verbal or written, CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices document does not make any allowance for that distinction. CBC's guidelines in this issue are clear and can be found in section IV. Production Standards, and in Subsection B on Information Processing under the heading of 4.1 Good Taste.

It states: The audience for broadcast information is composed of differing groups, and notions of good taste vary substantially among them. The broadcaster therefore cannot expect to enjoy the same complete freedom of expression of vocabulary or of visual presentation as is enjoyed by the book publisher, in live theatre or in the movies, whose readers and viewers by and large make conscious choices about what they read and see. Where matters of taste are concerned, therefore, care must be taken not to cause gratuitous offence to the audience. (Emphasis added).

As well under the heading 4.1 LANGUAGE

As a general rule, profanity or expressions which would give offence to a considerable number of the audience must not be used. (Emphasis added). It is not practicable to prescribe a list of words and phrases which could not be broadcast in any circumstances, as public acceptance in this area is always changing. However, shock value is not a permissible criterion.

CONCLUSION

Language changes constantly and a responsible news organization must keep current with how meanings change without falling into a form of “political correctness.”

The word “sissy” has been used in other instances in an ironic and humorous sense. Elements in the gay community celebrate the qualities of the “sissy” in order to reclaim behavior that the straight community might find objectionable. So the word does have a sub-cultural context. We see that in other communities as well, where some words may be acceptable within the group, but are inappropriate or harmful when used by others.

But the use of “sissy” in a CBC News report was meant to diminish the character of Mr. Dion by associating his electoral loss and his inevitable political downfall as essentially unmanly. It may have been inadvertent, but it was clearly part of the reporting.

The word “sissy” has had a long tradition of being used to bully and as a schoolyard epithet. While Ottawa politics may be brutal, that doesn't mean that CBC News' political reporting must adopt those negative qualities.

CONCLUSION: The use of the word “sissies” violates the standards of good taste in CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

CBC News management, as it has done in the past on language issues respecting various groups and communities, should provide appropriate guidance on issues around the GLBTQ community.

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Jeffrey Dvorkin, Visiting Professor at Ryerson University's School of Journalism, in the preparation of this review.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman