We’re bad-mouths, evil and cruel. Sometimes we may even be witches. Since the very first moment we entered the Garden of Eden, that’s what History tells us.
Helsinki, mid August 2022. In one of the hundreds of thousands of houses in the Finnish capital, a group of friends came together to hang out like people in their 30s do. They ate, drank, sang and danced. These days, a party isn’t a party if there isn’t an extensive record being shared on social media, and so it was: there were videos of women moving at the rhythm of the music with their eyes on the camera. Amongst the faces shared on Instagram, one was quickly recognized - it was Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland. The head of state danced happily (and freely), as any one of us would if we were surrounded by friends and good music. But that’s not reason enough for the voices who didn’t wait to leave their criticism. Supposedly, according to these conspiracy theories, it wasn’t possible that this woman - who so happens to be a public figure - presented herself to be so loosened up without the incentive of a drug or two. The political opposition and a few layers of Finnish population pointed their finger at the PM, accusing her not only of using substances, as well as pointing out the inappropriate behaviour for someone who takes on one of the highest ranking positions in the country. 36 year old Marin heard the people’s concerns and put herself through a drug test, which came out clean for every substance. Yet, the leader saw how her seriousness, maturity and competence had been doubted based on which is safe and normal behaviour in anyone - despite age or job. “I hope that in the year 2022 it’s accepted that even decision-makers dance, sing and go to parties", Marin said in a press release.
The issue here is that, whether we like it or not, we’re still not used to seeing heads of state looking happy and free, so much so that it can be disturbing to accept that those who take high ranking jobs are, like us, human beings. Yet, can we forgive those who got ahead of the game and spread rumours of drug use? It seems like the public opinion had its own conclusion and, curiously, that’s not the rule that is followed to judge every political controversy. I can think of a handful of situations where those involved got away with it, pretty much no questions asked: when Donald Trump paid compensation to a pornographic actress to keep her quiet - and, when it comes to Trump, this is only one of the many moments we could point out. When Silvio Berlusconi was (repeatedly) accused of inviting and paying young women, often minors, to stay with him overnight, or of having ties to the mob. When Boris Johnson threw parties during covid isolation periods, whilst the rest of the population could barely go outside. Jair Bolsonaro had to be on this list, since there are so many controversies involving the Brazilian head of state we can’t even pick one. So, what’s the difference between these issues and Sanna Marin’s? The answer, no matter how hard it may be to admit in the 21st century, appears to be quite simple: because the Finnish Prime Minister is a woman.
Before the critics get to work, allow me to clarify that this conclusion does not come from a place of someone, as a woman, is particularly attentive to differentiative treatment (something tells me this disclaimer is necessary). No, this logic comes from History. Repeatedly and systematically, gossip has been something mostly associated with women and, sometimes, we can be the source of malicious rumours. Let’s go back to the early days of our christian culture heritage. “Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not.” This excerpt of the christian Bible (1 Timothy 5:13) was written sometime between the first and second century BC and explores the behaviour of “young windows”. And, with that, I could finish this text, since we have answered the question “Why do we associate gossip to women?” But there’s so much more. This is just proof that about two thousand years ago the decision to label women as gossipers was made, a label that just got more intense over time. We leap to the 16th and 17th centuries, a period of time especially fruitful when it comes to finding new ways of oppression. The female voice wasn’t something people liked to hear, especially when it came in the form of opinions or, worse, gossip (note that the term gossip, in this context, includes about everything that concerns other people’s lives). And, because discriminating wasn’t enough, women who were considered to be talkative were publically humiliated: they were punished with a torture device called scold’s bridle, a kind of gag that pressed on the tongue with a sharp edge, preventing them to talk. However, this was a device used almost exclusively in women. Does this mean that men didn’t talk at all about other people’s lives?
They did, of course, and surely much more than any woman: men were, generally, the rules, be it of countries, counties, churches or families, so their jobs implied the discussion of things such as faraway kingdoms, population rights and negotiations. The difference between the two genders seems to be clear: while one gossiped for matters of management and strategy, others did it for malicious reasons or merely out of boredom. Besides the growing misogyny that characterizes this European historical period - I don’t even wanna hear that in The Spanish Princess (2019) or Elizabeth (1998) women were powerful and respected, for some reason these are called works of fiction -, gender discrimination and gossip resulted in a powerful weapon of fabrication of evidence, in order to find a guilty party. If there’s something our past has taught us is that we like easy justifications (it’s not at random that Christianity offers explanations for pretty much every doubt we may have) and that may mean finding a scapegoat. It’s in this context that witch hunts came to be, very much tied to gossip. Before the concept evolved to a figure with mystical powers, who flew in a broom and had a raven on her shoulder, a witch was a sinner devoted to Satan. And what were the alert signs that someone worshipped the devil? One of the first clues that led men to suspect malicious intent of the female population was that they got together behind closed doors to talk about theirs and other’s lives. And because heads of families weren’t there to control the conversation theme, they assumed the worst: it was in these supposed meetings to gossip that witchcraft was done. They got suspicious and fear intensified when certain situations came to be, which could only have been a consequence of spells, such as the disappearance of livestock and the death of crops. Gossip was only the starting point - from then on, any woman could easily be accused of being a witch and worshipping Satan, but the crime came to greater proportions. Those who denied God were a part of a cult where orgies and cannibalism were common practices. It’s curious how the act of gossiping began a chain of events that culminated in women becoming the scapegoat for many western societies. In the end, accusations of witchcraft and satanism were rumours as well.
This short reflection about the historical course of gossip and its association with women ends in a true full-circle. About two thousand years ago we found evidence that gossiping is seen as evil and inherently “a woman’s thing”, even though recent studies show that men do it just as much or even more than we do. In the modern age, the way women found their space became so bothersome that their meetings were seen as a threat to the community’s well being. And why? It’s as simple as the fear of the unknown: they didn’t know about what happened behind closed doors, so they assumed the worst case scenario. In the 16th and 17th centuries, that meant witchcraft, with the intent of causing damage to the population. These days, even though we have the possibility of peeking into that privacy, the unknown may mean inappropriate, dangerous and deranged behaviour. It’s not enough that we are associated with gossip, this way of socializing which is seen as evil and degrading, but we, women, are often the target of said rumours. What awaits Sanna Marin is a time when she will have to fight to regain the respect of the population and the reputation as a worthy head of state. Well, at least a party with her friends shouldn’t lead her to be accused of witchcraft.
Translated from the original on The Gossip Issue of Vogue Portugal.
Full credits and stories on the print issue.