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River Island has taken its Anti-Nag Gag off sale, but the idea women should “hold their tongues” is ever-present

The high street chain’s novelty item, a gag to keep women quiet, has been discontinued. But it reflects an expectation of women to keep quiet and not to make a fuss.

River Island's 'Anti-Nag Gag' is off sale. Photo: Twitter

In response to protests prompted by actress Jenny Bede’s tweet, River Island has withdrawn its “humorous” Anti-Nag Gag from sale. Finally it seems there is a limit to how far pseudo-ironic sexism can be pushed. We might still have UniLAD, but a hipster version of the scold’s bridle – complete with mini-football and sample nags – is considered a step too far (or at least it is long after the product has been designed, manufactured and marketed, but better late than never). 

While it’s great that the gag is no longer available, the truth is it was never needed. The self-censorship of women in spaces both public and private is far more effective than anything River Island could sell. If, as Germaine Greer wrote, women have very little idea of how much men hate them, then I think it’s also true that men have very little idea of how much women hold their tongues. We are meant to be the gossips, chattering away while our menfolk silently brood. It’s just not true. Our loquacity has been greatly exaggerated (and no, the existence of Loose Women doesn’t compensate for the fact that we’re silent elsewhere).

Like many women, I’ve grown up hating the sound of my own voice. It is too shrill, too high-pitched, too hysterical. I cannot complain about sexism without immediately hearing a sarcastic echo played back to me, telling me how pathetic and whiney I am. Products such as the Anti-Nag Gag serve only to emphasise the double-bind in which women – simultaneously not heard and far too loud – regularly find themselves. Protest and you merely demonstrate your nagging credentials. Stay silent and you might as well have bought the gag yourself. When women try to communicate in a world that isn’t theirs there is no middle ground.

The image of the nag or harridan undermines women’s confidence in themselves. It positions them as cruel oppressors of “the little guy” (who is always a man. Women lack the humanity to play “the little guy” in life’s morality tales).  It’s a means of social control and it only needs to be hinted at to have a devastating effect. No one wants to be the bully or the feminazi. You don’t want to be like the imaginary woman on the plane who gets told to eat dick, or the uppity power bitch who gets what’s coming to her in the press. You don’t want to say the wrong thing, knowing the degree to which your mistakes will be exaggerated and seen as typifying the ineptitude of a whole sex.

In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine outlines the ways in which women are damned whatever they attempt. Communicate “like a man” and you lack social skills; communicate “like a woman” and you lack agency. Women are not ignorant of this. Recent studies have shown that, far from lacking in confidence or guile in their interactions with others, women have simply learned to make the best of an unfair situation. When women don’t ask for more it’s not because they lack the nerve, it’s because they know the outcome for them will be receiving less, so why bother?

Yet gagging yourself before anyone else can is a poor substitute for progress. What next? One option seems to be to gag other women, telling them what they can and can’t say in order not to offend the poor, downtrodden men. In a recent piece for The Feminist Times, Natasha Devon argued that women had “fucked up” feminism due to their unwillingness to compromise:

The word ‘misogyny’ was being chucked about like it was going out of fashion – on Twitter, in boardrooms, down the pub. Feminist campaigners began metaphorically stamping their feet, huffily insisting they wanted anything that they considered demeaning to womankind BANNED with immediate effect. […] All reasoned debate had ended, with immediate effect.

Devon’s image of huffy little women throwing their feminist temper tantrums does not seem to me a million miles away from the Anti-Nag Gag’s mean little wifey. Whether it’s identifying misogyny or asking a man to turn off the football, the answer is always the same: No. Good girls don’t make a fuss. That’s not the way to get what you want.

I wouldn’t be a feminist if I avoided making a fuss. Nevertheless, talking over the voice that constantly tells you to shut the hell up – don’t spoil it, you’ll only make things worse – always makes each word feel compromised. And then I think I shouldn’t have written about a stupid gag. I should have written about something else. Or maybe I shouldn’t have written at all. Maybe none of us should write or think or speak, I tell myself, since it’s obviously safer that way. But until we reach a point at which women can communicate freely, asking neither themselves nor anyone else for permission, we can’t possibly know all the things that women need to say. Hence in the meantime perhaps we’ll just have to shout over our inner patriarchs, pushing the invisible gag to one side.