Question of the Day: Metaphors for Authoritarianism

What are all the connotations that spring to mind when you hear “Big Brother”?

How about when you hear “Nanny State”?

How do you think a newspaper cartoonist might represent these two different ideas as people?

No need to edit out the sexist stuff – that’s what I’m trying to get at, how we’re programmed to think about these two concepts, which should be more or less identical apart from the gender.

Categories: gender & feminism, language, Politics

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19 replies

  1. Big Brother… overbearing surveillance and interference in or stripping of perceived “liberties”. Security cameras, tasers, subliminal messages. Probably represented in a cartoon by a big burly uniformed man with very square shoulders, probably with a bit of an SS look to them.
    Nanny State… Mollycoddling of the general population. Social welfare, safety barriers, warning labels. Probably represented by a big burly aproned woman, probably with the words “Nanny State” written on the front for those without the ability to determine the subtle references in political cartoons.
    I’m not sure of the origin of the term “Nanny State”, but I think these terms are a pretty long way from being “more or less identical”, at least in common usage. I suspect the term “Nanny State” was deliberately gendered with a predominately female occupation from the start to ridicule compassionate and/or progressive state interference by alluding to the idea that women are “irrational” when it comes to the protection of children. If the term was coined anytime before say 1980, then I’d say that’s a certainty.
    Also in terms of who uses these labels, we see a divergence, with “Nanny State” being a label reserved primarily for use by conservative commentators against progressive government agendas or initiatives and “Big Brother” being for use by progressive commentators against conservative government agendas or initiatives.
    I think your suggestion of the sameness of the terms misses a reference to the context in which these deliberately evocative terms have been bludgeoned into their current forms by their contemporary use. They have lives of their own now beyond their etymology. The same way terms like “socialist” have become tropes only vaguely reminiscent of their actual meaning.

  2. Sam, I’m intrigued that you think that portraying women as irrational in regard to children is only a “certainty” if the term was coined before 1980. Do you really think in the past 30 years that the hysterical mother trope has died a well-deserved death?

  3. I’d never really thought about it before – but it’s interesting isn’t it? Political references that have perhaps more gender norms than actual political commentary. The Nanny State is irrational, but has our best interests at heart, because after all, women are nurturing but can’t think clearly enough to see when to leave off. Big Brother is motivated by self interest, and is associated with violence and violation of rights, but is cold, calculating, and immensely rational. That’d be blokes for you, violent and self-obsessed, but got it big in the brains department.
    In NSW, where we have the mighty NSW Labor party (/sarcasm), Big Brother is still getting trotted out quite a bit, so it probably does depend a bit on what people are responding to. (If the NSW government wanted to give police any more powers, they’d have to start handing out x-ray vision.)
    I must admit, I’d never thought of them meaning the same thing – I’ve always considered them having quite different intentions behind them – but the ridiculous gendering of it is so obvious I’ve managed to not notice until now. Once again, I’m soaking in it.

  4. tl;dr.
    I’ll comment at much more length later, but just for the minute:

    I think your suggestion of the sameness of the terms misses a reference to the context in which these deliberately evocative terms have been bludgeoned into their current forms by their contemporary use.

    I don’t miss that context for a second, but thankyou for your concern. I did not allege that the terms are the same, as you’ll see on a re-reading. The layered ways in which language use reflect and reinforce ingrained societal sexism are are where I am headed here.
    While I did specifically say not to edit out the sexist stuff, I didn’t expect that to be taken quite so … literally. New commenters at Hoyden might find the place more comprehensible by not proceeding from a base assumption that posters here are clueless naifs when it comes to the political implications of gendered language.

  5. “Big Brother” always brings up that image of Lord Kitchener on the “Lord Kitchener wants YOU” poster. Weirdly, I’ve never put a face or form to “Nanny State”, perhaps because the persona of “nanny” is attached to “state” rather than being “Big Nanny”?

  6. @LauredHel
    Egads! I didn’t mean to insult you. I know that you said that the terms should be identical, I was just talking about the (perhaps too obvious) reality. My intention was to talk about your statement missing that context and to bring it into the conversation, not to imply that you had or would miss that context. I absolutely know from reading your other posts over a period of time that you aren’t a clueless naif at all, and especially in this regard. However that part of my comment does casually read as questioning your understanding, that wasn’t my intention, sorry about that, I should have somehow put it as a question to you instead.
    No I don’t. After that date (which is an approximation) I might be able to consider that a potential individual coiner of that phrase might be doing so without intentionally using the gender reference as a part of the slur. The chance of that is near naught of course, I was just avoiding making an absolute statement.

  7. …and now I see the UrbanDictionary link. I didn’t mean to do that. It was a bit brain-dumpy and ultimately a mansplain, my bad.

  8. For Big Brother, I’m reminded of the photo of an amusing RTA adI took the other day. I also think of the fed government’s consideration of using those full body scanners at airports.
    For the Nanny State, I generally always think of the ‘obesity epidemic’ and the biopedagogization of kiddies and adults to try to make us self-police what we eat. Strangely though from the gov’t campaigns the underlying message always seems to be that we’ll never be able to fully achieve this so, uh, best to just keep following their guidelines on what to eat, how much, what to buy etc etc.

  9. Without taking into account other comments (not that they aren’t worth taking into account, but I want to address the original question), but I see Big Brother used to refer to central governmental interference in matters of political association and the like while the Nanny State refers to (attempted) interference in personal behavior. So, the divide in usage is socio/political vs individual. (And lets leave aside the notion that Big Brother is hiring the Nanny!)
    As to cartoon representations, I don’t have an image of Big Brother, but the Nanny State would be an elderly, stern woman in archaic clothing.

  10. I do see one big distinction between the two concepts.
    The Nanny State is about “protecting us from ourselves” and telling us that we wouldn’t really like doing [thing X] because it’s icky and dangerous and it’s all for our own good to save us from being harmed by the undesirable consequences (and save the State the expense (in taxpayer’s money) of cleaning up after it all ends in tears).
    Big Brother is about “protecting the State from rebellion” and tells us that there are just some things it refuses to allow, because it knows where that sort of stuff leads and it’s just not having it.
    Big Brother often uses Nanny State language to put the iron fist in a velvet glove, but you can have a Nanny State without necessarily having a Big Brother (and you can of course also have the openly authoritarian iron fist Big Brother with no Nanny State rhetoric at all).
    P.S. (edited) I do agree that the genderising of these concepts is obvious, I guess I just don’t agree that the concepts are exactly the same.

  11. My personal construction of the two (similar I think to tigtog’s):
    Big Brother takes away your economic and political freedom. He’s totalitarian and wants each member of the general populace to be an identical cog in the system, always identified, always monitored, always controlled. He watches everything and uses his knowledge to keep everyone in line, one-down from the government. He is suspicious and thinks citizens are clever little rats he has to keep in line. His job is to keep the good stuff away from you and in the hands of the State, which will dole it out only to those who have power (never you). Big Brother is a crusher, a peeper, a regimenter, a thief, a machine, a black eminence.
    Nanny State takes away your fun but dangerous toy. She’s overprotective and thinks citizens are stupid infants who can’t manage their own affairs. Her job is to keep the fun stuff away from you because it’s dangerous and might make someone cry. She wants everyone to share everything all the time even it means that you, the smart superman, has to allow the subhuman others (women, “lesser” races, disabled people etc.) rights they haven’t earned. Nearly any mention of the Nanny State contains a reference to someone crying or whining. Nanny State is a smoother, a tsk-er, an idiot who can’t understand intelligence or genius, overemotional, a suffocating bosom.
    .-= oldfeminist´s last blog ..Gifting, crafting, gender and the holidays =-.

  12. @tigtog
    I think it’s worth also noting that “nanny state” is also mostly used in reference to the state trying to prevent people from doing things they think they want to do – smoking, drinking, riding without a helmet etc, irrespective of the likely outcomes of those actions.
    And also, more importantly, to state actions that industry thinks will cost them money to implement – seat belts, indoor smoking bans, health and safety initiatives etc.
    So yeah, I agree the concepts are used in very different ways.
    Though there are exceptions to that, I think – Singapore being the obvious example. While I’m struggling to find concrete references, I know the Singapore Government is criticised for both “Big Brother” and “Nanny State” behaviour, generally from the left and right respectively – it’d be interesting look closer at those criticisms to see if they’re interpreting the same policies in different ways, or whether they’re criticising completely different bits of Singapore Government policy.

  13. Random thought: ultimately, the concepts are identical in terms of “overbearing state controlling/directing/monitoring individuals’ actions”.
    But [b]ig [b]rothers are meant to look after younger siblings, to watch out for the littler members of the family, to keep the other kids on the straight and narrow.
    Nannies, on the other hand, are intruders from outside the biological family. They’re employees, they’re performing the roles that “should” be done by “actual” parents, and they’re generally women who have been handed authority “artificially” without the big brother’s “inherent” familial bond to entitle them to tell you what to do.

  14. I think there’s a power dynamic here too – Big Brother is powerful, and to be feared, but Nanny State, not so much. As oldfeminist said, she’s a tsktsker, or perhaps even a nagger.

  15. Big Brother to me immediately conjures up Orwell’s 1984.
    “I suspect the term “Nanny State” was deliberately gendered with a predominately female occupation from the start to ridicule compassionate and/or progressive state interference by alluding to the idea that women are “irrational” when it comes to the protection of children.”
    I think the concept of Nanny needs to be looked at separately from the irrational female protector of children, the mother. Nanny to me conjures up starched, trained English women raising children on a Scientific Basis, with Rules and Schedules and Discipline. An old fashioned image, obviously. But I think the gendering is slightly different from the idea of an irrational but protecting figure – it’s more an irritating, woman is telling me what to do gendering.
    Big Brother is much more sinister.

  16. I read the comments before posting this. Like Rebekka, I thought of the book for “Big Brother”. I never heard the term “Nanny State” before. I’d have guessed it was a slur for a kind of “welfare state”, that is, taking care of the people is a negative, as some conservative Americans misperceive government. I could see how Big Brother and Nanny State could be related, but an antiwoman edge to “Nanny”. To me, “nanny” is an au pair girl…. For paid caregiver, I’d use the word,
    “babysitter” and I had someone come in to get my dressed/fed and to primary school when I was an artist-in-residence, as a single working mom and had to be out of the apartment very early to get the “tube” (subway) for the 1 1/2 hour ride to my job (and back…same “sitter” picked up my child and took him to her home near ours until I got home…) She and I remained friends until her
    death at age 97.

    • “Nanny State” is a term that originated in the UK, where the upper classes have a history of employing live-in nannies to supervise the care of their infant-to-school-age children (after the children are of school-age they would have a governess instead – well the girls would – they boys would be off at boarding school). Nannies (historically) have more authority in the house than an au-pair does – they traditionally supervised all the arrangements to do with the nursery, which meant bossing about maids and footmen (but never bossing the Butler or the Cook).
      Many people call their au-pairs “nannies” these days, but it’s a very different sort of arrangement and the term harks back to this more classist and authoritarian hierarchy I outline above. Nannies usually had the ultimate power in the nursery, and it was a rare parent who would overrule a nursery arrangement (when the children were out with their parents Nanny was in the background, but the rest of the time she had not only responsibility for but enormous power over every aspect of the lives of the children in her care). Many posh men, especially, had complex relationships with their nannies as adults because of this power history from their childhood, which they tended to resent, and thus the term is loaded with that resentment as well.
      So Nanny States keep on pushing you into neat tidy scrubbed boxes with shiny shoes, and taking away your toys and sending you to bed early with no supper if you misbehave, but it’s very clear what the rules are. Big Brother is always watching you but might never tell you exactly what it is that you’re not supposed to be doing until he catches you at it and suddenly you’re in the shit. Nanny is bossy but predictable, Big Brother is sinister and secretive.

  17. @tigtog
    I’d always thought of “Nanny State” as a Thatcherite invention – Wikipedia informs me it was first used in the 60s by conservative politicians, though, which I guess fits better with the Victorian era nanny figure.
    The gendering of Big Brother is interesting, also, and I think the “sinister and secretive” thing is a product of the standing of 1984, and the originial context has been lost a little. Having thought about it a little, I think I’m back closer to Lauredhel’s view in the OP that BB and the Nanny State essentially the same figures than I originally was.
    (I’m not putting this particularly well, but hopefully I’ll muddle through to something comprehensible).
    Big Brother (as used by the Party in 1984) and the figures it was based on (Kitchener’s recruitment ads and the Bennet ads – again via Wikipedia weren’t supposed to be the menacing and intimidating figures they have become. They were originally cast as benevolent, almost paternalistic figures – the literal “big brother” protecting their youngest sibling both from external threats and from the consequences of their own misbehaviour.
    I think it was pretty much 1984 that changed that view, and made that figure a menacing totalitarian caricature.
    I’ve now gotten myself so muddled to to write my way through that, though, that I’m no longer able to relate it back to Lauredhel’s orignal question and the modern context for the use of both.

  18. Taken a step back and remembered where I was going with that – conceptually the two figures are actually pretty similar at heart, just used differently by the left and right respectively in their later interpretations.
    So yeah, their respective gendering probably plays a much greater role in their use than I thought on first reaction.
    Apologies for the TL;DR.

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