Gender Studies and Language

Within the diverse strands of feminist theory, the notion of patriarchy is variedly understood (Bryson, 1992). For traditional Marxist feminism, patriarchy as an ideology is seen as inextricably bound up with class society, i.e., as a mere derivative of economic power. This is like the traditional Marxist view of the ideological role of the media, which I do not endorse. I also disagree with the traditional feminist notion of patriarchy as just being confined to the public worlds of politics, and paid employment; I believe it extends equally into the private sphere too.

Hence, my concept of patriarchal power here is one which operates through 'common sense' discourse about women and men, including taken-for-granted assumptions regarding issues of the private domain as well. Thus, this implies that women cannot be considered as 'liberated' or 'equal' to men just because they have established a niche for themselves in the public domain because patriarchy does not exist solely in the public world. The social world is still firmly patriarchal even though a kind of pseudo-feminism may be conveyed. As Patricia Smith has said, 'Patriarchy is much more is an entire worldview, with a million implications and effects, which has structured reality (1996: 306).

To turn more specifically to language issues in gender studies, studies include the relations between sexism in language structure and the ways speakers make use of the code. Language has been shown to aid 'the defining, deprecating, and excluding of women' (Barrie Thorne et al., 1983: 9). This is shown, for instance, using derogatory labels for women, with no real parallels for men. Also, the generic use of 'he' and 'man' is shown to mark the invisibility and marginalization of women.

This feminist concern with linguistic sexism stems from the basic notion that language is not neutral but one which structures our thought and reality according to dominant male perceptions and stereotypical male beliefs about the gendered world. Some academics have termed this view as Whorfian, and one of the famous advocates of the stronger version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is Dale Spender. In her critically acclaimed book, 'Man-made Language' (1980), Spender argues that the structure of our language is very much male-controlled and literally 'man-made' because women and their experiences have been excluded from naming and definition, hence the sexism in language structure. As such, the relative powerlessness of women would derive from women's inability to express themselves in a male language. Thus, they are made to see themselves through a language that encodes and perpetuates a male supremacist view of the world (Deborah Cameron, 1990). Other advocates of this view include feminists like Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich.

French feminists like Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous hold a similar view, though they derived the basis of their theories from psychoanalytic and discourse theories associated with Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan. Despite their crucial differences, these French Feminists argued that as reality is mediated by language and experience, there is no one 'objective' view of the world that is merely reflected through language. Therefore, language is important in determining our perception of reality and ourselves, and more importantly, the meanings of words are not static but are constantly evolving. Hence, changes in meanings will change our subjectivity or view of the world, and of ourselves as well. The argument is developed further in that negotiations over meanings of words are critical in determining social consciousness and is tied to power structures. Thus, the discourses of the dominant groups will be privileged, though they may be challenged or subverted by marginal groups (Valerie Bryson, 1992).

Both groups of feminists, mentioned above were interested in reinventing language that is outside of the patriarchal discourse, i.e., one that puts women's perspective at the core by inventing and experimenting with new words to form new ways of being.

I accept the non-neutrality of language, although not the extreme Whorfian position of 'linguistic determinism' advocated by Dale Spender. However, I find disagreeable the kind of biological essentialism and the radical stance that these feminists attach to their arguments. They are emphasizing the differences between the sexes by reinforcing the artificial and constructed dichotomy of the world through 'feminine' and 'masculine' language. It is the business of feminists to bring such divisions and differences which undermine women into question but bringing forth a 'feminine' language would reinforce anti-feminist thinking instead (Deborah Cameron, 1990). In addition, coming up with a completely radical 'woman's language' seems to be a kind of utopian and elitist ideal which only an enlightened few can grasp. It is also inward-looking as a kind of separatist 'solution' that ascribes to a wholly good women-only culture as opposed to a wholly bad man-only one. Such a 'solution' is likely a withdrawal from all practical struggles which leaves bases of power unchanged (Valerie Bryson, 1992).

I hold a similar critical stand towards the other kinds of language studies that look into the ways in which women and men speak (Barrie Thorne et al., 1983). They are mainly sociolinguistic studies with sex as the added variable, which attempt to look for sex differences in word choice, syntax, phonetics etc. Robin Lakoff's work, 'Language and Woman's Place' (1975), is one such example. While her work has been influential, her research into 'woman's language', for example, claiming that women use tag questions more often, does not contribute much to inverting stereotypes, but instead seems to help reinforce them. Thus, I agree with Thorne et al. that 'such work eventually seemed to have little purpose beyond checking (and perhaps unwittingly perpetuating) stereotypes about the sexes, especially women, and their ways of speaking' (1983: 12). Gender should not be taken as a unitary or 'natural fact' (Barrie Thorne et al., 1983), but should be recognized as a social construction tied to historical and socio-cultural contexts and relationships, and hence its potential for negotiations and modifications. Therefore, representations of gender should be contested rather than taken as a given 'fact' (Barry Thorne et al. (1983).

To sum up, it is crucial that language and knowledge are important sites of struggle where patriarchal ideology is perpetuated, and notions of gender are socially constructed and constituted according to the patriarchal discourse that have become so familiar and unconventional that they are unquestioned. Recognizing sexism in language and everyday discourse is important in grasping stereotypes that women have been cast, not just in the use of isolated pronouns and words, but in the assumptions reinforced in the conventional discourse of a society as well. Hence, feminist research has been critical in foregrounding and challenging the discursively constructed legitimacy and 'objectivity' of male perspectives. The works of the French Feminists have also demonstrated how power is constructed through discourse, how oppression works and where resistance is possible (Bryson, 1992), thus suggesting the exciting potential that dominant discourses like patriarchy can be challenged and resisted by alternative discourses.

To create awareness of such issues that will then result in meaningful negotiations, a systematic and critical method of discourse analysis will be needed.

Essential Reading:

  • Bryson, Valerie. 1992. 'Feminist Political Theory: An Introduction'. New York: Paragon House.
  • Cameron, Deborah (ed). 1990. 'The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader'. London: Routledge.
  • Lakoff, Robin. 1975. 'Language and Woman's Place'. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Smith, Patricia. 1996. 'Feminist Jurisprudence. A Companion to Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory', ed by Patterson, Dennis, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 302-310.
  • Spender, Dale. 1980. 'Man-made Language'. London: RKP.
  • Thorne, Barrie, Cheris Kramarae and Nancy Henley (eds). 1983. 'Language, Gender and Society'. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.


More by :  Attreyee Roy Chowdhury

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