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Gender, Sex and Language 

There have been various social and cultural representation of gender, mainly due to mass media’s contribution in creating an ideal portrayal that has influenced the way society perceive gender over the years. Advertisements and literary works bring significant changes to norms and values; the way authors address their readers greatly affects people’s mindset and understanding about gender. The use of language plays a crucial role in establishing people’s awareness on the social classification of gender, and how an individual is treated based on the gender preference he embraced.

 The popular culture has represented gender through eroticized images of both men and women in billboards, tabloids, magazines and other form of entertainment materials. In the provocative writing of Sara Mills in her book, Feminist Stylistics, she provides an argument regarding literary texts from a feminist standpoint by integrating her linguistic and literary theories and insights. Mills expressed that there is male dominance in both the ways women are treated in the society and the ways they are characterized in literary works.[1] In fact, in this generation, it is easy to find written works that may reflect to Mills’ perception on gender, sex and the use of linguistic devices.

Take, for instance, the Ask the Girl Next Door column on Men’s Health Magazine. This section follows a Q and A format, with questions usually coming from men. On its January-February 2008 issue, Nicole Beland, the writer, answered several questions involving women’s body, sexual intercourse and weight loss. One of the questions was “can you tell anything about a woman by her bra?” followed by the writer’s answer in an uninhibited voice.

Mills once stated that writers are not always in total control of the piece they write, that there are “constraints on the way in which we use language and organize information”[2] which is quite perceptible on the way Beland addressed the questions in the said column. First, the writer tried to speculate about a woman’s personality by suggesting the reader should take into consideration the color of the bra she’s wearing. If she is wearing a brightly colored brassiere, this implies that she is “probably a drama queen” or the type of woman who seeks attention and responds to situation in a melodramatic way. The use of gender-specific term  (drama queen) to describe a certain characteristic that is supposed to be general or nonbinary in nature somehow perpetuates the notion that being needy or overdramatic is actually a feminine quality. We also do not usually change it into “drama king” even when being used or applied to a man, thus, making it misogynistic for some women. The purpose of most stylistic studies does not only focus on the formal features of written works, but also on their functional significance or relevance for the interpretation of the content.[3]

After focusing on the color, the writer then proceeded to give more descriptions by focusing on the type of brassiere this time. She stated that wearing a padded, push-up bra insinuates that the woman may not be comfortable in her own skin, that she lacks self-confidence and is conscious of her body, hence the need to “artificially enhance her endowments”.[4] The use of metaphor, in this case, gives emphasis to the stated circumstance; the writer wants to emphasize just how insecure the woman is that she has to “wear a push-up bra with so much padding, it thuds when it hits the floor”.[5]

This metaphor indicates the gravity of the situation – the woman’s non-assertiveness – and is not supposed to be taken literally as it simply aims to make the description sound more persuasive and powerful.

Many clinical studies claimed, though not scientifically explained, that a woman’s wardrobe preferences tell a lot about her desires, even the ones that she is trying to hide. Exposing too much cleavage could be a hint that you are power hungry; excessive display of jewelries may actually suggest the contrary – that  you are going through some financial difficulties. And though it was said that a woman’s clothes reveal what is really going on with her internally, there are no logical explanation to support these claims, so it is safe to conclude that the following are just merely based on the society’s concept of gender appropriateness.

Contemporary studies on gender and language suggest that speech patterns of both men and women actually depend on the context, the audience and other significant factors. The way a magazine speaks to its readers is not merely influenced by the author himself, as pop culture magazines seem to adjust based on cultural and societal stereotypes. Deborah Tannen, a Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University expounded this idea by proposing that women’s language is basically “rapport-talk” where initiating connection between the writer and the reader is given emphasis.[6] This approach is quite perceptible in other questions that Beland candidly answered. Another man asked, “She’s into heavy eye contact during sex, which is so distracting I can’t orgasm. How do I get her to quit staring?”.[7]  The writer then suggested ways to sexually indulge a woman while preserving male dominance at the same time. The man simply has to create an impression that he can look “deep into her soul” to be in control of the situation (in this case, to not be distracted during sexual intercourse). This way, the male will be able to preserve his independence while demonstrating his skills, hence being dominant. And although Beland’s way of writing remains uninhibited, the content itself is trying to maintain connection with its target readers – the males. The use of metaphor is, once again, present in the way Beland delineates the event or situation. A man who is capable of looking ‘deep into a woman’s soul’ amidst an intercourse may be considered passionate and genuinely caring to his partner.

Considering the model of analysis presented in her book, Mills had taken two crucial aspects into account: the production (the implicit and actual authors) and the reception (being the implicit and actual readers). She expounded how a text imparts itself to be read or perceived from a feminist standpoint, which means that interpretation may actually differ and be portrayed in various ways; in a manner that is conforming to the specific reader. Mills pointed out that she is mainly solicitous about the readers’ way of forming their gender-related interpretation of texts  “where the process of interpretation rests on cues in the text which have a different significance or are significant to a different extent, depending on the reader’s gender-identity”.[8]  Therefore, the principal issue is not about the text being intrinsically sexist or male-hegemonic, but rather, how the text or language itself is read and processed.

“The woman I’m dating never used to criticize me, but now she’s picking apart my hair, my apartment, and my clothes. What gives?” – Generally speaking, this is simply a question from a man whose partner suddenly started criticizing his personal choices. And to answer the question, Beland proposed that the woman may be panicking with the thought that her man was not perfect, that he should just “take her criticism in stride without becoming defensive or trying to change to please her”.[9]  Nevertheless, when you try to analyze the text from a feminist perspective, this can potentially be interpreted in a totally different manner. Men are socially considered to be sterner in voicing their opinion, while women are believed to be more submissive. The question may probably be from a man whose intention is harmless, or perhaps just a man asking for a piece of advice as to why the woman he’s dating suddenly changed.  On a feminist outlook, however, it could be a man who simply could not take constructive criticism from a woman because he feels like he is being dominated.

Sex is essentially under Biology; gender is a code determined by cultural and social factors. As a feminist, Mills considers gender as a term that should not be discerned as a uniformed group, but rather a diverse group that is subject to change due to various influences. One of these influences may be the society’s definition of an ideal physical appearance. Each gender, throughout the years, has followed a standard visual portrayal of body image that inevitably holds sexist tendencies particularly among women. Getting back on Beland’s Men’s Health column, a man seeks advice about his wife’s desire to lose weight, stating “My wife wants me to help her swing a week at an expensive weight-loss spa, since I’ll reap the benefits of her slimmer bod. Should I spring for it?”[10] The writer then proceeded to deliver her usual candid response by giving some facts about weight-loss methods, suggesting that the husband should just give her a sort of reward instead, like treating the wife to a spa treatment every time she drops weight.

Looking at the scenario on a nonbinary perspective, the wife’s desire to visit the expensive spa may be prompted by her goal to please her husband. On the other hand, she probably has her own definition of an ideal, gender-appropriate image of herself. It was mentioned that the husband will also “reap the benefits” when she gets to achieve a slimmer body – this rather suggests that the husband, perhaps men in general, finds it pleasing when a woman has a slim figure; indicating that physical attractiveness, body size and the very concept of presentable appearance can be subjective.

Advertisements and different forms of literature have provided us with a fixed mindset regarding gender and its role. That each individual, be it a man or a woman, has to acquire certain qualities for him to be considered part of the group. Advertising has even convinced women of all ages that certain products are needed for us to possess traits that would help us appropriately represent the gender we chose for ourselves,[11] based on media-sanctioned interpretations and standards. We live in a society where a woman (and man, as well) is considered healthy and/or presentable when she holds the qualities – both physical and emotional (e.g. slim/submissive) – imposed by norms as ‘pleasant’. It is also alarming that even relatively young women are getting more conscious about their appearance, spending their hard-earned money on expensive treatments in order to attain what is ‘good-looking’ in the eyes of the society. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Mills’ is quite anxious about the ways readers form their own gender-related interpretation of the texts – how the reader perceives the message would establish their future mindset about themselves.

Considering all the studies and information that were tackled earlier, we can therefore conclude it is not only the choices of words, or linguistic devices used in a literary work that contribute to the society’s representation of gender. The reader’s meticulous mind, and our curiosity on how we should perceive every information we gather contribute a lot in shaping a neutral perception on gender. The column used in this analysis has given us a clear insight on how genders (man and woman) are different from each other. A man that conforms to his (gender) role is usually lauded, yet a woman – due to societal constraints – is usually obliged to stay within the fences of her role as a member of the ‘weaker’ group. A woman has to maintain her feminine qualities, but not too much; has to be aware of her sexual preferences, but not too much. Gender roles, often dictated by the environment we are in, control our lives in ways we tend not to notice. But whether we like it or not, various gender representations exist; it is firmly established in our daily lives and tend to repress us in many ways. It may be an inevitable phenomenon but we can always train ourselves to look beyond the conventional interpretations and respect each other’s conviction.

Reference:

Bason, H. (2009). Subversive Silences: Nonverbal Expression and Implicit Narrative Strategies in the Works of Latin American Women Writers. Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp.

 

Gheorghiu, O. (2015). From 19th Century Feminity in Literature to 20th Century Feminism on Film: Discourse Translation and Adaptation. Anchor Academic Publishing.

 

Lowe, M. (2007). Research into the Representation of Gender and Body Image in the Press. The University of Leeds.

 

Men’s Health (2008). Mens Health Magazine.

 

Ufot, G. (2012). Feminist Stylistics: A Lexico-grammatical Study of the Female Sentence in Austen‟s Pride and Prejudice and Hume-Sotomi‟s The General’s Wife. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, Vol. 2, No. 12, pp. 2460-2470.

 

White, A. (2003). Women’s Usage of Specific Linguistic Functions in the Context of Casual Conversation: Analysis and Discussion. England: University of Birmingham.

 

Wood, J. (1994). Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

[1] Ufot, G. (2012). Feminist Stylistics: A Lexico-grammatical Study of the Female Sentence in Austen‟s Pride and Prejudice and Hume-Sotomi‟s The General’s Wife. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, Vol. 2, No. 12, p. 2462.

[2] Gheorghiu, O. (2015). From 19th Century Feminity in Literature to 20th Century Feminism on Film: Discourse Translation and Adaptation. Anchor Academic Publishing, 18.

[3] Ufot, G. (2012). Feminist Stylistics, 2460.

[4] Men’s Health (2008). Mens Health Magazine, p. 26.

[5] Ibid.

[6] White, A. (2003). Women’s Usage of Specific Linguistic Functions in the Context of Casual Conversation: Analysis and Discussion. England: University of Birmingham, 5.

[7] Men’s Health (2008), p. 25.

[8] Bason, H. (2009). Subversive Silences: Nonverbal Expression and Implicit Narrative Strategies in the Works of Latin American Women Writers. Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp, 25.

[9] Men’s Health (2008), 25.

[10] Lowe, M. (2007). Research into the Representation of Gender and Body Image in the Press. The University of Leeds, 2.

[11] Wood, J. (1994). Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 10.


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