Introduction In this module we have studied the relationship between gender and
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In this module we have studied the relationship between gender and language from different vantage points across different groups, from straight college “dudes” to African American drag queens to the villages of Papua New Guinea. In the three readings by Cameron, Kulick, and Barrett we have encountered multiple theoretical perspectives on gender, including relativist approaches, feminist critiques, queer-theory, and the performativity of Judith Butler. Along with the readings, the film in this module, “Do I Sound Gay?,” shows us that gender is something that is embodied and indexed in our uses of language. The role that gender plays communication is something that is only partially under our control that sometimes takes a great deal of work to control and change.
As we discussed in the module’s introduction, early work on language and gender by sociolinguists, linguists, and others tended to focus on the distinctions between men’s and women’s speech. As such, this work sought to investigate the linguistic basis for the familiar gender binary. The gender binary is defined as the classification of gender into two opposite forms of male/female and masculine/feminine. In the binary view of gender it is generally given that a person’s biological sex will determine their socially-constructed gender and sexual orientation. Thus a biological male will be heterosexual and attracted to women, dress and according to the social and cultural expectations for the masculine role. Likewise, biological females will have a heterosexual orientation toward men and dress and behave in accordance with the expectations of their gender. Binary gender systems allow for only two possible gender roles based on biological sex. Gender systems in the world’s societies are often strongly binary– organized around constructed contrasts between male and female. But this is not always the case. They are also fluid, contested, and vary greatly in many aspects across cultures. For example, anthropologists have long studied gender systems which go beyond the binary. Many societies contain what have been referred to as third gender and/or fourth gender categories and have historically accepted or even encouraged both temporary or permanent crossing of binary gender categories. The acceptance of such crossing is known as gender fluidity. The Navajo people is such a society. Traditionally when a child in a Diné family identified as the opposite gender it was seen as a blessing. Such individuals are called Nadlééhí in the Diné language. The nadlééhí are also present in the Navajo origin stories, showing that they have existed since “time immemorial,” as people say in English. Thus a daughter could become a warrior or a son could take on women’s duties, wear women’s clothes, and so forth. There was no stigma and such individuals were considered a blessing tot he family. Our own society has been slow to realize the limits of the gender binary, but changes are happening. Beginning with the feminist revolution continuing with the movement for gay and lesbian rights and most recently with transgender activism, a series of successive gendered social movements has questioned binary gendered assumptions in our own society. Individuals now identify as non-binary, a spectrum of gender identities that are neither simply masculine or feminine.
The study of the relationship between language and gender has also evolved over time. As discussed in the module introdcution, in earlier work on language sociolinguists were primarily interested in variation between male and female communication, sometimes known as genderlects. There is additional information in the module introduction about sociolinguistic studies of gendered variation of language use as well as the explanations, limits, and critiques of such approaches. In our readings in this module, Barrett describes such work on “women’s language” and Cameron critically discusses the more recent work of Deborah Tannen that fits this pattern to some extent. By closely studying communication, authors such as those we have read this week show that even binary gender systems are more fluid and complex than they appear. The realities of communication do not align with simple binary oppositions where gendered behavior follows from biological sex. The gendering of language includes plenty of examples that fit our stereotypical expectations about men and women’s speech, but it also includes plenty of counterexamples, gender crossings, cross-cultural reversals of familiar patterns, polysemy, verbal play, and metalinguistic commentary that go beyond the binary.
For this discussion assignment use the three readings and the film from this module please to do the following:
Pick two different sources from the readings and film and identify examples of communication that is gendered, appears to be related to the gender binary, but can be shown to be more complex
Discuss each example, explaining what makes them more complicated than the classic masculine-feminine linguistic binary
For each example, provide at least one specific piece of data (utterances discussed by authors), relate it to an argument or theoretical orientation we have encountered in this module
Finally relate the discussion to your own experience, including observations about gendered uses of language that you have observed in yourself and in others.