Archive for the 'Feminist Theory' Category

What is feminism?

This semester is challenging me to come to terms with this beast called “feminism”. Between papers identifying whether or not suffrage has made a difference in women’s lives to critiquing the third wave I waver between thinking the movement is salvageable and becomeing enthused with reform to seeing the idea as too far gone a struggle and trying to decide how to get where we need to go, and how to include the good parts of feminism while discarding the parts that impede progress. I came across this which speaks strongly to to me although I don’t know if I agree with her.

    “Feminism isn’t an employment agency for women;
    it’s an alternative way of ordering the social space,
    in which women are the prototype rather than men.
    It is based on collaboration rather than competition.
    As a youngster, I still remember my feeling of joy
    that one could look at the earth differently.
    That’s feminism: everything is differently oriented.
    Seeing the same world through different eyes.”
    ~ Ursuala Franklin

The Problem With Feminism

The use of the term “feminist” inhibits the goals of the movement for equality. In her article “Why I’m a Feminist,” Lauren Anderson describes some of the many negative stereotypes associated with “feminism” and “feminists” like “hairy-legged, bitchy, [and] lesbian” (Anderson 32). According to this stereotype, feminists are destructive, hateful, selfish and angry. These stereotypes are created and reinforced in and by our culture, and are very difficult to change. The semantics of a word are determined by its usage. Regardless if a dictionary or encyclopaedia defines feminism as the “belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language qtd. at, popular use interprets feminism as a radical movement, full of militant extremists.

Some self-defined feminists choose to struggle against this popular definition, in a quest to open the eyes and ears of society to the important work of the women’s movements. They claim that the purpose of feminism is to open doors and break socially constructed barriers erected to maintain the patriarchal power structure and keep women out of the public sphere. They say nothing about hating men, only about an imbalance in the power structure of society. This challenge seems insurmountable. It is time to re-evaluate what the feminist movement stands for and find a less stigmatized vocabulary capable of describing the goals and purposes of the movement while at the same time maintaining an open and receptive audience in present-day society. Read more »

Non-sexist Language: The American Philosophical Association and Jennifer Mather Saul

Feminist discussions of gender neutrality in language have achieved some reform in spoken and written English language. Organizations like the American Philosophical Association (APA) provide guidelines to their members in the use of non-sexist language. Saul suggests similar strategies for creating gender-neutral language. This paper will discuss how the “Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language” (Warren) call for concrete gender-neutral word choice and will identify where Saul’s discussion of gender-biased language differs in guidelines and in justifications.

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Defining Sexism

Defining sexism is difficult because whether feminists view sexism in terms of women’s oppression or male privilege they face serious difficulties, such that neither definition is preferable to the other. Each of these methods neglects important issues and combining the two definitions leaves further issues unaddressed. This paper will outline the difficulties associated with defining sexism in terms of women’s oppression, the difficulties with defining sexism in terms of male privilege, and explores issues that must be considered when creating a constructive definition of sexism.

Defining sexism in terms of female oppression victimizes women. Regardless of the reality of the barriers women face, Marilyn Frye’s analogy of the birdcage labels women victims of systemic pressures (Frye 4). Rather than seeking solutions and trying to improve women’s position, society, primarily men, is blamed for the way women are treated. Women view themselves and are viewed by society as helpless. Their potential to create change is not recognized nor is their agency encouraged. Sexism becomes women’s problem and there is no motivation for members of society at large to make changes in their attitudes or behaviour.

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Getting Old

Aging, Disability, and Illness. It’s frustrating to me that these topics constantly get lumped in together. I feel that even though there are some common concerns between the three, the issues of aging are significantly different than the issues of illness and you could say the same for disability.

The issues of aging are complex and even though ageism is prominent in our society it is hardly discussed. Women begin fearing old age very young. I know my daughter (age 11) does.

  • The poverty that is common to elderly women is horrific.
  • The quest for youth drives our economy: surgery, creams, chemical procedures, exercise, etc.
  • Women live longer than men. Mandatory retirement at age 65 means many years of no income for women.

Institutional decisions like this have not considered the needs of women (but when has this ever been a priority?) Read more »

Dominant Reading and Presupposition: Women and the Domesticated Animal Metaphor

Metaphors which connect women with domesticated animals perpetuate the derogation and objectification of women. In the article “The Semantic Derogation of Woman,” Muriel Schulz illustrates how over time, terms used to describe horses like jade, harridan, and tit have been used to refer to women, and have acquired sexual overtones when used in this way. Schulz states that using a vocabulary to describe women that is usually applied to horses carries the implication that women are ‘mounts’ (139-140). Contemporary evidence of the horse metaphor is found in Proctor and Gamble’s advertising for Pantene Pro-V hair products targeted to a female audience in the magazine In Style.

The dominant reading of this advertisement equates health and beauty. The hair product promises that it will work quickly and will make the user “sleek”. This product will be reliable: the user can ‘bet on’ it to do what it offers. This product will be effective and thorough: it will make the user “shine from end to end.” The product promises to do no damage, consequently it can be considered healthy for the body. This product will allow the user to ‘win’ the race for style. Using this product will make the consumer many things: sleek, elegant, smooth, silky, shiny, stylish, undamaged, and a winner.

shampoo advert
Play the ponies. Fast, sleek, and elegant.
Bet on smooth, silky shine, from end to end.
Do the style, not the damage.

There are many suppositions in this advertisement. The first is that women want to be healthy. Twice in this advertisement the product asks the reader to equate beauty and health (“the beauty of health” and “not the damage”). This advertisement also presupposes that women want to be beautiful and stylish. If a woman is not concerned with her appearance than this advertisement will be meaningless to her. The language “play the ponies” and “bet on” makes use of gambling metaphors and suggests that there is an element of chance in being well groomed. This advertisement suggests that products, specifically hair care products, are needed to make a woman attractive.

If this product promises to do no damage it presupposes that there are other products that are damaging. The reader is encouraged to avoid using a product that might harm her.

The use of the horse metaphor presumes prior knowledge of the characteristics of racehorses: ponies are fast, sleek, and elegant. This advertisement is suggesting that if a woman uses this product she will also be all of these things. There is a presupposition that the reader wants to be all of these things. It is presupposed that the reader has “ends” that she wants to be smooth, silky, and shiny. If the reader makes her ends smooth and shiny she will be stylish. Apparently the reader must currently be something other than fast, sleek, elegant, smooth, silky, shiny, and stylish.

In a negotiated reading of the Pantene advertisement a reader might see the references to horses inherent in the advertisement’s text but may not interpret it as a direct metaphor for women. She may feel that comparing a woman’s appearance to the power and majestic beauty of a racehorse is positive. Racehorses are admired for their long and shapely necks, their grace, their beauty, and their eyes. A woman might see this comparison as a compliment.

An alternative reading and the one that this course suggests is as Schulz proposes. The use of the horse metaphor is derogative to women. The image used in the advertisement presents the model’s head so she resembles a racehorse. Her neck is stretched and turned away from the camera to increase the appearance of its length; her hair is pulled back tightly in (ironically) a ‘ponytail’ to look like the mane and tail of a horse. The photograph is done in black and white to remove the skin tones that would distract from comparison between the model’s head and a horse’s head. This advertisement objectifies the model making only one part of her body (her hair) visible, that is, significant.

Horseracing is a tradition historically engaged in by the aristocracy and elite. A healthy horse requires a great deal of costly care: grooming, exercise, healthy diet, and healthy environment. A healthy horse is often considered a great beauty: something to prize. Equating women with horses suggest that they too are something to own, something to prize, something to groom. Racehorses have only a finite usefulness. Injury and age decrease their value and in time they become only pasture ornaments. This is also contemporary Western society’s opinion of women: youth and ability are of high value in the capitalist economy but women who are neither young nor productive can try to exploit society’s obsession with female appearance.

In the context of this advertisement and the language of horseracing it is implied that some ponies are winners and some ponies are losers. This can be extrapolated to women: some are winners and some are losers. In contemporary society the concept of ‘winning’ is valued. There is an element of chance and luck, and a prize at the end, the same that provides the addictive adrenalin rush craved by gambling addicts. It is considered common knowledge that everyone wants to be a winner and this is what Proctor and Gamble promises to the user of this product. The alternative reading suggests that women are a prize that can be won.

Works Cited

Schulz, Muriel R. “The Semantic Derogation of Women.” The Feminist Critique of Language, 1st edition. Ed. Deborah Cameron. London and New York: Routledge. 1990. 139-140.

Binary Opposites

Examples of Binary Opposites

























This paper will examine the following pairs of binary opposition: Young/old, hot/cold, true/false, on/off, and clean/dirty.

Young and Old

In Western society, youth is valued above age. People spend fortunes on anti-aging creams and other products to counter the visible effects of aging. Cosmetic surgery is popular especially for women, and both sexes alter their hair colour with chemical dyes to hide the natural graying that occurs with age. Clothing for adults is marked by children’s cartoon images as if wearing clothing labeled to appear to a younger generation will help the wearer be more youthful. Ageism is prevalent in Western society: at the arbitrary age of sixty-five years old men and women are forced into retirement to clear passage for youth. It is presumed that their ability to contribute anything positive to society, i.e. the economy, is finished. This positive value attributed to youthfulness is socially constructed. Other cultures value the wisdom that comes with age. For example, some groups of Native Canadians emphasize the wisdom of the Elders and value all of the learning that can occur by paying attention to their teachings. It is also very difficult to distinguish the point where something young becomes old. As Bing and Bergvall point out, “much of our experience does not fit neatly into binary categories, and is better described as a continuum” (Courseware, 83). What is old in one context might be considered young in another. In the world of politics, some societies feel that youthfulness is a hardship because of the individual’s lack of experience. With age comes patience and a lifetime full of learning.

Hot and cold

There is no inherent badness or goodness in temperatures. Temperature relates to thermal energy (heat) and the transfer of this energy. If more heat is added to a system, the temperature rises. If heat is lost, the temperature cools. Society has added connotations to the science of temperature. There is nothing inherently good or bad about temperature. ‘Hot’ can also mean attractive, used colloquially to describe a good-looking person. This is a positive connotation. It can also refer to something that is stolen. This is negative. It is also used when describing the Christian construct of Hell – a place of punishment and therefore negative. ‘Cold’ is used to describe someone who behaves heartlessly or without feeling or sensitivity. This is a negative use of the word. These two words have been constructed to carry a range of meanings and connotations, depending on their context. The temperatures of hot and cold are subjective. In Southern Ontario, a summer day of seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit would seem cool, but seventy-five degrees in the middle of February would be much warmer than expected and so would seem hot. It is difficult to determine the point where cold becomes hot. Again, as Bing and Bergvall point out, describing temperature is relative and based on a continuum (83).

True and False

The adjectives true and false describe the accuracy of information. They provide factual information. There is nothing inherently good or bad about facts. Facts do not take on a positive or negative meaning until they are interpreted as to their impact on an individual. Truth has been constructed as something positive and False as something negative. To be a true friend is to be dependable. To be a false friend is to be untrustworthy or deceptive. Telling the truth is a valiant goal – to tell falsehoods is to be a liar. Lying, cheating and stealing are all negative behaviours in Western society.

On and Off

In an electric circuit composed of a light bulb and a battery, the light goes on if the circuit is continuous. If the circuit is broken, the light goes off. On and off describe the status of the light. There is nothing good or bad about on and off. However, in colloquial English, people use the terms ‘on’ and ‘off’ to describe status but also to rate performance. Someone who is ‘on’ has played a sport well, for example, “Her game was really on today” or “Her playing was really off this match.” ‘On’ implies a good, strong, positive performance. ‘Off’ is negative, meaning that the performance was poor. ‘Off’ can also refer to food that is spoiled and rotten, for example, “The milk has gone off” means the milk is no longer drinkable; it is wasted. This is a negative quality. These two neutral words which should refer to the status of an object have taken on positive and negative associations. If something is a ‘turn-on’ it is viewed positively as sexually stimulating. If something is a ‘turn-off’ it is negative because it is not sexually arousing or spoils a sexual atmosphere. On and off seems to logically dichotomize themselves more so at least than hot and cold or young and old. Given the example of the light bulb it appears that the bulb can be one of two choices: on or off. As it happens, inserting a variable resistor into the circuit allows the degree of light to be controlled. In fact, the light can now be dimmed or brightened to infinite levels of brilliance. The same analogy can be illustrated with a plumbing example: a faucet can be ‘on’ or ‘off’ but the desired stream of water is often somewhere in between.

Clean and Dirty

Literally, if something is clean, it is unmarked by soil. Something dirty is grimy, filthy, soiled, or muddy. Once again, there is nothing inherently good nor bad about being clean or dirty but society has attached a positive value to ‘clean’ and a negative value to ‘dirty.’ A clean conscience is a good thing: it means a person is not guilty of any wrongdoing. Clean clothes, clean start, clean slate all connote a positive and fresh image. Someone who is clean in appearance receives more respected and is usually considered a higher status person than someone who is dirty and disheveled. ‘Dirty’ is used to describe lewd or vulgar language or materials like books, videos, and magazines, usually of a sexual nature. Dirty means that outward visual perfection has been tarnished. To talk ‘dirty’ is to usual sexualized language, which in many contexts is viewed negatively as indecent or improper in many contexts. As Byng and Bergvall stress though, looking at boundaries as indistinct often more accurately reflects reality (83). A precise point does not exist where all people would agree that an article of clothing is dirty. Sometimes stains remain on freshly washed laundry. Some people would consider this laundry dirty. Other people wear the same clothing for several days and still consider it clean. Plainly clean and dirty are also subjective and are reflective of a spectrum more than they are absolutes.

Byng and Bergvall are entirely correct in encouraging us to adapt a postmodern view and look at the world in terms of a continuum, rather than attempting to categorize and dichotomize our experiences (83).

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