Archive for the 'Language' Category

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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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.

Greeting Cards

Deborah Tannen says, “women and men have different past experiences.” This different experience means that men and women’s perception and understanding of the world will be different. Tannen supports the dual culture approach to analyzing men and women’s behaviour and the characteristics she describes can be found in an analysis of the attached greeting cards.

Tannen describes the stereotype of men as strong and silent (439). The baby boy card analyzed for this paper illustrates this concept repeatedly. Repeatedly the author refers to the boy’s strength: in lines 7, 9, and 12 the amount of strength the child has is noted. The baby boy is crafted with “sinew” (line 6). Sinew implies strength as it is used for connecting muscle to bone. The child’s ‘frame’ (line 6) is a metaphor for a strong, stable building. The author furthers the metaphor of the strong-standing structure when he or she discusses how “the storms of time would . . . never break him” (line 8). This building has such a powerful frame that it will be resilient and invincible, much like the child will be because he is male. Regardless of the hurdles this child will face in his life, there is no reason to fear because he was made to “take the stresses of life” (line 7). Come what may, this male child will survive. He will be successful. “Like a sunrise, the child is dependable” (line 10). The author says the child will be “unafraid to live” (line 9). Bravery is a stereotypical male characteristic that the author uses here to further describe the male experience.

An infant is not capable of high level reasoning but that is what the author suggests in line 5 when he or she says the infant boy will at birth be asking the philosophical question of “why?” This is an example of another stereotype, men’s superior intelligence, that is perpetuated in this card.

Tannen also points out that boys spend more time playing outdoors than girls do (440). This is shown in the outdoor imagery used in the card (kites, rainbow, clouds, sky). Each of these implies the great freedom that is available more to males than to females.

In contrast, the baby girl card emphasizes her need and dependency. The visual image of an infant in a basket symbolizes helplessness and immobility, much like the stereotypes associated with women. The ribbon is symbolic of how women are restrained or ‘tied down’ in society. The focus in this card is how the baby girl will love the family and what she will offer to them, that is, her unconditional love (line 3). In the boy’s card, his strength is emphasized whereas in the girl’s card her dependence and need is stressed (lines 4-5). She is helpless and will need tender care in order to survive. It can also be questioned whether that this baby “will change [her family’s] life forever” (line 7-8) is a positive thing. To receive the challenge of raising someone this dependent does not sound like an enjoyable task. One could question if these changes are going to be ‘good’ changes. The metaphor of the clinging, draining leech seems fitting when reading the description of this baby girl.

Both the baby boy card and the baby girl card perpetuate the traditional stereotypical gender marking of pink for girls and blue for boys.

The cards for mother and father also present some interesting contrasts. The card for mom is pink like the one for the baby girl. The father’s card is blue. The mother appears to have been out shopping, a stereotypical female activity. Mom is further stereotyped by her clothing: Mom is a homemaker, hence the apron and oven mitts; her mini skirt and wild colour and pattern combination shows that Mom is stylish and aware of current fashion trends – she is concerned with her appearance; her bag full of vegetables means that Mom is health conscious and responsible for the health of others. The only word on the face of the card is “Supermom.” The pressure is high for Mom to be all things to all people, a struggle feminists have been fighting for a very long time.

Mom is described with the metaphor of the superheroine, except that she is represented as invincible in only traditional female roles. Inside the card, Mom can “conquer . . . laundry” (line 2). She is a genius of the domestic trade. She can multi-task including acting as chauffeur (line 4). Even though it is Mom’s birthday, the author says Mom can “still find time for a little one-on-one” (line 6). This implies that Mom still must give of herself to the giver of the card. Mom’s “heroism” (not her ‘heroine-ism’) is based on her ability to complete household chores. Mom is solely appreciated for her success in the long-established female sphere. Women are expected to be caretakers and that is perpetuated in this card.

Dad’s card however presents a parent who has a lot more leisure time than Supermom. Daddy equals fun; he is “your best buddy” (line 18). Mom equals work; she takes care of you. Maybe Daddy has a lot more time (line 15) because he is not preoccupied with trying to be Supermom. Daddy is affectionate throughout the imagery and language of this card, which differs from the traditional stereotype of men being emotionally distant. But whereas the male card has expanded to include some non-traditional behaviour for Dad, the same does not apply in the card for mom. Daddy plays games with his child (line 8-9). This could be because Daddy’s work is outside the home and hometime is his leisure time. If Mommy is a full-time homemaker then she likely does not have leisure time at home. Two more male stereotypes are illustrated in this card: “A daddy helps fix things (lines 3-4) and Daddy “buys ice cream” (lines 5-7). Tannen says men like to talk about “how things work” (443). This father is involved in showing his child how to repair the wagon, perpetuating the stereotype that men have good mechanical skills. When Daddy buys the ice cream for his child instead of Supermom buying a treat for her child in her card, it shows insight into who controls the family money. Mommy buys the necessities of life; Daddy buys treats.

All four of these greeting cards perpetuate gender-based stereotypes for males and females. Although there were a few gender-neutral cards available, for the most part, these cards reflect the choices available at this time in our community.

Works Cited

Tannen, Deborah.

Binary Opposites

Examples of Binary Opposites

Young:Old

Happy:Sad

Awake:Asleep

Up:Down

Alive:Dead

Hot:Cold

Open:Shut

White:Black

True:False

Shout:Whisper

Fast:Slow

On:Off

Smart:Stupid

Pretty:Ugly

Skinny:Fat

Tall:Short

Soft:Rough

Clean:Dirty

Chocolate:Vanilla

Rich:Poor

Treasure:Trash

New:Old

Wet:Dry

Virgin:Whore

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).

Use of Language in My Fair Lady

In the film My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins endeavours to transform Eliza from a common person to a gentlewoman completely trained in the language and etiquette of the gentry.

Professor Higgins is a linguistic purist. He feels that people who do not speak as he does, (i.e. as a proper English gentleman), have “no right to live” and “should be taken out and hung for murdering the English tongue.” To him, diversity in accent, word choice, and inflection are undesirable. As the subject of the movie Eliza is the focal point of his intolerance but in reality, he is self-absorbed and treats many people poorly, especially those he feels have inferior language skills. In the class handout on Quantitative Linguistics we examined the difference in language between different classes and this is what Professor Higgins is referring to: language reflects status/status is reflected in language. The working class and the aristocracy are both identified by Professor Higgins as soon as they begin to speak.

Professor Higgins is disrespectful to Eliza from the beginning of the film and he demonstrates this by the labels he applies to her. He applies Coates “Androcentric Rule” (CW41). He views anyone who is not the same negatively. He calls her a “squashed cabbage leaf” and suggests that it is of no difference to him whether she is invited to sit or is thrown out the window. He uses a metaphor of rotten food to describe her, associating a woman with spoiled food, no longer useful or good to consume. He refers to Eliza as “baggage” and he yells at her. This shows that he does not recognize her personhood, and it reduces her to object status, perpetuating women’s inferior status in society. Professor Higgins also androcentrically questions, “why can’t a woman be more like a man?” He sings that women are irrational and frustrating because they are different from him. This echoes to Tannen’s work that men and women are different creatures unable to understand each other (434, 437). Professor Higgins and Eliza are caught by the metamessages between them which impede their understanding of each other. Professor Higgins is very androcentric when he suggests that everything would improve if only women acted like men: if they spoke honestly, were pleasant, did not shout. It does not occur to him that men have any weaknesses nor does he address any of the positive characteristics a woman might have. He has decided that he is the norm and woman is inferior.

In My Fair Lady men use language to control women’s behaviour. Her father torments Eliza in an early scene until she agrees to give him money at which time he calls her “a noble daughter.” This shows that submissive women are ‘good’ and assertive women are ‘bad’. Although Eliza is an employed, adult woman her father can influence her to do as he wishes with the way he speaks to her.

Lakoff suggested that the use of strong expletives is a characteristic of men’s language and a woman who uses strong expletives is vulgar and unladylike (Courseware 57-58). Coates also describes the use of swearing and taboo language saying that the suggestion that “women’s more polite use of language . . . is attempting to prescribe how women out to talk” (45). This is illustrated in My Fair Lady at the horse races. Based on Lakoff’s and Coates’ work, Eliza’s excitement and shouting to her horse identifies her as an impostor-gentlewoman. A true lady of the upper class would maintain her composure regardless of the excitement she is experiencing. A true female of the gentry would not betray her breeding by vulgar language such as Eliza does. The gentlewoman who faints further illustrates this concept. Not only are women not supposed to use strong expletives, according to the texts they are considered too sensitive to be exposed to the strong feelings represented by crude language (Coates 45, Lakoff 58). The display of strong emotion from a female, something that is considered inappropriate in the upper class, overpowers the woman and she faints. Even though by appearance and speech Eliza appears transformed, the transformation is not complete. Eliza has not fully absorbed the new style of speech with its appropriate use and behaviour. Alternatively, she is so far unable to eliminate the behaviour acceptable in her previous experience. Her transformation has been superficial: external features of appearance and speech only. The internal alteration has not occurred.

Although she no longer speaks or looks like a member of the lower class she has yet to be treated any differently by her mentors. Eliza makes the most profound declaration of the film at the very end when she says, “the difference between a lady and a common flower girl is not how they behave but how they are treated.” Professor Higgins has been shallow in his differentiation of the lower and upper classes: even though he attempts to distinguish between lower, middle, and upper classes of people by their degree of linguistic purity, he fails to recognize that recreating Eliza as a gentlewoman requires him to treat her as such.

Perhaps what is most ironic in contemplating women’s language in My Fair Lady is how it relates to women’s voice on a larger scale. Although the part of Eliza Doolittle was played by Audrey Hepburn, “about 90% of her singing was dubbed” by soprano Marni Nixon. Not only does the movie plot suggest that Eliza is not acceptable as herself, a ‘common flower girl’ but the actor in her role is also not fully accepted. Her voice in most of the songs is considered not good enough by the director and requires improvement in much the same way that Professor Higgins sought to androcentrically ‘improve’ Eliza.

Works Cited

Coates, Jennifer

Tannen, Deborah

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