The Language of Sexism Embedded in Media Texts

(Once again, I freely admit this isn’t perfect, but from the earlier Goffman Paper to this, I see some marked improvements. I would also like your constructive feedback when you have a chance to read it.  This paper is slightly similar to the Research Proposal but there are minor but significant changes to this one when you have a chance to read and skim.)

It may not be necessary to research the sexism embedded in the English language because it is overt and omnipresent to the people who are aware of and affected by it the most.  However, a grand examination or even a small study in a quiet corner of the language to determine sexism’s extent and affect would be extensive and vast, due to the limitless language of male domination employed and reflected in the conquering of foreign lands and peoples of the “New World,” much like the Romans in the old world before.  Inherent within our verbs, nouns, and grammar is the nationalism, capitalism, and cultural values that devalue women and people of color and dominate the usage that is taught to foreign nationals learning English for the first time (Piercey 2009:  111).  Frankly, if each of us notice enough of the English language and work to change it within our speck of the Universe, the English that all of us use will evolve over time. It won’t eliminate sexism completely, but evolutionary change will happen.

Obviously, sexism may be apparent in media texts such as television programming, advertising, and movies, but the sexism within those texts employs sexist language that is embedded within our language that was discussed briefly earlier in the semester during one of many discussions of media sexism.  The origin and effects of specific propaganda can be overt or subtle and embedded so deep in the language that it becomes difficult to recognize and challenging to change. Intentional propaganda is that which is practiced and performed by media companies with a deliberate agenda to promote or sell ideas or products utilizing language or socially constructed visual symbols that are already present and used instinctually and subconsciously.  Sexist propaganda is that language, by common usage, that places women in an inferior or subservient role to men rather than the role of an equal.  Sometimes this language can be blatant, and sometimes it can be subtle, commonly overt and socially accepted (Chew & Kelley-Chew 2007:  644). However, to counter the effects of sexist language that all of us are subject to daily, gender-neutral language will be employed throughout this paper rather than the sexist language that will be used as illustrations within directly quoted examples. Specifically, instead of using he as a “neutral” gendered term, s/he or one will be used, and instead of him, herm may be used.  They may also be used to signify a singular or plural pronoun.

In Penelope’s Prescribed passivity: The language of sexism (1988), s/he explains the phenomenon without offering an alternative to the sexism that is embedded in the everyday language of so-called “generic” uses of –man, -men, and mankind as a popular political misconception. Rather, these are not generics, but they are subclasses of gendered language where the majority is given to men and men’s doings. Based on traditional social position and prestige, many words carry +male and only a few carry +female characteristics.  The male-gendered forms are traditionally positive (doctor, lawyer, chairman), whereas the female-gendered forms are considered inferior to the male (nurse, spider, prostitute, housewife, teacher).  When a woman takes on a traditional male social position, a descriptive has to be added (woman lawyer, lady doctor, poetess).  Similar correctives also exist for nontraditional male social roles (Penelope 1988: 119-120).

Word definitions are included from the Random House Dictionary where male-gendered words are described semantically positive and female-gendered words are described semantically negative (Penelope 1988: 126-127).  Penelope cites examples from literature and media where male-gendered generics clearly imply men as the dominant generic and women clearly indicated and described in a subservient and negative role (Penelope 1088:  129-130).  Elsewhere, the generic man that is supposed to imply people of all sexes does not appear in literature intended for women (Penelope 1988: 131-132), and the pervasiveness of male-dominated generics is referred to in period literature as something that would be difficult to eliminate completely so it makes more sense to adjust to this male domination of the language (Penelope 1988: 123).  While this article is over twenty years old and recently news articles that I have read in passing indicate that he is no longer acceptable usage of a gender-neutral pronoun, sadly, other points that Penelope makes are still very relevant and in need of active and evolutionarily change through conscious individual action, collective awareness, and active teaching to achieve equality within our language that can reflect the wider society and its larger media texts.

Piercey (2009) approaches sexism in the English language from the perspective of an English-as-a-Second-Language instructor and analyzes the sexist social structures that are influencing new English speakers entering Canada, how English language culture discriminates against and marginalizes women and girls and what one can do to “stop contributing to it and. . . support nonsexist language.” (Piercey 2009: 110-111). S/he admits that English is the language of domination, of nation building, of assertive men and where women speak the language but they do not speak the dominant language of men (Piercey 2009: 111).  As an example, s/he quotes an example of a father and son in a fatal car accident.  The father is killed and the son is taken to a hospital for surgery, but when the surgeon arrives, the surgeon exclaims, “Oh my God, I can’t operate; it’s my son!”.  (Piercey 2009:  112) Reflexively, the surgeon is assumed to be a man rather than a woman. Admittedly, when I read this, my reflex immediately thought of the boy’s “father” as the surgeon.  This recalls implicit associations, and thoughts that obviously need conscious and active change within my own psyche.  Change is possible but it requires deliberate desire and exposure.

Piercey cites a definition of sexist language as one that perpetuates an interpretation of the world where women are inferior and subservient to males.  S/he quotes 220 words for a “sexually promiscuous” woman but only 20 for a “sexually promiscuous” man, thus perpetuating a culturally ingrained double standard that is programmed into new immigrants as culturally dominant propaganda (Piercey 2009, citing Kramarae & Treichler: 112).  S/he cites the delicate balance of gender that is determined by meaning rather than form with adjectives that signify stereotypical male traits and stereotypical female traits.  Such language sexism eliminates women from the everyday reality of existence, from importance as a human being, because “generic” terms such as he and man make women and girls disappear from the language structure taught to recent immigrants (Piercey 2009:  113).

Gastil (1990) analyzes these assumptions as a hypothesis, testing the “propensity of the generic he to evoke images of males relative to he/she and the plural they.”  They argue that “the generic he elicits more images of males than he/she and they.” (Gastil 1990:  629, 630).  For this study, Gastil recruited 45 men and 48 women from a Midwestern undergraduate university to read out loud and interpret a series of twelve sentences that included “six target and six filler sentences [the filler sentences included no information referencing a person]” with “one of three generic pronouns that referred to neutral subjects such as ‘person’ and ‘pedestrian.’”  Following the reading of the last sentence, subjects were asked four “increasingly specific questions” to determine if the visualized subjects in twelve sentences were “male, female, mixed, or neither.”  Afterwards, the subjects completed questionnaires “assessing imaging ability” and a checklist assessing masculine and feminine ratings. (Gastil 1990: 634)

Gastil’s study hypothesis poses an interesting challenge for further study related to sexism-embedded language and media to determine if there is a current prevalence for he/she or they versus an alternative form of gender-neutral language such as what is used in this proposal:  s/he, herm, they, or one or if some gender-neutral language has grown out of fashion in favor of other gender-neutral language and how that relates to current sexist language embedded within media propaganda.  What is particularly applicable to a study of sexist language in media propaganda is that this study accessed the subjects’ mental images directly rather than asking them to create their own imagery or answer questions as if they had imagery in mind, thus avoiding any forced questions or suggestions that would have invalidated the study.

Gastil’s dependent variables were the images evoked in the minds of the study participants.  Independent variables of interest included “pronoun condition, gender, imaging ability, and masculinity/femininity.”  The results were varied, somewhat indicating that the gender of the observer may determine the gender of the perceived imagery.  He produced mostly male imagery.  He/she produced mixed images for both men and women, however, women visualized more mixed group images and more women, and men visualized more mixed group images with more men.  The general results indicate what has been clarified in several other academic articles:  He is generally not perceived as a generic pronoun indicating female gender. He/she is perceived as more generic, but it is more generic for women than men.  They, on the other hand, is perceived as a generic pronoun more than any of the above.  From my own observations and participation on various social networks, I have found that Gastil is indeed correct.  He/she is rarely used and they is used a lot more often.  While academic discourse may point towards s/he and herm, I have observed everyday discourse utilize they as a generic gender neutral without discomfort.  Perhaps, everyday discourse may influence academic and media discourse and point the way to a gender-neutral future with some evolutionary and revolutionary prodding from individuals and collectivities.

McConnell-Ginet (2003) addresses the usage of language in relational power dynamics between individuals and between individuals and groups.  What are surveyed here are not necessarily negative pronouns reserved for women and female gender in the English language but a whole array of familiar terms of endearment, the taking back of negative-meaning terms as titles of empowerment, and terms intended for insult.  Social labelling is divided into categorizing labels, social practice in local communities (and their global connections), what are termed “empty” labels that are not used to characterize but to address someone or a group as a familiar or as an insulting descriptive phrase, hierarchical titles that separate individuals into social classes (Mister, Misses, Doctor, etc.) as equals, as superiors, and as inferiors (McConnell-Ginet 2003:  69-77).

This latter category is where sexist language appears, in men’s locker room conversation and in what the author labels, “‘anti-male’ bonding” among women.  What is noticeable in the sexist language in all-male gatherings is the overtly sexual and obscene nature of the conversations that men would allegedly not use in mixed-gendered gatherings. The all-female gatherings, on the other hand, focus upon alleged sexual mistreatment or general inconsiderateness. (McConnell-Ginet 2003:  83).  Some of the terms historically used by men (bitch, slut, bastard), however, are becoming neutralized by common usage, and they are being used by both sexes (enabling women to reclaim the insulting phrases in much the same way that racial epithets in black community have been reclaimed as terms of empowerment?) (McConnell-Ginet 2003:  83).  Some terms have been taken back as everyday vocabulary to empower women and allow them to assert themselves within mixed company (bitch) and everyday action to empower groups of women and encourage each other to walk home without fear of sexual assault at night (Slut Walk), but still there is a negative evolutionary history of such words for a non-member of an affected group.  A non-member should feel uncomfortable enough to question their personal use of sexist terms in much the same way that a non-member of am ethnic group should feel uncomfortable using terms that are still very racist.  The only exception to the sexist terms by a non-member would be during consensual sex between two consenting adults when one partner approves of the use of such terms to enhance sexual arousal.

Mills (2003) contrasts Second Wave and Third Wave linguistic studies. Mills looks at Second Wave linguistic analysis that looks at competitive language that is thought to be used more by men and powerless language that is thought to be used more by women.  S/he questions the stereotype and explores examples where women may use linguistics of competitiveness and men may use linguistics of powerlessness.  S/he also cites a previous Second-Wave study by Tannen where speech may be characterized by the stereotypical style of “rapport-talk” of women versus the stereotypical “report-talk” of men rather than an approach to power. Given that the academic literature I have seen thus far often stereotypes speech patterns of women and men upon what may be sexist lines, even in feminist academic literature, Mills questions this simplification of categories or groupings of individuals, including women (Mills 2003:  2).  According to Mills, Third Wave linguistic analysis that argues that language should be studied in contextual analysis (including class, ethnic, and regional affiliation, for instance) rather than broad gender or group categories.

Rather than use broad categorical groupings that may have once been considered universal by Second Wave feminism but never anything more than stereotypes, Third Wave feminism allows for individuals’ linguistics to be shaped by their roles, whether it is group affiliation at home, at school, at work, shared interest, or even another category.  These roles are not exclusive and they change as the need is required or desired.  Here roles are almost verbs, something that someone does, much like gender roles, their flexibility in doing gender (Mills 2003: 3).  What is brilliant here is that while Third Wave is relevant to current discourse and analysis, it does not reject Second Wave as irrelevant or unimportant.  It acknowledges the evolution that has taken place while rejecting certain principles that would be sexist by today’s standards, like the inflexibility of gender during Second Wave.

What is intriguing is that, over the last several months, sexism has been discussed with examples, but it is not something that is pointed or called out specifically within Third Wave feminism. The efficacy of acknowledging the sexism of a statement within personal conversation can be beneficial in causing an individual to question, ponder, and change their sexist language or patterns of speech, and it is apparently effective in academic analysis of acts and statements that have sexist consequences without the sexist labeling (Mills 2003:  8).  I will acknowledge that if it were even possible to eliminate sexist language on a personal level (never mind the permeation of the language by the force of a male conquering invader discussed in an additional review in this analysis), it would not necessarily eliminate sexism due to actions speaking volumes over words and subconscious attitudes that need time and a regular consistent propaganda campaign to accomplish.  However, I do believe that Mills would concede that one possible solution to the challenge that Feminism presents, whichever wave it may be, lies somewhere in substance of Feminism itself, to achieve true and pure equality for peoples who have not hitherto experienced equality in the same ways that the dominant political majority has.

Lakoff (2003) places language and gender squarely in the field of power, analyzing the views of the relationship between women and power within the fields of art, academia, and politics. S/he limits this study to more accessible print media, but future studies assessing television and radio would be a worthy extension to determine the extent of the attitudes that prevail in print are also present in film and television as well as radio.  Previous studies where power is viewed as a positive attribute of men, including faerie and folk tales that are rife with examples of aggressive and persevering men and quiet subservient women as cultural norms.  When women adhere to these norms they are invariably referred to as manipulative or fuzzy-minded for being hesitant and unclear, but when they don’t they are referred to as a shrew or bitch (among the more polite epithets) or worse (Lakoff 2003:  162-163). I see these folk examples, not as the first but the most prominent instances of cultural conditioning or cultural propaganda instituted deliberately from community to community and family group to family group to control women and indoctrinate girls, keep them subservient to the dominant political majority and to indoctrinate future generations into ways and means that allow the dominant political majority to remain in power. There are probably hundreds of surviving examples that can be dated earlier in the history of recorded civilization, but I do wonder from a historical analysis of the suppression of women, how this suppression happened over millennia, if women were the dominant political force in certain societies (Celts) as I have read and would like to believe, and how these societies and possibly many at that time converted from a female deity to a dual deity (where both genders achieved some form of gender equality at that time) and finally to a male deity.

When women began to assert their right to exhibit anger and use “bad language,” media discourse on the political right and left became concerned at the “growing ‘incivility’ of the public discourse.”  Lakoff 2003: 163).  In the political arena, women are sexualized, objectified or vilified and treated as parodies of male politicians.  They may even be “recast as a lesbian” instead of being taken seriously because their ideas are not as important as the objectification of their appearance, as in the case of Janet Reno and later Hillary Rodham Clinton (Lakoff 2003:  173).  However, as women increasingly achieve political office and their value speaking truth to the media and the dominant political majority is increasingly recognized, the derisive responses to that political power are likely to rendered innocuous sooner than later. (Lakoff 2003:  177).

Heldman (2009) still focuses on print media but also includes new media as unfiltered public opinion in the form of blogs since the expansion of political campaigns into the virtual sphere in recent national elections but s/he looks at sexism in the presidential campaigns of the United States from 1984 to 2008 (including the Clinton election of 2008), whereas Lakoff looked at Clinton as a senatorial candidate and the wife of a president.  While Heldman admits that gender role stereotypes have decreased in the last fifty years, female politicians and candidates are held to a higher and stringent double standard where they have to be perceived as more decisive and less weak than their male counterparts but when they are perceived as tough, they are judged as not being human enough (as in the case of the Clinton candidacy in 2008) (Heldmnan 2009: 3)

Heldman surveys the print media coverage and finds that journalists and reporters bias the results of major senatorial and gubernatorial elections by asking male candidates the more serious campaign questions and giving them more coverage even if they are less qualified (and frequently are), while treating female candidates less serious, focusing less on issue-related coverage, and focusing more on personality traits, as trailblazers.  Heldman postulates that the deliberate campaign manipulation by reporters, journalists, and mainstream news media in general acts as an “anti-democratic conduit” (Heldman 2009:  6)

S/he hypothesizes that since previous major election coverage of female candidates focus on topics other than issues as stated above, the media coverage of female presidential and vice presidential candidates will result in similar coverage.  Results of the study indicate that most of the challenges that female candidates face for other offices are present for the vice presidential candidates here.  Reporters and journalists mentioned the appearance of the candidate twice as often and the coverage, while greater than the male candidates, was four times to receive sexist coverage. And that sexist coverage “increased dramatically” from Ferraro’s 1984 campaign to Palin’s campaign in 2008 (Heldman 2009:  24). In a further study, I would want to add two other independent variables that include the gender of the reporter or journalist and possibly their political affiliation in relation to the candidate.  It would also be interesting to add an additional portion of the study to determine the opinions of the general public in light of the views and opinions of the media to see if the general public is as insensitive as the media or more progressive, leading the media to possibly change its approach in the future.

Halliwell, Malson, & Tischner (2011) analysed the impact of contemporary images of women in advertising to determine if what is viewed as agentic imagery (objectifying in their own way) was empowering to young women or if the imagery increased the weight dissatisfaction and state self-objectification. Utilizing Objectification Theory, the authors recruited 122 female psychology students to take part in a study, “Attitudes in Advertising” averaging 19.98 years old and ranging from 18 to 40 years old.  Participants were shown a series of images that included agentic depictions where the women in the images appeared to be in control, passive objectifications of women, and product only control images (Halliwell, Malson, & Tischner 2011:  40, 42).

The study hypotheses speculated that after viewing the agentic and objectifying imagery the participants’ weight dissatisfaction and state self-objectification would increase. Based upon previous studies of exposure to negative imagery of women that influenced negative body image, the current study results were consistent with previous research.  However, the addition of agentic sexually empowering imagery with objectification imagery actually increases women’s body dissatisfaction (Halliwell, Malson, & Tischner 2011:  43).  Sometimes a research study is needed to verify the existence of phenomena.   However, the effects of sexist propaganda, as in this instance, can also be apparent to those affected by the propaganda in question that no additional research is required. The common usage of photoshopped-retouched photos is a representative example of this.  But propaganda can also be so pervasive within society’s and media’s propaganda that those that are most affected by it are not aware that they are being influenced negatively.  In that case, research is necessary and I would strongly consider participatory action research (PAR) as a viable option to allow the study participants that are affected by the propaganda to take part in the research and activism that would be part of such a research study.

Conclusion

Through additional inquiry, this elementary study of sexist language embedded within media propaganda may reveal additional research links to other areas, including the perception of women in sports, the perception of women in politics, and even the perception of women by foreign markets and the effects of United States-exported media propaganda as a much larger study or even as a study of the effects upon the women and girls of one country over a period of time.

Equality in American English (The British have already begun to implement gender neutral language.) may begin to effect equality of action.  At least this would be a small, if not a large, step in the correct direction. But it will also require more action by those affected by it most and those that care about those affected by it most.  Equality begins internally with perception of others as equals but that perception needs encouragement and nurture to begin questioning the status quo of racism and sexism. It begins by acknowledging the evolutionary change that has already occurred, but it acknowledges also that much work still needs to be done, whether that is substantial counter propaganda or even actively protesting sexism, racism, or inequality in any form to achieve substantial equality for all.

 

References

Chew, P. K., & Kelley-Chew, L. K. (2007). Subtly sexist language. Colum. J. Gender & L., 16, 643-678. Retrieved from http://extra.shu.ac.uk/daol/articles/closed/2003/001/mills2003001-paper.html 14 October 2013.

Gastil, J. (1990). Generic pronouns and sexist language: The oxymoronic character of masculine generics. Sex roles, 23(11-12), 629-643.

Halliwell, E., Malson, H., & Tischner, I. (2011). Are Contemporary Media Images Which Seem to Display Women as Sexually Empowered Actually Harmful to Women?. Psychology of Women Quarterly35(1), 38-45.

Heldman, C. (2009). From Ferraro to Palin: Sexism in media coverage of vice presidential candidates. Available at SSRN 1459865. Retrieved from http://ssrn.com/abstract=145986 14 October 2013

Kidd, S. A., & Kral, M. J. (2005). Practicing participatory action research. Journal of Counselling Psychology52(2), 187.

Kramarae, C , & Treichler, P. A. (1985). A feminist dictionary. London: Pandora Press. (quoted in Piercey)

Lakoff, R. (2003). Language, gender, and politics: putting women and power in the same sentence. The handbook of language and gender, 161-178.

McConnell-Ginet, S. (2003). What’s in a name?’Social labelling and gender practices. The handbook of language and gender, 69-97.

Mills, S. (2003). Third wave feminist linguistics and the analysis of sexism. Discourse analysis online2(1). Retrieved from http://extra.shu.ac.uk/daol/articles/closed/2003/001/mills2003001-paper.html 14 October 2013

Penelope, J. (1988). Prescribed passivity: The language of sexism. In Nebraska Sociological Feminist Collective (Eds.), A feminist ethic for social science research (Vol. 1) (119-138). Nebraska: Edwin Mellen Press.  Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/englishfacpubs/89/ 14 October 2013.

Piercey, M. (2009). Sexism in the English language. TESL Canada Journal, 17(2).

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