Power talk in the battle of the sexes

Gender and Language - Gender and Discourse - Power Talk
February 28, 2003

Feminist linguistics has entered a new phase. Rather than assuming that women speak in particular ways because of oppression or socialisation, and portraying them as victims displaying powerlessness in their language, recent research analyses women's negotiations with discursive norms. These three books are part of that shift towards rethinking the way that we define power, gender and language. They analyse the impact of gender on speech production and reception without assuming that this impact is always the same. But they still maintain that power makes a difference to the language of women and men.

Christine Christie's Gender and Language argues that feminist linguistics should engage with pragmatics ("how more gets communicated than what is said") and that pragmatics needs to engage more with gender issues.

Rather than focusing on how women as a group speak, Christie sees gender as being worked out in interaction, in the context of assumptions about gender. Gender, then, is not a unitary variable that surfaces in the same way in all interactions; participants' gender assumptions determine the way that gender manifests itself.

Christie's book is an excellent introduction to pragmatics, examining major theorists from the perspective of feminist linguistics. Of particular value is her analysis of the way sexism works at the level of presupposition, where the listener is assumed to share certain values with the speaker. She argues that the phrase "you think like a woman" draws on a set of pre-existing negative assumptions about women. If you used the phrase "you think like a man" as an insult, you would have to spell your presuppositions out. Furthermore, her analysis of assertiveness is perceptive. She argues that many women modify their assertiveness because they have found this is effective: "'Unassertive' speech, rather than being a female deficiency in social skills may reflect a sensitivity to the social impact of one's behaviour."

Joanna Thornborrow's Power Talk examines the workings of power, focusing on the "interplay between participants' locally constructed discursive identities and their institutional status". Rather than seeing power as a pre-existing interaction, and seeing particular forms of language as being "powerful", Thornborrow argues that language is a resource that may help establish or contest power relations. Thus, powerful language is not to do with style but with whether participants achieve their aims in interaction.

Drawing on the difference between institutional status and local rank, Thornborrow shows how interactants negotiate a role for themselves within hierarchies. Examining a police interview, a radio phone-in, media interviews and classroom discourse, she analyses attempts to maintain and contest control of interaction. Thus, she argues that "the relationship between power and talk in institutional interaction cannot be accounted for simply in terms of pre-existing social relations of power which determine institutional discursive structures, but... neither can it be accounted for in isolation from those relations".

Clare Walsh questions how masculinist discursive norms "have assumed the status of a gender-neutral professional norm". Women are expected to conform to such norms when they enter male-dominated fields but are criticised for doing so. Women tend to take up secondary roles, thus reproducing the power dynamics of the public-private split within the public sphere. She argues that women have a number of strategies they can adopt in the public sphere: to accommodate to masculinist norms; to use a feminine style that may be interpreted as ineffectual; to shift between masculine and feminine styles strategically. Gender for her is thus "a flexible and a fixed category", one that delimits and that can be negotiated with. In this way, Walsh argues that gender is performed, but judgements are made about those performances. Her aim is thus to "connect the detailed analysis of spoken, written and visual texts to an analysis of the hegemonic ideologies that operate at the institutional and societal levels of discourse". In her analyses of the media representation of women priests and politicians, she traces the systematic way in which journalists distance their readers from these women's concerns and undermine their professional status. All three books mark a great advance in the analysis of how gender is worked out in interaction, focusing on the specificities of the context without losing sight of wider societal and discursive forces.

Sara Mills is research professor in cultural studies, Sheffield Hallam University.

Gender and Language: Towards a Feminist Pragmatics

Author - Christine Christie
ISBN - 0 7486 0935 0
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 202

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