Sexed Texts

Read the first few pages

Book description

Sexed Texts is aimed at undergraduate students and beginning post-graduate students, presenting a coherent overview of a wide range of theoretical and analytical perspectives in the diverse and rapidly evolving field of language, gender and sexuality.

The book aims to show how people use language to construct themselves (and others) as male, female, gay, heterosexual etc. while prioritising some identities as normal or preferable, some as deviant or subordinate and others as simply non-existent. The book uses a range of real-life, everyday language texts which reference gender and sexuality, including newspaper and magazine articles, religious texts, children's fiction, nursery rhymes, romantic fiction, pornography, ordinary conversations, chat room data and advertisements as well as relying on interview, focus group and corpus data.

The book considers questions such as "is there such a thing as a gay voice?", "do women have to 'talk like men' to succeed at work?", "why are bisexuals one in a million in language use?", "how have advertisers co-opted feminism?", "when is it OK to be a bachelor?", "has 'political correctness' had an impact on the way we refer to women?" and "what exactly, is a dogger?"

Written in a clear way, Sexed Texts uses a combination of classic studies and new analyses in order to trace the development of the field, from early research which aimed to outline ways that men and women used language differently to each other, to studies which focussed on deconstructing the ways that language helps to create gendered and sexed discourses (or ways of understanding the world). The book critically considers feminist, queer and post-structuralist theories in order to show how identities are fluid, unstable and often linked to power hierarchies. However, it is argued that all of us hold multiple identities and experience moments of powerfulness and powerlessness, which must be constantly negotiated via language in ways that can be subtle or contradictory. The book therefore considers some of the most recent theoretical perspectives in the field and should be of value to any student or teacher of language, gender and sexuality.

Table of contents

Chapter 1 Introduction

2 Accounting for difference

3 Doing gender: community and performativity

4 Constructing normality: gendered discourses and heteronormativity

5 Maintaining boundaries: hegemony and erasure

6 Selling sex: commodification and marketisation

7 Queering identity: the new tolerance (and its limits)

8 Exploring taboo: on and beyond the margins

9 Conclusion

Chapter One. Introduction

'Some people get really angry about labels'

Recently, I stopped at a coffee shop on the way home to get a drink and a muffin. At the counter, I noticed that the range of muffins on display had been labelled according to their 'gender', with the larger ones tagged 'male' and the smaller ones, 'female'. Normally, I would have chosen a small muffin as I wasn't very hungry. But I paused. I suddenly felt a bit 'girly' buying a small muffin, and, as a gay man, I didn't want to feel as if I was conforming to a stereotype of gay men as being like women or effeminate. So buying the large 'man'-sized muffin felt more appropriate. But I didn't really want a large muffin, and I didn't want to feel as if I was conforming to the expectation that men should eat larger muffins, or that I was somehow 'denying' my sexuality. Whatever choice I made, it seemed that I would be confirming someone else's expectations, that my behaviour could be predicted and explained - 'he bought the small muffin because he's trying to show he doesn't agree with stereotypes even though he confirms the "gay" stereotype' or 'he bought the large muffin because he's a conformist with internalised homophobia.'

On the other hand, it was only a muffin and nobody was watching. So I wondered why I was so bothered.

I asked a shop assistant why the muffins had been labelled in this way and she made a vague reference to differences in male and female dietary requirements. She then turned to another assistant and said, 'Some people get really angry about the male and female labels.' They both looked non-plussed. I decided to order a non-labelled slice of carrot cake (presumably of ambiguous gender) instead.

I have described this event because it addresses some of the wider issues regarding language, gender and sexuality that will be discussed throughout this book. Why would male and female labels on muffins make people angry? And, consequently, why would some people not understand why it would make others angry? I will try to answer both questions. First, it could be argued that this 'gendering' of muffins is unnecessary. Most people already know if they want a large or a small portion. To assign food sizes on the basis of whether you are male or female makes at least three assumptions: all men are roughly the same as other men; all women are roughly the same as other women; men and women are largely different from each other.1 It emphasises what some academics have referred to as a 'discourse of gender differences'. There is also an element of implicit prescription at work, too. People may feel awkward if they want to choose the muffin that is not intended for their gender. It might imply that women ought to be more concerned about their weight than men, or encourage men who wish to lose weight to take a larger portion than they require.

Furthermore, a fixed association is made between size and gender, which is emphasised by labelling the muffins themselves as 'male' and 'female' (rather than say 'intended portion size for the average male (or female))'. We are invited us to make comparisons between the sizes of the gendered muffins and the sizes of people. Men are supposed to be bigger than women - anything that does not fit this proposition could therefore be seen as abnomal. While, clearly, the average man is taller and heavier than the average woman, such statistics may problematise people who differ from the average. By only offering two sizes of muffins and linking size to sex, the range of different sizes of people is reduced to two categories: large-male and small-female. People who differ from the average could find their masculinity or femininity brought into question. Additionally, such a system requires people to make a choice. They either purchase the 'correct' muffin intended for their gender, and validate a system that has been imposed on them - conforming to the stereotype and perhaps feeling more of a man or woman for doing so. Or they purchase the 'incorrect' muffin - and then are required to explain why, at least to themselves (and in my case, the muffin labels raised a number of issues to do with negative stereotyping of gay people and internalised homophobia). I am not sure why food portions need to be labelled as 'appropriate for males or females' or, as in this case, 'male' and 'female' at all. Surely 'large' and 'small' would suffice. Or better still, why bother with any labels - it is obvious that the muffins are different sizes.

On the other hand, does it really matter? The intention of muffin gendering is simply (a suggestion about) portion control, isn't it? Nobody was forcing anyone to choose a particular size. Some people would say that the larger Mr Muffin, sitting alongside Mrs (Miss? Ms?) Muffin on the shop counter, looked cute. If people complain about it, so what? Who gets hurt? There are far more important things going on in the world to get upset about. There is an element of truth in the stereotype of men being bigger than women anyway. And who cares which muffin anyone chooses? Nobody is going to notice except for the customer and the shop assistant, who is probably too busy to pay any attention.

The story about the male and female muffins is a single, small example of the way in which expectations about gender and sexual identity are continually encountered in our day-to-day existence, often through language use. In this case it was the written labels 'male' and 'female' which made me consider my own identity in relation to them. In the coffee shop I was faced with a very explicit choice which was so 'upfront' that it caused me to pause for thought. However, every day of our lives, we all engage in making small choices regarding the ways that our identities are constructed. For the most part, such decisions are instantaneous, ongoing and unconscious rather than deliberate. They are, to use a term popularised by Billig (1995) in his work on national identity, banal. In many cases we may not be aware that we have made a choice or even that a choice existed in the first place. Even if these decisions are pointed out, for many of us, they won't appear to be important. So did it really matter which muffin I chose? Did it matter that the muffins were labelled in the way they were? I would argue that in both cases the answer is 'yes, but in a small way'. Small things, however, are often connected to larger structures. They go unnoticed because it appears petty to challenge them. And ultimately, day after day, year after year, small things mount up, reflecting, contributing towards and impacting on much larger aspects of our lives.

Link to the book at Amazon

Paul Baker, Lancaster University