Chapter 3 of our text stresses the role of language in our understandings of and values placed on gender identities and roles. Per the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the language and labels we have available in a culture shape how we perceive and act in the world. Connecting this to gender, then, the hypothesis explains that how we talk about gender, specifically the words and concepts that even exist to discuss and frame gender (sex, sexuality, and so on), represents our culture’s view of gender.
For example, taking sexuality into account, many Native American tribes have embraced an inclusive term, Two-Spirit, to identify people of mixed gender (masculine spirit inside a female body for example). This language practice might connect to the more egalitarian, humanistic, we-are-all-part-of-one-world, viewpoint associated with much of ancient Native American societies.
On the flipside, until recently, in the English language and in American culture, the term transgender was not widely used, nor did it have a positive connotation, when referring to people of non-traditional, mixed gender identities. More frequently, and more negatively, the word hermaphrodite was used in our culture. What might this say about American society’s view of sexuality?
The point is that how we talk about gender reflects and influences how we think about gender, how we privilege certain identities, roles and attitudes. In society today, one of the best ways of assessing our culture’s gender norms may be the news media’s construction of gender. For example, read this short essay on gender and politics. The author discusses constructions of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton in the most recent presidential campaign. Use the framework I’ve set up here (via the textbook concepts, the sexuality example and the essay) to do some of your own investigating.
Select one news article (from a newspaper or magazine) with a woman as the main subject and one article with a man as the subject and examine the similarities and differences in how the subjects are addressed, written about, described and so on. How, if any, is sexist language used? What about spotlighting? If you want to go even deeper, you might select an article about a lesbian, gay man or bisexual to compare to a story about a straight person. Share your findings here, read others’ conclusions, then comment on connections, contradictions and/or other insights that come from the dialogue.