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Language and Literature
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DOI: 10.1177/096394709800700304
1998 7: 235 Language and Literature
Sara Mills
Post-feminist text analysis

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ARTICLE
Post-feminist text
analysis
Sara
Mills, Sheffield
Hallam
University,
UK
Language
and Literature
Copyright
0 1998 SAGE Publications
(London,
Thousand Oaks, CA and New
Delhi),
Vol
7(3):
235-253
Abstract
This article
argues
that there is a need for a new form of feminist text
analysis
which
would take account of the
changes
which have occurred in feminist
theory, linguistic
theory,
critical text
analysis
and in sexism itself. Rather than
relying
on
relatively
simple
models of
interpretation,
this new form of
analysis, post-feminist
text
analysis,
would demonstrate awareness of the
complexity
and
context-specific
nature of the
meanings
of words within
texts;
it would also be aware of the
necessity
to
develop
new
models of
analysis
for sexism and
gender
relations. In the
analysis
of a British
advertisement for a
dating agency following
this discussion, I have tried to indicate
directions in which this form of
analysis might
take. 1
Keywords:
advertisements; critical discourse
analysis; critical linguistics; feminism;
gender; post-feminism;
sexism
I Introduction
The term
past feminist
has had a contested
history,
since,
when it was first used in
the 1970s it seemed to
suggest
that feminism itself was no
longer necessary
since
equality
of
opportunity
for women had been achieved. I will be
using post-
feminism
in stark contrast to that definition here to reflect some of the critical
thinking
within feminism at the
moment;
as Brooks states:
Postfeminism ...
occupies
a critical
position
in
regard
to earlier feminist
frameworks at the same time as
critically engaging
with
patriarchal
and
imperialist
discourses. In
doing
so,
it
challenges hegemonic assumptions
held
by
second wave feminist
epistemologies
that
patriarchal
and
imperialist
oppression
was a
universally experienced oppression.
(Brooks, 1997: 2)2
I would
argue
that a new form of feminist textual
analysis
is
necessary,
for three
major
reasons:
first,
feminism has made an
impact
on the nature of sexism and the
way
that
people
discuss
gender relations,
at least within the
public sphere; second,
feminist
theory
and feminist
linguistic analysis
have
recently undergone
a critical
rethinking
which has not
yet
been reflected in feminist text
analysis;
third,
text
analysis, particularly
critical discourse
analysis,
has
changed profoundly
and this
has
major implications
for feminist text
analysis.
In this
article,
I
begin by
examining
these reasons for a
post-feminist
text
analysis;
I then
proceed
to work
through
some of these ideas in relation to a text in order to
suggest ways
in which
this
type
of
analysis might
function.3
235
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236
2 The
changing
nature of sexism
When feminist text
analysis
first
began
in
literary
studies and in
stylistics, many
believed that its main task was the
description, exposure
and reform/eradication of
sexism. In some
senses,
this was an
extremely important
move, since sexism did
not feel self-evident
then,
as it seems to do now. When I read Burtons
(1982)
article on
transitivity,
it was a revelation that certain
linguistic
choices could
encode a world-view which seemed to
present
women as
passive
and as acted
upon. Furthermore,
when I read other feminist theorists of the time on
sexism,
I
began
to see the
systematic
nature of the use of the
generic pronoun
he,
the
semantic
derogation
of terms associated with
females,
the
demeaning
terms used
for
women,
and the
negative
and sexualized
representation
of
females, (see
McConnell-Ginet, 1980; Vetterling-Braggin,
1981;
also
Sunderland,
1994 and
Mills,
1995a for an
overview).
These theorists saw sexism as a set of attitudes
which were encoded within
particular language forms,
and which
presented
women in
negative
and
demeaning
terms.
However,
whilst it was
relatively easy
to demonstrate a link between the use of
certain
language
items and sexist
attitudes,
the nature of sexism itself and the
linguistic
determinism
implied
in the
analysis
of sexism have
recently
come more
under
scrutiny (Cameron, 1990, 1994a, 1996; Mills, 1995b).
Cameron
(1990)
has
suggested
that
although
sexism
appears
to manifest itself in
language
items,
in
fact those lexical items are a
fairly
mixed set: she states:
... there is a
slippery heterogeneity
about so-called sexist
language:
it is not
just
a case of certain words
being
offensive,
but of sexism
entering
into
many
levels of
language
from
morphology (for example,
word
endings)
which is
usually
seen as
part
of a
languages core, through
to
stylistic
conventions in
specific
fields of
discourse,
which are much less
general,
more conscious and
more context-bound.
(Cameron, 1990: 14)
Cameron cautions that we should not treat
examples
of
linguistic
sexism
manifesting
themselves at different levels of
language
in the same
way,
since this
blanket
approach
will be ineffective. We need in fact a
range
of
strategies
for
dealing
with those elements of sexism which are more fixed and those which are
more fluid and
open
to discursive intervention.
Vetterling-Braggin (1981)
notes in
a similar vein that
simple
condemnation of
linguistic
sexism is ineffective since it
involves
taking
a moral and
personalized response;
the
person
who
produces
sexist
language
is not
given any space
for
productive change,
but
may simply .
become more entrenched in their
position. Attempts
at
reforming
sexism in
language
are doomed to failure if
they simply
focus on the eradication of certain
phrases
or words. For
example,
whilst it is clear that the reforms of
language
which have taken
place
in institutional contexts within the
English-speaking
world have meant that statements made in the
public sphere generally
feel more
inclusive of
women,
they
do not
necessarily
involve
any
fundamental structural
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237
change. Vetterling-Braggin proposes
that sexism does not consist of a set of
language
items but rather a set of attitudes and
ways
of
codifying
the world which
should be seen as
informing
those
language practices. Thus,
a more subtle form of
analysis
which can draw attention to the
taken-for-granted
status of sexist
knowledge
is needed.
Cameron
(1994b)
has
suggested
that
perhaps
one of the results of feminist
pressure
has not been so much to convince those who were
previously
sexist that
women are the
equals
of men but that it is
problematic
to
express discriminatory
views in
company,
unless
you
are sure that those to .whom
you
are
speaking
are
also sexists. So what feminist
theory
has
brought
about is an
instability
in sexism
itself rather than an eradication of sexism. As Cameron
puts
it,
when
discussing
political
correctness:
By coining
alternatives to traditional
usage ...
the radicals
have
effectively politicised
all the teniis.
They
have made it
impossible
for
anyone
to
speak
or write without
appearing
to take
up
a
political position,
for which
they
can then be held accountable
(Cameron,
1994b:
31,
emphasis
in
original).
Thus,
each time a
generic
he is an
option
within a
text,
the author has to make a
conscious decision about how
they
are
going
to
present
themselves,
by using
he or
one of the alternatives
developed by
feminists. Feminist
play
with words has also
brought
about an
instability
within
sexism;
drawing
on the work of
Daly
(1978),
feminists have taken the words used to demean women and inhabited those words
in a
positive way.
Words like
virago, dyke,
and slut have all been taken over
by
feminists as
positive
terms to describe
themselves,
and
they
have thus
changed
their
meaning, perhaps
now even when
they
are used
by
sexists.
It must be
acknowledged
that sexism has
undergone
a
great change
because of
feminist
theory
which has forced sexism to become more indirect or
subtle,
and
which
perhaps
has driven overt sexism
underground (see Benokraitis, 1997).
There is institutionalized
pressure
for authors to
produce
non-sexist texts. In the
early
1960s and 1970s it was considered
quite
difficult to draw attention to sexism
in
language,
and
yet
now that
publishers
and other institutions have instituted
guidelines
on
language use,
it is now much easier to refer to a
position
of
authority
which
disapproves
of sexism
(see Mills, 1992a).
Because of
this,
it is
less common for overt sexism to
appear
within texts which are
published
from
within an institutional
context; yet,
that is not to
say
that sexism does not exert a
pressure
on the text itself. Discursive
change
is slow and anachronistic remnants
may
leave traces within current discourse
structures; thus, sexism
may
be seen to
be still a factor within the
production
of texts - either because the author wishes
to hide overt sexism under a
patina
of
political correctness,
or because the
author has not
thought through
their ideas
concerning
sexism in a
sufficiently
coherent form
(see Mills, 1995c).
There are still sexist statements in
many
texts and women are still treated as
sex
objects,
but
perhaps
what has
changed
is the form that this
expression
takes
and the
possibilities
of the
responses
to sexism. Indeed, because feminist
knowledge
has become
common-sense,
in
many
texts which aim to
appeal
to
young
women
readers,
feminist ideas have filtered
through.
One has
only
to look
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238
at British advertisements for
products
such as
Tarrrpax
to realise that feminism has
had an
important impact
and that advertisers have realised that
presenting
women
as
strong
and resourceful is more
likely
to
positively
inflect their
product.
This is
not to
suggest
that these
images
of women are not also
deeply problematic
images,
since
they
still contain anachronistic
messages
about women and
menstruation;
but
nevertheless,
the
change
has to be
acknowledged.
Furthermore,
there has been a recent trend of
representing
men in
seemingly
sexist
ways
in
British
advertising:
for
example,
the advertisements for Diet Coke where a
group
of female workers watch a male worker undress in
ways
which are
strikingly
similar to earlier adverts which focused on women
undressing.
This trend reached
a culmination
recently
with an advertisement for
Impulse perfume
where a nude
male artists model was
represented,
albeit
indirectly,
as
having
an erection
(see
Tummill, 1997).4
The form which feminist text
analysis
takes must reflect the fact
that sexism has
clearly
become a much more
complex entity
which cannot be
simply
reformed or eradicated.5
Gender
relations,
in
general,
have also
changed
because of the
impact
of
feminism on
society
as a whole and because of womens
greater
involvement in
the
public sphere.
The 1990s is a
post-feminist
era in
that,
since the
1960s,
the
presence
of feminism in Britain has been
largely accepted
as a
given -
there are
many
different
positions
in relation to
feminism,
but liberal
feminism,
which
stresses the
importance
of
equal rights
for
women,
has been a
part
of
public
and
private
life for
nearly 30 years.
It has had a fundamental
impact
on all areas of life
to the extent that the
principles
on which liberal feminism is based are now taken
as read
by many
who would not describe themselves as feminist.
Thus,
it is
difficult to
imagine anyone
in
public
life now
suggesting
that all women should
stay at
home and look after the
children,
or that women should be
paid
a lower
wage,
or that married women should
obey
their husbands. That is not to
suggest
that women have achieved
equality
of
employment
or that in
relationships they
are treated as
equals by
their
partners,
but rather that the
principles
on which
liberal feminism are based have in fact become
part
of the
knowledge
which
many
people
take to be common-sense. This makes
openly
sexist statements more
difficult to make within the
public sphere.
3
Changes
in feminist
theory
and
linguistics
Early
feminist textual
analysts
assumed that
meaning
resided within
language
items and
therefore,
for
example,
the
generic
use of he was sexist in all
.
circumstances of its use
(see,
for
example,
Miller and
Swift, 198 i). Similarly,
when
girl
was used to describe an adult
female,
as in
iveathergirl,
it would be
sexist. But it has become clear that this is not
always
the
case, since,
for
example,
irony
can turn these terms into
playful critiques
of their
original meanings. Early
feminist textual
analysis
also assumed that it was
possible
to look at individual
language
items in isolation.
Thus,
individual words were assumed to
exemplify
a
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239
sexist world view. In
many ways
our
theorizing
of
ideology
has
changed
significantly
since then
(see
further
Eagleton,
1991; Mills, 1997). Pragmatic
analysis
has forced us to consider issues of context much more
seriously,
since it
is
quite
clear that words like
girlie
and
girl
are
entirely dependent
on context for
their
meaning.
Consider the
changes
in the use
of girl by
women to describe
themselves because of the
Spice Girls, Girlpower
and the use of
girlie
in the
Girlie Slzow.6 Such
significant usage
of individual
language
items within
popular
culture can inflect the
range
of
meanings
associated with
particular
terms for
certain
groups
of
language
users.
In feminist
analyses
of
transitivity
it was also assumed that if there were
certain
transitivity
choices associated with female characters then those characters
were
being portrayed
as
passive (see,
for
example, Burton, 1982; Wareing, 1994).
- Thus,
if there was a material action
process,
such as He caressed
her,
with a
female character as the
recipient
of action
by
a
male,
then this was
enough
to
represent
the female as acted
upon.
It was assumed that
strong
actions where the
female was the
agent
were
necessarily good (see Mills, 1994a; Knowles, 1998,
for
a
critique
of this
position).
Whilst it is clear that each word has limits to its
range
of
meanings,
the
way
those limits are established has to do with the context of
use,
larger-scale changes
in the
general societys thinking
about
issues,
and the
way
that these are
negotiated by
individual
speakers
in the terms set out within a
text/reader environment or within a conversation.
Early
feminist
analysis
assumed that there was one
position
from which
language
items which had been considered sexist could be
judged.
This was
partly
because feminist
analysts
were
having
to
develop
a new form of
analysis
within a
culture which read those items in
very
different
ways,
but
pcrhaps
now it is
possible
to
acknowledge
the
diversity
of the
possible readings
which are available to both
women and men.
Before,
it was assumed that there was a universal feminist
position
of
reading
and that all women would read in similar
ways;
since
then,
it
has become clear that women have different access to
education,
different
exper-
ience,
different affiliations and also different takes on feminism which colour their
readings
and their
reception
of individual
language
items and the overall
message
as a whole
(see
further
Christie, 1994; Mills, 1994b;
Van
Zoonen, 1997).
Because of feminist concentration on
gender,
other variables were often
pushed
into the
background.
It was assumed that
gender
was
always
at the fore of
analysis
and feminist
analysts
did not consider the
way
that this variable
intersected with other variables such as
age,
race, class,
sexual
preference/
orientation, age
and
disability.
As McClintock
(1995)
has
noted,
this
separating
of
gender
from other variables - as if ones
gendered subjectivity
were
separate
from
ones racial and/or classed
subjectivity -
is not an
adequate theorizing
of the
way
in which
gender,
race and class are
experienced (see
also
Skeggs, 1997).
Race is
always experienced
as
already gendered
and
classed,
and
gender
as
already
racially
and class
inflected,
rather than it
being possible
to
separate
them off from
each other. This
general theorizing
of the relation between
gender
and other
variables has
profound implications
for the
type
of
analysis
feminists can
perform
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240
on texts. One of the
major implications
is that there is an
instability
at the heart of
gender (see Fuss, 1989;
Meese and
Parker, 1989; Butler, 1990;
Frankenberg,
1993; Jarrett-Macaulay, 1996).
Rather than
assuming
that
gender
is a stable
category,
it is
necessary
to
question
the constituents of a
gendered identity.
As
Cameron
(1996) suggests,
The
category
of
gender
itself does not lend itself well
to the models of
speech community,
social
identity
and social differentiation that
are the stock in trade of
sociolinguistics (Cameron,
1996:
34). Thus,
the
fundamental
categories upon
which feminist text
analysis
is
based,
women and
gender,
have been called into
question,
and this concern must be addressed in
the form our
analysis
of text takes.
Early
feminist text
analysts
assumed a
simple binary
model of
power
relations,
so that it was
possible
to talk about
patriarchy
and
oppression
and assert that
women were
largely powerless.
After Foucaults work
(1979, 1980)
it has become
much more difficult to hold to this
polarized
model of
powerful
and
powerless.
There has been an
analysis
of
power
relations which concentrates on the
dispersal
of
power throughout
a
system
of
relations,
and which stresses the
productive
nature of
power
relations as well as their restrictions
(see,
for
example,
Smith,
1990; Mills, 1997).
The
repressive hypothesis,
where
power
is considered
only
in
terms of the
ways
in which it restricts
people,
can no
longer
be held to. Power is
also no
longer simply
seen to be institutional. Feminist
theory, perhaps
more than
any other,
has shown that
power
is not
simply
located at the level of the state but
is exercised
through
relations between
people,
and between
people
and
institutions
(Smith, 1990;
McNay, 1992).
These
changes
in the
way
that feminist
theory
as a whole is
analysing
the constituents of the
categories woman,
women
and,
by implication,
the nature of feminism
itself,
have
brought
about
theoretical changes
which need to be
adopted by
feminist text
analysts.7
Furthermore,
within feminist
linguistics
the
general
debates which are
raging
in feminist
theory
are
beginning
to make their
presence
felt. Since Coates and
Camerons
(1989)
collection of
essays,
which
attempted
to
analyse
women within
their
specific speech
communities rather than
making
broad
generalizations
about
women as a
whole,
feminist
linguistics
has been concerned to
adequately
theorize
and
analyse
womens and mens
speech
within
specific
contexts
(see,
for
example,
Hall et
al., 1992; Rakow, 1992; Crawford, 1995;
Hall and
Bucholtz, 1995;
Gonzales et
al., 1996;
Johnson and
Meinhof, 1997;
Kotthoff and
ivodak, 1997).
Indeed, Bergvall
et al.s
(1996)
collection of
essays
draws attention to the
problems
which
they
have encountered within feminist
linguistics
in
trying
to
formulate models of
analysis
which are
sufficiently
contextualized,
whilst still
retaining
the notion of the
category
women to describe a
group
of
speakers.
This
collection of
essays attempts
to
analyse
the situations where
gender
is a salient
variable and
performs
a function within the
interaction,
and those where it is not.
This theoretical
sophistication
has not been reflected in a
great
deal of feminist
text
analysis
which still assumes a
binary polarity
between men and women and
does not seem able to tolerate this theoretical
flexibility
in relation to
gender.
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241
4 Critical discourse
analysis
Critical discourse
analysis
has informed a
great
deal of feminist text
analysis
and
over the last 10
years
it has
undergone
a
profound questioning
both within
linguistic
circles and within social
psychology (for
an
overview,
see
Mills, 1997;
Toolan, 1997; Jones, 1998).
Critical
linguistics
has now
developed
from
employing
a
fairly simple
model of text and
ideology
to
questioning
the nature of
interpretation
and
power relations;
new and more
complex
models of
ideology
and discourse are
being
formulated
(see,
in
particular, Fairclough,
1989, 1991,
1992). However,
as Toolan
(1997) comments,
it is now no
longer enough
to
accuse texts of
being
coercive and
describing
the
ways
in which
they manipulate
the
reader;
it is
necessary
to include a clear sense of how a
particular
control-
revelling, hegemony-eliciting, manipulative
text
might
have been
constructed,
so
as to more
nearly
attain the status of
being
a
itoii-iiiaizipitlative
and non-
hegemonic
text
(Toolan,
1997:
89;
emphases
in
original).
Toolan
argues
that
critical discourse
analysis
should move
away
from
easy examples
of sexism and
racism and move to the subtler and hence more insidious
discriminatory
and
exclusionary
discourses that abound because it is no
longer necessary
to use
linguistics
to
identify
these clear
examples
of discrimination
(1997: 94).8
Thus,
these theoretical advances and
changes
within
society
as a whole make it
necessary
for feminist
analysis
to move
away
from second-wave feminist textual
concerns to a more
complex methodological
and
analytical
framework.
5 Post-feminist textual
analysis
.
In
many ways
feminist text
analysis
is
facing
the same
problems
as have been
faced
by post-colonial
discourse theorists in their
analysis
of colonial and
post-
colonial
texts,
in that
they
have had to move from an initial rather
simple
form of
language analysis,
to a far more
complex context-dependent
and nuanced
type
of
analysis (see McClintock, 1995).
What I would define as a
post-feminist
text
analysis
is one which
recognizes
that the context in which texts are
produced
and
interpreted
has been
profoundly changed by
the
impact
of feminism and
any
form
of
analysis developed
must be aware of the context of words rather than
analysing
words out of context. It must
analyse
words at the level of discourse as well as at
the local level of
occurrence; thus,
its use of
straightforward linguistic description
will differ from more traditional textual
analyses, since,
of
necessity,
it will
consider the relation between lexical items and what are
conventionally regarded
as extra-textual features. It must be aware of the different levels of sexism within
a
text,
and it must
analyse gender
in relation to
race,
class and other variables
rather than in isolation. Post-feminist
analysis
is one which is able to see that
there
are,
within the
parameters
of the textual and discursive
constraints,
multiple
interpretations
of terms and discourses as a whole. It is for this reason that I have
tried to discuss a
specific
text with other readers in order to
map
out the
range
of
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possible interpretations.9
Such an
analysis
must also be able to trace elements
which have been omitted from
texts,
yet
which
may
still exert a discursive
pressure
on the text. In some
senses,
this is an
attempt
to mould
together gender,
linguistic,
and discourse level
analysis.10
In the
analysis
which follows I would
like to deal with these elements in turn.
5.
I Analysis o f a
text
In order to test out some of these ideas in relation to a
text,
I decided to follow
Toolans
(1997)
advice and work on an advertisement for the
dating agency
Dateline,
which does not at first
sight
seem
very
sexist
(see Appendix).1l
In fact it
is one which seems
quite
concerned to
display
a
position of egalitarianism
and
affiliation to
equal relationships
between men and
women,
and it could even be
said to be
overtly displaying
the fact that it has taken on board some feminist
ideas. The
analysis
will therefore be
attempting
to deal with a more subtle form of
sexism than that
previously analysed by
feminist text
analysts.
The text sets out to establish its
politically
correct credentials
by giving
in the
questionnaire
the choice of
Mr,
Mrs and Ms and
omitting
the choice Miss.l2 The
text refers to
partner rather
than
hitsbatidlivife.
In line with the discursive
constraints of
romance,
the
pictures
which are included seem to stress
equality
and
companionship:
both members of the
couple equally engage
the reader with
eye-contact;
both embrace the other.
Similarly,
the fact that the
questions
which
are asked are the same for male and female readers
appears
to
signal
a
commitment to
egalitarianism.
These
explicit
markers of anti-sexism
may
lead
some readers to read the text at this anti-sexist level. This
might
be considered to
be a slack
reading,
since in order to make this
interpretation
a
great
number of
other elements of the text have to be
ignored (see
for further discussion of slack
readings Wicomb, 1994; Knowles, 1998).
A more detailed
analysis
will
demonstrate that women and men are not treated
similarly
within the text and that
there is an
implicit,
indirect sexism at work here. In a
sense,
these markers of anti-
sexism work
against
the
general
tenor of the text and seem to-be determined more
by
the restrictions on overt sexism within the
public sphere.
S.2
Collocation
The text itself asks
you
to describe
yourself
and
your
ideas of an ideal
partner
and
the terms available to
you
are
only positive
ones
(with very
few
exceptions).
If we
consider the collocational chains for certain
language items,
it is clear that some
of the choices which are offered are
gendered;
as Carroll and Kowitz
(1994)
have
shown,
there are a
range
of
adjectives (such
as
important,jamolls,
and
rich}
which
tend to collocate more
frequently
with reference to males rather than females
(where
the collocational chains seem to
be
with
adjectives
such as
busy, beautiful
and
pretty) (Carroll
and
Kowitz,
1994:
80).
This is not to
suggest
that there is
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243
complete
correlation between these terms and
gendered categories,
which earlier
feminist
analysis might
have
stressed,
but to
argue
that there are tendencies for
them to co-occur. The association between certain terms and
males/masculinity
or
females/femininity
seems to
operate
at a
stereotypical level,
but because
they
are
simply
associations rather than
explicitly
linked within a
text,
they may
set
up
implicit
cues for the reader which will lead to them
reading
the text in a
particular
way.
One such association does not seem to have such an
effect,
but the
presence
in a text of a number of these terms which seem to have tendencies towards
gendered
reference
may
set
up
frames of
interpretation
for the reader. It is this
sense of
gendered systems
of
interpretation
which
post-feminist
text
analysis
focuses
on.,
For
example,
readers of the Dateline advertisement are offered the
possibility,
in section 5
(Your Personality)
of
categorizing
themselves as
fashionable;
and whilst some men
may
see themselves as
fashion-conscious,
there
are few men who would describe their
personalities asfashionable.13
In section
6,
the
phrases
somewhat
dreamy, chatty
and takes
life
a bit too
seriously,
at a
stereotypical
level,
are ones which seem more
likely
to be addressed to females
and which are more
likely
to be chosen
by
certain females to describe themselves
(see further,
Carroll and
Kowitz, 1994). Chatty
is
generally
restricted to the
description
of
stereotypical females,
and seems to be a
euphemism
for
gossipy
or
talkative. Takes
life
a bit too
seriously
is one of the few
negative
assessments of
character offered
here, and, again
at a
stereotypical level, may
be
operating
as a
euphemism
for
depressed, something
which is
generally
associated within the
culture as a whole as
something
which women suffer more from than men
(see
Showalter, 1987 for a
history
of this
association).
Individual readers
may or may
not
pick up
on these
general
collocational
patterns
of association and
euphemism
in
reading
the
text;
what I am
suggesting
is that there are
gendered domains,
extra-textual
genderings,
which
may impinge
on the
meanings
of words in terms
of their collocational
range (for
a discussion of
gendered domains,
see
Bergvall
et
al., 1996).~~
z
The tensions
imposed
on Dateline in this advert in
trying
to
appeal
to both men
and women in a
non-gender-specific way
start to show. Thus the text itself
begins
to become incoherent: under section 3
(Your personal details ,
the
questionnaire
asks
you
to describe
your
build as
slight,
medium or
large.
The use of the word
slight
is
interesting,
since it is a word which
generally
has a sense of deficit about
it;
given stereotypes
about male build and
masculinity,
it would be
unlikely
for
men to
opt
for this to describe
themselves,
as this
might
indicate smallness and
lack of
strength.
The word which seems to be
exerting
a discursive
pressure
on
this choice of word
by
Dateline is slim but this would seem to be an
overtly
gender-specific term, tending stereotypically
to collocate with female referents.
Females
similarly
would not
opt
for
sliglrt
or
large,
since
they
would seem to be
acting
as
euphemisms
for thiyilsiiiall
and fat.
It would seem that most would
opt
for
medium,
which means that in essence there are no choices available under the
description
of build.
Under section 7 Your interests),
one of the
options
is
Sports/Keep fit; here,
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there seems to be a
gendering
of the
terms,
since
Keep fit generally
refers to
female exercise. There are few males who would describe their exercise as
keep
fit. Women
might, however,
describe their own activities as
sport
or
keep
fit.15
Thus,
some of the collocational chains and associations in this text are
gendered,
whilst the more visible
signalling
in the text is
non-gender-specific
and even anti-
sexist, creating
a text which
displays
tensions and dislocations. These tensions
and
contradictory positions
around
gender
and sexism within texts are
perhaps
a
characteristic of the
production
and
reception
of texts within a
post-feminist
era.
5.3
,Background knowledge
In some senses what
post-feminist
text
analysis
has to deal with is not the
individual
language
items which make
up
the text and which are the tokens
indicative of a
possible interpretation,
but rather the assumed shared
knowledge
which this text
proposes:
what
Fairclough {1991)
terms members resources or
background knowledge.
What a
post-feminist
text
analysis
has to address is the
fact that
despite
the advances made
by
feminism,
within British culture as a whole
the
management
of
relationships
is still
stereotypically
seen as
principally
womens domains
Thus, although
this advert is addressed
equally
to males and
females and
poses
itself as
non-gender-specific
in its
address,
because of this
stereotype
this advertisement is more
likely
to be read
by
females as addressed to
them
(for
a discussion of
gendered address,
see the
essays
in
Mills, 1994b).
Similarly
we have to remember that more women than men
apply
to
dating
agencies
as a whole, since
they
are considered to be a safe
way
of
meeting single
men,
and
safety
is more an issue for females than it is for males. Thus the
audience and the framework for
interpretation
for this advertisement are
already
in a sense
gendered, despite
the overt
attempts
to
pose
itself as
non-gendered.
The advertisement makes
implicit assumptions
about its
audience,
particularly
through
its use of
images:
that
they
are
heterosexual, able-bodied, white,
happy,
well-off,
aspiring
or
actually
middle
class,
well-dressed. It also makes the
implicit
assumption
that romance and
companionate marriages/partnerships
are
logically
consistent,
since it offers in the
opening section,
both a
partner
who loves
yoll
and
a friend
who is
always tlzereforyoit.
The
photographs
reinforce this hidden
message,
since all of the
people
in the adverts
appear
to be of a similar class and
race
background.17
The advertisement
suggests
that a
long-term relationship
is all
that
anyone wants,
and it assumes that the
couple
is the norm. There are no
children in the
photographs, although many people
whose first
marriage
or
.
relationship
has broken
down, leaving
them with
children, go
to
dating agencies.
However,
if we
analyse
further the elements in the text which are assumed to be
important
within a
relationship,
these are
mostly
structured around those
things
which are
stereotypically
what males within
relationships
want. Your
age,
physical appearance,
dress,
education and work
(sections 1-4)
are seen to be
important
as
might
be
expected,
but there is a curious concentration on children
and whether
they
are
living
at home or elsewhere
(sections
2 and
8)
which
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245
suggests implicitly
that children
may
be viewed as a
problem.
This
may
reflect an
underlying
masculinist
assumption
that children are an
impediment
to a new
relationship.18
5.4 Discourse level
The advertisement
poses
itself as
asking
the reader
questions
to find out what it is
they
want in a
relationship,
since the headline of the advert states that it is a Test
to find
your
Perfect Partner.
However,
in the
process
of
completing
the
questionnaire, you
have in fact defined
yourself
more than
you
have defined
your
perfect partner - only
the small section 8 is devoted to
delineating your partner
and here the
only
choices that
you
are
making
about what
you
want from this
partner
are their
age, height,
marital status and whether
they
have children. In
filling
in this
questionnaire, you
have thus defined
yourself
within the narrow
confines of what Dateline assume a
partner
in a
relationship
is like. You have
even classified
yourself according
to the
way
Dateliiie consider
your
closest
friends
might classify you (in
section
6).
The format of the
questionnaire
used in
this
ideological way
is a
very
familiar one in womens
magazines
and seems to
constitute a
gendered
discursive framework within womens
negotiations
with
discourses of
femininity, whereby
in
answering questionnaires
women readers are
constructing positions
for themselves in relation to
femininity (see
for further
discussion, Smith, 1990; Mills, 1995b;
Mills and
White, 1997).
Because it
appears
less
frequently
in
publications
addressed to
men,
such as mens
magazines,
the
questionnaire
format is less familiar as a narrative
pathway
or
schema for men,
particularly
in relation to the construction of notions of
gendered
subjectivity (Mills, 1995b). Thus,
paradoxically,
this advert has
underlying
masculinist
assumptions
which are
presented
in a format which is more
likely
to
be
discursively
familiar to females.
This
advertisement,
in common with
dating agency
advertisements in
general,
has a textual
history
which asserts itself in the structure of this text. What this
advertisement offers is romance and a
partner
of
your
dreams. This is
highly
contradictory
since the means
by
which Dnteline
proposes
to offer
you
that
perfect partner
are
directly
in conflict with the
generally perceived
narrative
pathways
for romance
(see further,
Pearce and
Stacey,
1995;
Mills and
white,
1997).
This could be seen as a discursive clash within the
text,
where the
discourse of romance is
relentlessly
framed within the discursive constraints of
consumerism,
necessitated
by
the fact that Daieliiie is of course a
company
which
is
trying
to sell the reader a
product
in the
guise
of
providing
a service in the
interests of true love.
Through
the mechanical
matching
of
your questionnaire
with others
you
will be sent details of
your perfect partner; however,
one of the
background assumptions
of this advert is that in fact there is not one
perfect

partner,
and
you may
have to be sent the details of
many people
before that

perfect partner
is found.
Thus,
this advert is
having
to
wage
a discursive battle
against
certain reader
assumptions
about
dating agencies
as a whole. This factor
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seems to
generate
the statement at the
beginning
of the
questionnaire:
I am
seriously
interested in
meeting
someone
through Dateline,
since
dating agencies
have often been used
by
some males as a
way
of
having relationships
with a
large
number of
women,
rather than as a
way
of
meeting
one
perfect partner.
It is rare
to find
anyone
who will admit to
having
met their
partner through using
a
dating
agency,
since it
may signal desperation
and a distinct lack of romance. Due to
stereotypical
beliefs about
romance,
it is
generally
viewed as a rather unromantic
way
of
meeting
a
partner,
because of the use of
computers
to match
partners.
Within the narrative schema for
romance,
there are
settings
which are
generally
perceived
to be
appropriate
for encounters which lead to romance.l9 This sense of
computer dating being
an
inappropriate starting point
for romance
may
be the
reason that the
paperback
book All
you
need is love is offered to all customers
free of
charge.
Dateline is
having
to
perform
a
great
deal of discursive work to
try
to make this romantic
message
counter these other more commercial and
mechanistic ones.
Thus,
there are discursive
structures,
such as these narrative
pathways
of the
questionnaire
and
romance,
which are at odds with some of the
surface
messages
of the text.
5.5 Omissionslunsaid
What is left out of the
questionnaire
is almost as
important
as what is included. In
terms of the
options
to describe
yourself
in relation to work
(section 4),
Dateline
has chosen not to include the
option
of
housewife;
this
may
be because within
the discourse of
romance,
it is
simply
not
possible
to take the role of
housewife.2 In some
senses,
this could be seen as a feminist
position -
assuming
that women are in work rather than confined to the home.
However,
it
does mean that those women who are full-time mothers or carers
(for example,
looking
after
elderly parents)
have
only
the
option
of
classifying
themselves as
not
working
or
unemployed.
On the
surface,
these two terms are an odd
duplication;
however,
it
might
be seen that
unemployed
refers to men or women
who have had a
job
and who now do
not,
and not
working may
be seen to refer to
those whose work is
principally
concerned with
caring
for children or the
elderly.
This is
directly contrary
to feminist
campaigns
over housework and
child-rearing,
and is in conflict with the surface feminism and
egalitarianism
of the text
(for
a
discussion of these feminist
campaigns,
see Barrett and
McIntosh, 1982; Phillips,
1983; Delphy, 1984). Perhaps,
in
fact,
it is feminist
campaigns
over
employment
rights
and housework which have made the term
houseu:ife
the un-said of this
text
(Macherey, 1978;
Mills and
Pearce, 1996).
This idea of
bringing up
children
not
constituting
real work rears its head in another
way
in the
text,
since children
and
homemaking
are listed as an
option
under section 7: Your interests.
Horrrerrraker is a term which
developed
as a
euphemism
for
lrorrsetvife
in the
1970s.
Despite being,
on the
surface,
unmarked for
gender,
it would be
unlikely
to
be
opted
for
by
males,
because of this association.
However,
interestingly,
the
closest
equivalent
to
homemaking
for
males, DIY,
is not listed as a
possible
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interest;
it
only
surfaces within the section 5 on Your
Personality
where
practical
is listed as an
option.
Thus,
rather than them
being posed
as work, housework and
bringing up
children are re-classified
and,
as
Fairclough (1991) puts
it,
relexicalized as interests or hobbies on a
par
with
smoking
and
drinking.
In section
8,
the
question
of children surfaces
again,
since when
you
are asked
to
specify
what sort of
partner you
would
like,
you
can
opt
for a
partner
who has
no children or one who has children
living
elsewhere. Because this is such an
issue for women who are
single parents,
the choice of
seemingly non-gendering
the address of the
advert
means that a male-oriented address
begins
to
merge
with
the dominant
reading position
of the text itself
(see further, Mills, 1994b; Pearce,
1997).
Because Datelijre have avoided
gendering
their address on the surface,
and
yet
have
gendered
the terms
through
the
systematic
use of a
range
of
stereotypically gendered collocations, associations,
background knowledge,
narrative
pathways,
and discursive
frameworks,
their readers are forced to make
meanings
within the limits of the
text,
and are thus also forced to
classify
or
relexicalize their own
experience
within the confines of the
implicitly gendered
frameworks of the text.
6 Conclusions
If texts are
overtly
sexist, they
are easier to deal
with,
since overt sexism is now
very easy
to
identify. However,
a
great
number of media texts seem to be
operating
in much the same
way
as this Dateline
text;
on the surface
they appear
to be non-sexist and even
positively
anti-sexist.
They
also
appear
to be
addressing
men and women as if
they
are
equal,
and sometimes as if there is no difference
between men and women.
However,
whilst this is the surface
message,
the
underlying workings
of the text and the
meanings
which readers
negotiate
with
the text are
quite
different. Because of the limited
range
of
options
available to
readers and because of the
background knowledge
needed to make sense of this
text,
there is
clearly
a form of indirect sexism at work here.
What this
type
of
analysis
is concerned with is
trying
to
develop
a more
complex
and more contextualized form of
analysis
and
theory.
Rather than
assuming
that texts
simply represent
women in sexist
ways,
it has been
my
aim to
examine a text which seems on the surface at least to be
non-gender-specific
in its
address,
and which seems to have taken on board certain feminist ideas about
equality
and the
changing
role of women.
However,
it is clear that the
gendered
assumptions
of this text
keep reasserting themselves,
creating
moments of tension
within the
text,
either because
gender-specific
terms have been
used,
or because
the reader is left with a
very
limited
range
of
gender-stereotyped options
to
describe themselves. It is the contention of this
analysis
that there are a
range
of
discursive frameworks which are themselves
gendered
and which would lead
female readers to assume that the text was addressed to them,
whilst
codifying
information which works
largely
in the interests of males. I have also shown that
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248
in the
process
of
appearing
to be
non-gender-specific
in terms of
address,
the text
in fact encodes
stereotypically
masculinist attitudes towards housework and child-
rearing, ensuring
that these are classified as interests rather than work.
It is clear that feminist
pressure
around the issue of sexism has had a
major
effect on the
production
and
reception
of texts. Sexism has not been eradicated
but its nature has been transformed into this more indirect form of sexism. What
is
necessary
now is a form of feminist
analysis
which can
analyse
the
complexity
of sexism since it has become more indirect and now that feminism has made
overt sexism more
problematic.
Such an
analysis
would be
open
to the
types
of
information which feminism has sent
underground
and which nevertheless exert
a
pressure
on the text itself.
Thus,
a
post-feminist
text
analysis
would move
away
from a concentration on words and
phrases
which are
processed by
all readers in a
similar
way,
to a more
pragmatic
concern with
mapping
out the discursive
structures and
pressures
which lead to contradictions within
texts,
and indeed
within readers themselves.
Thus,
Toolans
(1997)
call for a
description
of a non-
sexist text can be seen to be
equally
as
utopian
as feminist criticism of certain
texts for their
sexism;
what is needed is a form of
analysis
which can describe the
complexity
of texts and their
processing
in a
post-feminist age.
Notes
1
Early
versions of this
essay
were
given
as
papers
to the
English Department
at Nene
College,
Northampton,
UK;
to
postgraduates
in the Centre for Womens
Studies,
Exeter
University, UK;
and to
postgraduates
in the Discourse
Analysis symposium, Tampere University, Tampere,
Finland. I would like to thank the
participants
at these seminars for their constructive comments.
I would also like to thank the
following people
for comments on draft versions of the
essay: Tony
Brown, Lynne Pearce,
Deirdre
OSullivan,
Keith Green, Yvonne
Hyrenen,
the readers and
editors of
Language
and
Literature,
Jane Sunderland,
Evangelia
Litosseliti
(who
summarized the
comments of the Gender and
Language
Research
Group,
Lancaster
University, UK),
Clare Walsh
and Janine Liladhar. I am indebted to Dateline International for
permission
to
reproduce
the
Dateline advertisement.
2 Like all
post- terms, there is much debate about whether the
post- signifies
an end of a
particular
type
of
influence,
or in fact a
recognition
of the fundamental
importance
of the influence. See
McClintock
(1993)
and Mishra and
Hodge (1993)
for a
thorough
examination of this issue in
relation to
post-colonialism. Perhaps post-feminism
is
slightly
more
complicated
than terms like
post-modernism
and
post-colonialism
because it is
critically engaging
with both
patriarchy
and
earlier feminist
analyses. Obviously,
the
critique
of
patriarchy
is different
politically
to the
critique
of earlier feminist models.
A
great
number of the discussions I have had about the term
post-feminist
have centred on the
possibility
that no matter how much one insists that one intends the more
productive
critical
meaning,
the first
meaning
of the term
(that
there is now no need for
feminism) may
be the one
which asserts itself. This is a
difficulty
of which I am
very keenly
aware. A number of
people
have
suggested
that I
try
to
develop
another term because of this. It is for reasons such as this
that Walter
(1998a) decided to call her book The New Feminism.
3 The
analysis
I detail is indicative of the
type
of directions that this
type
of text
analysis might
pursue.
It does not aim to
present
itself as a
fully
worked out form of
analysis.
4 Much
advertising
addressed to men has moved
away
from the machismo
poses
characteristic of
the 1970s to a location of males within the
family.
Witness the British advertisements for cars
which now tend to stress concern for the
safety
of children rather than how fast a car can
go;
for
example:
Mercedes :
Basically
I had two reasons for
choosing
Mercedes over the other
£20,000
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249
cars: Mark
(4)
and Sammie
(6 months) Independent
on
Sunday,
March 1997. This
effectively
manages
to
positively
inflect a New Man concern with
caring
for children with a written-in
concern with status
(£20,000 car). However, compare
Joanna Thornborrows
essay
in this issue
where it is clear that this new trend is
being
worked out
alongside
more conventional
strategies.
5 Some recent feminist text
analysis
seems to indicate that a more
complex analysis
is
necessary;
see the collection of
essays
edited
by
Wales
(1994)
and
my
Feminist
Sylistics (Mills, (1995b).
6 The
Spice
Girls are a British female
pop group
who
developed
the notion of
girlpower
from its
more radical
origin
in the United States to refer to a form of
aggressive
and
fun-loving
behaviour
for
young
women. The Girlie Show was a
late-night
Channel 4
programme
in Britain, hosted
by
women who
challenged many
of the norms of conventional feminine behaviour
through
their
self-presentation,
their behaviour and
language.
Girlie is used in Britain
by
certain
groups
of
women, usually feminist,
to refer in a
playful way
to womens issues. I am not
suggesting
that
the new
meanings
of
girl
and
girlie
have
simply replaced
the older
derogatory meanings,
since it
is clear that
according
to context these
meanings
are still available; but I would
argue
that the
newer
meanings
have altered the
way
that those older
meanings
will be activated. It
may
be the
case, however, that there is a sense in which, in the British
context, girlie
as in
girlie magazine
to
refer to a soft
pornographic magazine
for males
may
be on the
wane,
precisely
because
girlie
has started to be used in other contexts with different
meanings.
7 This
critique
of second-wave feminist text
analysis
is not intended to be
dismissive;
it is
important
to
recognize
our
political
and theoretical indebtedness to these feminist theorists for
the
way
that
they developed analyses
of
patriarchal thinking.
We need to
acknowledge
that one
way
in which theoretical work
progresses
is
by building critically
on
previous
work:
that, for me,
is the essence of
post-feminist theory.
8 There have also been
significant changes
in text
analysis
as a whole which make a
simplistic
form of
analysis
more difficult. When feminists
grapple
with the sexism of a
text,
there are often
charges
that
humour, play
and
irony
are not considered as
part
of the
subtlety
of a texts
meaning.
It is clear that often the move to
locating irony
in a text is
simply
a
way
of
avoiding charges
of
sexism,
but
occasionally
it is indeed an accurate assessment of feminisms
dogged
literalness in
relation to sexism. Feminist
analysis
has to be able to account for and allow for
play
within a
texts
production
of
meaning
without
allowing
the text off the hook.
9 This is not intended to be an
ethnographic study
of readers
responses
but rather constitutes an
attempt
to test out the
assumption
that different readers will
foreground
certain elements within
the text to formulate their
interpretations.
Current readers of this
type
of text
may
be
relatively
tolerant of discursive conflicts within texts,
and the readers I consulted were not
particularly
concerned that there were dissonances within their own
reading
of the text.
10 It
might
be
argued
that this is therefore not a
particularly linguistic analysis (see
the Introduction
to this issue for further discussion of this
point).
This is an inevitable
consequence
of the move
towards contextual
analysis
which
necessarily
has to move
beyond
a
simple analysis
of the
linguistic
constituents of a text
(see
Verdonk and
Weber, 1995).
11 The choice of
analysing
a
single advertising
text
might
be seen to be
problematic,
if what I was
concerned with was
making
claims about the
interpretation
of
advertising texts,
or
dating agency
advertising
texts as a whole. The
analysis
which follows is concerned with
trying
to formulate
ways
in which
post-feminist analysis might
work on a text and so this
analysis
should be seen as
a
testing
out of theoretical ideas
against
a text.
However,
the choice of an
advertising
text rather
than, say,
a
pop song
or a
literary text, was not accidental, since
advertising displays
a
preoccupation
with
gender
that is
hardly
matched in
any
other
genre (Van Zoonen, 1994: 67).
That
preoccupation clearly
cannot be reduced to
simple
sexism.
12 Some of the women readers I consulted
objected
to this omission of Miss as an
option
since
they
felt it
important
to be able to describe themselves as
single.
These same readers considered
Datelines use of address terms to
display
an anti-sexist
position singularly unconvincing.
13 Much of the discursive structure
of femininity
is about the
way
clothes and cosmetics are meshed
into a consumer culture so that these seem to become
part
of a womans
personality (Smith,
1990).
Several
readers, both male and
female, disagreed
with this assessment
of fashionable,
but
what is at issue here is the
stereotypes
of
femininity
associated with the term rather than actual
readers assessment of their own fashion-consciousness.
14 The fact that different readers
disagreed
with some of these claims about
gender
and collocation
whilst others
agreed
with them leads me to assume that within certain
types
of
reading
these
particular
associations will not be activated. But the fact that some readers
picked up
on them
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250
suggests
that there is textual evidence for such a
claim; also most of the readers I discussed this
with could
recognize
the association at a
stereotypical
level, even if it was not one which
they
felt
applied
to themselves.
15 A similar
dichotomy
seems to occur around the
terms jogging
and
running, where jogging
in
British
society may
be associated with a
non-serious,
female-restricted form of exercise in
comparison
to the more serious and
manly running.
16
Despite
its theoretical
problems
in
globalizing
womens
speech habits,
Tannens
(1990)
book
was
important
in
stressing
the
way
that cultural norms still allocate the
responsibility
for the
smooth
running
of
relationships
and social
bonding
to women.
17 The
couples
are white and seem to fall within a certain
range
of class
positions
between
upper
working
class and middle class.
They
are
clearly
not lower
working class, upper
middle class or
upper
class. It is difficult to
assign
class
position
on the basis of
photographs,
but there are
signals
which British readers
generally
use to
distinguish
class
positions,
such as
clothing,
jewellery, hairstyle
and so on, and which seem to be used here to
signify
an actual or
aspiring
class
position (see Skeggs, 1997).
18 More
single parents
are women than men, and thus
statistically
it is more
likely
for this
question
to be addressed to women, even
though
there is no
explicit gendering
of the
question.
19 Narrative schemata entail certain choices about roles, settings,
actions and so on which will be
deemed
appropriate
because of
familiarity
with the rules of the
genre.
Chance encounters at
social
gatherings
or work are viewed
positively by many
as
appropriate starting points
or
settings
for romance.
20 At a
very
literal
level,
as some of the readers I consulted about this text reminded
me,
there is the
added factor that
single
women
applying
to Dateline for
help
in
finding
a
partner
would not in
fact be housewives but
single
mothers.
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