Jefferson, Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence, once said, “we hold these truths to be
self-evident: that all men and women are created equal”. He denotes that we are
all are born equal, and so, deserving of the same rights. However, Robin Lakoff argues that this is not
always true in her book, Language and
Woman’s Place. She says that while we are born equal, we are not necessarily
treated the same way. Gender is represented and divided through language,
therefore while we use language to communicate, it also defines our self. Our language varies by gender, class, and other
cultural differences. This then creates discrimination, certain expectations,
and stereotypes that we see today. Lakoff studies how gender and language is
associated, and concludes that women experience language discrimination because
women are taught to speak in a certain way from an early age. Because of this, women
are represented in a different light compared to men. For example, she analyzes
how male and female perceive colors. Generally, if a man is presented a certain
color, he would most likely identify it with the color in its simplest form
such as white, black, red etc. In contrast to this, a woman might associate
different colors with their shades, like mauve, nude, baby pink etc(1973:49). So
while we use language to communicate, the form of language that we use defines
how others perceive us.
is very evident in our society today as the way we communicate continues to
expand, and the beliefs we previously held are continuously challenged and
conformed. Today, it has never been easier to express unpopular opinion without
the certainty of facing the consequences. Our forms of commutation have adapted
so that people are able to remain anonymous and therefore, people are not held accountable
for their language and opinion. Not only this, but the way women are portrayed in
the media has set new, unrealistic standards. Hence, discrimination today has intensified.
This is why I agree with Lakoff’s standpoint. I believe that society has, with
or without intention, taught and groomed women so that they are discriminated against.
Women are taught to represent themselves in a way that conforms to society’s
standards. And so, the stereotypical female is born; one that does not curse,
speaks politely, and submissive.
note that the idea of language is broad. Raymond Williams introduces in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and
Society that language can take many forms. It can range from visual
communication to written. So, we can associate language with how one dresses or
talks. Language can also be found in books as text or as a picture. Either way,
information is still communicated. Therefore, the way we present ourselves is a
form of language. If we are taught to present ourselves as a stereotypical female,
then language uses us to define who we are in society.
are unavoidable. And this is discussed in Unthinking
Eurocentrism by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam. They tackle the idea of
representation and its validity. So, while we gain ideas and visuals from the media,
it is not always correct. For example, the way minorities are portrayed in
films usually is an exaggeration from reality. A reasoning for this is that the
those in power in the film industry, mostly whites, get to control what is portrayed.
So, we have minorities, including women, with no voice. This does not help
alleviate the discrimination that women and minorities face today in that women
and minorities are unable to break the mold that they are placed in. The way
women are presented in films is considered as the correct way of being a woman
and so, women are taught to present themselves in that way to be socially
Herbert Mead theorizes that people as individuals consists of two components:
the self (“I”) and the generalized other (“Me”) in Mind, Self and Society.
The self is the individual’s perception of himself and cannot be static as we
develop this through social interactions and activities (1929:155). Mead also
argues that we talk to our self as if we are talking to an audience. Therefore,
whenever you ask yourself a question, in theory, you are analyzing the
perception of others on you (1929:141). The generalized other, on the other
hand, is defined as the expectations and standards that society places against
you. Hence, one’s society controls the individual (1929:155). There is a
constant battle between the self and the generalized other to attain the kind
of self that is allowed (1929:163). This supports Lakoff’s argument in that
there is an ongoing struggle between how we use language and the way this
defines us. She says that we are taught to “talk like a lady” meaning women
must speak politely and cautiously (1973: 49). If not, the person is rejected
for having a masculine image (1973: 47).
Like Mead, Erving Goffman explores the idea of
performance. He develops Mead’s idea of role-taking, which is to take another
role to better conform to society’s expectations and then, one can lead to
self-consciousness (1929:151). Goffman infers that we are constantly performing
for an audience and that we portray ourselves based on how we want to be seen (1956:8).
Additionally, we have personal fronts which is how we dress, talk, and gesture (1956:14).
Lakoff agrees with this as we use language as our personal front. For example,
there is a difference in the way women and men use exclamations. Men would
typically curse whereas a woman would be expected to say weaker expletives
like, “Oh dear!” (1973:50) If men were to use ‘feminine’ words, they would be perceived
as homosexual or rejecting the masculine image (1973:53).
Hall ties in with Lakoff’s argument in terms of representation. He says that
language is a representational system in which we use signs and symbols, from
written language, music to an image, to signify concepts, ideas and feelings (1997:204).
Similarly, Lakoff’s argument is that women are presented through language,
whether it’s behavior or how one talks. Also, Lakoff asserts that certain terms
in the English language, for example, carry different connotations when associated
with gender. The term ‘bachelor’ for example signifies that a man is unmarried
whereas a woman would be called a ‘spinster’. Comparing these two terms, there
is a glaring difference with how each one is viewed in our culture (1973:66). Being
a bachelor is more socially accepted and in fact, can be regarded as ‘cool’. To
be a spinster, on the other hand, refers to a woman who is unable to obtain a
relationship. One would rather be a bachelor than a spinster. Both of these
symbols, while they translate to the same thing, do not carry the same
representation, just like how some hand signs can be translated differently
based on culture. Hall says (1997:205)
that language varies heavily on the culture it is attached to, just like how
the definition of a woman can vary from culture to culture.
being viewed differently is further proved by John Berger in Chapter 3 of Ways of seeing. He says that a woman’s
presence is different from a man in that men exert power onto others whereas a
woman is more internal. It is in her gesture, opinion, and surroundings that
creates her presence. As a result, he says that a woman must continually watch
how she is recognized, especially, how she appears to men. This is because it
is a measure of her success. A woman will get a sense of accomplishment when
she is appreciated by others (1972:46). So, like Lakoff, he says that “men act
and women appear” (1972:47). Women are turned into a symbol or an object, and
is something to be admired, like a piece of art (1972:46). Her opinion is not
as heavily regarded, not like her counterpart. Furthermore, women become a
possession that men acquire. For example, when a woman is wed, she takes the
last name of her partner whereas a man does not make any changes. This signifies
that her identity changes and that she is nothing more than his wife (1973:73).
struggle of being a woman may never be resolved because the definition of being
one is constantly changing. This idea is solidified through different forms of
communication that is also continually evolving. Thus, Lakoff is correct in
stating that language uses us as much as we use it to communicate. They both
work together to create different expectations which shape our society. Unfortunately,
some of these expectations are not distributed equally and so we get problems
such as discrimination.