Communicating Gender Diversity: A Critical Approach


Victoria Pruin DeFrancisco & Catherine Helen Palczewski

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Foundations

    • Chapter 1: Developing a Critical Gender/Sex Lens
    • Gender Differences: A Cultural Obsession
    • A Critical Vocabulary or a New Lens Prescription
    • Intersectionality
    • Communication
    • Systems of Hierarchy
    • Putting It All Together
    • Chapter 2: Alternative Approaches to Understanding Gender/Sex
    • Biological Approaches
    • Chromosomes
    • Hormones
    • Brain Development
    • Rhetorical Implications, Historic
    • Rhetorical Implications, Contemporary
    • Psychological Approaches
    • Psychoanalysis
    • Social Learning
    • Cognitive Development
    • Rhetorical Implications, Historic
    • Rhetorical Implications, Contemporary
    • Descriptive Cultural Approaches
    • Symbolic Interactionism
    • Anthropology
    • Two-Culture Theory
    • Rhetorical Implications, Historic
    • Rhetorical Implications, Contemporary
    • Critical Cultural Approaches
    • Standpoint Theory
    • Social Constructionism
    • Communication Strategies
    • Gender as Performance
    • Multiracial and Global Feminisms
    • Queer Theory
    • Post-Structuralism
    • Rhetorical Implications, Historic
    • Rhetorical Implications, Contemporary
    • Conclusion
    • Chapter 3: Gendered/Sexed Voices
    • Constructing a Critical Gender/Sex Lens
    • Constructing Gender/Sex in Communication
    • Gendered Conversational Styles
    • Cultural Perceptions of Gender/Sex Styles and Speakers
    • Power and Talk
    • Conclusion
    • Chapter 4: Gendered/Sexed Bodies
    • Gender Embodiment: Why Nonverbals Matter
    • Power, Not Sex Difference
    • Gender Performativity
    • Objectification Theory
    • Constructing a Critical Gender/Sex Lens
    • Components of Nonverbal Communication
    • Proxemics
    • Haptics
    • Eye Contact
    • Body Movement
    • Body Adornment
    • Facial Expressions
    • Nonverbal Sensitivity and Accuracy
    • Emotional Expression
    • Gender as Body Performance
    • Attractiveness
    • Eating Disorders
    • Refusing the Command Performance
    • Using Norms Against Each Other
    • Making Norms Visible
    • Overtly Challenging Norms
    • Revaluing the Body
    • Conclusion
    • Chapter 5: Gendered/Sexed Language
    • Theories Explaining the Power of Language
    • Linguistic Relativity
    • Terministic Screens
    • Framing
    • Language as Power
    • Language Can Be Used to Oppress and Subordinate
    • He/Man Language
    • Semantic Derogation
    • Semantic Imbalance
    • Semantic Polarization and Polar Opposites
    • Marked and Unmarked Terms
    • Trivialization
    • Lack of Vocabulary
    • The Truncated Passive
    • The Falsely Universal We
    • The De-Verbing of Woman
    • People, Places, and Topics of Silence
    • Language as Violence
    • Language as Resistance
    • Talking Back
    • Counterpublic Spheres
    • Developing a New Language
    • Resignification
    • Strategic Essentialism and Rhetorics of Difference
    • Moving Over
    • Verbal Play
    • Conclusion

    Part II: Institutions

    • Chapter 6: An Introduction to Gender in Social Institutions
    • What Is an Institution?
    • Institutional Control and Hegemony
    • Gender Is a Social Institution
    • Institutionalized Gendered/Sexed Violence
    • Part Preview
    • Chapter 7: Family
    • Family as a Social Institution
    • Interlocking Institutions
    • Family Constructs (And Constrains) Gender
    • Research Focuses on the Nuclear Family
    • Parent–Child Communication
    • Adult Friends and Lovers
    • Domestic Violence
    • Emancipatory Families
    • Conclusion
    • Chapter 8: Education
    • Education as a Social Institution
    • Interlocking Institutions
    • It's Not About Sex Difference
    • Education Constructs (And Constrains) Gender
    • Teacher and Administrator Interactions
    • Sports
    • Educational Materials and Curricula
    • Higher Education
    • Gender/Sex Gaps
    • Single-Sex Education
    • Peer Pressure
    • Bullying and Sexual Harassment
    • Sexual Violence on College Campuses
    • Emancipatory Education
    • Conclusion
    • Chapter 9: Work
    • Work as a Social Institution
    • Interlocking Institutions
    • It's Not About Sex Difference
    • Work Constructs (And Constrains) Gender
    • Race, Gender, and Work: Black Women in Work Contexts
    • Class, Race, Gender/Sex, and Work: Care Work
    • Violence, Gender/Sex, and Work: Sexual Harassment
    • Work as Liberation and Locations of Empowerment in Work
    • Conclusion
    • Chapter 10: Religion
    • Religion as a Social Institution
    • Interlocking Institutions
    • It's Not About Sex Difference
    • Religion Constructs (And Constrains) Gender
    • Rereading the History of Women Religious
    • Religion Constructs Masculinity: Muscular Christianity
    • Religion as Liberation and Locations of Empowerment in Religion
    • Conclusion
    • Chapter 11: Media
    • Media as a Social Institution
    • Media Economics
    • Media and Power
    • Media and Hegemony
    • Media Polyvalence and Oppositional Readings
    • Interlocking Institutions
    • It's Not About Sex Difference
    • Differences Among Women
    • Similarities Between Women and Men
    • Media Construct (and Constrain) Gender
    • Media Content and Media Effects
    • The Gaze(s)
    • An Oppositional Gaze
    • Media as Always Liberatory and Constraining
    • Gender Is Constructed and Thus Is Always in Flux
    • Resecuring Genders' Borders: “Masculinity in Crisis”
    • Progressive Representations Resecure Traditional Gender Norms: Mr. Mom and Ellen
    • New Technologies Replicate Old Gender Norms
    • Conclusion
    • Chapter 12: One Last Look Through a Critical Gendered Lens
  • Dedication

    This book honors the memory of our mothers:

    Victoria DeFrancisco Leto (1924–2004)

    Maj. Helen Mary Finks Palczewski (1921–1999)


    View Copyright Page


    Welcome to our view of the state of the scholarship on communicating gender. We say our view to make the point that this textbook represents our best effort to be critical reviewers of existing knowledge on the topic, and because we want to clarify that our view is uniquely tied to the materials we have chosen to include, to our worldviews, and to the ways in which we make sense of the material. This view may differ from yours or from other textbooks' views. In fact, we hope it does.

    Our purpose with this textbook is not to provide any final conclusions about communicating gender. Because gender is a constantly evolving concept, both in terms of individuals' gender identity development and the larger culture's predominant notions of gender, such absolute claims are not possible. Instead, our intent is to better equip readers with tools with which they can examine and make sense of the intersections of communication and gender.

    To do so, we have attempted to write this book as an extended conversation in which we interact with the research on gender in communication that has most excited our own scholarly imaginations. As such, this book is not simply a review of research but rather an attempt to place the research in the context of larger theoretical, social, and political issues that we see emerging in the study of gender in communication. We hope this makes the material presented in the book more meaningful and useful for readers and relevant beyond the life of this publication.

    This does not mean we only present research that is consistent with our preexisting views or academic disciplines. In fact, we believe people learn most by stepping outside their academic or personal comfort zones to consider other perspectives. We value engaged and vital disagreement, the push and pull of argumentation. We believe readers will be able to glean more from our presentation of substantiated arguments than they would if we pretended to present the research as if we were objective and value free. We will express our views of the material, and we hope this encourages you to do the same. Agreement is neither a necessary nor a preferred requirement for learning from this book, and disagreement is not a sign of disrespect.

    Our approach to writing this text is the same as our approach to learning, teaching, and life: We advocate feminism. We believe that sex as a social category is one of the most important nexuses of power that are used to organize contemporary societies, and we believe that discrimination on the basis of gender and sex is one of the most violent forms of oppression. However, we also believe that many other social categories intersect within an individual's sex identity and with social relations of power.

    That we subscribe to feminism does not mean we necessarily define it in the same way. In fact, this diversity is a quality of feminism. Feminism was proposed as an alternative to thinking in absolute, patriarchal truths. Consequently, it is important to make room for diverse feminist theories. For example, we honor the contributions of Black womanist theory, we celebrate the contradictions of third-wave feminism, and we happily navigate the tensions between global and post-modern feminisms, which you will learn about throughout the text.

    While no single definition can represent all of feminist thought, we can offer some common qualities that we perceive as central. Feminisms challenge common cultural assumptions, such as the assumption that men should be mechanically inclined but women should not, and the assumption that women should be nurturers but men should not. Feminisms recognize the contributions of persons and groups historically undervalued, such as the contributions of women, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) people, and persons of color. Feminisms reveal related cultural oppressions, such as the feminization of poverty and the racing of welfare dependency. Feminisms create new ways of thinking, such as appreciation of the value of narratives as opposed to ostensibly objective scientific methods. Feminisms work toward social change and social justice. Thus, our ultimate goal in writing this book is nothing less than intellectual activism. These two terms often are perceived as opposites, polarized along the lines of theory and action—but we see them as inextricably involved in the creation of a world that is more welcoming of women and men who diverge from expected sex roles and gender norms.

    We do not shy away from complex and controversial subjects. We foreground a rejection of the sex binary, recognizing the existence of intersex people. We see heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and queer sexualities as equally valid sexual orientations. We incorporate the insights of queer theory. We reject the differences and the two-culture approaches to communicating gender, making clear that one cannot understand how communicating gender operates without also recognizing the power dynamics involved. Finally, we make clear that one can never study gender or sex in isolation. How a particularly sexed body performs gender always intersects with other identity ingredients. Our hope is that even as we grapple with complex issues, we do so in an approachable way.

    Given the complexity of the issues involved, this book is intended for upper-division undergraduate or lower-level graduate courses focusing on gender in communication. Our approach is interdisciplinary, in terms of both method and the literature cited. We meld humanistic/critical and social scientific approaches. Although we highlight communication studies literature, we also integrate scholarship from anthropology, literature, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology, and gender and women's studies that has served as the foundation of communication scholarship.

    Organization of the Book

    The book is divided in two parts. “Part I: Foundations” includes five chapters that describe the theories and methods that guide the study of gender in communication. These chapters are meant to provide a heuristic vocabulary that enables people to study gender in communication with more subtlety and nuance. “Part II: Institutions” includes an introductory chapter to explain our focus on social institutions, followed by five chapters on the social institutions we think make most evident the intersections of gender and communication: family, education, work, religion, and media. In each chapter, we examine the ways in which individuals experience and enact gender within the institution (micro) and the ways in which the structures and predominant ideology of the institutions influence the experience and enactment of gendered lives (macro). The concluding chapter draws links between the preceding chapters and presents visions for future study.

    To cover the topics in depth, the chapters are longer than may be customary in textbooks. Gender in communication is necessarily complex when approached from an intersectional gender diversity approach; thus, easy lists of differences are not an option. This is not meant to detour the reader. Instead, we anticipate that classes will spend multiple days reading and discussing each chapter. The headings in the table of contents and within each chapter provide ways to divide the reading. The instructor's manual offers further direction.

    We also have chosen to forgo numerous illustrations, sidebars, diagrams, and insets. Although such additions almost seem de rigueur in textbooks, we would rather operate under the assumption that students will be engaged because of their interest in the topic. We also have attempted to keep our writing lively and to offer more and longer quotations from others so that the reader gets a sense of participating in a conversation populated by more than the textbook authors.

    Distinctive Features

    If we had to summarize our approach to communicating gender in one sentence, we would say this: We study the variety of ways in which communication of and about gender and sex enables and constrains people's intersectional identities. We believe that people are social actors—and that, as such, they create meaning through their symbolic interactions. Thus, our emphasis is not on how gender influences communication but on how communication constitutes gender. We also believe that people are capable of being self-reflective about communication processes and creative in generating new ways to play with symbols. To study how people perform and construct genders and what factors influence these performances, we draw on seven principles that compose our approach to the study of communicating gender:

    • Intersectionality. Persons are not just female or male, feminine or masculine. To more accurately study gender, we must study gendered lives in the context of other social identities, particularly race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, and national origin. Although research embracing this approach is still limited, it continues to grow, and we make a concerted effort to recognize diverse social influences on gender.
    • Interdisciplinarity. We seek to fuse and balance social scientific, humanistic, and critical methods. Thus, we rely on quantitative, qualitative, rhetorical, and critical studies. As coauthors, we have the benefit of drawing on two fields of communication studies that often are seen as independent of each other but that we believe are inextricably linked: rhetoric and social science. Palczewski, trained as a rhetorical scholar, is an active debate coach who studies political controversies and social protest. DeFrancisco, trained as a social scientist, uses qualitative research methods to study how gender and related inequalities are constructed in interpersonal relationships and individuals' identities. Most texts on gender in communication focus on social science studies of gendered interpersonal interactions and thus fail to recognize the ways in which broader, public discourse can influence gender. Not only do we bridge methodological chasms within our own discipline, we do so between disciplines. We purposely look at each topic from multiple disciplinary and activist perspectives. The result is a richer, fuller understanding of the topic that stretches the boundaries of what is commonly considered relevant for a communication text.
    • Gender diversity, not sex differences. We do not subscribe to typical conceptualizations of gender as a form of difference. Instead, we problematize the differences view by showing how it ignores power, reinforces stereotypes and related oppressions, fails to account for intersectionality, and is inconsistent with meta-analyses demonstrating that sex does not consistently account for differences in communication. However, our rejection of the differences approach does not mean that we deny differences exist. Instead, we seek to recognize an even richer diversity as a result of intersectionality and in the form of a gender diversity approach.
    • Masculinity. The study of gender is not just the study of women. However, the study of gender has traditionally been considered a “women's issue,” hence researchers and textbooks often have focused almost exclusively on women and femininity, underemphasizing men and masculinities. Thanks to the recent growth in men's studies, we have at our disposal a rich literature base that considers gender and masculinity. In this textbook, we make a concerted effort to include masculinities, particularly in the chapters on work, media, and family.
    • Gender is a performed social institution. Gender is something a person does, not something a person is. Gender is not something located within individuals; it is a social construct that institutions and individuals maintain (and occasionally challenge). Thus, we examine the microlevel—how an individual might perform gender—and the macrolevel—how social understandings of gender are performed on individuals. Given this attention to institutions, we also pay attention to the ways in which institutions intersect, not just to the ways identity ingredients intersect.
    • Violence. To study gender in lived experiences means to study the darker side of gender: oppression and violence. We do not avoid or limit the discussion of gendered violence to one chapter. Rather, a range of specific social injustices are made visible in each chapter. We do so not to bash males (not all men abuse, and not only women are victims) but to more fully recognize the consequences of the prevalent gendered society in which most people live. Gendered violence is systemic in the form of domestic abuse, rape, and violence against LGBT people. By linking seemingly innocent, gendered practices to more overt forms of gendered violence, we are better able to move beyond superficial generalizations about gender differences and to make visible the struggles many women and men face in their unique cultural contexts.
    • Emancipation. Even as we recognize violence, we also want to recognize the emancipatory potential of gendered practice. Gender identity need not be oppressive and limiting to persons. For each social institution addressed, we offer examples of how diverse groups of people have created strategies to free themselves of stereotypical gender and other cultural expectations.

    We recognize that these guiding principles might require a substantial retooling of many courses. Thus, this textbook is accompanied by an instructor's manual that includes sample syllabi, possible assignments, and teaching aids. For each chapter, we provide a chapter outline, discussion questions, class activities, additional examples, full texts of significant paraphrased quotations, and media and Web resources. The manual also includes special “hot topics” essays that enable students to see how one might apply concepts introduced in the text to current issues.

    Some Author Admissions

    Writing this book was challenging, exciting, fun, enlightening, frustrating, and hard, joyful work. DeFrancisco has taught courses and conducted research related to communicating gender since 1981; Palczewski has done so since 1987. Despite our collective years devoted to feminist studies of communication, we continually struggle to do it right. It is difficult to talk about gender without reinforcing stereotypes about it. Language and cultural perceptions of gender (the primary resources we have to communicate) fail us! As we discuss in Chapter 5, the very words female and male, woman and man, and the connotations associated with them encourage perceptions of individuals as only one or the other sex and as different and differentially valued in the predominant culture. The words also ignore intersex persons and the fact that men can be feminine, women can be masculine, or both. Additionally, there is no word to identify a person who marks all of her or his intersecting identity ingredients, making it difficult to constantly keep in mind that when one studies gender, one also must consider the ways in which multiple identities intersect and influence persons' lives. We have adopted the following strategies to try to compensate for some of the limitations of language and gendered cultural perceptions:

    • One often sees lists of multiple cultural group identities, such as race, class, gender, sex, and sexual orientation, as a reminder that the topic of study is not gender alone. However, it is impossible to recognize all group identities each time (e.g., physical ability, age, urban/rural, religion). Hence, the categories in the list shift across chapters according to the point we are trying to make.
    • We use language that is inclusive of women and men throughout this text (e.g., people, persons, she and he, women and men, spouses). We take this a step further, adopting the suggestion of linguist M. J. Hardman (1999) to reverse the commonly used order of men first and women second, as in boys and girls, until, as Hardman says, the order “doesn't matter anymore” (p. 1).
    • We try to avoid overgeneralizing about women and men. When we report on a study, we use phrases such as “the women and men in the study,” rather than “women and men” to make the point that claims cannot be generalized beyond the scope of the particular participants in the study being reported.

    Ideally, our book embodies the changes currently emerging in the ever-transforming field of gender in communication. We hope it challenges the very way in which readers think about gender and sex, as well as the ways in which gender and sex intersect with race, class, sexual orientation, and nationality. Instead of providing simplistic answers, we hope this textbook provides guidance on how to ask good questions. We also hope this book will inspire present and future researchers to contribute to the study of gender in communication, further stretching the boundaries of culturally gendered perceptions.


    This book could not have been written without the assistance of our colleagues. People too numerous to list have helped us as we wrote this book, but a few deserve special note for the extra time they spent sharing resources, reading chapters, and providing invaluable research assistance. The chapters would not have been as grounded in current scholarship, and the examples would not have been as rich, had it not been for the following people: Nathan Epley, Michael Fleming, Tom Hall, Susan Hill, Kristin Mack, Karen Mitchell, Martha Reineke, and Mary Beth Stalp. We also thank M.A. students who worked as research assistants: Ruth Beerman, Danielle Dick, Danelle Frisbie, and Eric Short. Other students and colleagues served as universal resources, offering ideas and examples, checking facts, and other support: Rob Asen, Judith Baxter, Harry Brod, Dan Brouwer, April Chatham-Carpenter, Jeanne Cook, John Fritch, Shoko Hayashi, Kyle Kostelecky, Maria Mastronardi, Gayle Pohl, Alimatul Qibtiyah, Vickie Turner, Donna Uhlenhopp, Atun Wardatun, and Jayne Morgan Witte. We recognize that no book is created in isolation. We thank Julia Wood (Gendered Lives), Diane Ivy and Phil Backlund (Gender Speak), and Karlyn Kohrs Campbell (Man Cannot Speak for Her) for helping pave the way in gender/sex in communication textbooks, as well as scholars whose work has informed the development of our own gendered lenses: Judith Butler, Patricia Hill Collins, Celeste Condit, bell hooks, Cheris Kramarae, Judy Pearson, Dale Spender, and Anita Taylor. We thank our life partners, Arnie Madsen and David Pruin, for their willing honoring of our need to have room of our own in which to write. We especially thank our SAGE editor, Todd Armstrong, for his continued trust. We also want to thank the skilled professionals who worked with us through the final stages of the publication process: Katie Grim (editorial assistant), Astrid Virding (project editor), and April Wells-Hayes (copyeditor). Support for the development of this book was provided in part by the University of Northern Iowa's Graduate College, the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, the Department of Communication Studies, and the Women's and Gender Studies Program.

    SAGE Publications gratefully acknowledges the following reviewers:

    Cynthia Berryman-Fink, University of Cincinnati; Derek T. Buescher, University of Puget Sound; Sandra L. Faulkner, Syracuse University; Lisa A. Flores, University of Utah; Jeffrey Dale Hobbs, The University of Texas at Tyler; Charlotte Kroløkke, University of Southern Denmark; D. K. London, Merrimack College; M. Chad McBride, Creighton University; and Lynn H. Turner, Marquette University.

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    About the Authors

    Victoria Pruin DeFrancisco, Ph.D., is a Professor of Communication Studies and affiliate faculty in Women's Studies at the University of Northern Iowa. She teaches courses in gender, intercultural, and interpersonal communication. Victoria comes from a close Italian American family and has five siblings. She is married and has stepchildren and grandchildren who call her Nana and remind her every day why she wrote this book.

    Catherine Helen Palczewski, Ph.D., is a Professor of Communication Studies, Director of Debate, and affiliate faculty in Women's Studies at the University of Northern Iowa. She teaches courses in the rhetoric of social protest, argumentation, and political communication. One side of her family tree makes her a second-generation Polish American citizen, and the other makes her eligible to be a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

    This book was a truly coauthored endeavor. The fun, sweat, work, and joy were equally shared. The name order on the cover and title page are accidental.

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