Gender Communication Theories & Analyses: From Silence to Performance

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Charlotte Kroløkke & Anne Scott Sørensen

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    The book presents some ongoing struggles and tensions in feminist work as researchers and theorists carve niches, expand knowledge, and strive for legitimacy in the academy… This is a book to which I am going to return again and again because of its remarkable synthesis of past and present feminist communication work as well as its look toward the future. The examples throughout are vivid and compelling and the primary focus on the performance lens offers much to identity, cultural, and political communication and feminist studies. It is an excellent resource or springboard for future scholarship as well as a riveting and coherent analysis of scholarship that can challenge advanced students in feminist and communication studies courses. My congratulations to Kroløkke and Scott Sørensen for authoring such an interesting and needed book.

    —Patrice M. Buzzanell, Purdue University

    Fresh, sophisticated, and rigorous, Gender Communication Theories and Analyses brings gender and communication studies into the ‘third wave’ of feminism and the new millennium of communication studies. Krolokke and Scott Sorensen present an able and insightful guide to the diverse and changing ways that feminist scholars in communication, linguistics, and cultural studies have theorized and researched gender communication as dominance, identity and difference, and performance. The text's innovative format links theory to research methodologies illustrated by case studies of face-to-face and computer-mediated communication. This book offers rich possibilities as a foundational text in advanced courses on gender and communication and as a valuable resource for researchers—we have been waiting for this book.

    —Kristin M. Langellier, University of Maine

    Copyright

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    Introduction

    Let us start with a story. The following tale illustrates the aim of this book and will raise a discussion of the particular line of argument we want to establish around the issue of gender and communication.

    Fadime died in 2002 at the age of 26. She was shot by her father for bringing shame on her family and undermining their honor in the eyes of the Turkish-Muslim community in Sweden. The ensuing debate has brought up a range of difficult issues concerning the recent transformation of the previously rather homogenous Scandinavian countries into multicultural societies: a diversification of ethnicity, language, religion, and so on. What was Fadime's offense? In the eyes of the Swedish public, her only crime was falling in love with a young man, a native Swede and a non-Muslim. However, the father and the family kept reiterating that the killing was provoked not by the actual fact of Fadime's liaison with a non-Muslim, but by her transgression of two implied conventions: Given her relationship, she was “exiled,” meaning that she was not to visit her family or show up in their town, nor was she to publicly expose her situation. Fadime deliberately broke both of these rules, continuously articulating herself in various Swedish media in a highly self-assertive manner.

    Just 2 months before her death, Fadime was invited to the Swedish parliament to talk about young immigrant women's situation in Sweden. She was hesitant, even scared, due to her family's response to her continued public presence. But she also felt that it was vital that she continue to draw attention to the issues faced by young immigrant women. Her death spurred a debate not only in the Swedish press but also in the Muslim and Turkish communities and was followed by a range of governmental initiatives aimed at helping young women in similar situations. Some of the difficult questions raised are these: Was Fadime a victim, and if so, what of? Her gender? Her ethnicity? Her religion? Her sexuality? Her culture? All of these? Or was she the victim of something else entirely? How are we to understand her media performances and the degree of agency they exposed? Is Fadime to be considered a highly competent agent, a true multicultural heroine? More difficult still: Have we the courage to understand the killer—her father—who insisted that he was the real victim?

    Fadime's story illustrates the complexities facing the field of gender communication in the 21st century. In what manner can a feminist communication scholar approach this difficult case? She might, for instance, be tempted to highlight the ways in which girls and women in Turkish-Muslim communities in Sweden are expected to maintain the honor of the family and the discriminatory implications thereof: Fadime was not permitted to engage in intimate relationships with other Swedish and non-Muslim men, while Fadime's brother openly had ethnic Swedish, non-Muslim girlfriends. Or how about the way Fadime was banned from speaking in public? These prohibitions remind us of other ways in which girls and women have been silenced. Thus, a feminist communication scholar might focus on the gender-stereotypic restrictions faced by Fadime. In this scenario, Fadime is clearly a victim. She has little power and little voice. Patriarchal conventions shaped her life and ultimately killed her.

    On the other hand, we know that in order to do justice to Fadime's story, we must also address her courage and her agency. Accordingly, a feminist communication scholar could home in on Fadime's strong, eloquent voice in the media, interpreting it as evidence of assertiveness and communicative skills. Yet another way of interpreting Fadime's story could be to highlight the dilemmas inherent to the situation and the conflicting discourses she had to balance, as well as the ambiguous implications of the possible positions available to her in a given situation and context. In our view, neither interpretation is a matter of “correct” or “incorrect” feminist communication scholarship. Rather, we perceive the different analyses as consequences of different assumptions about gender, communication, and power, and we further believe that these assumptions may be discussed as scholarly sets of theories and methodologies.

    The aim of this book is to outline these sets, developed within feminist communications scholarship, explaining them in terms of different approaches or “toolboxes” to guide both research and the scholarly assessment hereof. At this point, perhaps the reader has no intention of conducting feminist research. Perhaps this is your first “gender” course. You may be unfamiliar with the highly academic discourse of “theories,” “methods,” and so on. You may not even know whether you like the subject. Perhaps you even question feminism, not even knowing how to define it. Within the context of this book, however, it is not important whether you consider yourself a feminist, nor is the book intended to convert you or even encourage you to engage in your own feminist scholarship. What is important is that you gain a critical understanding of what feminist academic scholarship is or can be. We believe that when you understand the assumptions that guide feminist communication scholarship, you will become a more sophisticated critic. You may also begin to relate these issues to your own personal life: like criticizing a commercial for being sexist, discussing with friends whether a movie is gender stereotypical, interpreting the homophobic humor of one of your colleagues, or wondering about the subtle communication of a lover. In each of these instances, you are simultaneously trying to make sense of your own communication, thereby drawing on your personal, implicit assumptions (theories) about gender, communication, and power.

    Just as you may find yourself faced with contradictory thoughts and opinions about gender, we argue that feminist communication scholars find themselves in the middle of an intense theoretical and methodological discussion that questions the very object of our studies. We shall describe to you how the field has shifted focus from “the muted woman” to “grrl power”: a move from silence to performance. We believe this was motivated by a paradigm shift traceable to a more general theoretical shift within the social sciences and the humanities, frequently described as “poststructural-ism.” To the poststructuralist, it makes no sense to talk about “women”/ “men” or “femininity”/“masculinity.” Not only are these categories considered to be too simplistic, they are also thought to reinforce heterosexuality as the norm and uphold a gender-dichotomous communication system. However, it does makes sense to discuss gender constitution in communication, and attention then becomes focused on the ways in which we perform gender along narrow lines in order to obtain cultural legibility. Note that the performance metaphor does not suggest that gendered performances are entirely open and free, but rather that they are embedded in sets of conventions and cultural expectations. Similarly, poststructuralists propose that no one really has power and no one is quite without power, just as there is no inherently powerful communication style. On the contrary, power is productive and negotiable, albeit also unevenly distributed along a range of social stratifications, such as gender, ethnicity/race, and sexuality and diverse intersections hereof. If we relate this turn toward performance, henceforth referred to as “the performance turn,” to Fadime's case, we are obliged to develop a sophisticated understanding of how Fadime was simultaneously being positioned by others and positioning herself in different situations, relations, and contexts: the media, her family, her friends, and her partner. We may then find that in some of these encounters, she engaged quite successfully in communication agency, while struggling in others—not only with the prohibitions of a sexist community but also with the expectations of a supposedly gender-equal community.

    In this book, we have chosen to distinguish between feminist structuralist communication scholarship and feminist poststructuralist communication scholarship in terms of sets of theories and methodologies, which may again be subdivided. Thus, we distinguish between the “dominance and deficit approach” as opposed to the “difference and identity approach” within feminist structuralism, as well as between the “performance approach” versus the “transversity approach” within feminist poststructuralism. These distinctions serve as useful conceptual tools, but at this point, we also wish to emphasize that the interrelations of the various strands of theory and methodology are often highly complex and that each approach is continuously revitalized within the field of feminist communication scholarship.

    The fact that gender and communication is now an established academic field is an important premise of our book. There is already a vast bulk of scholarship on this topic (Cameron, 2000; Foss, Foss, & Griffin, 1999, 2004; Tannen, 1990, 1993a; Wood, 1999). Add to this the literature on gender and language (Coates, 1998; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 2003; Hall & Bucholtz, 1995; Holmes & Meyerhoff, 2003; Mills 1995b), on gender and discourse (Bucholtz, Liang, & Sutton, 1999; Wodak, 1997), and feminist scholarship in these sub-areas (Bergvall, Bing, & Freed, 1996; Cameron, 1998a), and the body of work seems even more overwhelming. It is, therefore, time to outline our priorities. Our emphasis is on feminist communication scholarship, and we have chosen to highlight scholars who discuss the ways they ground their research in theories and methodologies while taking an interdisciplinary stand. Furthermore, we have opted to focus on scholars who have been inspirational both to feminist communication scholarship per se and to the discipline at large, even if they do not term themselves “communication scholars.”

    We have been eclectic in our overviews of feminist scholarship (outlined in Figures 1.1 to 3.1) in order to strengthen our chosen line of argument; thus, we want to forewarn you at this point that the range of scholars presented is by no means an exhaustive one. What is more, we have chosen to illustrate the general theoretical and methodological tenets of feminist communication scholarship within two specific contexts: the media and organizations. We realize that this choice means the exclusion of a great deal of interesting work on gender in other contexts, such as the family and interpersonal relationships. However, this strict contextual focus allows us to document how feminist communication scholarship has developed within the structuralist and poststructuralist agendas, respectively, and we hope that it will help our readers understand the way the different approaches function as scholarly toolboxes, giving rise to quite different analyses from the same contexts.

    Figure 1.1 Feminist Positions: From Equity to Transversity

    To provide a context for our own presentation of the subject of gender and communication, we shall, in Chapter 1, introduce you to feminism. We shall do so in terms of three major waves or movements, which each represent significant interactions of theory and politics during the last centuries, mainly in the so-called modern, Western part of the world. To highlight the diversity of feminism and the ways in which feminists have communicated themselves, we have chosen to include quotations and citations that illustrate the eloquence of women's voices as articulated by first- to third-wave rhetoricians. In Chapters 2 and 3, we trace the intersections between feminism, social theory, and communication scholarship, on one hand, and feminism, methodology, and communication research, on the other. Each intersection will be outlined in a model (Figures 2.1. and 3.1), to be explained in Chapters 4 through 7. We then go on to discuss examples of structuralism in feminist communication scholarship, and two distinct approaches within this conceptual framework in Chapters 4 and 5. In Chapter 4, the focus is on what we term “muted group theory” and the “dominance and deficit approach,” respectively, which we again relate to sociolinguistics and conversation analysis (CA). In Chapter 5, we examine standpoint theory and the difference and identity approach, which we situate within the framework of critical theory and critical discourse analysis (CDA). Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the conceptual framework of feminist poststructuralism. In Chapter 6, we explore the challenges of performance and positioning theory and their anchoring in poststructuralist discourse analysis (PDA). In Chapter 7, we conclude our book by summing up the discussion of these different approaches, outlining a possible future for feminist communication scholarship and suggesting possible reformulations of the research agenda. We pose questions related to transgender and cyborg theory, and to transversal theory and politics, and we further discuss digital discourse analysis as the possible forerunners of a transversity, perhaps even a transfeminist, approach.

    “It's not easy bein' green,” sings Kermit the Frog in the Muppet Show. Nor has it been easy for us to prioritize in this manner. However, it is our hope that in so doing, we have provided our readers with something that stands out in the now well-established scholarly field of gender and communication. This book is based on the claim that there are many different ways to approach, for instance, the case of Fadime from a gender and communication perspective. For instance, one might choose a classical communication model, highlighting the transference of text/message from sender to receiver, messenger, and so on. In fact, much feminist communication scholarship has centered around methods of developing this model into a particular feminist communication model by emphasizing the dialectics of text, situation and context (Mills, 1995a). This has not been our intention. We do not wish to pursue a feminist model or any other model, but rather to investigate the basic approaches to language and discourse that form the basis of communication models. In Fadime's case, for instance, we would focus on the ways in which communication is embedded in discourses on gender, legitimacy, and power. We shall now leave Fadime for the time being, but she will be with us throughout the book, and we shall return to her in the end.

    Acknowledgments

    A project such as this one is completed only with the help and support of a number of people. We are particularly grateful to the reviewers (see list below), whose comments and suggestions were invaluable. In addition, we would like to thank the College of the Humanities at the University of Southern Denmark, who generously financed revisions of our writing, as well as the Institution San Cataldo, for a stipend and residency to help in the initial writing process. We would further like to acknowledge the secretaries and colleagues at the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, without whose backing we could not have completed the project. Not to forget our husbands, sons, other family members, and friends who have taken a lively interest in the subject and displayed great generosity. Last, we would also like to extend a very special thanks to Todd Armstrong, Deya Saoud, Kristen Gibson, and Carla Freeman from Sage for their work on this book.

    We are particularly grateful to the following reviewers, whose recommendations at various stages of this book's development were invaluable.

    • Patrice M. Buzzanell, Purdue University
    • Karen A. Foss, University of New Mexico
    • Kristin M. Langellier, University of Maine
    • Karen Lovaas, San Francisco State University
    • Erin Sahlstein, University of Richmond
    • Angela Trethewey, Arizona State University
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    About the Authors

    Charlotte Kroløkke (PhD, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; MA, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks; BA, University of Southern Denmark) is Assistant Professor at the Center for Cultural Studies, Institute of Literature, Culture, and Media at the University of Southern Denmark. She has worked especially within the fields of computer-mediated communication and third-wave feminist rhetoric on the Internet. She is a member of U.S. and Danish gender and communication associations and a board member of the National Danish Gender Studies Library in Copenhagen, Denmark.

    Anne Scott Sørensen (PhD, University of Southern Denmark; MA, Aarhus University; BA, Royal School of Library & Information Science) is Associate Professor and head of the Center for Cultural Studies, Institute of Literature, Culture, and Media at the University of Southern Denmark. She has written extensively on gendered speech communities, from the salons in Europe in the 18 th to 20th centuries to the online communities of young people in the 21st century. She is head of the Danish Network for Cultural Studies and a board member of the international Association of Cultural Studies (ACS).


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