Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Revising gender for AS & A level: legs-it and baby bumps

We've made a start on revising gender for Paper 2 of the A level this week and I've also been finishing off gender with my AS classes before we head into lots of exam revision. There's not a lot of time to teach everything on the A level part of the course after doing the AS last year, so we're relying a fair bit on the material students covered in class last year and hoping they revise the key things themselves, but I've been trying to find a way of approaching it that works.

Anyway, today's Daily Mail front page provided an absolute gift for the representation of gender. If you haven't seen it, it's this monstrosity below.


While the picture and caption make me want to bang my head repeatedly on the keyboard, shouting "This.Is.Not.The.1950s!" there's something in the whole way that this is presented that goes beyond what I've traditionally taught for this topic and made me consider another angle.

A lot of the focus on gender and language (for me, at least) has been on words and meanings: which words and which meanings and how we can raise awareness about what words might connote and how they are unequal - lexical asymmetry and semantic derogation, basically. There's also what language can do in terms of its syntax - constructing male as doer and actor and woman as receiver and patient. There's even what morphology can offer - suffixes that diminish women's roles and those that mark gender where it seems unnecessary (actress...waitress...why not just actor and waiter?).

So far so good. But when I've introduced language analysis to my students, I've always tried to conceptualise it as something that goes from tiny details of language to the much bigger picture, so am I missing something here?

We've got morphemes, words, phrases and clauses, but does any of that really explain what's so offensive and wrong about the Mail headline? It's not really the word 'legs-it' that's bad is it? We all have legs, don't we? The word legs is not really on a par with bad words like slag, sket and ho. No it's something that's working at a higher level than words, phrases and clauses that's the issue here and that's discourse. Discourse - as I've been grappling with in various articles - is a term that has multiple meanings in language study but here it's working as a couple of things: as language used at a level beyond the sentence and as a way of constructing and representing ideas.

The offensiveness comes from the wider discourse that's presented: that women - strong, powerful, political women (whatever you think of their party politics) - are not to be taken seriously and only deserve to be belittled and trivialised by talking about their legs. Their legs. On the front page of a national newspaper.

It's the same discourse that allows other national papers to discuss the human rights barrister, Amal Clooney's appearance at the United Nations in terms of her baby bump and high heels.

So, gender representation works on a level beyond the levels of words, phrases and clauses and on a wider textual and discourse level. That makes it slightly harder to pin down and analyse but it also offers some ways into it, and over the next week or two we'll have a look at different approaches to language and gender (and some other areas) to think about what AS and A level students could say about them.

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