Saturday, April 15, 2017

Revising gender: discourses and debates

Gender as a topic area features in both the AS and A level, and can appear in either part of Paper 2. You could get an AS level "Discuss the idea that..." or an A level "Evaluate the idea that..." question in Section A or gender might feature as part of 'language discourses' in Section B.

What is meant by 'discourses'? Well, it's something that I've defined elsewhere as a debate or argument about language, but it can also be treated as a way of thinking about, talking about and describing language. If you want to get academic about it (and why wouldn't you?) here's what the linguist Paul Baker has to say about it in his excellent book about language, gender and sexuality, Sexed Texts:

Language constructs ideas about gender, represents them to us and often helps establish them as 'common sense'. When people write about gender, they often articulate many of the existing discourses - that gender interaction is like a battle of the sexes, a form of combat, or that debates about gendered pronouns are about a form of repression or policing of natural language - and part of your job at both AS and A level is to unpick those discourses and find alternative ways to express them. 

For example, at AS level, you were asked in Section B of last summer's AS Paper 2 to write an opinion piece in which you discussed claims about female and male communication and the stimulus text was an extract from a Mail Online article about how men are supposed to use one kind of filler an women another. Even the Mail article (yes, even the Mail) managed to point out that it wasn't always as simple as saying that men do x and women do y, because they pointed out that there are what they termed 'betweeners' such as David Beckham, Jessie J and Eminem who mix and match their umms and errs. The article also pointed out that age might have a bearing on the kind of filler a person uses.

Why does this matter? Here's the main reason. If the stimulus text shows that it's not quite as simple as saying that men do x and women do y, then why do they use a headline that suggests exactly the opposite and why do they think that is an appropriate way to frame the debate? Maybe because, as Deborah Cameron pointed out a few years ago, difference sells. To paraphrase Cameron, headlines such as "Newsflash: men and women use language in largely the same ways" don't really have as much appeal as ones that propose there's a difference. She talks more about these dubious claims in her (highly recommended) Myth of Mars and Venus and has this to say about such reductive headlines in an extract from that book on The Guardian's site in 2007:

Most people, of course, do not read academic journals: they get their information about scientific research findings from the reports that appear in newspapers, or from TV science documentaries. These sources often feature research on male-female differences, since media producers know that there is interest in the subject. But the criteria producers use when deciding which studies to report and how to present them introduce another layer of distortion. And sometimes headlines trumpet so-called facts that turn out, on investigation, to have no basis in evidence at all.
The other reason it matters is that if you are going to produce an opinion piece about gender and interaction, it makes sense not to parrot the simplistic, black and white discourses of the popular press, but to offer something a bit more nuanced. Not only is this good for getting marks on AO2 (concepts, knowledge about language, theory and research) but it's good for your AO5.

If you can engage your readers and inform them about language in a way that shows you understand the media discourses around gender and manipulate them for your own ends - perhaps even subverting them and challenging them in the process - you can pick up marks for style, structure and shaping of language. If you can show that you have read, tasted and perhaps even digested others' opinions, you can do a better job of expressing your own views.

And when it comes to the A level, where you might be required to pull apart the language of articles and other popular media texts about gender (or sociolect, accent and dialect, world Englishes, language change for that matter, where all these discourses recur) your ability to spot popular and prevalent discourses, and then to interrogate them, could really help you with the text analysis task in Question 3.

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