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Review of Dyke/Girl: Language and Identities in a Lesbian Group
Jones 2012’s monograph addresses the concept of lesbian-specific discourse through the application of Eckert and McConnell-Ginet’s Theory of a Specific Community of Practice (CoP) (2005) and Bucholtz and Hall’s (2005) framework for sociocultural linguistic analysis. This study focuses on a group of middle-class, self-identified lesbian women, who are largely in their late 50s or early 60s, with a common interest in hiking. Jones inserts herself in their community, gains acceptance, and conducts a sociolinguistic study on their use of positioning as either a ‘Dyke’ or a ‘Girl’. Beginning with an overview of sociolinguistic studies with a specific focus on social identities, Jones moves into a discussion of queer and LGBT identities, where she highlights samples of discussions among the ‘Sapphic Stompers’ to create the Dyke/Girl dichotomy. This specific dichotomy mirrors a heteronormative structure of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ roles in the lesbian community. The members of Jones’ hiking group posit themselves to be more Dyke than Girl through the conversations analyzed in this book.
In her first four chapters, Jones outlines her specific methodology, which bridges sociocultural linguistics, the relationship between language and sexuality and their relationships to ethnographic studies. She connects the sociolinguistic concept of CoP with queer linguistic studies, noting a specific absence of studies on lesbian and female-bodied discourse. Jones notes that much of the sociolinguistic work on queer discourses is centered on gay men; her book joins the small ranks of lesbian-centric studies of social identity construction in queer linguistics. Jones’s ethnographic concerns are given an entire chapter to themselves, which addresses various criticisms of sociolinguistics with aplomb.
The subsequent four chapters posit the social differences between the Dyke and the Girl for the Sapphic Stompers through an analysis of several different interactions that emphasize: discussions of style, stance and social practice in Chapter 6; inclusion in a community through performative authenticity in Chapter 7; and maintaining a shared identity when politics differ in Chapter 8. These chapters apply the sociolinguistic and sociocultural methodologies outlined in Chapters 2-4, while continuing to address the concerns from Chapter 4 (“Doing Ethnography with the Stompers”).
Jones closes with a discussion of the CoP model and how it is successful for this kind of sociolinguistic research (Chapter 9) and the role of sexuality in sociocultural linguistics (Chapter 10). In these chapters, she revisits her methodology and addresses its impact on her results.
Jones’s book fills a gap in queer sociolinguistics by focusing specifically on the discourses of lesbians as a participant of their CoP. This approach is not without ethnographic concerns, which she addresses carefully in Chapter 4 and Chapter 9. Ways her methods may have been disruptive and/or not entirely ethical are discussed in detail, which is a major strength of this book. Over the course of 15 months of observation, she realizes she has accidentally befriended these women. Her study is effectively bookended by chapters where she explores the potential consequences of this in her research, in addition to the possible biases which may be inherent in the discourse analysis of a specific identity group. Though Jones admits that she also self-identifies as a lesbian (p. 54), she rightfully suggests that this is a strength to her study, as she has the relevant cultural capital to not infringe on the Sapphic Stompers’ natural conversation. The attention given to this issue runs the risk of being tedious; here, it is carefully curated to address a reader’s concerns about the study directly.
The careful considerations given to identity and methods in this text highlight the difficulties in ethnographic sociolinguistic research, and Jones presents a clear discussion of her samples, devoting a chapter to each one. These samples cover a variety of conversations about the perceived qualities of and in community references to lesbianism (e.g., ‘the finger question’, The L Word, visible lesbians, skirt-wearing, among others), allowing the participants to discuss what their perceptions of the Dyke/Girl dichotomy are, and how the participants see themselves in relation to this binary distinction. This involves a deconstruction of heteronormative femininity, its relationship to lesbian authenticity, and how this fits into this community of practice.
As Jones argues, this process constructs Dyke to be the dominant CoP for the Sapphic Stompers. A “Girl” stance can be presented as being so femme as to be unrecognizable as a lesbian identity. When “Girl”ishness is presented, it is not perceived as a direct threat to the Dyke stance. Instead, “Girl”ishness is presented as merely inauthentic rather than threatening, thus positing the Sapphic Stompers outside a heteronormative worldview. This sets up a number of jokes about “Girl”ishness, in which Jones deconstructs the power dynamics at play to create this specific type of discourse. Though billed as a sociolinguistic study, it is just as much about discourse analysis as it is about linguistic enactments of social constructions of a shared sociocultural capital. Jones addresses these jokes with a careful deconstruction for a nonmember of the lesbian community, without detracting from her microanalysis of the Stompers’ discourse.
Jones does not ignore the other various social identities of these women, which adds further depth to her analysis. Although they are around the same age and in the same socioeconomic group, with many of the same interests, Jones is careful to not to make assumptions about their similarity. Though she is more concerned with their queer identity than their various social identities, she does not ignore it at all -- in her early chapters, she addresses how queer studies as a broad theoretical approach has arisen from gender studies and sociology, setting the stage for her later discussion of intersecting identities. The Sapphic Stompers, as a group, are all older than Jones. A number of examples in the book discuss the impact of generational queer identities: Is Shane, from The L Word, really a Dyke?; Are Dykes allowed to wear skirts now, or is that still too Girlish? The themes touched on in this book -- maintenance of a lesbian identity, sociopolitical approaches to queer feminism, and authenticity -- are all closely tied to lesbian culture and social interactions. Though, as Jones says, “they use stereotypes to index often exaggerated lesbian persona [...] one could argue that the women parodied the ideological lesbian in order to find something coherent to engage with” (129).
Jones carefully considers how these identities are informing their lesbian identity and in what ways they might be different from her own identity, without impeding her analysis and role as a participant observer. One study in particular (Section 7.2.1) is most indicative of this. In a social gathering with the usual Sapphic Stomper hikers, one of the women presents Jones with a pamphlet, thinking that she might be interested (p. 107). This prompts a discussion of queer identities and feminist ideologies for the Sapphic Stompers and ways they have changed since the publication of this pamphlet -- things that Jones does not necessarily know, having not lived through it. This chapter in particular highlights the social and cultural understandings of this shared history, but this has been the undercurrent of the chapters leading up to it: The Sapphic Stompers construct the Dyke identity as a specific variety of first-wave feminist ideology. Unlike the other examples, where they might make a joke of the perceived “Girl”ishness of not being Dyke enough, the group deconstructions the Girl/Dyke dichotomy of first-wave feminism for Jones. In many examples, Jones is the one introducing a discussion point, but here the tables are turned on her, creating a more natural discussion. This chapter is one that clearly causes some concern for Jones; she has realized that she’s not just a participant observer but now fully ingrained in their social world. Without this chapter, however, I suspect the study would be much weaker, as it may veer too dangerously close to dealing explicitly with posed ethnographic questions determined to elicit a response -- instead, this chapter gives the book a certain authenticity which it was in danger of missing out on completely.
Ultimately, this study highlights that the construction of a Dyke identity is more desirable than that of a Girl identity within the community of the Sapphic Stompers. Jones’ study adds to the currently small amount of scholarship which exclusively addresses lesbian-specific interaction. She has succeeded in creating space for further studies in cross-generational lesbian language; it is my hope that this study will open further avenues for queer sociolinguistics research much in the same way that Paul Baker’s (2002a, 2002b) work on Polari, the now-lost language of gay men, has.
Baker, P. (2002a) “Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang”. London: Continuum.
Baker, P. (2002b). “Polari: The Lost Language of Gay Men”. London: Routledge
Bucholtz, M., and K. Hall (2005). Identity and Interaction: A Sociocultural Linguistic Approach. “Discourse Studies” 7(4-5), 584-614.
Eckert, P. and S. McConnell-Ginet. (1992) “Communities of Practice: Where Language, Gender and Power all Live”. In Kira Hall, Mary Bucholtz and Birch Moonwomon eds., Locating Power, Proceedings of the 1992 Berkeley Women and Language Conference.
Eckert, P. and E. Wenger. (2005) “What is the role of power in sociolinguistic variation?” “Journal of Sociolinguistics” 9:4. 582-9.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Heather Froehlich is a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde, where she studies gender in Early Modern London plays using methods and approaches from corpus stylistics, historical sociolinguistics, and discourse analysis.