AUTHOR: Deborah Cameron TITLE: On Language and Sexual Politics PUBLISHER: Routledge YEAR: 2006 ISBN: 0-415-37344-1
Charlotte Brammer, Department of Communication Studies, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, USA
In this text, Deborah Cameron identifies major themes and positions that connect eleven previously published articles and formal speeches. Readers who are familiar with Cameron's forthright style will appreciate her directness in introducing the four parts of the text as well as the brief contexts she provides for each article and recorded speech. As representative of much of Cameron's work, the articles contained in this text are written for sociolinguists, applied linguists, feminists, and anyone else who is interested in women's studies, cultural studies, and political language and culture. Her candor makes even complex arguments accessible.
In the introduction to ON LANGUAGE AND SEXUAL POLITICS, Cameron asserts that her work ''treats the relationship between language and gender primarily as a political issue'' and through it, she ''attempts to understand the role of language in the conflicts and power struggles that shape relations between men and women'' (p. 1). While acknowledging some theoretical kinship to dominance approaches and social constructionism, Cameron emphasizes her critiques of various aspects of these paradigms and focuses the discussion on gender relations, particularly critiquing the ''prevailing social arrangements between men and women'' (p. 2). Power is an important factor in these socially constructed arrangements. Language is both ''the medium in which many conflicts about the nature and proper relationship of men and women are played out'' and ''a focus for conflict in its own right'' (p. 3). Cameron contextualizes her work both historically and socially, noting that feminism is in a ''waning rather than a waxing phase'' and explaining how this shift is evident in her writing in much the same way that ''much of the meaning of any individual's work lies in the historical conditions that produced it'' (pp. 8-9).
The first section of the text, The Sexual Politics of Representation, contains two previously published articles and ''an edited version of a presentation'' for the 2004 Conference of the International Gender and Language Association. In the introduction to the first article, ''Sexism and semantics'' (originally published in RADICAL PHILOSOPHY in 1984), Cameron explains her disagreement with Dale Spender's (1980) ''Man Made Language'' in which, according to Cameron, he argues ''that the meanings encoded in language reflected the experience and world-view of men rather than women'' but confesses to a somewhat softer view of coded sexism in language, a change resulting primarily from developments in pragmatic approaches to linguistics ''which do not reduce interpretation to decoding'' (p. 13). She is also quite direct in reasserting her belief that ''Without a satisfactory theory of how meanings are constructed and reproduced, practical proposals to deal with sexist language will themselves be unsatisfactory'' (p. 13). In introducing ''Non-sexist language: lost in translation,'' Cameron acknowledges criticism for the article's somewhat harsh and aggressive tone but is rather unapologetic, explaining her tone as appropriate because, as she says, ''I was writing for a publication that did not require me to mince [words], but it was also because I did not want to be seen as a hypocrite'' (p. 20). Her tone is no less direct in her criticism of advertising standards, ''Language, sexism and advertising standards.'' She expresses her displeasure in the lack of progress feminists have made in media criticism, concluding finally that current advertising standards continue to be ''more in line with a conservative social and sexual agenda whose values are heteronormative, patriarchal and phallocentric'' (p. 42).
Part II: Power and difference also consists of three earlier publications. The first article, ''The form and function of tag questions,'' was written with Fiona McAlinden and Kathy O'Leary in 1988. This article is one of the primary critiques of Robin Lakoff's LANGUAGE AND WOMAN'S PLACE (1975). In re-publishing it here, Cameron reaffirms her position that ''there is seldom if ever a one-to-one mapping between linguistic form and communicative function'' (p.46). In her introduction to ''Performing gender identity: Young men's talk and the construction of heterosexual masculinity'' (1997), Cameron points out the deficiency in linguistic studies of middle-aged males. In this discussion of gender performance, as first introduced my Judith Butler (1990), Cameron emphasizes the importance of context: ''People do perform gender differently in different contexts, and do sometimes behave in ways we would normally associate with the 'other' gender'' (p. 64). ''Is there any ketchup, Vera?: Gender, power and pragmatics'' (1998) critiques Deborah Tannen's use of difference theory in YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND (1990) and, importantly, also criticizes dominance theory, positing instead that the ''key ingredient is conflict, not just in the abstract sense that two groups objectively have conflicting interests, but in the more concrete sense that subjective awareness of these conflicting interests has caused individuals within a society to diverge in their actual beliefs about gender relations'' (p. 85).
Ideologies of language and gender, Part III of the text, addresses pervasive beliefs about language and gender that permeate popular culture. The first article, ''Verbal hygiene for women: Linguistics misapplied?'' (1994) questions the ''misapplication'' of linguistics, primarily as a way of countering the widespread belief that women must talk more ''assertively'' if they are to be successful. In contrast, ''Styling the worker: Gender and the commodification of language in the global service economy'' (2000), Cameron expresses concern over the privileging of speech characteristics often associated with women (expressiveness, questioning, etc.), suggesting that the ''degendering'' of ''women's language'' may simply mean a continued devaluation of service work and service workers. ''Men are from Earth, women are from Earth'' (2003) was a speech delivered at Leeds University's Centre for International Gender Studies and addresses John Gray's popular press MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS (1992). In this written speech, Cameron clearly articulates the underlying premise for much of her work, namely, ''any difference in men's and women's ways of communicating is not natural and inevitable, but cultural and political'' (p, 145).
Part IV: Language, gender, and sexuality has two articles. ''Naming of Parts: Gender, culture and terms for the penis among American college students'' (1992) is, in Cameron's terms, ''a modest contribution to the long-standing debate about the relationship between reality and its linguistic representation'' (p. 150) and concludes that while men use terms that imply ''masculinity as dominance, femininity as passivity, and sex as conquest,'' women ''may reject certain metaphors which the men endorse, but [they] offer no real alternatives'' (p. 162). For Cameron, creating new metaphors are needed to reframe the political aspects of language and gender. This theme is revisited, albeit for a different topic, in the final paper, a speech she delivered at the University of Washington in Seattle, 2003. Appropriately titled ''Straight talking: The sociolinguistics of heterosexuality.'' Cameron posits that ''it is important for research informed by a radical sexual politics to focus critically on mainstream or majority norms and practices… [in order to challenge] the cultural tendency to exclude, devalue and demonize'' (p. 166).
This text provides a strong argument for both the depth and breadth of Cameron's scholarship. Her rich descriptions situate the articles and speeches well and will be invaluable to researchers who are interested in gendered language. The text's organization works to tie her early scholarship to her more recent publications and to connect the personal language of individuals(from Part I) to the current and meta-discourse discussions of the politics of gendered/ sexual language. On a practical side, publications prior to 1992 are not readily available via the web, and this text will make several articles and certainly the speeches accessible to researchers. This is important because Cameron's work is important for anyone seeking to understand traditional and current theories and trends (and criticisms) in the study of gendered language and politics.
Gray, John (1992). MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS. New York: HarperCollins.
Lakoff, Robin (1975). LANGUAGE AND WOMAN'S PLACE. New York: Harper and Row.
Spender, Dale (1980). MAN MADE LANGUAGE. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Tannen, Deborah (1990). YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND: MEN AND WOMEN IN CONVERSATION. New York: Morrow.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Dr. Charlotte Brammer is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, Howard College of Arts and Sciences, and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. She received her Ph.D. in English/Applied Linguistics from the University of Alabama. Her research interests include writing pedagogy, professional communication, and sociolinguistics.