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Review of  Gendered Discourses

Reviewer: Stacia Ann Levy
Book Title: Gendered Discourses
Book Author: Jane Sunderland
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 16.1762

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Subject: Gendered Discourses

AUTHOR: Sunderland, Jane
TITLE: Gendered Discourses
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2004

Stacia Levy, University of the Pacific


In this book, addressed to an audience of researchers and advanced
students, the author provides a review of the literature on gendered
discourse, addressing both the theory and methods of gender and
discourse studies as well as examining past research on gender
discourse, such as gender as portrayed in children's literature and in
the media. The author also examines such areas of thought as the
construction of identity through gender, how gendered discourse may
be damaging, and methods to correct it.


In the introduction, the author lays out the focus and the organization
of the book, which is identifying gendered discourse in texts The
author also deals with key themes in the field, such as there being no
finite and easily identifiable set of discourses: the concept is inherently
permeable. "Discourse" simply means a length of spoken and written
text, and there are any number of kinds of discourses. The author
also addresses the organization of the book: Part 1 discusses key
concepts in the field, and Part 2 has an empirical focus and looks at
past studies in discourse analysis. Interestingly, the author does not
address part 3 in the introduction, but it deals with the issues of
construction of gender through discourse and damaging discourses.

Chapter 1 Discourse, Discourse Analysis, and Gender
In this chapter, the author deals with important issues in the field, such
as discourse study, gender, and construction of self through
discourse. The author also discusses related fields and lines of
inquiry, such as critical discourse analysis and conversation analysis.
The author offers definitions and examples of each of these concepts

Chapter 2 Discourse, Discourse Identification, and Naming
Here the author addresses how to identify discourses and offers
examples as well as presents lists of currently identified discourses.
Traditional practices within the field, such as identifying lexical choices
and grammatical features associated with specific discourses, are also
discussed. The author offers examples of "discourse spotting," or
identifying discourses, such as an advertisement of a hall available for
weddings, which the author found had various discourses associated
with it, such as a promotional discourse and a "biggest day of a
woman's life" discourse (p. 35). Linguistic features identifying
the "promotional discourse" are noun phrases such as "spectacular
backdrop," "the most romantic and idyllic of settings," "spectacular
views," etc. The author concludes by naming some different
discourses identified to date: descriptive discourses such
as "classroom" and "cultural" as well as interpretative, relational
discourses such as "alternative," "dominant," "oppositional," and finally
gendered interpretative discourses such as and "equal opportunities"
discourse and "mother as main parent" discourse (p. 48-50). This sets
the stage for Chapter 3, where the author focuses specifically on
gendered discourses.

Chapter 3 Some Gendered Discourses Identified to Date
The author here identifies a "gender differences" discourse as
probably the most "popular" of gendered discourse, an overarching
discourse under which a number of "subdiscourses" fall, such as a
discourses concerning gender and employment opportunities and
discourses on the menopause. The author offers specific examples of
each of these.

Chapter 4 Gendered Discourses in the Classroom

Chapter 4 begins Part 2, where the author reviews past studies in
gendered discourse.
The line of inquiry discussed in this chapter, the study of gender
differences in classroom talk, is rather traditional now, being a focus of
feminist work for thirty years. The author explores both discourses
found in classrooms, both unique to classrooms and not, such as the
equal opportunities discourse, privileged femininity discourse, neat
girls discourses, girls as good language learners' discourse, and poor
boys discourse. The author addresses the problem that what may
appear to be an emancipatory discourse and celebrating the alleged
superiority of women (e.g. "women as good language learners") are
really conservative discourses designed to keep the status quo: e.g.
language teaching jobs are poorly paid positions traditionally held by

Chapter 5 Fatherhood Discourses in Parenting Magazines
In Chapters 5 and 6 the author analyzes how fatherhood is
represented in print text. She finds the institution in a state of flux, as
are gender relations more widely. The author begins by addressing
the notion that we "perform" different selves through the selection of
different discourses: this is called "self-positioning" (p. 102): for
example a man may, through discourse, "perform" and "position"
himself as an involved, hands-on father. Different parenting
magazines were analyzed in these studies on the discourse of
fatherhood, for both what was present and what was notably absent.
The author found representation of fatherhood -- or often, lack
thereof -- in "parenting" ("mothering"?) magazines "at best, mixed, at
worst, discouraging" (p. 109) because of such notions "part-time
fatherhood," apparent in the absence of fathers and focus on the
mother: it is apparent that mothers are considered "the main parent" in
most of these publications.

Chapter 6 Celebrity Fatherhood: The Blair Baby
The author begins with a discussion of what "to father" has meant
traditionally: it is not an equivalent term to "to mother" (i.e., actual
involvement in childcare; a man can "father" a child and have no
contact with the child). The author examined other fatherhood
discourses, beyond those found in the parenting magazines,
specifically the May 2000 birth of British Prime Minister Blair's baby, as
it was covered in British newspapers. The birth was interesting to
gendered discourses as Blair is viewed as a "modern" leader and
therefore might be expected to "promote (if not practise)'shared
parenting' more than most prime ministers" (p. 125). The author
examined the reports of the birth in a small corpora of news reports in
the days after the birth and in editorials. The author found that, as
with the parenting magazines discussed in the last chapter, these
articles drew heavily on a "part-time" father discourse as well as
a "modern, hands-on father" discourse. This was achieved both by the
journalists' representation of Blair as well as his own self-construction,
or how he represented himself through language.

The author found evidence for these discourses in the recurring
themes of nappy, or diaper, changing and tiredness. "Nappy changing
appears to be the prototypical activity for the 'hands-on' father within
these reports" the author points out (p. 129). The author cites as an
example a report of how Blair had taken on the "nappy changing"
duties while his wife, exhausted after 12 hours of labor, rested. The
author points out, however, it was impossible to believe the prime
minister only changed diapers if this were truly the scenario: the baby
would also have to be comforted and walked with and rocked and
cleaned and so forth. But it is the diaper-changing the press chose to
focus on, perhaps because it fits well with both a "hands-on" father
discourse and a "part-time" father discourse (that is, one could
change a baby's diaper without taking full responsibility for the
child.) "Nappy changing (and awkwardness) seems to be one way the
media are able to present Blair as an acceptable 'new father' without
running the risk of showing him as one who might be fully responsible
for…baby care, something that would 'disturb' contemporary
heterosexual gender relations" (p 130).

Chapter 7 Gendered Discourses in Children's Literature
Critiquing children's literature, the author points out, has been a
fundamental part of the women's movement from the beginning.
Feminists' critiques of classic fairytales, such as Snow White, for
example, and what they say about gender are well-known. In this
section, as in others, the author uses a framework of critical discourse
analysis to identify discourses through linguistic traces, or features, in
contemporary, award-winning U.S. children's fiction and nonfiction.
The author found four sets of gendered discourses in these books:
the "traditionally gendered," a "division of labor discourse," "men as
artists," "boy as adventurer," "feminist discourse, " and "subversive
discourse." The author also addresses certain concerns in children's
literature: most of the protagonists are male; most of the readers are
female, and whether or not females are disadvantaged in reading
such books: that is, probably written with a male audience in mind.

Chapter 8 The Discoursal Construction of Gender
This chapter begins Part 3. In this chapter, the author analyzes the
notions of discourse, gender, and construction of gender from a
variety of perspectives and disciplines. Gender is viewed as a
construction produced in discourse. The author also dealt with
performance, which "challenges the whole notion of gender, which
becomes something that is 'done' in context, rather than a fixed
attribute" (p. 189) Examples the author offers of "performing gender"
are transsexuals researching male and female speech styles and
telephone sex workers choosing a style of speech that they believe
shows "female helplessness," which they think is attractive to

Chapter 9 "Damaging" Discourses and Intervention in Discourse
In this chapter, the author considers in what ways discourse may be
considered damaging and feminists intervention in such discourse.
Traditional targets of feminist intervention have been of what is left
out: e.g. the masculine as the "neutral" form, which excludes women.
At issue, however, is what exactly the damage is by such linguistic
practices, although these practices have been seen by feminists
as "defining, degrading, and stereotyping women as a group, and
potentially rendering women invisible" (p. 192). With more interest in
discourse practice, and the contextual nature of meaning, interest in
specific, potentially "sexist" linguistic items are of less interest to
feminists. "One thing that discourse as a locus can achieve that
a 'sexist language' approach cannot is the critique of sexist text which
do not contain any sexist language items -- for example, many
pornographic written narratives" (p. 193).

The author also addresses ways to intervene in damaging discourses:
creation of anti-sexist terms, such as the title "ms." and nonsexist
generic terms such as "chairperson." The author also catalogs the
backlash against such terms in ridiculing and trivializing. The author
addresses the lack of success of attacking sexist language, quoting
Cameron (1992): "There is something absurd about the notion that
language or words can be attacked independently of their users (p.
102). She distinguishes this from intervening in discourse: because of
their fluctuating, flexible nature, they can be disturbed and disrupted.
The author refers to one form of disruption, discourse intervention,
which is grassroots, as opposed to formal changes in language policy.
Some ways she sees discourse as being disrupted are through
critique and "principled nonuse" (p. 203).

Here the author summarizes her purpose and organization of the
book: exploring old and new gendered studies from both a theoretical
and practical perspective. She also reviews some of the key concepts
of the book.


I find this a helpful text for its intended audience, the beginning
researcher in discourse analysis. The reader is likely to find helpful
the definition of all key concepts as well as the review of past literature
and methodology in the field. The book is somewhat repetitive in
places, Chapters 5 and 6, both on fatherhood, for example, could
easily be combined. In addition, I find the logic behind the organization
at times obscure: the importance of the information in Part 3 as a
separate section escapes me, for example, and as the author does
not mention this part in her introduction, the reader is left wondering if
perhaps this last section was tacked on at the end to make up a word
count requirement.

While generally accessible to a nonspecialist audience, some
sections, especially in Part 3, are difficult to read because of the
technical, jargonish level they are written at. For example, the
term "post structuralism" is thrown around throughout the book, yet
the author, as much as I can tell, never explicitly defines how she is
using this term. Because the book was written and published in
England, an American audience is likely to find some of the language
and references obscure: e.g. the suggestion a quoted from a
newspaper and addressed to the British Prime Minister Tony Blair's
wife, Cherie Blair, a lawyer who had just had a baby, to be "a new
mum who puts her career on ice on for a while and gives her baby her
all" (p. 51). (Translation: "new mothers ought to stay home.") The
book's British publication is obvious also in places where the author
makes statements as "'Ms." is an alternative to Mrs./Miss, not a
replacement," (p. 201) and has various connotations such as
lesbianism and divorce. This is not the case in the States, where the
terms' use seems fairly entrenched in the business and professional

With these caveats, I would recommend this book to anyone
interested in studies of gender through language and/or discourse


Cameron, D. (1992). Feminism and linguistic theory, 2nd ed. London:


Stacia Levy is an English and education professor in California. She
has completed her dissertation, which examined the vocabulary
patterns found in college student and professional writing. Her areas
of research interest include academic writing instruction, adolescent
literacy, and vocabulary acquisition.

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