Transgressing Gender in Discourses across Cultures

Fern Johnson. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006. 

I recently attended an informal presentation at my university by Kathy Davis (Utrecht University), who has chronicled the travels of Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS) (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 1971) into translations, adaptations, and “inspired versions” in 29 countries (Davis, 2002; in press). As Davis talked about the changes that authors around the world had made to the U.S. version of this now-classic feminist self-help health guidebook, I was struck by how compactly OBOS’s travels tell the story of multiple feminisms around the world—often in contrast to the United States.

OBOS is a distinctively North American product … It draws upon a long populist tradition of self-help … and empowerment through knowledge … The critique of medicine found in OBOS is informed by the specific problems which women face in a highly medicalized culture where health is a consumer good and the health care system puts profit above the equitable distribution of care. (Davis, 2002, p. 225)

Several examples identified by Davis demonstrate how cultural context shaped the ways in which OBOS changed with location. The Dutch translators rejected the division between lesbianism and heterosexuality. The Spanish adaptation for Latin America removed the self-help orientation and replaced it with a family and community focus emphasizing mutual help. The South African version was intended to be read aloud as part of the oral tradition. The authors of the Egyptian version opposed genital excision, but they

routinely took along an imam [a Muslim male spiritual leader who is considered divinely appointed to guide believers in prayer and religious practice] who … would stand up and announce that there was nothing in the Q’uran which required female genital excision, thereby lending the book legitimacy among religious women. (p. 240)

Two themes stood out in Davis’s recounting of the travels of OBOS. First, all versions challenged dominant ideologies, but each version ultimately reflected choices about content made within a specific cultural context. Second, behind each version there was a story about women’s communication that led to the adaptations and changes. Davis (2002) remarked that, “Women collectively sharing knowledge about their embodied experiences seems to be what fired the imagination of women in different parts of the world” (p. 240). In short, OBOS’s travels revealed multiple feminisms at work to speak to and with women, often in ways and about topics that violated the cultural norms of specific groups. These themes led me to probe more deeply into how communication in multiple places asserts women’s voices and asserts challenges to hegemonic gender normativities.

Every act against cultural normativity of gender—whatever the culture and its codes—is an act of transgression. Such acts, both small and large, disrupt the social order and the codes of communication that are taught in the process of what psychologist Sandra Bem (1993) calls “the making of a gendered native”—that part of the cultural process that produces gender and its appropriate coordinates. In the United States, most of the scholarship on gender and communication continues to be about white women, notwithstanding significant contributions that have grown from the challenge of broadening scholarship to encompass diversity—ethnic and racial, affectional, class, and cultural (see the introduction to this section).

Chapter Focus

In this chapter, I provide a glimpse into the work focused on transgressions of gendered discourse in a range of cultural contexts. The scholars whose work I review take as their subject the spaces, places, and voices of girls and women in a range of contexts— all different from any of the spaces, places, and voices of the large middle ground of white women in the United States. Many of the studies enter the domain of gender and power relations, and as such they represent “the emerging work on resistance to gender domination—especially the important work on linguistic resistance—[that] is a powerful critique of social theory” (Gal, 1995, p. 175).

My purpose is to open up the cultural context of how we think about the expression of gender and the voice of “woman” communicating to challenge, disrupt, or simply speak contrary to gender normativity. As much as it would be desirable to avoid grounding this overview in an ideology of binary organizations of both sex and gender, the work to be discussed is in some way always about “women” and “men” communicating in cultural contexts infused by ideology that supports these binaries. Spivak’s (1985/1996) point about the definition of woman is germane: “I construct my definition as a woman not in terms of a woman’s putative essence but in terms of words currently in use. ‘Man’ is such a word … Not a word, but the word” (p. 54). The scholarship reviewed in this chapter discusses and documents communication that challenges the cultural codes associated with gender—codes in the service of the binary of man and woman. For the most part, the work addresses how women—at any ages and in specific cultural locations— discursively counter-construct and reconstruct sex/gender against both sides of the male-female/man-woman binary.

The chapter has four sections. The first includes a selection of theories and concepts that directly deal with the cultural construction of gender through discourse (broadly defined). The theories and conceptualizations reviewed originate in various disciplines but share the growing transdisciplinary space of gender studies. In the second section, examples are provided of research that demonstrates the cultural specificity of women’s gendered voices that resist gender normativity. Much of this research is linguistic in nature and based in analysis of language varieties. The third section highlights discursive disruptions in the generational enactments of gender. In this section, the central questions probe what it means to be and to communicate as a girl or woman. The fourth section focuses on gender refusal and refusers (lesbians, gays, transgenders, and so on). The purpose of this section is to highlight the debates about gender categories and how they have been characterized in communication scholarship and to provide a sampling of work conducted to illuminate the discursive construction of gender refusals.

The body of work reviewed here is not exhaustive. Rather, it points to representative approaches to questions regarding gender transgressions through discourse within the specificity of cultural context. Neither is this overview concerned with capturing the totality of women’s discourse in any given cultural context. Some of the relevant literature appears in communication journals, but the range of sources discussed below reveals the transdisciplinary character of gender studies.

Theorizing Gender as Cultural Discourse

Theoretical thinking about gender and communication over the past three decades has taken many twists and turns, largely moving with broader discourses in feminist and gender studies. A review of developments in theory would more than fill a separate chapter. Here I highlight approaches that seem the richest for illuminating how discourse works to create and challenge gender in multiple cultural locations: (a) the performativity approach, (b) community of practice as an organizing concept for understanding discourse and identity, and (c) queer linguistics.

Gender Performativity

This approach has various roots, but in the study of gender and discourse, Candace West and Don Zimmerman’s (1987) article on “doing gender” was foundational. They argued that “gender is not a set of traits, nor a variable, nor a role, but the product of social doings of some sort” (p. 129). In discussing the distinctions often made between sex and gender, these authors observed that this very distinction serves to naturalize gender because it “links the institutional and interactional levels … [and] legitimates social arrangements based on sex category [such that] doing gender furnishes the interactional scaffolding of social structure” (p. 147). It follows that failure to “do gender” as expected in cultural context can lead to negative sanctions but can also signify purposeful resistance. West and Fenstermaker (1995) expand this conceptualization to “doing difference” by incorporating race and class into the analysis. They do not deal explicitly with culture, but the analysis they offer can easily be extrapolated to the workings of culture in framing communication.

The performativity approach gained hold with Judith Butler’s publication in 1990 of Gender Trouble (see Butler, 1999). Against the backdrop of prevailing conceptualizations of sex as a biological category and gender as a social and cultural category, Butler presented an elaborate, poststructuralist analysis that brought new thinking to the study of gender and discourse. Butler’s perspective posits both gender and sex as products of discursive construction. Butler contends that gender, when it is cast as the cultural elaboration of sex, functions as “the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” (Butler, 1999, p. 7). Key to this conceptualization is the idea of performativity: “gender proves to be performative, that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be” (p. 25). More specifically, “gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (p. 33). This process, in Butler’s analysis, sets up a binary opposition that enforces compulsory heterosexuality. Critical study and awareness of this process make gender transgression possible. Although Butler was mainly concerned with destabilizing the binary of male and female sex and questioning the “stability of gender as a category of analysis” (p. xi) to open up the potential of queer parody “of the very notion of the original” (p. 138), the perspective is broadly useful for an understanding of discursive disruptions of the ideological systems that uphold sex and gender categorizations in a broad range of cultural contexts. Butler’s (2004) recent book turns the analysis inside out to consider the “undoing” of gender, which is more specifically grounded in particular challenges to gender normativity and the interplay of agency and social control.

Community of Practice

Many scholars of gender and discourse have found the concept of a community of practice (CofP) useful for understanding how, on what terms, and with what effects on identity people join together in shared discourse practices (see Wenger, 1998, who developed the approach). Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet (1999) define the CofP as “an aggregate of people who, united by a common enterprise, develop and share ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, and values—in short, practices” (p. 186). The conceptual apparatus of CofP guides gender researchers to consider “people’s active engagement in the reproduction of or resistance to gender arrangements in their communities” and to look at gender practices in relation to other aspects of identity in context (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992, p. 472).

CofP complements the more traditional sociolinguistic concept of speech community because of the explicit focus on practices rather than aggregates of people per se. The practices of individuals jointly engaged with one another construct the identity of the community and of its participants. A body of research that draws on CofP highlights how masculinities and femininities are accomplished in context (Paechter, 2003a, 2003b).

Queer Linguistics

The relatively new field of queer linguistics (QL) offers another approach that questions the foundations and cultural normativity of sex and gender. Mary Bucholtz and Kira Hall (2004) define QL as “the study of sexuality as a relational and contextual sociopolitical phenomenon” incorporating both sexuality and gender and focused on both identity and desire; sexuality refers to “the systems of mutually constituted ideologies, practices, and identities that give sociopolitical meaning to the body as an eroticized and/or reproductive site” (p. 470). Their presentation of QL parts with the “desire paradigm” (see Cameron & Kulick, 2003; Kulick, 2000), which features sexuality as rooted in desire alone. QL deals with the production of sexuality in language—not only in relation to those labeling themselves as “queer” but also for any sexually marginalized practice or group; for example, Bucholtz and Hall (2004) cite Cohen’s (1997) example of the prohibition of marriage for African American women and men during slavery.

Drawing on a number of sociolinguistic concepts, Bucholtz and Hall (2004) call for an approach that recognizes identity as integral to sexuality, that conceptually accounts for the various ways in which language establishes power relations (not only between dominant and marginalized groups but also within the discourses of marginalized groups), and that maps the possibilities for forming social subjectivity and intersubjectivity (identity) through social practice. These scholars outline various analytical tools (which they label “tactics”) for creating a broad range of intersubjectivities through language use in specific contexts. They also point out that QL reaches beyond queer discourses and sexuality to offer a vantage point for understanding the creation of identities designed to be or functioning in resistance to dominant ideology.

The Cultural Specificity of Gender Transgressions in Discourse

I use the term transgression to describe instances of language-in-use that in some way counter the conventional expectations for gender enactments. The research examples in this chapter demonstrate transgressions whereby girls, women, and gender refusers assert their voices to disrupt normativity. Some of the research points specifically to the linguistic code (syntax, phonology, and so on), while other research examines broader patterns of discourse (for example, style and narrative).

Transgressions in the Linguistic Code

Women Speaking Japanese. The most well developed non-English line of research on changes in the linguistic structure of women’s language comes from scholars working on the variety of Japanese spoken by women. Japanese women’s speech (onnarashii or “womanly” speech) is traditionally considered powerless in relation to the speech of men. Sachiko Ide (cited in Furo, 1996) describes the characteristics of Japanese women’s language as “more polite than that of men, especially in their (1) use of different personal pronouns, (2) avoidance of vulgar expressions, (3) use of beautification/hypercorrect honorifics, and (4) use of feminine sentence-final particles” (p. 247). Janet Shibamoto Smith (1992) notes that “the ‘polite’ nature of Japanese women’s speech—held to be expressed in part by women’s frequent use of honorific and humiliative forms—is linked to their social powerlessness, at least in the public domain” (p. 59). Okamoto (1995) cites research supporting the conclusion that the speech of Japanese women is “polite, gentle, soft-spoken, nonassertive, and empathetic … characteristics … often interpreted as reflecting women’s lower social status or powerlessness” (p. 298). Katsue Akiba Reynolds (1998) contrasts women’s and men’s speech on the dimension of assertiveness, with the most masculine speech using assertive and forceful variants; even though there is some overlap in variants that may be used, “the risk of stepping into the overlapping area … is greater for females than for males” (p. 301).

Against the traditional role of women in Japanese society and the forms of Japanese women’s speech related to and constitutive of their relative powerlessness, younger generations of Japanese women have introduced innovations. A leading scholar in this area, Shigeko Okamoto (1995) studied women’s use of “men’s language” by examining the use of masculine, neutral, and feminine sentence-final forms in conversations between pairs of college-age women friends in Tokyo. For example, the particle wa with rising intonation at the end of a sentence is strongly feminine and gives mild emphasis, whereas the particles ze and zo for assertion are strongly masculine. Okamoto found that the women in her study used neutral forms most frequently (65%), and when using feminine forms (only 12%), used those classified as mildly feminine. These women also used more masculine sentence-final forms (19%) than feminine forms. Earlier research by Okamoto and Sato (1992) and by Takasaki (published in Japanese in 1993 and cited in Okamoto, 1995) shows that younger Japanese women use less traditionally feminine speech forms than older women, but that occupational status (homemaker, office worker, professional) also correlates with speech style. These results suggest that social role, age cohort, and language variety are intertwined, and that not only do young women counter the norm for feminine speech but older women also do so in certain situations.

If there is a social perception that women are challenging language conventions, that perception might be evident in media representations. Okamoto (1996) analyzed the scripting of women’s speech in comics, films, and television dramas by focusing on three speech varieties: otoko kotoba (men’s language), Shitamachi kotoba (Shitamachi, which is the language variety of downtown Tokyo and shares many features of otoko kotaba), and Osakaben (Osaka dialect). These varieties all carry gendered meanings. The first two are associated with traditional Japanese forms of masculine speech, while Osakaben is an urban variety said to carry rough and abusive expressions and to also be associated with humor. Okamoto found a number of complexities in the scripting of women’s speech in popular culture genres, demonstrating that masculine forms signify not only younger women but women of varying ages who are tough or working class. Taking a somewhat different approach, Yoshiko Matsumoto (1996) compared the language used in fashion magazines that targeted young women with the language in magazines directed to older women. She found “abundant use of sentence final expressions that are conventionally considered masculine” (p. 456) in magazines directed to high school and college age students but almost none of these in magazines directed to older women. Yet, her textual analysis reveals that the use of conventional masculine forms does not always convey a masculine image but, rather, is part of an emerging “cute culture” (which is also evident in young men’s discourse). Matsumoto views young women’s language choices as resisting adult ideology “by strategically ignoring the conventional (and normative) differentiation of women’s language from men’s and by avoiding the honorifics that are sensitive to the traditional power structure” (pp. 464-465).

Several additional studies focus on stylistic devices used by women speaking Japanese to reject traditional codes for women’s language. Smith (1992) explored new strategies used by women in uttering directives. She compared the speech used by a woman hosting a cooking program on television with the speech used by a man hosting a home carpentry program. The woman employed a hybrid power form for directives that preserved politeness but did not replicate men’s language. These strategies she labeled “Motherese,” because they take the form of those between mother and child, and “Passive Power Strategy,” in which directives are given with either no verb or a verb that is followed by an auxiliary verb with a “positive assertive form”— what Smith calls “passive but assured waiting” (p. 78). She provides this example:

Yakusoku o mamotte moraitai (desu).

(polite) a

I’d like [to receive the favor of] you keep[ing] your promise. (p. 81)

The male expert on the carpentry program did not use these forms. Furo (1996) focused on a comparison of the form of directives for instruction and for discipline given by female and male teachers in a Japanese school in Washington, DC. The female teachers in this study “issue instruction directives as if they were making requests but discipline directives as if they were giving orders” (p. 257). They also depart from the phonological norms for women related to high pitch and “fade-out” at the ends of sentences.

Scholars who study Japanese women’s language have dealt as much with the overall complexity of language use based on age, class, social role, and situation as they have with the more general trend for younger women to reject traditional expectations for women’s passive language forms. The vitality of inquiry regarding gender and Japanese is highlighted by the appearance in 2004 of an edited volume titledJapanese language, gender, and ideology (Okamoto & Shibamoto-Smith) and by research on how Kogals (teenage girls in Japan) use slang (Miller, 2004).

The Case of Lakota. Several interesting studies have been undertaken regarding the ways in which various groups of Native American women use language. Bea Medicine (1987) noted that in all three dialects of Lakota Sioux (Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota), women reinforce the obligatory structural markers in the language that distinguish first-person women’s speech from first-person men’s speech (linguists refer to this as the gender particle system). She also reported, however, that Lakota women serve the role for their community as the “language power brokers” and mediators in relations with whites because of their greater control of Standard English, and that they exercise considerable language control through their role in decisions about language learning by their children.

Sara Trechter (1996) studied the gender particle system more specifically in her linguistic ethnography of Lakota on the Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. Linguists have typically described the particle system as consisting of several binary features associated with gender. Trechter lists six complementary gender particles recorded by linguists based on native informants: for example, the male imperative yo contrasts with the female imperative ye, and the male expression of surprise wã contrasts with the female expression of surprise ma. Of particular interest is the yo/ye distinction; in this case, Trechter’s position is that the gender binary is overstated in linguistic descriptions and representations by native speakers (also see Trechter, 1995) because the ye particle is used by men as well as women, making only yo gender restricted. One interesting part of Trechter’s analysis from the perspective of linguistic transgression has to do with her report that younger male speakers are shunning the “use [of] yeas an assertion or even the morphologically distinct ye, as an entreaty” because of its association with female “bossiness” (p. 751). In this case, female transgression may be leading to regenderizing by males.

Discourse Claims by Women

Several interesting projects document women’s performance of discourse styles that are counternormative, and in some cases purposefully disruptive, to the gender ideology in force within a specific culture. Marcelle Williams (1989), who has studied immigrant Punjabi-speaking women working in canneries in California, found that they manipulated their language use in ways that gave them greater control in the workplace. These Sikh women did have limited English proficiency, but they also frequently feigned more extensive lack of understanding of their English-speaking supervisors as a way of resisting certain types of communication.

Writing about gender and language in Ukraine, Laada Bilaniuk (2003) presents findings showing that even though many women tend to reject feminism in preference for more traditional feminine roles, high school and college women who participated in a matched guise study demonstrated attitudes toward language that counter broadly held beliefs in the country. Ukrainian became the official language in 1989 as an official rebuke to Soviet-imposed Russian. In a context where Russian remains a lingua franca and English is on the rise, women are considered protectors of the Ukrainian language. Young women in the study, however, valued the use of English more highly than the use of Ukrainian. Bilaniuk suggests that the myth that women are protectors of the Ukrainian language is one of the beliefs that upholds patriarchy.

Fatima Sadiqi (2003) offers a fascinating analysis of Moroccan women’s code-switching between Moroccan Arabic and French and between Berber and French. Four languages are prominent in Morocco: Berber and Moroccan Arabic, mother tongues which are spoken languages only, Standard Arabic, and French. “Moroccan women,” Sadiqi says, “make appropriate usage of code-switching with the aim of exploiting the position of the marginalized for strategic purposes” (p. 41). Code-switching is empowering in several ways: (a) by attracting and maintaining attention in conversation in both women’s and mixed groups; (b) by imposing the speaker in a conversation through “snatching turns” (p. 40); (c) by asserting linguistic power in mixed settings where the men who dominate are less educated; (d) by offering a linguistic recourse for adolescent girls to distinguish themselves from adolescent boys; and (e) by conveying a “new style” that indexes “modernity” (p. 41). Writing about a different national site, Esther Kuntjara (2005), in a recent article about women selling their goods in two urban East Java markets (Malany and Surabaya), counters the prevailing social belief that women are passive and submissive with ethnographic accounts of the assertive language strategies used by women in the market as both buyers and sellers. Her point is that totalizing generalizations about women’s roles miss the complexity of situational factors that influence discourse.

The Yapima village in the Brazilian Amazon is the site of Janet Chernela’s research on women’s language-in-use contrasted to traditional discourse roles for women (see Chernela’s 2004 discussion of patrilineal community and language ideology among the Amerindian speakers she studied). Chernela (1997) documents the telling of an ancestral Wanano tale by an elder Wanano woman who violates community rules for doing gender in discourse. The woman tells the tale to a group of women in a public setting and changes the tale to switch blame from a wife’s betrayal of her husband to a husband’s betrayal of his wife. Her countertale and her taking public space for women is “a moment that ruptures the gender hierarchy characterizing everyday life” (p. 74) and which “provides us with an unusual opportunity to hear from an otherwise muted segment of the population” (p. 89). In a later study, Chernela (2003) uses the concept of community of practice (CofP) to frame her understanding of the function of the rituals used by women when they are welcoming women from other villages. Here she demonstrates how otherness created by women’s position in patrilineal communities is used as a basis for solidarity through “wept texts”—the greeting rituals in which “the singer’s own living death, her social isolation and separation” (p. 795) from her native language and birth community invite the participation of the other women and the creation of a CofP. These greetings, called kaya basa (“sad songs”), resist the social isolation of women that is part of the ideology operating in the Tukanoan society. In related research, Charles Briggs (1992) discussed the weeping rituals as recontextualizations of men’s discourse as a challenge to their power.

The discourse of women in each of the locations documented in the foregoing examples shows gender in motion in ways either explicitly counter to conventional cultural practices or at odds with the ideological gender codes that are assumed to exist within the particular social context. Together, the examples show essentializing to be invalid; for each case, the ways in which language constructs gender are understandable only in the specific cultural context.

Discursive Disruptions in Generational Gendering

In the past 15 years, considerable attention has been directed to what has been dubbed the third-wave of feminism and its varieties— “power feminism,” “grrrl power,” “DIY— Do-It-Yourself feminism.” It is appropriate to discuss these more recent trends under the rubric of gendered communication in cultural context because they represent a cultural shift in gender ideologies in the United States and elsewhere. These emerging feminisms have created the conditions for the kind of generation gap that characterizes cultural tensions in core values, beliefs, and modes of expression.

Strands of New Feminist Expression

In a useful review essay, Anita Harris (2001) outlines three ways in which the feminism of younger women tends to be classified. The first is power feminism—the term taken from Naomi Wolf’s Fire with Fire (1993). Power feminism focuses on women’s power rather than their subordination, emphasizing gains that have been made and issues yet to face. “It makes a clear distinction between the personal and the political, and tends to display commitment to either individual empowerment or single issue groups rather than a women’s ‘movement’” (Harris, 2001, 6). The second variety includes DIY andgrrrlpower, which are associated with music and new media such as Web pages and zines. Harris characterizes grrrlpower as aimed at issues still facing young women, “especially regarding the body and sexuality…. [I]t emphasizes autonomy, sassiness, and is sometimes depicted as sexy and aggressive” (8). Harris names the third variety Third Wave to designate those young feminists who “actively embrace the term ‘third Wave’ to mark their place as the next ‘wave’ in the tradition of the previous two women’s movements” (11). Self-proclaimed third wavers emphasize ethnic, sexual, and economic diversity. According to Harris, this variety is “associated with either the problems faced by women as they attempt to put second wave gains into action … or with obstacles that are less obvious but just as real” (13). (The term Third Wave is sometimes used to include all of the newer forms of grrrlpower expression.) Chilla Bulbeck (2001) observes that in all the debates and different emphases among younger feminists, “no-one wants to be labelled a victim feminist” (20). Jennifer Drake (1997) emphasizes the centrality of pleasure in all the forms of the third wave “because we’re young or because we’re such well-trained consumers or because we’re into some kind of playful postmodern aesthetic or because we watched too much TV growing up” (p. 106).

A recent collection of essays (Gillis, Howie, & Munford, 2004) includes selections on sexuality and gender, popular culture expressions of third wave, and cultural multiplicity and postcolonial perspectives. Lotz (2003) and Fixmer and Wood (2005) also offer useful analyses of varieties of third wave.

Music, zines, and conventions became expressive venues for the 1990s new generation of feminism. Grrrl power bands emerged, notably Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, and there was soon a “Riot Grrrls” movement. Riot Grrrls had its beginning on August 20, 1991, in Olympia, Washington, at the International Pop Underground convention (Riot grrrl, n.d.). What began with music, spread to other forms of expression about gender and society. The zines (e.g., Girl Germs) became especially important for dealing with “a variety of feminist topics, frequently attempting to draw out the political implications of intensely personal experiences with sexism, mental illness, body image, sexual abuse, and homosexuality” (Riot grrrl, n.d.). One of my students produced a zine in 2003 on body issues for middle school girls; she showed me numerous examples of zines on a range of issues— some seriously political, others purely hedonistic. One riot grrrl Web site (Newitz) posted the following greeting:

You’ve come to the right place. A shrine to all girls who wish their gender started with a grrrrwl! And a tribute to all women who are too pissed off, unhappy, tough, geeky, or brainy to do and think what they’re told. As Bikini Kill says, “We want a REVOLUTION!” Here you can find everything for the person who says FUCK YOU when the world says BE QUIET AND OBEY.

Web sites such as these and various zines proclaim freedom for girls by celebrating the body and eschewing images about ideal body images. From these 1990s forms came a vast array of current Web sites and blogs addressed to a broad range of specific issues. This is polyvocal feminist expression directed to anyone who might be interested and have access—much of this expression is ephemeral.

Michelle Fine and Pat Macpherson (1994) published an essay ripe with insights into younger generational thinking. These two seasoned feminist scholars invited four teenage women to talk with them over two separate dinners about gender. These evenings were critical, collaborative group interviews. The four included two African Americans who were living in “relatively impoverished circumstances” (p. 225), one “WASP,” and one Korean American—the latter two “living in relatively comfortable circumstances” (p. 226). The African American young women expressed their enmeshment in community through fluid connections with women of all ages and their comfort in “using public talk as a place to ‘work out’ concerns, constraints and choices” (p. 225). The white and Korean American women expressed much greater distance from family (especially mothers), reported that privacy was foremost for working out issues and basic survival, and set their goal as becoming independent women. What these four young women shared was resistance to male dominance and their embrace of “the benign version of masculinity that allowed them to be ‘one of the guys’” (p. 220)—to take risks, have fun, and be honest and accepting. Fine and Macpherson summarized this attitude:

Girls can be good, bad or—best of all— they can be boys. This version of individualized resistance, or feminism, reflects a retreat from the collective politics of gender, and from other women, and an advance into the embattled scene of gender politics—alone, and against boys, in order to become one of them. (p. 241)

This portrayal, although not standing for young women in general, offers keys to the links of identity and discourse that separate many younger women from older women in their views of doing gender. They embrace those aspects of masculinity that appeal to a grounded identity where expression and risk-taking are important. Also revealed in the talk of these four young women is a cultural split, with the two African Americans more grounded in women’s community and the other two more interior and personal.


Among the dissections of the politics and priorities of younger generation women and their notions of gender are several analyses and critiques from communication scholars. Helene Shugart (2001) argues that what has been identified as third wave is a broader Generation X subculture. She characterizes Gen X (and third wave) as an aesthetic rather than a generation: its qualities are “camp, satire, cynicism, irony, and out-rageousness, in very heavy doses” (p. 136). Shugart mapped these qualities in the fame of four Gen X poster girls (Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, and Janeane Garofalo). Although Shugart recognizes the distinctiveness of third wave from Gen X in its inclusion of diversity, she concludes by critiquing it as an “‘anything goes’ feminism [that] may ultimately compromise the fundamental tenet of feminism: to expose and rectify the oppression of women” (p. 164). Shugart, Waggoner, and Hallstein (2001) offer a harsh assessment of new feminism in the hands of mass media. Their project analyzes media commodification of third-wave feminism through case studies of Alanis Morissette, Kate Moss, and Ally McBeal. These scholars argue that mass media deflect the resistance of third-wave feminism by appropriating its characteristics into commodities. The result, these scholars conclude, is that “messages of resistance are co-opted, commodified, and sold to audiences as a ‘genuine imitation’— something whose code appears strikingly similar to the resistant discourse but… is devoid of challenge” (p. 198).

Another angle of criticism on the third-wave agenda comes from postcolonial Filipino scholar Angeli Diaz (2003). Grounded in Radha Hegde’s (1998, see also her essay in this volume) entreaty that feminist theory take into account the power relations established through colonialism, Diaz faults the third wave for its absorption in the self and individual circumstances and priorities. Diaz sees no connection between the third-wave agenda and her lived experiences: “The omission of any reference to the global political, economic, and cultural scenario in the writings of third-wave feminists predisposes their celebration of diversity and inclusiveness to be paradoxically an exclusive one” (p. 15). This is a powerful critique that opens interesting questions about the politics of inclusiveness.

From the perspective of (mainly white) U.S. feminists, some strands of the third-wave agenda appear apolitical because of both the de-emphasis on collective action and the reclaiming/refashioning of many codes that have upheld hegemonic sexism. At the same time, much of third-wave thinking and expression celebrates diversity more fully and less self-consciously than earlier feminisms. In the global context, the critique is somewhat reversed. Third wave explicitly rejects the earlier second-wave notion of global sisterhood, we-are-all-in-the-same-situation thinking related to integrating diversity through collective action.

But in the global political context, third wave can also be critiqued for insufficient political valence because it lacks a mandate for a postcolonial agenda. In any case, younger women have ushered in important cultural shifts in the doing of gender and the meanings for gender encoded and expressed through those doings.

Gender Refusal/Refusers and Cultural Transformation

Like third-wave priorities and practices, the assault on normative gender relations and especially heteronormativity by those who refuse to do gender through conventional codes represents powerful cultural shifts. I am using the term gender refusal to designate any pattern of purposeful communication designed to reject conventional male and female assignment in its heteronormative context, with its corresponding actors being gender refusers (most often designated as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer—LGBTQ). In this short section, my purpose is to characterize the types of scholarship focused on gender refusal, but not to review the literature in its entirety.

The Language of Gender Refusal

A number of scholars ask, Are there distinctive gay and lesbian voices? In the United States at least, the stereotype of the exaggerated, overly femme vocal stylization often stands as the quintessential sign of the gay male voice. Less firm is the stereotype of the deep-voiced “butch” side of the lesbian relationship. These styles certainly exist, often as identity codes and sometimes as parodic enactments of gender polarities. Yet, no research has established a consistent pattern in the voice (Jacobs, 1996; Smyth, Jacobs, & Rogers, 2003). Approaching the question differently, William Leap (1995) put together a collection of studies under the rubric of “lavender linguistics” that demonstrates the textual complexity of lesbian and gay male language. What emerges from the range of studies in specific settings collected in this volume are “distinctively constructed lesbian and gay languages” (p. x). Leap was interested in documenting how the language practices of specific lesbians and gays both create an authentic identity and appropriate and remake heterosexual discourse. The essays in the volume show the usefulness of the CofP perspective and also broaden the cultural analysis of gay and lesbian discourse by including studies centered in a number of different locales.

Drawing from the emerging field of queer studies, Anna Livia and Kira Hall (1997) put together a collection of essays in a book titled Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender and Sexuality. The three sections of the book serve as a typology for the direction scholarship and practice on gender refusal were moving by the mid-1990s: “Lavender Lexicality,” “Queerspeak,” and “Linguistic Gender-Bending.” The collection includes a range of chapters on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual language; together, these chapters map what is now called “queer linguistics.” Writing about developments in the study of language and gender identities, Hall (2003) frames the purpose of QL: “Like queer theory, queer linguistics is necessarily concerned with how heterosexual normativity is produced, perpetuated, and resisted, but it seeks to localize these productions within specific communities of practice” (p. 375). From a cultural perspective, focusing on specific communities of practice is especially significant. Queerly Phrasedincludes case studies of a number of different cultural groups from around the world.

Newer Directions in Queer Studies of Discourse

Within what has come to be identified as “global queer studies,” increasing attention is being given to the place of language in constructing resistive identities and, more specifically, LGBTQ performativity in ethnic and racial perspective. In 2003, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies published a series of papers titled “New Directions in Multiethnic, Racial, and Global Queer Studies.” Authors in that series speak to the central issue in the development of global queer studies: bringing particular circumstances of ethnicity and race to the center of queer analysis. This issue mirrors that found in other areas of gender scholarship—the need to bring diversity into visibility from a theoretical discourse that disappears it. Work of this nature has become more visible in recent years: for example, Besnier’s (2003) project on fakaleiti (transgenders) in Tongan society, Sullivan and Jackson’s (2001) collection focused on identity and culture among gays and lesbians in Asian countries, and Leap and Boellstorff’s (2004) edited collection on globalization and gay language.

Black queer studies is another area of important development in understanding the cultural complexity of gender transgressions in the discourse of gender refusal. Rusty Barrett (1999), for example, draws on Judith Butler’s analysis of drag in his project on the speech of African American drag queens (AADQs). Barrett uses discourse analysis to demonstrate how AADQs use a “white woman style” and how they confront gender ideology by indexing their “polyphonous” identity as African Americans, gay men, and drag queens. Based on his interview study with black gay men in various parts of the United States, E. Patrick Johnson (2004) unfolds a rich description of a transgressive discourse of domesticity that “simultaneously celebrates black and gay culture as it critiques and resists the oppression found in both” (p. 274).” As a subfield, then, black queer studies theorizes and analyzes race and sexuality together. Elisa Glick (2003) sees the crucial task as “how to make legible not simply the bifurcation of race and sexuality but their interrelation, and second, how to theorize the emergence of gay and lesbian identity in relation to capitalism’s increasing investment in producing and regulating desire” (p. 124).

As technology and access to it have grown, so too has the role of the Internet as a medium of communication for gender refusal and refusers. Issues of performativity are especially provocative in Internet communication because of the ostensible openness of the medium to creative identity construction, as Consalvo discusses in her chapter on gender and new media in this volume. Scholars have studied the representation of queer identities on Web sites and personal pages (Alexander, 2002) and the use of the electronic bulletin board to mobilize social movement participation (Nip, 2004). Several interesting studies detail the use of the Internet as a vehicle of communication for marginalized gender groups. Joyce Nip (2004) reports on The Queer Sisters, a women’s group in Hong Kong, and John Erni (2003) provides an analysis of how the Internet is being used in many Asian countries both for queer contacts and for exploration of sexual politics.


The literatures on GLBTQ as a movement with associated discourses have broadened our understanding of the processes of gender refusal that were previously restricted to considerations such as gay lexicon and speech patterns. Queer studies and the more specific QL referenced in the theory section in this chapter bring into play the complexity of gender, sexuality, and identity. One of the limitations within the domain of study reviewed here is, like others, a limited engagement with broader cultural complexity. QL as articulated by Bucholtz and Hall (2004) conceptually addresses this issue by emphasizing the significance of specific sociocultural contexts. A second critique concerns the category of transgendered individuals and claims to the rights of the category of women. Belinda Sweeney (2004), in a critique of the international movement by transactivists to press for access to women’s organizations and the rights they represent, faults this type of activist for their interest in status quo constructions of gender that are oblique to the reality of women’s oppression. “Trans-inclusion in women’s events, organizations, and service provisions,” Sweeney says, “runs counter to the interests of those for and by whom women-only spaces were established to protect” (p. 86). Finally, the very categories of interest in the literature on gender transgressions also raise concerns. David Valentine (2004), a participant in GLQ’s forum on sex and sexuality, expresses concern “that the recent tendency to claim, as empirical fact, that gender and sexuality are separate and separable experiences results in a substitution of an analytic distinction for actual lived experience” (p. 217) and focuses too heavily on Western identities.


The literatures reviewed in this chapter all address resistance to gender normativity in its cultural context. Although distinctive in focus, studies of women’s communicative resistance in different cultures, scholarship on third-wave expressions, and examinations of the discourses of gender refusers all point to dynamic processes through which language, identity, and cultural ideology mix in the contesting of “doing gender” and “doing difference.” The voice of gender transgression is, indeed, polyphonic, and no one model neatly connects local practices far distant from one another. As scholars of gender and communication; of masculinities and femininities; and of the many expressions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identities, we need to resist both common threading and endless particularization. A decade ago, Sally McConnell-Ginet (1996) commended the new generation of linguists working on gender issues for their commitment to “look … beyond ‘typical’ women and men in a community to examine points where gender norms and expectations are being disrupted, resisted, and reshaped” (p. 792). That move is the one taken up in this chapter. Scholarship on disruption, resistance, and reshaping of gender normativity has come from several fields— communication, linguistics, and anthropology among them. Finding the literatures that deserve connection is often difficult, but we are well served by the various edited collections and by publications such as Women & Language where editor Anita Taylor has skillfully foregrounded diverse scholars working with diverse methodologies in a broad array of cultural settings.

As specific and local as resistance to gender normativity is, understanding resistance demands a principled view of its function in grounded, cultural circumstances. We are long past the quest for what women have in common the world over, but that should not dull our understanding that gender transgression in its many voices and multiple discourses ruptures the taken-for-granted gender order to create, in Butler’s terms, “gender trouble” and the “undoing of gender.”