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Jane Sunderland, Gendered Discourses, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, $26.95, 248 pages, ISBN 1-4039-1345-5)—Chris Bell, Nottingham Trent University


[N]ew discourses develop interdiscursively out of older ones, and are thus likely to manifest discoursal links with these. [122]

Not to be confused with well-known linguist Deborah Tannen’s similarly-titled Gender and Discourse, Jane Sunderland’s Gendered Discourses is an insightful, user-friendly text. The material she examines is fresh, as is the analysis she gives to it. Each chapter begins with a generous synopsis of what is to follow, linking the chapter’s content to arguments featured elsewhere in the text. Moreover, each chapter concludes with a review of the tenets and meta-arguments explicated in that chapter. To reiterate, Gendered Discourses is a user-friendly text. With its signposts and various iterations, the text works to keep the reader informed and engaged. This is not to suggest that the text is designed, or even suitable, for every reader; indeed, those readers with only a passing interest in the gendered aspects of language and discourse might be turned off by this text, particularly its linguistic specificity and deep discourse analysis.

Its user-friendly nature notwithstanding, it must be stressed that the text is rife with in-text citations which has the effect of making it difficult to discern who is speaking, whose arguments are being put forth. Of similar concern is Sunderland’s frequent tendency to italicize words and concepts. To emphasize, at least one word is italicized in almost every single one of the text’s sentences, while in others, several are. Consider this excerpt: “While one use of gender indicates particular properties of a language, the use of gender with which we are concerned here concerns humans and entails any differences between women and men being socially or culturally learned, mediated or constructed” [14; original italics]. There is a difference between emphasis and over-emphasis, and with her penchant for italicization, Sunderland veers dangerously close to the latter.

Gendered Discourses is an examination of the, often but not always, subtle ways in which language and discourse become/are gendered. In stating this, I refer to Sunderland’s invocation of discourse analysis to make her critique. Her sites of inquiry include the classroom, primary and university, where students and teachers fall into definable roles based on their gender, as well as in parenting magazines, which, as Sunderland convincingly argues, are aimed at women far more than they are at men. The manner in which Sunderland makes her arguments is crafty, as evidenced in, for instance, her inclusion of a series of amusing and instructive exercises drawn from the discourse of contemporary newspaper articles. These exercises can easily be adapted to the classroom with palpable and humorous effects.

Lest the reader be led astray, Sunderland’s text does not favor user-friendliness and efforts at humor over scholarly erudition. Quite the contrary, her analysis is often perceptive, and this reviewer particularly appreciates the challenges she issues to her reader. Regarding the analysis, I offer her assessment of “Gender differences discourse” in which she speaks to how popular magazines, e.g. Cosmopolitan, market themselves as revealing intimate information intended to deconstruct the “mysteries” of the opposite sex à la, “Sexposé: What His Favourite Position Really Says About Him: How his in-bed cravings can be a clue to his dating style” or “What Men Really Think … about masturbation” [53]. Sunderland addresses these articles by observing, “It may be argued that no one takes this sort of thing seriously (though empirical studies of consumption are needed to assess this properly)” [ibid; original italics]. In other words, she calls for a sustained critique of the articles in an effort to gauge their effects; to see how they reflect and influence cultural gender positioning. In this way, her analysis leads to a challenge.

Moreover, this is not the sole instance of Sunderland issuing a challenge. Consider these remarks extracted from the conclusion of her second chapter:

Readers are encouraged to study their own gendered texts (which are not hard to find) and to identify provisionally and broadly name the discourses they recognize in them, considering inter- and intratextuality, and “traces” of these discourses in the form of relevant linguistic features (absent as well as present). They may then wish to show the texts and their discourses to friends (linguistically inclined, and otherwise) to see just how recognizable their identified discourses are [50; original italics].

In case the reader finds Sunderland’s challenge overly daunting, bear in mind that she has devoted the previous pages to listing the kinds of gendered discourses she cautions her reader to be cognizant of, articulating ways and strategies of identifying them, as well as noting their effects on speakers and listeners. In short, she does not tend to just issue challenges to her reader summarily, without providing suitable background to accept the challenges.

Gendered Discourses is valuable in that many of its arguments are clearly explained and thought-provoking. Consider the discussion of how the referents “girl” and “boy” are deployed on primary school playgrounds, with the former being understood as a pejorative insult and the latter a virtual term of endearment [89]. In lieu of merely stating these usages as facts and swiftly moving on, Sunderland devotes ample analysis to explaining the implications of the usages. Another instance of a thorough argument is Sunderland’s commentary on an advertisement for a wedding reception venue [39-40]. Here, she reads the advertisement through several types of gendered discoursesincluding the “discourse of fantasy,” the biggest/best day of a woman’s life” discourse, and the “compulsory heterosexuality” discoursemaking sure to explain each of the types with depth. An additional strength of Gendered Discourses is Sunderland’s awareness that her work follows a previous line of arguments. She makes pointed efforts to cite previous studies of how language is inflected with considerations of gender. Throughout her text, she points to works that have informed her, drawing on their positive aspects as well as critiquing shortcomings in the works. As evidence, I offer her take on wildly popular texts by Deborah Tannen and John Gray [pages 54 and 44 respectively].

What is more, some of the information Sunderland relays is thoroughly absorbing. For example, in a discussion of fiction, she suggests that some sexist and gender-negative language (meaning language that has the effects of representing a gender in a pejorative, unflattering light) might be intentionally-deployed: “Traces of a sexist discourse in a character’s words may [...] have been included precisely so that the discourse can be contested” [143]. In this way, she troubles the idea that some authors are necessarily or inherently sexist individuals, offering an alternate reading of the author as well as the author’s creations. Likewise, she calls into question the idea that gender-negative language always has deleterious effects on the listener: “Even if a word is agreed to be sexist in a particular context – for example, a derogatory term intended to be abusive by a speaker and taken as abusive by a hearer – “damage” may not be a result” [192]. Here, her focus is on the psychological effects of gendered discourse in addition to the larger cultural ramifications. In speaking to this interiority, Sunderland reminds the reader of the private and personal aspects of language, aspects that, in many instances, boast salience.

While her arguments are convincing and certainly well-defined, some of them do take a bit for granted. For instance, in her analysis of the aforementioned advertisement for a wedding reception venue, Sunderland, in her application of Adrienne Rich’s argument of compulsory heterosexuality, contends that a “bride entails [a] bridegroom” [40; original italics]. This reading seems presumptuous in view of the recent upsurge in popularity of weddings, civil unions, and commitment ceremonies amongst non-heterosexual individuals. It’s the verb that gives this reviewer pause, the idea of what is entailed by the referent “bride.” Ceremonies for non-heterosexuals bear out the reality that a “bride” does not require a “bridegroom.”

In sum, Gendered Discourses is a complex text replete with incisive analysis and appealing exercises related to the interpretation of language and discourse through a gendered lens. The text is not for beginners, rather for those with some degree of a priori familiarity with the issues under examination. For novices, I recommend Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation as a primer. Regardless of where readers choose to begin, the issues under examination here are not only interesting, but resonant. Perhaps it is in this way that Sunderland’s work is most noteworthy: in her specific identification and analysis of the multivalent ways gendered discourses surround us, she informs readers. As she writes in the text’s penultimate pages, “I hope that I have shown that [...] individuals not only [can] experience[e] new ways of seeing the world, but perhaps also [encourage them to act] on these in new, progressive ways” [215]. Language is never static although, as this review’s epigram (and Sunderland’s overarching) argument, reminds us, aspects of language can be unyielding, retaining purchase on mindsets for a long time, and at great costs.

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