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Gender & Communication

            Kalyn Schofield

            Gender & Technology

            Anne Dalke

            May 15, 2009


Gender & Communication


Gender exerts a powerful influence on all facets of human communication. The impact that gender has on both verbal and nonverbal messages include language, vocabulary and speech.  This important difference in language communication affect the way people interact with each other and influence what society views as acceptable for males and females. By closely analyzing certain literature and movies from class we can notice these gender influences through different means of language communication.

            When looking at language there are words that show bias towards one sex or another and display hide meanings.  These words become such a strong part of a society’s culture that it becomes second nature to always know their double meanings. For example, within the English language alone there are twenty two words to define a promiscuous man and two hundred and twenty words to describe a promiscuous female. Without any other cues except language, one discovers that promiscuity must have a strong feeling when attached to women. Examining these words closely, shows all of these words carry clear negative connotations, making such an act unacceptable on a woman’s behave. At the same time the twenty two male words have three different meanings behind them. There are negative words such as “male whore”, positive words such as “stud”, and ambiguous words such as “pimp”. Similar to the realization found that the

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relationship between women and promiscuity is negative. One can assess the relationship of men and promiscuity as unclear. In fact it would be better to state that the relationship depended on the social circumstances involved.

            The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood uses specific gender vocabulary to emphasize a character’s relationship in regards to position or status within Gilead’s society. These language choices are significant to the culture of Gilead and become a constant reminder to the roles men and women play in society. Men of high status are referred to as “commanders”. The word’s basic definition simply means “a person who commands.”[1] This is fitting for role affluent men possess in Gilead, since they are also the head of their households and figures of power. The society of Gilead defines the gift of life as a necessity that men should give to women. Men are thought to give the gift of life to women through their semen. Society places such an importance on the sexual act that men are not even checked to see if they’re still able to produce children only women are.  For the wives of commanders they simply retain the name “commander’s wife.” Her ability to command is less than her husband’s and is only prevalent within her own household. A prime example includes the commander’s wife Serena Joy. Serena is given complete control over her household and can only be usurped by her husband in this area. Serena uses her power to control and oversee the lives of anyone within the house.[2]  The handmaidens

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themselves are named after their commanders with the word “of” before the commander’s name. Offred and Ofglen are examples of women who are owned by commanders and therefore must bear their names.

 In essence, the use of the male name can be seen in two parts. The first is being a sense of ownership and the second is a lack of identity for individual handmaids. This sense of ownership can be traced back to the idea of marriage. “Household; that is what we are. The commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part” (Atwood, pg 91). Women in the United States will traditionally take on a man’s last name when they marry. “The practice of a wife taking a husband’s surname defines women narrowly – that is, in terms of their family. Furthermore, when a woman is referred to by her husband’s first name as well, as in Mrs. John Smith, she is rendered both subordinate and invisible (Baron, 1986)”. This assimilation leads to a part of their true identity being erased or censored.[3] In the Gilead society this is taken to the extreme as handmaids are no longer addressed by their real names. This results in a loss of identity as handmaids become interchangeable bearing no strikingly different features to set them apart. In essence society molds them to exist solely as vessels to produce children for others. Their life is meaningless until they produce children and they exist solely because they can produce children. Within Gilead one can see how language is created to emphasize gender. To be the commander is to

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have the masculine characteristics of status and power, whether one is The Commander or his wife. While being titled “of” a commander simply means one is put into the position of carrying life for another, lacking their own identity and existing only for others.

            Lacking an identity creates a certain lifelessness within people that compares them to robots or cyborgs. The very image of a robotic machine conjures up images of hard metal designed by its creator to fulfill a purpose. The machine has no gender itself and should be considered asexual or gender neutral. Yet, society once again, can instill or manipulate gender to both live and inanimate objects through the language of the body. “Kinesics is the interpretation of body language such as facial expressions and gestures — or, more formally, non-verbal behavior related to movement, either of any part of the body or the body as a whole.” (Wikipedia) The movement of an individual can be labeled masculine or feminine according to society’s culture and if necessary a gender will be assigned to it according to these movements. The dystopian fantasy Metropolis places a strong emphasis on body movement to express gender. The movie by Fritz Lang was produced in 1927 and recorded without live dialogue from the actors. This places even more significance to the body language used by the movie’s characters. One of the first scenes depicted in the movie shows the shift change for all employees. They take slow and shuffled steps, one foot at a time with heads slightly bowed, as they make steady progress towards work.[4]  This scene’s depiction of body language succeeds in turning living breathing flesh into a cold and lifeless machine, with only a single purpose, to work. The body language in this scene conveys the specific qualities of a machine and then

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assigns these traits to the workers. Because of the worker’s movements the audience comes to associate the gendered male workers as drone like machines and for this scene gender is made unimportant. Another scene does the reverse and uses body language to infer femininity to an otherwise genderless machine.[5] This scene shows the “evil” robotic Maria making her first live appearance to an audience. The robot must succeed in passing as a both a female and as an erotic dancer. The only way for the robot to be successful is by convincing the males in the room of her femininity. The robot conveys her sexuality by using things considered typical for a female erotic dance which consists of suggestive dance moves, a racy ensemble, and make-up. These things allow the robot’s gender identity to be created as soon as it steps onto the stage without question. The robot instantly succeeds it becoming female because it looks female and acts female so it is treated as female. The audience responds in stereotypical male fashion with constant panting, analyzing its every move, and possessing the body with their eyes. Both scenes have successfully used body language to deconstruct and create gender.

             One of the most common ways society defines gender is through the voice. “The ability to recognize the sex of a speaker on the basis of verbal cues alone would seem to be good evidence that men’s and women’s voices do differ in essential ways. Indeed, there are numerous studies that have reported the ability of listeners to correctly identify the sex of speakers by using only verbal cues” (Eakins & Eakins, 1978). Men and women are assumed to have distinct voices that separate them into a male or female category. The media plays on these vocal distinctions to create hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine voices. These are deliberate exaggerations of the

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male or female voice. Advertising uses these voices to sell products to customers. But similar to certain vocabulary that is specified for one gender or the other, so too are there restrictions to using the hyper voices. The idea behind this voice is to create a supreme image of masculinity that can only be attained through purchasing the specified product.[6] What becomes clear from these product advertisements and the distinctions placed on male and female voices is that the voice of an individual “sells” gender to others.

            Some transgender people have a goal to pass themselves off as the opposite gender. “The act of passing usually refers to the ability to be taken for a member of a social category other than one’s own”(Butler 1990, 1993). Biological males want to be seen as females and biological females want to be seen as men. These transgendered individuals must go through extensive treatment and therapy in order to develop methods of passing. “Transsexuals are transgender people who live or wish to live full time as members of the gender opposite to their birth sex. Biological females who wish to live and be recognized as men are called female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals or transsexual men. Biological males who wish to live and be recognized as women are called male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals or transsexual women. Transsexuals usually seek medical interventions, such as hormones and surgery, to make their bodies as congruent as possible with their preferred gender. The process of transitioning from one gender to the other is called sex reassignment or gender reassignment” (Transgender Individuals and Gender Identity) One of the most difficult transitions to make for

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many transsexuals is the change is voice.[7] The gender they want to portray dictates their voice’s patterns and behavior. “The idea that pitch (or any other behavior) gets used as a cultural marker of gender, instead of considering pitch (or any other behavior) as being caused by sex differences, is consistent with a social constructionist approach. Evidence of pitch being used to signal gender identity has been found by studying gay men’s (Barett, 1997) and gay women’s speech (Moonwomon, 1985; Moonwomon-Baird, 1997)”. These numerous pitch differentiations are all done unconsciously for many but transgendered people must make a conscious effort to make their voice resemble a male or female. They are forced to alter their biological voice in order to meet the gendered expectations of society.

            The gendered expectations of society view females as passive and men as aggressive. These stereotypes for gender also continue into language. “The linguistic identification of women’s language as “powerless” and men’s language as “powerful” has its origins in early readings of the work of Robin Lakoff (1975), who argued in Language and Woman’s Place that sex differences in language use both reflect and reinforce the unequal status of women and men in our society” (Hall & Bucholtz, pg 183-184). Keeping with specific gender differences results in further divides between the sexes when examining their speech. “An array of linguistic features are ideologically associated with women’s speech in American English. Among them are “empty” adjectives such as divine, charming, and cute” (Hall & Bucholtz, pg 184). Women’s speak is further categorized depending on its purpose. The notion of “sweet talking” projects

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sexuality to a listener who is usually male. The idea is that a women can manipulate a man through manipulating the sound of her voice. This suggests that females understand their gender role in society and play on it. In Metropolis Lang uses a female to represent and control the two sides of the Metropolis city. The “good” Maria symbolizes hope and future peace. She is seen most often speaking to the male workers that run the machines. Her active speech is a form of “sweet talk” that is key in enticing the workers to wait for the mediator, the person who can bridge the gap between the thinkers and workers. After the inventor steals Maria he succeeds in creating an exact replica that is a cyborg. This is known throughout the movie as the “bad” Maria. This robotic Maria also uses her “sweet talk” to manipulate the workers. She urges the workers to rise up and destroy the very machines that they slave day in and day out to keep running. The use of voice is important for registering gender among both sexes. For Maria, manipulating her speech, whether consciously or unconsciously, results in the control of the opposite sex.

            The notion that women can manipulate language is found in The Handmaid’s Tale. Here women are severely restricted in their speech yet this does not stop them from speaking in other ways. The subtle manipulations of language come through in many ways. The Handmaidens use their body language since their bodies represent themselves as vessels for pregnancy. Once their bodies become pregnant it successfully speaks to the world, telling people everywhere they are pregnant. “One of them is vastly pregnant; her belly, under her loose garment, swells triumphantly. There is a shifting in the room, a murmur, an escape of breath” (Atwood, pg 29). Offred’s inner voice constantly manipulates her feelings. “I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is

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the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others. These are the kinds of litanies I use, to compose myself” (Atwood, pg 126). Also the phrase “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” represents voices of the past that influence the present. “But what did it mean? I say. Which? He says. Oh. It meant, Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (Atwood, pg 216). These are all forms of communication that manipulate using body language, internal monologues, and forgotten speech.

            The awareness of language being manipulated suggests that language holds power and it is defined by the role of speaker and listener also seen as dominate and passive. In the world of Gilead women are severely restricted in their speech more than men. All forms of language and communication for women are severely reduced. Women are assumed to be illiterate and society takes drastic measures to reduce their exposure to words and language. Offred’s visit to the doctor is expected to be swift and silent. “He isn’t supposed to speak to me except when it’s absolutely necessary. But this doctor is talkative” (Atwood, pg 67). Instead the doctor initiates conversation in a casual demeanor. He is dominating Offred in this environment using speech to disable. He wants to exercise control over his patient with speech. Offred knows he should not be talking and he is aware that it is forbidden for doctors to talk to their patients more than they have to.  Offred reacts as the listener and speaks as little as possible. She takes care to neither insult nor encourage the doctor’s strange advances. “Thank you, I say. I must leave the impression that I’m not offended, that I’m open to suggestion” (Atwood, pg 69). Offred uses the minimum amount of language to convey her unwillingness to copulate with the doctor. Her language can be considered passive and the doctors dominate. The doctor dominates the

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conversation and Offred can only passively respond with a “yes” or “no.” She is never actively put into a dominate position to control this conversation.

            Offred’s lack of dominance in the conversation is defined throughout the whole book. This can be interpreted as silence which is often categorized as a passive and powerless tool. Is it any wonder that Gilead restricts the speech of women more so than men? A man’s dominance depends on his ability to speak and therefore manipulate the conversation. By speaking he controls his environment and stays in the speaker role. All others are reduced to the listener role brought upon with their silence. With all women lacking free speech in one way or another, this constantly puts women into the silent listener role in Gilead. These women are restricted and bound to listen to men at all times, which leaves them vulnerable to constant manipulation. The scene where The Commander must read to the household sums up the control men are given by their power of speech. “The Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so the servants wouldn’t steal it. It is an incendiary device. Who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it? We can be read to from it, by him, but we cannot read. Our heads turn towards him, we are expectant, here comes our bedtime story” (Atwood, pg 99). The situation reduces the entire household to the status of Handmaid’s as everyone must take on the silent role of listener every night. Even the highest ranking woman in the household, Serena Joy, is not given the liberty to read. She too, every night is reduced to the listening role of a female. In these moments she is equal to the Handmaiden’s she detests because like them she lacks the power to exercise speech. This is sacred time reserved for the leader of the household to exercise control through speech, a privilege never deliberately granted to women.

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The idea of gender’s effect within language raises many profound social questions. I have addressed some of these issues in this paper. When looking at how our gender affects us in everyday interactions one can look at sexist vocabulary. We are bombarded by gendered vocabulary everyday which emphasizes a society’s gendered stereotypes. Our choice of words constantly regulates strict notions of gender that consists of dividing people into male or female categories. Using sexist vocabulary creates gender divides between people during speech. In turn, people are treated differently when they speak because of their gender. These differences can be subtle with minor body language to outright discrimination. Gender differences created separate language into “male” and “female” categories. This gives language a distinct quality depending on the gender of the speaker. Males use powerful and important language while women are passive or silent all together when speaking. Speech is so important the voice is divided once again into two categories similar to language. The voice of men and woman take on distinct characteristics and are culturally embedded into people’s idea of what makes a man versus a woman. Men are associated with power and dominance so their voices are deep and loud. Women are the opposite, representing frailty and passivity, their voices are high pitched. These concrete gender separations found in voices are used as triggers to identify and label people into a gender. These gender separations are often manipulated and over emphasized. The media makes frequent use of the ideal man and women, using a hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine voice to sell products. Women have found various ways to manipulate their voice to control or persuade the opposite sex. Women often play on their gender roles to provide a fantasy to men in order to allude to a woman’s frailty and passiveness. In essence she uses society’s notion of gender to suggest to others she is properly female.

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To control language is to dominate others who can not use language. Through the manipulation of language there exists powerful divides between the male and female gender. There are many elements to language that play a role in communication. These components are all affected by gender. They are rooted into society and embedded into the culture’s language. To rid the world of gender differences is to lose huge parts of language itself because of how interconnected they are. The only way to invoke change is through the redefining of gender itself. As the idea of gender changes to include people such as homosexuals and hermaphrodite’s language will be adapted to explain them. It is society that defines the words spoken in a language and regulates the way people react to them. As long as we continue to view gender as only male and female we will continue to regulate society’s language with only these two genders in mind.









Works Cited

“Answers to Your Questions About Transgender Individuals and Gender Identity.” American Psychological Association. 1 May 2009 <>.

Barrett, R. (1997). The ‘homo-genius’ speech community. In A. Livia and K. Hall (eds), Queerly phrased: language, gender, and sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Baron, D. (1986). Grammer and gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Performative acts and gender constitution: an essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. In S. Case (ed.), Performing feminisms: feminist critical theory and theatre. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of sex. New York: Routledge.

Eatkins, B.W., and Eakins, R.G. (1978). Sex differences in human communication. Boston, MA:

Hall, Kira, and Mary Bucholtz. Gender Articulated Language and the Socially Constructed Self. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Lakoff, R. (1975). Language and woman’s place. New York: Harper and Row.

Margaret., Atwood,. The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006.

Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Prod. Erich Pommer. Perf. Alfred Abel and Brigitte Helm. DVD. Paramount Pictures, 1927.

Moonwomon, B. (1985). Toward the study of lesbian speech. In S. Bremner, N. Caskey, and B. Moonwomon (eds), Proceedings of the first Berkeley women and language conference. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Women and Language Group.

Moonwomon-Baird, B. (1997). Toward the study of lesbian speech. In A. Livia and K. Hall (eds), Queerly phrased: language, gender, and sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weatherall, Ann. Gender, Language, and Discourse. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Wikipedia. 2 May 2009 <>.







[1] The first available definition for the word “commander.”

[2] Pgs 235-238 of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Here Serena Joy manipulates Offred into sleeping with Nick (the driver) so she can become pregnant. Both Offred and Nick are under her control as they are employed in the household. She conducts these undercover schemes with the hope of gaining personal satisfaction through Offred’s pregnancy. Her ability to manipulate the household is absolute unless the commander interferes hence she makes it a point to keep her activities a secret from him.

[3] “The assumption of a man’s name on marriage suggests that the woman is merely an extension of her husband or part of her husband’s estate” (Weatherall, pg 20).

[4] From the 1927 film Metropolis with the “Shift Change” scene from

[5] From the 1927 film Metropolis with “Seven Deadly Sins” scene from

[6] Examples of hyper masculinity in advertising in a Toyota truck commercial from Example of a female product being advertised to men with a hyper-feminized voice.