Advertising to the "Other" Culture: Women's Use of Language and Language's Use of Women

By Stern, Barbara | National Forum, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Advertising to the "Other" Culture: Women's Use of Language and Language's Use of Women


Stern, Barbara, National Forum


Men and women occupy separate cultural spheres as well as separate biological ones. Cultural differences between the sexes occur in all known societies and are made manifest in language, the shaper of human reality. Shulamith Firesone, in The Dialectic of Sex (1971), argues that "the sex role system divides human experience; men and women live in these different halves of reality; and culture reflects this." Marketing and advertising researchers have studied several cultural domains in reference to women: stereotypes of women in advertising, feminine themes and values (see Roland Marchand, Advertising to the American Dream, 1985), and pictorial depictions of gender roles (for example, see Erving Goffman, Gender and Advertising, 1979). The focus is ordinarily on visual images and depictions of typical characters, settings, and occupational roles.

Even advertising studies of "latent" content, requiring not simply observation of what is "manifest" in the visuals but also interpretation of what the images mean, do not ordinarily focus on language. Although feminist critics since Robin Lakoff's groundbreaking Language and Women's Roles (1975) have identified a dichotomy between male and female language, the impact of genderization on the language used in advertising messages has not yet been widely studied. However, research on advertising verbals is necessary because language is the vehicle through which culture is transmitted. This article thus adopts the perspective of feminist language-based criticism. It draws specifically from feminist literary criticism to examine advertising's words to clarify how women use language and how language uses women.

LANGUAGE AND WOMEN'S CULTURE

It was not until the 1960s that feminist critics brought to light the hidden assumptions of male-centered culture in which "female" is defined by negative reference to "male" as the human norm. For most of human history - read by feminists as "his story" - women internalized civilization's reigning patriarchal biases and accepted the cultural constructs defining masculinity and femininity.

Stereotypical maleness and femaleness are built into the patriarchal culture and expressed in the language of both art and life. Feminist theorists pointed out that language categorizes and structures one's concept of oneself, others, and society, and amassed evidence indicating the male bias is encoded in our linguistic conventions. For example, the nouns "man" or "mankind" are used to define all human beings, and the pronouns "he" and "his" often refer to ostensibly gender-neutral nouns such as God, inventor, author, poet - and the advertiser as well. The gender identification created and maintained in language was based on the male as a normative model of the self and the female as a deviant "other," first identified in Simone de Beauvoir's landmark book, The Second Sex (1953). Since that time, feminist critics have brought to light the almost unthinkable acceptance of male norms and female opposites hidden beneath the surface.

By the 1960s, feminist researchers had begun to uncover the extent to which male dominance is so rooted in our terminology that it is accepted as "normal" language. Feminist scholars were the first to organize a school of criticism to recognize the presence of women (albeit their official invisibility), the kinship among them, and the differences between this sub rosa group and that of the male mainstream. Feminist criticism always examines cultural factors because to understand a woman's point of view (as a character in a novel or in an advertisement), a critic must take into account the social, legal, and economic status of women in society.

THREE CHARACTERISTICS OF WOMEN'S LANGUAGE

Beginning with Lakoff, feminist critics have set out to specify the impact of place on "woman's language," that distinctively feminine style of speaking and writing. They have focused on sentence structure, diction (word choice), organizational flow, and characteristic images to ascertain how women select and combine words in everyday life. …

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