Friday, May 04, 2007

This is a feminist blog

Feminism is an ideology that seeks to challenge sex-based discrimination, and foster relations based on equality and mutual respect between the sexes.

A detailed accounting of the origins and shape of sex discrimination in Taiwan is outside the scope of this short post. Suffice to say, such discrimination is self-evident and all-pervasive today—just go and ask any woman. Sexism is not just about a man having a bad attitude or saying something nasty or “inappropriate” to a woman, rather it concerns a whole institutionalised system of discrimination backed up by an extensive ideology that genders women and men. I am interested in this phenomenon of gendering as it applies to educational contexts, particularly in the EFL arena. My expertise here is in critical discourse analysis, and below we will take a detailed look at a typical EFL text to reveal its gender bias.

Firstly though, I would like to make some general comments about gendering. Gendering is a social process by which men and women are given a certain sex-conscious identity, a process that is linked to socialcultural reproduction in any society. The given identities are designed to support and reproduce certain economic relations. To give an example, in traditional Taiwanese indigenous cultures men were given the identity of hunter, and women of weaver; the identities clearly and directly correspond to economic function. In fact, there was no good reason why a man shouldn’t weave, or a woman not hunt, except that it was not the “done thing” to do—gendering par excellence. In the West, gendering continued throughout the twentieth century partly as a function of Fordist capitalism. Again the need for a division of labour is the key to understanding gendering; in this case the women stayed at home and looked after the children whilst the men worked inhumanly hard in factories. Despite the successes of the feminist movement, gendering continues today, and is very much alive and well in Taiwan.

A small anecdote: the other day I took the 508 bus up to Yang Ming Shan, a bus route that runs past Tun Hsu Vocational High School, a school where I used to teach English as it happens. On the bus sat a number of Tun Hsu students. I observed the new school athletic uniform had added a pink stripe down the sleeve for girls, and a blue stripe for the boys. Such distinctions did not exist on the old uniform. The pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys scenario is a classic example of gendering in the West. It’s interesting how this gendering pattern has been picked up at Tun Hsu High School in the year 2007!

In Taiwan, gendering starts in the family where parents typically have different expectations for girls and boys. The gendering is then reinforced in school at a very early age, girls and boys being rigorously separated in kindergarten: “boys over here, girls over there”, etc. By the time they get to high school, many girls are already suffering the type of chronic lack of self-esteem that will lead them to exhibiting dysfunctional and/or manipulative behaviours. This scenario does not apply to all girls, but I would say it applies to a good many, and the critical age is between fifteen to eighteen years: it is during this period that Taiwanese women are “finished off” in terms of being made to accept an unequal relationship to men.

I would like now to illustrate how gendering is supported by one EFL text. My example has been taken from part of a graduate paper I wrote concerning ideology in texts. As I stated in that paper: “The work of Bakhtin, among others, has shown how language is saturated with ideological meaning; all texts are inherently ideological whether we admit to it or not, and all texts are a composite of others’ ideological meanings…” –and that also applies to this post! Okay, so what I did was take an “ordinary” EFL text and denaturalize it. Among other findings, the text turned out to be highly biased. How? In the whole text five males are mentioned, four of them by proper nouns, versus no females. Meanwhile, in a computer concordance of the rest of the book (see below) I found the pronoun “he” used 26 times, whereas “she” is used only seven times. A further analysis of this concordance revealed all seven mentions of “she” occur in one Reading describing the death of a woman. By contrast, “he” finds himself in a varied set of contexts in the eight Readings of this textbook. For example, he “works hard”, “is a good servant”, “is very good at tennis”, “never lies”, “is at a science museum”, “ignored his girlfriend”, and “shot an arrow.” It is interesting, isn’t it, how “he” in these texts seems to represent middle-class values and behaviour, while “she” turns out to be a victim of violence.

Selected Computer concordance results

She in eight collated Readings

ry special French girl. She was born in 1412 and was
ly to her parents. When she was 13, she started
rents. When she was 13, she started to hear v
to hear voices. She believed they were the vo
nto France. By the time she was 17, England c
burned her to death. She was only 19. voice: the s
. oil: She cooks with a lot o

He in eight collated Readings

eaning for other people He works hard. He
e works hard. He is a good servant.
vide: to cut into parts He divided the cake into thr
't thank Joan. Instead, he let the English put her i
to beat: to win He is very good at tennis, a
very good at tennis, and he often beats me. wo
d Bill never eats meat; he only eats fruit a
businessman, and he is on the road again.
his life changes. While he is at a science museum,
as superpowers. He can also climb walls and
b walls and shoot webs. He becomes Spider-Ma
Lee was very upset, but he didn't give up. Marvel C
nusual: not usual He is a very unusual
ust: to believe He never lies, so I trust hi
e witchdoctor was afraid he might lose his be
beautiful daughters, so he made a plan to protect th
a plan to protect them. He took Mehni, Weema
o turn them into stone. He thought that he would bri
stone. He thought that he would bring them back
th Cinderella as soon as he saw her. tribe: a
ng or someone He ignored his girlfriend an
end that is long He hit his head on the edge
e into zombies. He asked eight witchdoctors
ks food He is an excellent c
very much not the same He has a brother, but they a
sharp point at one end He shot an arrow at the

Well, you get the picture. If you can’t see the gender bias now, you must be blind. But in actual fact, many people just don’t notice it because it is spread out through whole texts. The vast majority of books have these kinds of biases built into them. Granted a few of the larger publishers have made an attempt to “weed out” bias. However, gender bias is not a technical problem, it is a cultural phenomenon linked to economic relations and one must challenge the system as a whole. Feminism seeks to re-design the world in a more feminine way, not just allow women to act, think and behave like men.

As educators, I believe we must take an assertive feminist position. The sexist subjection of females not only harms the interests of women, but it is part of a wider subjection of domination that warps and distorts male personalities. Here are some concrete steps that all educators can take in class:

· Always challenge male dominant assumptions
· Always give girls at least a fifty percent chance to speak
· Don’t allow boys to dominate girls in the classroom
· Don’t gender students by separating them, or in other ways

(separation may be desirable for explicit discussions about sexism, but that is another story )
· Raise critical awareness of texts: analyse texts for bias
· Treat girls and boys equally and be consistent about this
· Always have high expectations of your female students

· Make your anti-sexist policies explicit and public

My advice to girls studying English is to be aware of gendering and sexism in the English you are learning, and don’t be afraid to challenge male dominant assumptions. Going against the grain is hard, but ultimately you must not allow your self-worth and dignity to be denied.


sommersscott said...

I don't want to say that I disagree with you. I try to eliminate gendered language as much as I can, although I don't take as much care as you do. My concern is a little different.

It is extremely difficult to eliminate gender-patterned behaviour. For those who read my blog, you will know that I don't accept explanations that ascribe this to biology, but it is almost impossible, even in carefully controlled settings.

My point is that given the power with which behaviour is gendered, how important are such things as the use of pronouns? Or even language usage taken outside the context of the social situations in which it occurs? In truth, I have always suspected the emphasis placed on issues of language usage come from the ease with which it is addressed, rather than the hugely difficult problems involved in dealing with real structural change.

Walter said...

What an absolute outrage! Those poor high school students being corrupted by those insidious coloured stripes!

I applaud your determined effort at addressing a serious problem but I'm concerned that you over-play your hand and thus undermine the movement. Getting upset about coloured stripes on games kit - used to play sport - usually a gendered activity (or is gendered sport evil as well?) - just makes people think that feminists are subversive nut jobs. It is fuel to Bill O'Reilly's fire. Stick to real problems!

Some very good advice nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

It's great that you examined texts like this. But I don't think a feminist point of view is desirable, I'd rather speak of 'gender awareness' since boys also sometimes suffer by gendering. Higher expectations -> higher pressure, so what if a boy is not a high achiever? And furthermore "boys don't cry, don't feel pain" and all that bullshit. We should try to see the human beings behind the genderized mask both boys and girls haven been educated to wear.

Mark said...

I don't think that we can or should eliminate gender-patterned behavior. Considering that "gender-patterned" behavior exists not only in every human society, but also those of countless other animals, blaming everything on culture isn't very reasonable. Men and women aren't the same on a physical level (which includes the brain), and any society formed will be influenced by these differences. Even a brief examination of other mammals will show a sex-based division of hunting duties in many species that jointly raise their young. I know it's not very PC to say so, but it's the truth.

That isn't to say that I don't believe in giving all students equal class time, though. In fact, in my classes, I have a folder in my hands at all times and keep track of how many chances my students have to keep in each class. I also have a running total of the times I've called on them over the entire month, and I work hard to make sure that it comes out fair for everybody... irrespective of gender.

Gary said...

I'm not sure about the best way to handle comments yet--but i did promise to respond, and I will give at least one response to anyone who comments. Of course i'd like to give you all an individual response, but it seems like I need to do this one place. So with no further ado:

Scott, it IS difficult to eliminate gender-patterned behaviour, but that is not my goal. My more limited goal is to challenge sexism in EFL, and I have illustrated one example of how language is used to support sexism in English language education in Taiwan. Obvioulsy the incidence of pronouns is only one maifestation of gendering in English language materials, but it's definitely there--go take a look for yourself. By the way, computer concordance is a method of examining large amounts of text in a way that allows us to discover word association and grammar patterns. It does reveal objective data that is hard to argue with, and I distinctly recall you using a similar technique when you analysed the word use of "foreigner" in a corpus of texts. Nevertheless, there are other techniques for analysing texts, and I fancy I will touch on those in my next post.

Walter, I am a subversive nut--watchout! More seriously, I gave three examples of gendering in my post; the anecdote about uniforms was just one of them. I wasn't outraged so much as surprised to see it. For your information, sports classes were pretty free of gendering when I was teaching at that school, but perhaps the uniform change will be a precursor to less equal practices? What I'm trying to say is symbolism plays a key role in gendering.

anonymous, That's kind of a fair comment, but feminism exactly tries to deal with the problems you raise about male identity.

mark, what makes us different to all other animals? The answer is language, and, through language, higher consciousness. Comparisons with the animal world just don't wash. The fact is that we have the capacity to design our own social futures--so why not give women a more equal shot? I notice you've thrown the expression "PC" in there Gosh, if there is one misused expression flying around that is it--I'll critique the notion of "politically correct" in my next post just for you.
Great to hear about your good classroom practices, and keep up the great work.

Note: I'm not going to disallow any comments. The purpose of moderation is to allow me a chance to see if anything should be responded to quickly.

Scott Sommers said...

So sexism should be addressed even if it has no consequences? Sexism as statistical norm? I don't think that's really what you mean, or is it?

Gary said...

Scott, I don't think anything I said implied sexism has no consequences. Quite the contrary. I already mentioned the damage done to females' self-esteem, and sexism ultimately leads to violence being enacted on women by men--a very serious problem worldwide. Domestic violence against women is also a problem in Taiwan. Gendering, sexism and gender bias are three separate things, but they do connect with one another. As far as gender bias in texts goes, I did not just make a quantative analysis, I also examined the immediate contexts of the gendered pronouns to see what the males and females were doing, and whether or not it was active or passive.

Anonymous said...

Feminism often simplyfies by concentrating on girls/women being disadvantaged in patriarchic society. Also the word "feminism" itself makes it clear, that boys are not in the focus, or only as potential suppressors of girls.

Gary said...

anonymous, how often do you read feminist litertaure? Feminism is essentially an ideology that seeks to challenge systemic inequality between the sexes. Of course, women are in the focus because usually we get "businessman" "fisherman" "chairman", plus "he" 26 times versus "she" only 7 times, etc. i.e. men are unfairly in the focus all the time.

Gary said...

Note: All comments on this blog are welcome, and no comments will be disallowed. I hope people will try to use this space to have an informed discussion about issues raised in posts (everything is fine so far!) But I reserve the right to not respond directly to a comment. I may not respond for a lot of reasons--I might be busy, or I might want to give other people a chance to speak (this is a GROUP discussion), or I might feel disinclined to respond. Also, there may be some delay in the posting of some comments due to the fact that I am busy with something else, but I will endeavour to send comments to the page as quickly as possible :)