Span 37

Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 37, 1993
Yorga Wangi:
Postcolonialism and Feminism

Edited by Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell, Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees

Diminishing in Visibility: She'll Be Right

Judy Jurass


Linguistic relativity

... the forms of a person's thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious. These patterns are the unperceived intricate systematizations of his own language. . . . His thinking itself is in language . . . And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning and builds the house of his consciousness. 2

Benjamin Lee Whorf believed that the language habits of a community predispose certain choices on interpretation of phenomena such as time and space. As his comparative studies between (mainly) Hopi Indian and SAE (Standard, Average European) languages developed, he extended his theory to include many of the beliefs and attitudes towards "reality" that the inhabitants of a given culture might hold. Whorf saw language and culture as growing together, constantly influencing and reflecting each other. Or: that language speaks us. He observed that the belief structures of a community and patterns of relating to phenomena and each other vary enormously, and often correlate with the particular language spoken, and concluded that the beliefs we hold, our desires and ambitions, are constructed from internalizations of both overt and covert messages received from one's language and culture. Such variety of beliefs and social organisation throws into question the essential nature of one's own practices and beliefs that might otherwise remain screened from our consciousness by habituation and the enormous systematicity of unchallenged representation. Whorf called this unconscious social organisation of individuals "linguistic relativity":

... users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluation of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.3

In this discussion, I hope to compare the gendered "linguistic relativity" of a people who inhabit the same culture and the same language, that of the Australian English-speaking community, by exploring linguistic habits which construct female and male gendered roles and experience. Or that the same language speaks us differently. My argument is that gendering in language does not happen in arbitrary or isolated instances, but is part of a larger, systematic pattern of representations. Messages produced offer limited and often conflicting views of possibilities for human beings which are sometimes incompatible with our changing roles, expectations and desires for ourselves. Women are still linguistically represented as Other and men as Selves, enabling man and his place in the world to be defined by woman being that which confirms man; women in discourse play ever-increasing supportive roles to the dramas of male activities, as is constantly re-enacted in the majority of "malestream" stories, songs, movies, renditions of history and news, with traditionally and/or essentially female activities receiving little prestige or attention, as in women's sport and motherhood.

The Australian Ethos - "She'll be right, mate!"

As an English speaking migrant of fourteen years ago, I remember being struck by the cavalier ethos of Australians as compared to the sombre British. The easy-going "she'll be right" and "no worries (mate)" attitude of Australians came as a welcome relief. But I also experienced another side to this optimistic comraderie - I was never quite fully admitted. "Men don't shake hands with women here," I was advised by a well-wishing "adapted" migrant. In social situations, men occupied one space, women another. British codes of behaviour and etiquette were soon replaced and forgotten. I was impressed at the swift ease with which male migrants fell into patterns of male comraderie, or "mateship," the eagerness of both sexes to adopt and adapt to "the lingo" and the Australian way of life.

So what does the phrase "she'll be right" mean, and to what sort of situations, entities or beings can it be applied? And is the gendering in this phrase locatable as part of a larger systematic practice of gendering in language?

People I asked related the phrase mostly to objects (such as cars), about aspects of nature (especially the weather), and if about an actual person - that "she" will present no problems, with an extended possible use of "she'll be right on the night." Such things could be expected to go to plan, to perform complicitly and predictably in accordance with her/its essential nature, together with a certain "make-do" attitude where the actor does not expect to contribute undue effort upon the acted-upon. There is often an accompanying devil-may-care attitude, a pseudo risk-taking alongside the implicit assumption that "she" has no ability, no desire, no right to reply. ("He'll be right" or "we'll be right" can also be used, but seems to be an adaptation of the phrase to personal instances, or of resistance, rather than indicative of a cultural ethos.) The phrase was felt to be most appropriate as an exchange between men, with women's use of it seeming "tomboyish" or butch depending upon their age. If the phrase was used by a man addressing a woman, then "mate" would usually be dropped. Women just are not "mates" in the Australian back-slapping sense.

Yet many things are arbitrarily assumed to be "he" - such as the unmarked grammatical subject, dogs, and the hunting animal (see below). That some things are called "she" and others "he" indicates that there must lie in the culture's ideology, and posited in the unconsciousness of individuals, similar attitudes towards those things or instances called "she" and women, and those called "he" and men, possibly a gendered understanding of passive-active, submissive-dominant. The anthropologist Levi-Strauss might have interpreted "she'll be right, mate" to confirm his argument that women are viewed as commodities to be used and exchanged between men, (a view explicitly stated in many popular songs, for example,"Take good care of my baby"). In a Batesonian sense, the phrase may be interpreted to imply that relationships between males are predominantly reciprocal, but in mixed relationships are complementary. Bateson described relationships as being of three main types, symmetrical, complementary, and reciprocal. Briefly, in symmetrical relationships both parties have the same aspirations and the same behaviour patterns, so that behaviours such as rivalry will provoke similar rivalry in one's partner or opponent, as in sports such as tennis and football. Bateson argued that unless checked, symmetrical relationships could lead to excessive behaviours, hostility, violence, and the ultimate breakdown of the system - a process he called schismogenesis. In complementary relationships, both parties have different aspirations and behaviours, but fit together in a relationship of co-dependence, such as submission-dominance, spectatorship-exhibitionism, succour-dependancy, or mixtures of these. If one party increased its behaviour of, for example, dominance, then the other party must increase its behaviour of submission. Again, unless restrained, complementary behaviours can lead to the progressive differentiation of schismogenesis. In reciprocal relationships, behaviour is asymmetrical and mutually conducive, with symmetry being regained over a large number of instances - or it may be complementary in that a reciprocal pattern is balanced within itself, and therefore does not lead to schismogenesis. (Bateson, 1971: 68-71).

I will return to Bateson's categories of relationships and schismogenesis later, but will turn next to some linguistic features of the English language which systematically posit gender "arbitrarily": (1) Pronoun use, (2) Gendered grammatical metaphors, (3) Unequal naming practices.

(1) Pronoun use

In Mother Tongue, Father Time A. Hill4 argues that although in English the masculine pronouns can be correctly used as a neutral term of reference, that this fact is not necessarily internalized into the psyche, especially of children. The attentive reader will find numerous occasions where writers using the masculine pronoun leap to further assumptions that the subject is male. A few examples are:

The American child is usually encouraged to show off his independence . . . the child's exhibitionism is played off against his independence until the latter is neutralized. Later, from this beginning in the exhibition of independence, the individual may sometimes go in adult life to show off succorance, his wife and family becoming in some degree his "exhibits".

(Bateson, 1990: 102)

In his Introductory Lectures Freud opens each lecture with "Ladies and Gentlemen", but thereafter refers to his audience only as "Gentlemen".5

A more explicit form, the word group unmarried people, could have been substituted for bachelors . . .6

In the first example, "she" is included as "his" Other; in the second the female pronoun "ladies" is initially included but then omitted or forgotten; in the third example "she" does not even exist. The second and third examples are a parapraxis, an error of omission. Freud believed that instances of parapraxis have a motive, a sense and an intention, from which one could extrapolate that perhaps the male ego wishes to appropriate subjectivity, with occasional reference to the female in specific contexts to mirror its difference, its maleness. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, (1971) Bateson uses "he" generically to describe the sufferers of illness such as schizophrenia and alcoholism, creating a most curious effect in that the "he" sufferers' significant others are invariably mothers and wives; one is subtly led to experience the male as victim, and his female Other as the cause of his condition, as his oppressor.

How is the reader to position and experience women in such texts? Do women experience themselves in phrases such as "the brotherhood of mankind"? Unlike male readers, female readers have always to negotiate whether women-as-potential-role-models for themselves are included as actors or not. Graham describes the dilemma of using the same term to include women in some contexts yet exclude them in others:

If a woman is swept off a ship into the water, the cry is "Man overboard." If she is killed by a hit-and-run driver, the charge is "manslaughter." If she is injured on the job, the coverage is "workmen's compensation." But if she arrives at a threshold marked "Men Only," she knows the admonition is not intended to bar animals or plants or inanimate objects. It is meant for her. 7

Hill describes that the unconscious reading of male-specific actors in the so-called ungendered pronouns ("he," "man," "the brotherhood of mankind," et alia), leads to the formation of "pronoun envy" in young girls - that it is not the penis that is envied but the privileged central status enjoyed by those who have penises. She questions the cruel and needless humiliation experienced by young girls as they struggle to incorporate into their self-perception the systematic devaluation or deletion of the female sex in discourse, their lack of active, powerful role models. Hill8 cites a survey by M. Horner where 90 girls and 88 boys were given a story to complete from the first sentence "After first-term finals, Ann/John (respectively to girls/boys) finds herself/himself at the top of her/his medical-school class." Fifty-nine percent of the girls viewed Ann as a lonely, acne-faced, abnormal and guilt-ridden woman; they displayed hostility and ambivalence towards her and predicted an unhappy and disastrous fate for Ann. By comparison, only nine percent of the boys showed evidence of any desire for John to fail; the other ninety-one percent of boys expressed delight at John's success and projected a glorious future for him. Horner concludes that girls experience a conflict between the ability to be successful in a career and successful in personal matters - that to be a bright and ambitious woman is to be in a double-bind. This in turn leads to the desire to avoid success - the "will to fail."9

Graham describes the inference of deleting women from discourse and rendering them linguistically invisible by comparing the rule of using "man" to include "woman" to a mathematical proposition:

If you have a group half of whose members are A's and half of whose members are B's and you call the group C, then A's and B's may be equal members of group C. But if you call the group A, there is no way that B's can be equal to A's within it. The A's will always be the rule and the B's will always be the exception - the subgroup, the subspecies, the outsiders. 10

(2) Gendered grammatical metaphors

G. Kress and B. Hodge argue that gender ideologies are carried in diverse covert grammatical forms - that gendering in English has "gone underground." Nouns can be connected with "arbitrarily" gendered pronouns, (cats/nature/cars = she; lions/grammar/dogs = he). Adjectives such as "fragrant," "smooth," and "attractive" are more likely to be used in advertising targeted at women, than "strong," "rugged" and "handsome".11 In a recent advertising brochure the colours of men's clothing are "petrol," "khaki" and "cement" whilst the colours of women's clothing are "jade," "peach," and "hot pink." Verbs also can carry gender implications (she "nursed" it back to health, he "fought" it out). Whorf described language as having a "kingly role," that grammatical patterns are "fathered," yet the actual language spoken is the "mother tongue" and related languages "sister tongues".12 In other words, where language is a tool of communication to be used, it is feminine, but in its ruling principles it is male. Or consider the gender implications below:

Monistic, holistic and relativistic views of reality appeal to philosophers and some scientists, but they are badly handicapped in appealing to the "common sense" of the Western average man - not because nature herself refutes them . . . but because they must be talked about in what amounts to a new language. 13

Even when the cat asks you for milk, she cannot mention the object she wants . . . She says, "Mama, mama," and you are supposed from this invocation of dependency to guess that it is milk that she requires.

The lion can sink into his unconsciousness the proposition that zebras are his natural prey, but in dealing with any particular zebra he must be able to modify the movements of his attack . . .

(Bateson, 1971: 141 and 142)

In the first quote a binary opposition is created, with "Nature" and "common sense" set us as "she" and contrasted to the triune logic of "Monistic, holistic and relativistic views", which are by inference of opposition gendered as male. In the second and third examples, the rendering of the cat as "he" and the lion as "he" follows traditional patterns of "she" as passive, dependent, and in this instance, as also child-like, reinforcing another stereotype for women. Conversely, the active, hunting cat is "he," even though it is generally the lioness that hunts. Again, we can assume that there must lie in the unconsciousness similar attitudes towards these animals and females and males, perhaps dependence and independence, and passivity and activity respectively.14

(3) Unequal naming practices

Naming practices for women and men could be viewed in a Batesonian sense as reflecting the complementary nature of relationships. The mass practice of women surrendering their own surname and adopting the husband's surname at marriage linguistically implies subjection-dominance, owned-owner, and could be viewed in the same way as Graham's mathematical proposition mentioned above - that if A's plus B's = A's, then B's can never be equal to A's. B's will always be "the exception - the subspecies, the subgroup, the outsider" - the Other. With regard to titles, giving women a choice between Mrs/Miss and Ms might seem on the surface to be non-discriminatory, but in choosing between Mrs and Miss, a woman is forced to disclose her marital status, whilst in choosing between Mrs/Ms and Miss, a woman is forced to state her position in respect to certain feminist principles. Thus, paradoxically, in giving women a choice, one is giving them no choice at all, and in choosing from the above titles she is not only categorized; she must categorize herself!15

Another common practice in naming conventions is to qualify a position occupied by a female actor with a female qualifier, such as "lady accountant", thereby implying that "accountant" normally means "male accountant" unless stated otherwise, and again linguistically marking the female as Other-to-the-norm. A related practice occurs in the Kress and Hodge 16 article already quoted where the authors fall foul of their argument of subtle, discriminatory gendering in language by referring fourteen times to "Sue Shrapnel" by full name, whereas in all other references (presumably to men) use the first name at most only once and thereafter use their surname only. Implicit in using her full name is Sue Shrapnel, lady academic!


If we look at social differentiation in a stable community . . . we find that it is not enough to say that the habit system or the character structure of one sex is different from that of the other. The significant point is that the habit of each sex cogs into the habit system of the other; that the behaviour of each promotes the habits of the other.17

It has been my intention in this discussion not to posit blame anywhere, but to view linguistic practices (alongside other semiotic practices), as contributing to powerful gender ideologies, and not as being a conscious, organized conspiracy by either sex. Learned habits are hard to resist, and, I believe, do not necessarily reflect the dishonourable or otherwise intentions of speakers. The fact that gendering takes place largely at an implicit level makes it particularly powerful and insidious in that it acts at a level normally beneath critical awareness. Unless women want to continue to diminish in visibility, with only brief female sightings in texts as Other - the female ego may need to challenge the appropriating male ego, to resist complying with the habits of discourse, and to move towards a reciprocal way of relating as equal Selves - or perhaps "she" won't be so right after all, and schismogenesis will be inevitable. I have tried to locate something of a system to the perhaps not so "arbitrary" linguistic positing of gender in non-specific occasions and objects, in grammatical features and linguistic practices which work together to maintain and/or create various arbitrary and limiting gender stereotypes for both women and men. This is not to deny that there are instances in language which do not fall into this system, for there are always exceptions to any rule, always instances of resistance. The question for me is: why are women complicit in their own erasure? The answer that I have argued for is that language practices have systematically constructed and/or reinforced a complementary system of inter-relating and differentiation between sexes which are generally accepted unquestioningly and adopted as ways of "knowing" ourselves and each other. To challenge such "knowledge" is to challenge the very foundation of our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world, and can be both threatening and destabilising. But it can also, I believe, prove to be rewarding and even fun if we can be humble enough to question our own "knowledge" and risk change.

University of New South Wales


2 Whorf, B, 1989, Language, Thought and Reality, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 252.

3 Whorf, 221.

4 Hill, Alette Olin, mother tongue, father time: a decade of linguistic revolt, Bloomington, In: Indiana University Press, 1986.

5 Freud, S, 1976, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, England, Penguin.

6 Jakobsen, R, 1971, Selected Writings II, Mouton, 246.

7 Millet, C, and Swift, K, 1976, Words and Women, New York, Anchor Press, 28.

8 Hill, 12-13.

9 The "will to fail" is tragically captured in Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, where Plath describes the inner conflict of a young woman who desires an adventurous life as a war-journalist, yet concomitantly aspires to the "usual" ambitions of women, (relationships, popularity), ambitions which often clash. The novel's frustrated heroine makes multiple suicide attempts and is treated in a psychiatric hospital during her university studies. Plath herself committed suicide in 1963.

10 Millet and Swift, 32.

11 Kress, G, and Hodge, B, 1979, Language as Ideology, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 77-82.

12 Whorf, 239, 221, 240 and 241.

13 Whorf, 152.

14 Nature programs generally call animals "he" unless the animal is caring for young, again reinforcing the limited socially sanctioned roles of female as mother and male as protector/provider. The movie Otis and Milo epitomises these stereotypical roles. In English, we generally assign a female gender to cats and a male gender to dogs. Although a male cat, Otis initially behaves like a cute, helpless kitten (thereby functioning as a "she"), whilst Milo, a wrinkled pug-nosed dog, spends the first part of the movie heroically rescuing Otis. They both meet female versions of themselves, who by comparison have no past or place of their own, drop everything (that is, nothing), and soon bear Otis and Milo a squad of little replica Otis' and Milos'. Otis' behaviour becomes predictably decisive, responsible and adult. By inference, their female partners only exist as Others, as partners and producers of the offspring of Otis and Milo.

15 I am often in a quandary as to how to refer to women with whom I am not familiar, and often opt to avoid using their name rather that say the "wrong" thing (which might cause embarrassment or even offend), thereby again linguistically rendering women invisible. Alternatively, I use the first name, thereby denying women the same degree of respect that I would give men in similar situations. A more viable option may be to eventually scrap Mrs and Miss and offer a truly equal choice of Mr/Ms. The argument that Ms is difficult to pronounce is probably indicative of the gender ideology argued for in this paper, for it is correctly pronounced simply like "his" which rarely creates any difficulty.

16 Kress, G, and Hodge, B, 1979, Language as Ideology, R.K.P., 66-70.

17 Bateson, G, 1971, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York, Ballantine Books, 90-91.

New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 21 April, 2015