Sociocultural Marking of Women in Deborah Tanen’s Book Analysis

An Examination On Sociocultural “Marking” of Women – Rhetorical Analysis of “There Is No Unmarked Woman” by Deborah Tanen What is it that makes a woman a woman, or what makes a man a man? Deborah Tannen, author and Ph. D. of linguistics, investigates this question within the essay, “There Is No Unmarked Woman. ” An excerpt from a larger publication, “Talking from 9 to 5,” written in 1994, “There Is No Unmarked Woman” is an effective examination of the social injustice as to why the state of womanhood is “marked” while the state of manhood is “unmarked”, and what this means for each sex.

The book itself is a result of real-life research about the conversational styles in a workplace setting and how conversation impacts productivity and success. Although Tannen uses many effective strategies within the excerpted essay, she most pointedly uses devices such as narration, vivid description, definition, compare-contrast, and example to make herself heard. She also adopts a critical, but humorous, outlook in order to effectively analyze why these social structures exist without discrediting her own voice or style.

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In the opening paragraphs of “There Is No Unmarked Woman,” Tannen narrates a past experience from a professional conference, therefore beginning the essay on a more personal and relatable note. She begins with, “Some years ago I was at a small working conference of four women and eight men. Instead of concentrating on the discussion I found myself looking at the three other women at the table, thinking how each had a different style and how each style was coherent. These few sentences allow the reader insight into the author’s thinking process and that even she may judge other women for how they dress and act, creating a more intimate atmosphere between the audience and the author. “One woman had dark brown hair in a classic style, a cross between Cleopatra and Plain Jane… Because she was beautiful, the effect was more Cleopatra than plain. ” Although it is not yet clear at this point what Tannen’s purpose for writing this essay may be, because of how the excerpt was begun, the reader will feel drawn into the essay without feeling intimidated by some deeper meaning.

In continuing, Tannen uses vivid imagery to describe the other women. One is described as “full of dignity and composure” and “fashionable. ” Her hair is modern and stylish, and although interesting, regularly impedes the woman’s vision and that “[it] created a barrier between her hair and her listeners. ” Then, the second woman’s hair “was [a] wild, frosted blonde avalanche falling over beyond her shoulders. ” If this was not distracting enough, she goes on to describe the woman’s actions: “When she spoke she frequently tossed her head, calling attention to her hair and away from her lecture. However, what makes these descriptions significant is that there is no similarly detailed description for any man at the conference. Tannen goes into great detail about the manner in which each woman is dressed and styled, but only provides a vague idea of how the men were dressed and styled. What’s more, the men were all lumped into one general category, allowing for no opportunity to distinguish themselves from one another. This observation is the very core of Tannen’s argument.

There are infinite ways in which a woman can choose to present herself through appearance and behavior, but there is no such freedom for men. The men at the conference exemplify precisely the very narrow mold around which men are “supposed” to act. With the thesis of the essay now apparent, Tannen goes on using another very effective rhetorical device. After observing real-life situations in which women stand out from men, she goes on to define this boundary in terms of linguistics. The term “marked” is a staple of linguistic theory,” Tannen explains, “It refers to the way language alters the base meaning of a word by adding a linguistic particle that has no meaning on its own. The unmarked form of a word carries the meaning that goes without saying – what you think of when you’re not thinking anything special. ” This simple statement is where the essay’s namesake becomes evident. The unmarked form of a word is the base word, and in order to mark a word, one must then add something to it in order to alter its meaning.

This being said, Tannen goes on to explain that the unmarked form of a word has a strong tendency to be seen as the masculine form of the word, and in order to make the word feminine, one must add something. Word endings like “-ess” and “-ett” are what can then mark a word to become feminine in connotation. So the metaphor goes, men are the baseline; they are what one “thinks of when you’re not thinking of anything special,” and women therefore must be the outliers. They must be “special. ” But then it becomes clear that this phenomenon promotes common associations, as Tannen says, that force the female gender to be taken less seriously.

The example is brought up of that a severely injured individual would most likely rather be treated by someone with the title “Doctor,” and less likely to wish to be treated by someone with the title, “Doctorette. ” This device is effective due to the logical structure in which the definition leads the argument Tannen presents and the examples she uses to aid her definitive argument. One might never think about how less important a “Doctorette” sounds over “Doctor” until the contrast is presented in this light, but Tannen forces it to be known.

Then, the argument shifts to comparing the few “baseline” identities that men may choose and the plethora of which women can choose. She explains it in this way: “Each of the women at the conference had to make decisions about hair, clothing, makeup, and accessories, and each decision carried meaning. Every style available to us was marked. ” This declaration is significant due to the fact that any way that a man chose to roll out of bed that morning would have been considered “masculine” – unless he chose to adopt traditionally known “feminine” traits.

However, each woman attending the conference was expected to make choice after choice in order to appear separate from the baseline (masculine), and in order to distinguish herself from among the other women, too. All styles available for men to adopt are, by nature, unmarked. In order for women to appear feminine, however, they must do sometimes wild and abstract things to their faces, hair, and bodies. It begins to appear here that Tannen is implying that femininity itself is nothing but a three-ring circus, and that women only do these actions in order to be different, and to be pleasing to men and competitive with other women.

After an extensive comparison between the differences of being “marked” and “unmarked”, to aid her argument further, and conceding with her lack of true interest in the biological predisposal to gender identity, Tannen cites the work of Ralph Fasold. In “The Sociolinguistics of Language,” Fasold says that it is not the female gender that is marked, but the male gender that is truly marked. “While two X chromosomes make a female,” says Fasold, “two Y chromosomes make nothing. Like linguistic markers, s, es, or ess, the Y chromosome doesn’t “mean” anything unless it is attached to a root form – an X chromosome. The true, but humorous example most relevant to this statement comes in the form of a question posed by Fasold. He asks men who doubt the biological truth that femininity is truly the baseline, “to lift up their shirts and contemplate why they have nipples. ” The truth in this humorous statement may not be obvious to someone who does not have much knowledge on how the human embryo develops. In summary, the epithelial cells develop first – including the nipples – before the physical gender of a fetus is genetically determined.

The DNA that dictates skin growth “activates” before the DNA that determines gender, therefore, nipples appear while the fetus is still “genderless. ” Although only females have a biological function for nipples, males have them as well due to the fact that femininity is the baseline gender. Next, Tannen goes on to cite Fasold and his many examples and arguments toward why females are the unmarked gender (including examples such as mating patterns of certain species and parthenogenesis), the result remains the same; the examples are poignant enough to work.

The credibility of Tannen is increased significantly by this concession to someone with more knowledge than herself, and the tone of the paper shifts from personal anecdote with a little definition into a scholarly article most would find worth reading. In her conclusion, Tannen goes back to more linguistic definition and indulges the reader in a little history in order to offer perspective. She says, “This use of “he” as the sex-indefinite pronoun [in grammar textbooks] is an innovation introduced into English by grammarians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, according to Peter Mühäusler and Rom Harré in Pronouns and People.

From at least around 1500, the correct sex-indefinite pronoun was “they,” as is still in casual spoken English. In other words, the female was declared by grammarians as the marked case. ” As one might have already deduced, it is merely a modern invention to imply that “he” may mean “he or she,” but that “she” only implies the female gender. This offered perspective is another tactic used that greatly increases the credibility of Tannen’s argument about why the female gender is marked or is not marked. For without this perspective, at this point in the article, the reader may still be unconvinced.

The remainder of Tannen’s essay consists of another humorous narrative concept that closes the ideas presented very nicely. As she puts it concisely and effectively, “To say anything about women and men without marking oneself as either feminist or anti-feminist, male-basher or apologist for men seems as impossible for a woman as trying to get dressed in the morning without inviting interpretations of her character. ” This minor jab at societal conventions of gender conformities and those who doubt that they exist leaves the ending of Tannen’s essay on a very solid foundation.

She leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that this is a social convention that exists and that it is something that both men and women buy into on a daily basis. Because she makes no hint that she is attempting to change the convention at this point, the essay becomes one of merely addressing the issue. It is left up to the audience to then to also acknowledge this phenomenon on daily life, and decide what must be done. Whether to let it lie or make an effort to change sexism in English then translating to daily life, Tannen’s wholly effective essay serves as a Launchpad for new perspectives.

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Sociocultural Marking of Women in Deborah Tanen’s Book Analysis. (2016, Oct 14). Retrieved from