Sunday, January 11, 2009

Summary of “There Is No Unmarked Woman”, Badger Johnson

(note: I will be writing a strong respone essay on either this one or August's. which one would you rather read about? both have me pretty stimulated and ready to write, YAY!!!)

Deborah Tannen is a Georgetown University linguistics professor who studies conversation. She gives explanation of the meaning, and motivation, for what we say to other. Her essay “There Is No Unmarked Woman” was published in an anthology on language. In that essay, she describes how normal it is in this society for women to be superficially judged for character on the basis of appearance. This is in contrast to men, who are given the social option to remain “incomparably” unremarked by attire.

The context for Tannen’s thesis is an academic conference, at which all of the men wore similar unremarkable suits, and the women expressed their personas through clothing. The men could have worn more individually expressive costumes but they chose an anonymity of uniform. The women all said something with their clothes, and therein lies Tannen’s thesis: women currently must choose what message they want others to interpret from their appearance, because their character is judged, based on appearance.

“Marked” qualifies an alteration in the basicly assumed meaning. Marking is done by adding extra something to the expression, something extra that only has meaning in the context of the root expression. Tannen brings our attention to what “marked” means for expression of your personality. She uses personal examples of how she is marked: “merely mentioning women and men marked me as a feminist for some.” (My emphasis added). An important observation that Tannen foraged from her conference experience, is how women are expected carry off an expressive visage. “Each of the women… had to make deciscions about hair, clothing, makeup, and accessories, and each decision carried meaning.” They went on citing how the desire to look attractive is often, frustratingly interpretted as acommpanying availability for sexual availability. When a female-bodied person eschews style, for whatever reason, people may well wonder what message the curious person is seeking to communicate. How probable is it that an observer will first conceive that the person being seen wishes to remain unmarked? That the observer will not mark the person in their own mind is possible but less likely. In “There Is No Unmarked Woman”, Tannen highlights the scenario that is more likely and much more problematic: “no makeup is anything but unmarked. Some men see it as a hostile refusal to please them.”

Tannen cites how in the workplace and popular human imagining, men may choose unmarkedness. This is accomplised in these social circles she mentions by wearing suits, slacks, and “nondescript shirts of light colors”. Such uniform does not disclose biographical information, besides a temporary compliance with this currently enacted operating principle of mainstream society. The author cites biologist Ralph Fasold’s conclusion that outside of human society, the female sex can be considered as a biologically “unmarked” sex. She cites the chromosonal basis of sex division: “While two X chromosomes make a female, two Y chromosomes make nothing. Like the 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 point Tannen makes is that if we were to pattern our language after vertebrate zoology, than we might assign males to marked status, females unmarked, which seems like essentially the reverse of the current tendency. She ends the essay with a simple summary conclusion.


abby said...

Wow, Badg, I find this essary particularly interesting, can't imagine why. :D

Thanks for sharing another oh-yeah piece of information.

Enjoy, brotherman.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post. Do you mind if I ask what your source is for this information?