Talk Like A Man

Caroline’s at Uncool has had a couple of posts recently that caught the attention of the linguist portion of my brain (which the blogosphere seems to be trying desperately to rouse from its dormancy).

First, Language of Feminists covers a lot of similar ground to a post I was going to write a while back based on the same comments (one of many posts that exist only in my mind, but that are brilliant and revolutionary, and if only I didn’t have to do my dishes, could have changed the world).

Then, she also linked to the Gender Genie, a tool that will analyze your text to determine whether it was written by a man or a woman, based on an algorithm developed by a couple of computational linguists. The programmer who wrote the code (and who has presumably seen lots and lots of data from the demographic survey attached to the Gender Genie site) admits:

Despite having written the program, I didn’t come up with the algorithm and believe that the Genie works no better than the flip of a coin.

She goes on to say that because “serious academic study” went into the algorithm, it’s not a complete waste of time to think about it and to describe how the linguists in question did their work:

Using complicated formulas, they determined that male writers tended to write more about specific things like an apple, a book, or the car. In contrast, female writers wrote about connections to things like my apple, your book, or our car.

Memo to the world: complicated formulas, mathy words like “algorithm”, academic credentials and serious, intense study don’t mean jack shit if the results of your hard (and probably well-paid) work don’t predict reality any better than the flip of a coin. (Also, that paragraph misrepresents the linguistics of determiners and possessive pronouns, but that’s just me being pedantic.) Apparently, even though the damn thing is, you know wrong about real people and real conversation, this programmer has received a number of letters thanking her for helping authors to write the speech of male or female characters more realistically.

Which brings me back to the accusations of “violent”, “pornified”, “masculine” language that have regularly been used to dismiss arguments made by the wrong kind of feminist (/the wrong kind of woman). Caroline’s points are all great, but in combination with the “Gender Genie” bullshit, this quoted comment, originally by Maggie Hayes, stands out:

“laughing like a super villain”? “wank worthy fantasy”? I agree that these comments were totally inappropriate. This makes me think: this kind of language is awfully similar to the sort of language a porn-using abuvive ex-boyfriend of mine was often using when talking to me.

Apparently, so is “the”.

I know I’m being overly dismissive, but this language shit really gets to me, and the above comment really shows how the arguments are becoming all layered on top of one another, such that it’s now impossible to actually have a discussion about the issue of how to stop or deal with the abuse she suffered from this ex-boyfriend, because instead we’re talking first about the fact that he used porn and further about the language he used to talk about the fact that he used porn. I know language can be triggering, I definitely know that language can be violent, but those of us who are survivors of abuse and assault and violence need to learn to see words and expressions in context, lest we start conflating the use of words like “wank” or “supervillain” with assaulting people, no matter the meaning behind them, as long as they’re not being used by us/against people we don’t like.

Because, see, if we’re going to actually start getting uncomfortable with “masculine” language, and we’re going to continue to assume that “masculine”=”aggressive” (a point that is far from uncontestable or unproblematic), and we’re going to create linguistically “feminine”/nurturing/comfortable spaces, then the Gender Genie and its complicated algorithms inform us that we’re going to have to make sure people stop using words like “the”, “is” and “to”. Because who cares about pesky things like “meaning” and “context” and “reality”, anyway?

(By the way, the Genie thinks the author of this post is male).


11 thoughts on “Talk Like A Man

  1. […] by Mike on 23. May 2008 … from BookBlog, stumbled upon by accident via A Secret Chord: Gender Genie. Inspired by an article and a test in The New York Times Magazine, the Gender Genie […]

  2. ubuntucat says:

    I can attest to it being no better than flipping a coin.

    I tried four blog posts of mine in the Gender Genie. Two times I was male, and two times I was female.

  3. Caroline says:

    You ruined Gender Genie for me! 😉
    I like the point about actually just getting on and stopping the abuse. There are so many attacks on nothing that’s ultimately important (and I’m really bad for that, so I ain’t preaching here!).

  4. Observer says:

    Totally agree. I was looking at that site the other day trying to figure out how “the” could possibly reflect a gender. Ridiculous. Glad you made the point.
    I’m new to these sites but it seems there’s a lot of time spent on definitions and not enough on solutions.

  5. purtek says:

    Sorry, Caroline. It’s still more fun than flipping a coin for hours on end, though. I’ve also tried multiple posts of mine and come out about 50-50, and I like to scoff at which are which.

    Observer, sometimes I feel like you’re right that there’s a lack of focus, but that’s not just unique to the blogosphere or the net. I feel like the whole political process has been coopted to ensure maximum distraction from any possible relevant subject matter. I think definition can be really important, but forests, trees, you know the drill.

    My mind just boggles when I think of the research funding that probably went into this damn thing. Were I more evil, I could *so* be making money from my linguistics degree. Damn my principled stance.

  6. Philomela says:

    Also i think if we let some langauge be masculine there are things we cant say, so things we will not be alowed to think about. Also really interesting as you say that “masculine” langauge as decided by Maggie et all is aggresive or even just upfront langauge. which kind of suggests that they think women are not agressive and dont use agressive langauge, whereas some of the most agressive behavior online has come from the radfem side.

    And yes I do find some langauge trigering (though less and less as I work through my issues) but I dont expect anyone on the intenet to take that into acount because whats triggering for one person is just run of the mill for another.

    And yeah I’m getting more and more “but what are you doing about it?” I love theory, I am a theory geek and i will continue to read, think about and discuss theory but i’m thirty now and its really time to put my money where my mouth is and do actual stuff. and I really dont care what the other women doing the same stuff think about whatever issues as long as we are concreatly making things better.

  7. Mike says:

    I feel like the whole political process has been coopted to ensure maximum distraction from any possible relevant subject matter.

    Nothing new there; Juvenal first expressed it, but the concept of using bread and circuses to distract has been around a long time.

  8. purtek says:

    Mike – Didn’t think it was new. Still think it’s depressing.

    Philomela – I think I share exactly your perspective on the issue of triggering. There’s only so much responsibility others (esp. abstract others on the internet) can take for tempering what they’re saying. I hate being involved in aggressive arguments, even on the internet, which is one of the reasons I’m *very * reluctant to get involved in comment threads on major blogs.

  9. Renee says:

    I think that there is a term for an aggressive woman – bitch. We simply do our best to discipline women into behaving appropriately submissive. This is we reinforce the essentialist behavioral gender binary.

  10. purtek says:

    Renee – That’s one strategy, yes, but it’s not the one being discussed here. The one being discussed here is, I think, not that simple and much more insidious – the quoted text doesn’t just suggest that the woman who spoke aggressively is a “bitch”. It connects her, via some relatively innocuous phrases in distinct context, to abusers and essentially suggests that she’s violent.

    It’s *much* harder to unpack all of the layers in a quote like that than it is to call someone out for using terms like “bitch”.

  11. Mike says:

    Mike – Didn’t think it was new. Still think it’s depressing.

    It can be. But the bigger picture is that while we have to maintain at least a smidgen of belief inthe perfectability of humanity in order to remain sane, we also have to be realistic. There will always be people who aren’t overly concerned with the political process outside of how it can immediately benefit them, either because of a lack of education or from personal apathy. It sucks, but, well, it’s probably not going change that these people exist; the best we can hope for is to minimise their numbers by education and getting people involved in politics.

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