Examining Gender Styles in Dialogue

Part A -- Plays
My interest men and women in conversation extends beyond analyzing current theories. Consider the following four plays, steeped in stereotypic gender behavior if not also gendered linguistic styles.

     Beside Herself by Sarah Daniels;

    Masterpieces also by Sarah Daniels;

    Hosanna by Michel Tremblay; and

    Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill.

All of these plays involve cross-gender communication. Two of the works play with gender roles by manipulating the sex and speech of the speaker. In one of the plays the conversation even takes place between two people of the same sex, but one of the men is both a homosexual and a transvestite. Because of his orientation, we as readers allow him flexibility in his gender role, and speech manipulation by the playwright is that much more significant.

Consider the following discussion of the Sarah Daniels play Beside Herself:
     Beside Herself is a play about child abuse and its potential effects on the victim's adult relationships. The action revolves around two groups of characters: Evelyn, the abused, as an adult and her father George; and a group of men and women who work together to maintain a community hostel for adults with psychological problems. Evelyn is a member of this group. I am most interested in Scene Two, in which the speakers are gathered in the living room of the community group home for a meeting. There are four women and three men involved in the discussion about which candidates to offer housing next. One of the men is a priest and speaks neutrally throughout the conversation. He offers his opinions when they seem relevant and addresses everyone equally. The other two men, however, dominate the conversation. Their dominance is not so much seen in how many times they speak but for how long and in what they say. Only one woman speaks for similar lengths of time as the men. Both men take much longer turns than most anyone else. One of these men is inferior in occupational position to the other, and Daniels uses an example of Sally McConnell-Ginet's forms of address theory to emphasize their difference in status. Greg, the lower in status of the two, refers to the other man by his first name. Someone asks if he calls him "Roy" to his face. "Only when I feel supremely confident," he says (Daniels, p. 17). Both men, regardless of their occupational position, nevertheless dominate the topics and decisions of the conversation and the meeting. Whether the women speak with the uncertainty they exhibit because the men are intimidating or because it is part of the character's "speech style is unclear.

     Both men interrupt the women; together they speak for 31 of the 41 lines assigned on the page; and make definite, seemingly authoritative statements about the candidates. The only time Greg shows some uncertainty or inferiority in his speech is when he apologizes for not having covered the candidate of Roy's choice first. The women couch their statements with phrases like "actually" and "it does help" and the stage direction throughout the play has the women speaking "nervously" and "unconfidently", taking "deep breath[s]" before talking.

     This page is typical of the interaction throughout the play when the conversations take place in mixed-sex groups. There is a character named Eve who only contributes to the conversation as Evelyn's conscience and often comments on the men's control over the conversation or Evelyn's lack of contribution. Partly because Ms. Daniel's topic of abused women is a current feminist issue, I believe she used these techniques intentionally to emphasize the problems that arise when women are afraid to communicate their thoughts and feelings. The lack of communication in Beside Herself is particularly relevant, as the play deals with the damaging effects of silence surrounding child abuse.

Let's examine another play by Sarah Daniels:
     Masterpieces: The play involves a group of men and women, with various relationships. The major issue in the play is the effect of pornography and prostitution on women in society. I paid particular attention to the first scene in the play. Three men and three women sit talking in a restaurant. They are paired off as couples, and Rowena is Jennifer's daughter. I went through the dialogue counting number of turns and lengths of turn; I was interested to see if perhaps the playwright used turn-taking and lengths of turns to provide more realistic characters. I was very surprised to find that the number of turns was divided fairly equally between the men and the women, women speaking 54% of the time. There were, however, individual men and women who spoke more frequently than the others, leaders in the conversation. Perhaps Daniels was aware that conversations naturally have leaders and included it for effective dialogue and character development. In developing a confident, out-spoken character, Daniels would obviously allow him/her to dominate many conversations.

      Ms. Daniels is a feminist writer, obviously aware of the modern linguistic theories concerning men's versus women's language. She uses these styles effectively to produce power struggles and vulnerable female characters.

Hosanna by Michel Tremblay, is ripe with stereotypical behavior of both men and women:
     This is a play about a transvestite who feels trapped between his two social roles. At times Hosanna, also called Claude, revels in his femininity. He speaks like a stereotypical woman and treats Cuirette like a long-time husband. Other times he curses and barks insults like a stereotypical man. Most of the time Hosanna is confused about what to be. He stands naked in front of the mirror, wearing a full face of make-up, and seems puzzled that he has a physical appendage that doesn't belong in his mental or emotional state. The entire play revolves around Hosanna and his/her long-time lover Cuirette, also known as Raymond. Cuirette is a homosexual who sleeps around when Hosanna becomes confused with his/her identity.

   Stereotypical linguistic styles must have influenced the dialogue in this play. Since the play is divided into acts but not scenes, I selected pages 34-53 in Act I for analysis. Hosanna and Cuirette spoke with almost equal frequency -- Hosanna's 51% compared to Cuirette's 49%. Hosanna, however, spoke for the longer lengths of time. I do not believe, however, that turn lengths were as significant as speech style in differentiating Hosanna from Claude.

     Aren't stereotypes the first perspectives transvestites have on how to behave like women? Though most men may not be consciously aware that they do this, when imitating a woman, the first thing they change is their voice pitch and then their choice of words. I observed an audition, where a man was told to act the particular part he was reading as a woman. First he switched his voice into falsetto, and then he began to add empty adjectives (see Lakoff) into the script like "lovely," and "cute." Although a homosexual and a transvestite now, Hosanna was socialized as a male, so his impersonation of female speech would be much the same -- he has no experience with female socialization.

     There is a good example of Tremblay's use of stereotypical men's and women's styles on page 53 of the play. Cuirette, who swears liberally throughout the play, insults Hosanna with profanity. Hosanna responds the way a stereotypical woman might, by telling Cuirette to curb his vulgar language. Stereotypically, it is men who use the most profanity and insult each other by cursing. At the times Hosanna is acting like a man he/she curses freely and insults Cuirette, "...Back in your purple shit phase, were you taking drugs then? No! Are you still painting that purple shit today? No!" (Tremblay, p. 50).

Consider one final play -- Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill:
     Act I, scene 1. Of all the plays, this is the least "realistic." The plot is focused on a family of four and their associations, for a total of four men and five women. The point of the play is to highlight repressive roles in society and to make subtle commentary on their damaging effects. Churchill attempts to point out that these repressive roles warp our identities by forcing us to conform to 'unnatural norms' (Churchill, book jacket).

     Surreal characters add to the oddity of the storyline, in which sexes of characters are switched and sexual liberalism reigns free. In Act I, the wife Betty is played by a man; the young son Edward is played by a woman; the black servant Joshua is played by a white man. Neither Betty nor Joshua have respect for their sex or ethnicity and long to be what men or white men, respectively, want them to be. Churchill claims that a female portraying Edward is perfectly within English theater tradition, but I think there are further repercussions of Edward's being played by a woman. He is not living up to his social role of masculine son -- he plays with his sister's doll, among other things -- and he is punished in a sense by being portrayed by a woman, which makes his character seem weaker. The younger daughter is represented by a dummy on stage; she is given no voice at all as if to say if adult women are inferior, young women are completely insignificant. Everyone around Victoria in the play speaks for her in Act I.

     Churchill blatantly plays on stereotyped ideas of men and women to exaggerate the repressive roles on which she is commenting. Because women were in male roles and vice versa, counting frequency and length of turns would prove very little. Interestingly enough, however, only Clive -- the model of manhood -- speaks for more than two lines at a time. Churchill gives him multiple five- and six-line turns, possibly to enhance the impression that he dominates not only the conversation but the household.

     While in Act I Edward's meekness and inferiority is made by his female portrayer, Betty and Clive have numerous linguistic opportunities to emphasize their strongly socialized, stereotypic role. Betty couches a request she makes of Clive with the phrase "if you don't mind" (Churchill, p. 8). "(Super)polite forms" like this one are on Lakoff's list of the ten basic assumptions about women's language. Jespersen offered in his study that women "shrink from coarse expressions and prefer refined, indirect one" (Coleman, p. 2). Betty's character supports Jespersen's theory by avoiding harsh words or phrases. She cannot repeat something nasty Joshua says to her; she will only offer that it was "something improper" (Churchill, p. 8). In addition, she "speaks in italics," as Lakoff would say, by cooing over Clive's blister, saying "my poor dear foot" (Churchill, p. 5). Clive supports McConnell-Ginet's theory of forms of address by condescendingly referring to Betty as "my little dove" and "my dear" (Churchill, p. 8) and frequently saying things like "that's a brave girl" (Churchill, p. 7).

     Because of the nature of Cloud 9, Churchill was frequently able to use stereotypes and stereotypical linguistic behavior to craft dialogue for her characters.

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