At the Hotel Room. The long-legged beautiful lady went into the hotel bar, ordered a drink and looked around. She was a well-known Hollywood actress. After an hour she introduced herself to a very handsome man who was sitting next to her. She could feel the looks of the rest of the people in the room. The businessman was surprised but flattered. After a couple of drinks, which she ordered, they relaxed and enjoyed the talk. When midnight approached she suggested spending the night together in her room at that same hotel -being a well-paid star allowed her to spend expensive nights in luxurious hotels while she travelled-. The waitress brought the bill and the actress immediately took her Luis Vuitton wallet and paid. He looked suspicious. Behind the counter, the barman smiled and the other waitresses giggled. She stood up. He followed her. The following morning she had left a note on the bed: “Thank you. Ms D.”
Many would find this situation odd and even funny. Certainly, most grandparents today would be utterly shocked. A woman going alone into a hotel bar, ordering drinks and paying for them, and what is worse later inviting the stranger to her room? Disgraceful, shameful! A ‘proper lady’, from a ‘good family’, would never do that. Especially not if she wanted to find a ‘good husband’. But things have changed. Today women make more decisions and let people know -especially men- what they want and what they do not want. Whether it is because they are economically independent or because they revel and want to stop being in second place, most women nowadays got tired of waiting. They decided it is time to do as they please, when and wherever they feel like it. Does this mean that women behave unladylike? These ‘confident huntresses’ do not mind breaking ‘the rules’ when it comes to dating men.
This is just one example of how social habits change. Rightly or wrongly people get rid of stereotypes and find ways to break the rules and impose new values. One expression of change is the use of language. The language is full of gender differentiation. Nouns and adjectives describe male and female characteristics in various ways. Speakers establish certain uses of vocabulary and expect attributes on others. Women are expected to behave ladylike and men are supposed to be strong or machos. Marked language reveals cultural values and beliefs and the implicit meaning that those convey is a very powerful influence among different groups in societies.
Going back to the hotel room situation: why would the lady not be a lady just because she chooses the man she desires and clearly tells him what she wants? People propagate the difference between male and female more than it is really necessary. Mothers used to have to teach their daughters to conduct themselves in a certain way, not to talk about certain topics or to use selected vocabulary, and even to adjust their behaviour in order to please the opposite sex! And what if they did not want to? They would probably not find a ‘respectable husband’ and end up being spinsters.
Why is this Hollywood star an actress and the bar attendants waitresses or barmen? Why is it always necessary to specify gender through language? Does it really matter whether a man or a woman serves their cocktails? Certainly not. For a long time male references predominated in most languages. One even finds that there are plenty of uses of vocabulary that carry a positive connotation when it refers to men but a negative one when it describes women’s personalities or their activities. A bachelor would be seen as an eligible man for many women ‘in the age for marriage’ while a spinster is clearly not what any man would aspire to.
A long time ago Ms D. would have been Miss D. Do women need to prove whether they are married or not? Does marital status say more or less of a woman? How do women know when Mr. X is married? Real modern women are not any more the ‘Perfect Mum’ or the ‘Great Granny’ stereotyped for decades. They are also professionals who earn their own money and make their own decisions. Mums can be successful business executives and grannies can surf the Internet and send emails to friends.
But there is a lot to be improved yet. Languages still transmit cultural values which many times are disadvantageous to some groups in a society. The media especially has a lot of homework to do. Images and language used in television commercials and newspapers or magazines still convey the typical stereotypes that prevailed in societies for centuries. There are some signs of makeovers though. If only to approach the desired target, advertisers are now realising the importance of listening to different needs. They know it is essential to understand what people want and therefore pay more attention to individuals. Have they finally seen how important women’s purchasing decisions are? Well, they might even listen to them now.
Mr. X or Ms D. might very well be famous Hollywood artists or entrepreneurs who are served at the hotel by any bar attendant and they are not laughed at because one of them pays for the drinks and makes a move. Ohh by the way, who did, Mr X. or Ms D.? It does not matter!
By Patricia C Prada Jimenez
(adapted from Language & Society; Gender Language Stereotypes by idem)
L. Thomas and Shan Wareing, Language and Power, Routledge, London, 1999
Shan Wareing in Language, Society and Power. Linda Thomas and Shan Wareing, Routledge, London, 1999
Joanna Thornborrow in Language, Society and Power