Feminist Criticism

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Feminist Criticism ...

Published in The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006).

    Feminist Criticism

    Kristina Schriver Whalen and Donna Marie Nudd


    Susan Faludi, a noted feminist author, once said, “all women are born feminists, but most get it iknocked out of them.” In fact, on most high schools and college campuses professors chronicle the “I’m

    not a feminist but” phenomenon that suggests Faludi is right. In other words, while most women will not self-identify as a feminist, many will profess agreement with the ideals comprising a feminist agenda. So, we have many women (and men) saying, “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal opportunity” or “I’m not a feminist, but I believe women should be treated with dignity and respect.” This trend lead bell hooks (who chooses not to capitalize her name) to conclude that a more profitable way to offer feminism is to say “I advocate feminism” rather than “I am a feminist.” The first phrase “discourages a focus on stereotyped iiperspectives of feminism [. . .] and prompts the question `What is feminism?’”

    While many unfounded stereotypes surround feminists, focusing on and articulating what feminism advocates is far more important to our understanding of feminist rhetorical criticism. Having that said, it should be noted that describing feminism is a daunting and complex task. As will be detailed later, feminism has many different veins of thought. These varying perspectives make talking about feminism, in general, quite difficult. Despite its difficulty, communication scholars Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler iiiexplain their version of feminism as, “the radical notion that women are people.” While Kramarae and

    Treichler’s definition does not capture the theoretical disagreements that exist in feminism, it does express the common spirit of most strands of feminism. Feminism is a pluralistic movement interested in altering

    the political and social landscape so that all people, regardless of their identity categories, can experience freedom and safety, complexity and subjectivity, and economic and political parity experiences

    associated with being fully human.

    Feminist advocates argue for the necessity and profitability of their activism and critical inquiry by evidencing the patriarchal systems most civilizations have been operating under for several thousand years. ivWhile some critics, even feminist critics, argue that we are now living in a post-patriarchal world, the

    majority of feminist critics believe that patriarchy is still entrenched in our political and value systems. For example, Allan G. Johnson writes in The Gender Knot that three principles encompass the still present

    patriarchal system: male domination, male-identification, and male-centeredness. According to Johnson, male domination refers to the simple fact that men have populated most positions of authority in major societies. Men head large corporations, nation-states, churches, colleges and universities, and most other positions of social importance. While a few women have temporarily taken these seats of prestige, the exceptions have done little to dismantle male domination. In sum, the exceptions are too infrequent and account for only a small fraction of power positions. Johnson outlines the consequences of male domination by writing, “[Male domination] means that men can shape culture in ways that reflect and serve

    men’s collective interest” Additionally, he adds, “male domination promotes the idea that men are superior vto women.”

    Johnson believes that a critique of patriarchy is incomplete if it simply notes degrees of male domination. He argues that we must also note instances of male identification. Male identification locates

    our cultural values in maleness and masculinity. According to Johnson, in a male-identified society the activities of men underscore what it preferred, normal, and desirable. The qualities commonly associated with masculinity, such as competition, individualism, invulnerability, rationality, and physical strength, are honored. The qualities commonly associated with femininity, such as cooperation, nurturing, emotionality, viand care, are undervalued or trivialized. Besides being undervalued, feminine identified people in our

    masculine-identified society are measured by a rigged yardstick. What is deemed desirable is always out of reach. Though competition is valued in our society, being a woman carries expectations of acting feminine; hence, acting aggressively and competitively will often be met with disapproval, if not hostility. However, a woman never exercising qualities associated with masculinity has little chance for advancement, since those are the qualities our society rewards. These basic assertions about male identification are not categorically true. Some women appear to successfully pair feminine traits with a masculine sensibility. A handful of critics point to the rash of recent films and television shows that feature conventional feminine beauty with highly physical and aggressive feats (Alias, Charlie’s Angels, Dark Angel, Tomb Raider) as

Published in The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006).

    evidence that male and female identification are becoming intertwined. However, Mary Spicuzza notes that even these shows deserve our critical attention. She writes, “[. . .] plenty of butt kicking women on screen are ultimately concerned with being sexy, finding a man to complete their lives, and settling down.” Spicuzza, quoting many communication scholars, adds, “women heroines are less concerned with viiachieving female liberation than satisfying male fantasy.” Regardless where one stands on this media

    issue, it is clear that matters surrounding gender identification are complicated, fluctuating, and ripe territory for the rhetorical critic.

    Finally, Johnson advocates a focus on our society’s male centeredness, meaning that our cultural

    attention is mainly focused on males. “Pick up any newspaper or go to any movie theater and you’ll find stories primarily about men and what they’ve done or haven’t done or what they have to say about either.” viii Sporting activities represent one of many culturally significant areas where men seek and receive acclaim. Large populations of men and women watch men’s sporting events. Millions watch the Super ixBowl, Monday Night football, the World Series, and the NBA Championship series. Advertisers spent

    copious amounts of money to market products during these events knowing the viewing audience is large. While women play sports, they do not attract an equivalent viewing audience. The rise of the WNBA provides evidence for a male centered as well as a male-identified society. Naming the organization the Women’s National Basketball Association highlights that men play a “normal” game of basketball. If one

    were to say, “I’m going to watch a basketball game,” in most cases the assumption would be that a men’s game was about to be viewed. A feminist critic would likely argue that the male centeredness is so seemingly natural in our society it remains unspoken. However, if one were watching a basketball game featuring female players, chances are the sex of the players would be spotlighted: “I’m watching a women’s

    basketball game,” thus underscoring it’s a deviation from the norm. Spotlighting happens in other instances

    as well. Julia T. Wood writes, “terms such as lady doctor and woman lawyer define women as the xexception in professions and thereby reinforce the idea that men are the standard.”

    If we turn our attention to the criticism of the WNBA style of play, feminists see demonstrated how a male centered society and a male identified society are mutually reinforcing ideas. WNBA players do not always play the game in the same style as the men. The fact that a slam-dunk has only been executed in one WNBA game produced criticism that the league’s play lacked excitement. Since men play with a showboating style, that type of athletic execution is preferred. Additionally, women excelling at professional basketball faced overt problems with male identification. Cynthia Cooper of the Houston Comets writes, “In the league’s second year, people began putting labels on me. The media began comparing everything about me to my male counterpart. I was labeled the `Michael Jordan of women’s

    basketball’ and the Comets the `Chicago Bulls of the WNBA.’ I’m not complaining about being compared to one of the greatest male players basketball players ever, but I want people to remember my athletic xiabilities under my name—not his.”

    Feminists argue that the mixture of male centeredness and male identification create enormous disparities in our society. With one sex, and the corresponding gendered system attached to biology, at society’s center a systematic disparity is maintained. Females and/or femininity are rendered invisible or

    marginalized under the patriarchal rubric. Carol Tavris notes the invisibility of women in our patriarchal history: “In history, the implicit use of men as the norm pervades much of what school children learn about

    American and Western civilization. Was Greece the cradle of democracy? It was no democracy for women and slaves. Was the Renaissance a time of intellectual and artistic rebirth? There was no renaissance for xiiwomen.” Tavris maintains that the stories told in our society about our history, our struggles, our values, are wrapped up in masculine precepts. As such, the experiences following the culturally constructed ideas of femininity receive little attention and thus are given little value. Since women are trained to embrace femininity they end up abused, underpaid, and ridiculed. However, many feminists observe that this occurs because we have bound biological sex with a narrow set of socially constructed ideas about how that sex operatesthose constructed ideas are called gender. For this reason, patriarchal principles are extremely

    harmful to homosexuals who push the boundaries of gender scripts.

     However important it is to point out the features of patriarchy, sexist oppression is not the only thoppression of interest to feminism. Late 20 century feminism concerned itself with interlocking systems of

    oppression, noting that most systems of discrimination share common characteristics and must be seen together if liberation struggles are to gain ground. For these reasons feminist scholars such as bell hooks, xiiimentioned above, reference the dominant framework as a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. This

    term underscores that we not only live in a sexist society but a society that discriminates based on

Published in The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006).

    economic circumstances and race. A thorough feminist critique will not fail to interrogate how all these ideological systems work together to marginalize discrete groups of people.

     So, we will summarize by answering the question that heads this section: Why Feminism? Most feminists believe that we live in a complex social structure guided by patriarchy. They believe this patriarchal system must change. Moreover, the understanding of patriarchy cannot be a simple calculation. Engaged human beings are likely to identify egregious cases of sexism; however, most feminists believe that much of the sexism of the patriarchal framework remains unchallenged. Feminists therefore are motivated to expose the fundamental ways, the often subtle, taken for granted ways, in which societal members undervalue and diminish women. That done, feminists propose new ideas, assumptions, and viewpoints allowing for humans to realize a wide range of possibilities and promise. But, as stated before, not all feminists are alike; therefore, different feminists have different priorities and solutions. In the next section, we will explore these differences and their relationship to the rhetorical criticism.


    If you turn on the television and listen to political pundits, you are likely to hear about a “feminist agenda” on a number of social issues. These remarks lump all feminists into a single category, thereby erasing some important distinctions. In fact, feminist thought has always been quite diverse in its theories and practices. One of the main theoretical differences among various feminists surrounds disagreements over gender differences. This disagreement is referred to in feminist writings as the “minimalist/maximalist debate.” A feminist minimalist believes that men and women are more alike than different; therefore, the policies and social organizations privileging men can easily adapt to women if they are just granted access. Maximalists, as you might imagine, believe that women and men are more different than alike. With that premise in mind, feminist maximalists argue that women will never achieve success and comfort in social institutions created by men for men, which describes most of our current arrangements. Men and women are too different, they argue, to make such a fit agreeable. In other words, our social and political landscape must be altered or transformed to accommodate the distinctions between men and women.

    From this theoretical debate, many categories of feminism have emerged. Jill Dolan notes that we xivcan generally see American feminism separated into liberal, cultural, and materialist segments. Liberal

    feminist approaches locate the oppression of women in the systematic failure to include women in dominant structures and cultural production. A liberal feminist rhetorical critique would be interested in the exclusion of women from systems of representation. Are women given a voice in the political system? Can you find women in recent films you’ve seen, stories read? If so, how many women were featured in

    comparison to men? Did the stories showcase the women as competent, able to solve problems, lead others, and champion a cause? Liberal rhetorical feminist critics are diligently employing language strategies within the current structures to increase the position (both stature and number) of women in places of political and social power. Liberal feminists are also minimalists.

    Cultural feminists, on the other hand, are maximalists. They argue that women’s nature, primarily

    shaped by the ability to give birth, is decidedly different from men’s. “Because they can give birth, women xvare viewed as instinctually more natural, more closely related to life cycles mirrored in nature.” Cultural

    feminists argue that women have a unique and valuable perspective that is not adequately reflected in today’s society. This deficit of perspective creates a world of domination and violence. Moreover, some cultural feminists have situated themselves within another subcategory of feminist thought, eco-feminism. Eco-feminists believe that if society adopted the non-dominating feminine perspective, the likelihood of continuing ecological devastation would diminish. But this is just one of many cultural feminist perspectives. A rhetorical critic adopting a cultural feminist perspective is likely to critique current rhetorical practices for their sexist domination as well as suggest ways in which a feminine perspective could rehabilitate the rhetorical situation. Does a given communication artifact convey the largely feminine characteristics of caring, nurturing, cooperation, and intuition? Does it glorify aggression, competition, and individualism to the exclusion of other perspectives? How do the messages around us “normalize” a

    distinctly masculine perspective? How could we infuse and balance our public discourse by including a feminine perspective? These are some of the many questions guiding the explorations of a rhetorical critic that is also a cultural feminist.

Published in The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006).

    Finally, materialist feminists believe that symbol-using humans are historical subjects that are largely socially constructed, not biologically driven. A materialist feminist is interested in analyzing social conditions, such as the influence of race, sexual orientation, and class that work together to define women and men as categories and seemingly erase the possibility of other categories being established, i.e. intersexed and transgendered. As such, this strand of feminism is also interested in unearthing the symbolic systems of gender that oppress all people, not just women. Materialist feminists may study the way masculinity has been constructed in such a way that men, too, have little freedom and dimension in society. So, while liberal feminists are primarily interested in social representation, materialist feminists reveal how xvipeople “have been oppressed by gender categories.” A materialist feminist might approach a rhetorical

    artifact by noting the ways in which a particular rhetorical artifact situates masculinity and femininity as stale categories, instead of giving the concept room for growth and movement. Do movies, or other culturally significant discourse, outfit men and women with retrograde notions of masculinity and femininity? How so? Can we point to messages around us that transform the somewhat rigid categories of gender in positive ways? Do we want to communicate that caring and cooperation is associated with femininity while aggression and invulnerability is associated with masculinity or do we want language systems and messages that make way for more complicated human subjects? These questions would be of interest to the rhetorical critic with a materialist feminist perspective.

    Positioning materialist feminism along the minimalist/maximalist continuum demands some attention. Since materialists underscore the social construction of gender, they very rarely look for “real” differences and similarities. Instead, materialists question the constructed categories of gender and offer the concepts dimension and redefinition if it aids the attainment of freedom, safety, complexity, subjectivity, and equalitythe goals of feminism.

     While these categories represent large sects of feminist thought, other feminists strands not covered in this chapter apply a feminist lens to a Marxist perspective, psychoanalytical thought, and global issues. Feminists in different academic fields have established a literature base specific to their field of inquiry. Therefore, one is likely to see feminist legal studies, feminist international relations, and feminist medicine as well as feminist literary criticism. Women of color, who have traditionally had a complicated relationship with feminism, are interested in the way their ethnic and racial identities intersect with feminism. So, if one delves into the literature about feminism, one is likely to see discussions about xviiChicana feminism, Black feminism, Asian feminism, and Native American feminism to name a few.

    These discussions have greatly added to the understanding of liberation struggles for, as it was mentioned before, feminist thought has become keenly aware that analyzing gender is just one piece of the puzzlean

    important piece, but one piece nonetheless.

    When engaging in feminist rhetorical criticism, consideration should be given to how the critic/analyst positions an argument on the map of feminism so that those reading the criticism know the assumptions about gender infused in the analysis. Moreover, a particular feminist perspective may make some approaches to rhetorical criticism more attractive. In this next section we will first briefly outline the history of feminist criticism within the rhetorical tradition. Next, an explanation of the methods or approaches feminist rhetorical critics utilize to analyze our symbolic systems will follow. Alongside these general explanations numerous specific examples from feminist rhetorical critics will be provided.


    Feminist thought is particularly useful line of critical inquiry when studying rhetorical strategies. xviiiThe need for such inquiry has been well-documented. The rhetorical tradition tethers itself to a long

    history of oral argument and public oratory. This tradition also has an equally long history of excluding female rhetors or feminine ways of speaking. Sometimes this was done either by making public address unavailable to women through systematic discrimination or by refusing to recognize the many women who did indeed take the podium. When feminist thought merges with rhetorical criticism it is usually an attempt to foreground how gender is operating or being sculpted in particular ways by language choices. But, feminists are also interested in discovering new symbolic strategies, or making visible little known language systems, in an effort to dismantle current gender hierarchies. In a recent address before the National Communication Association, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell noted that, “There is an alternative rhetorical tradition that exists in the works of groups who are oppressed, exploited, or lack the usual sources of power. These groups cannot speak in the usual venues nor can they use many of the strategies of xixthe dominant group.” So, another important part of feminist rhetorical criticism is suggesting that

Published in The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006).

    alternative, yet equally valid forms of producing symbolic meaning exist. While we do know that many women enlisted public address as a vehicle for their ideas, we also know that women’s position in society relegated message making to other terrain. Feminist rhetorical criticism reclaims this forgotten rhetorical past. All of these concerns have meant that feminist rhetorical scholars have developed somewhat unique approaches to analyzing rhetorical artifacts.

    Since feminists are interested in changing the mainstream value system we live under, one avenue of feminist rhetorical criticism involves using the techniques of rhetorical criticism (many covered in this book), applying a feminist lens or agenda, and analyzing the text. It should not be surprising, given the activist approach of feminist rhetorical scholars, that many use these techniques to study their own feminist history. For example, Susan Schultz Huxman studied the rhetorical vision of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna ththHoward Shaw, and Carrie Chapman Catt, early feminist leaders in the late 19 and early 20 century.

    While analyzing the most notable speeches of each revolutionary, Schultz explains that even though the women had disagreements and conflict, when viewed as a rhetorical package the womens’ views worked

    well together and strengthened the larger women’s right movement. Each woman’s message fulfilled a xxdistinct and necessary leadership role for the good of the collective movement. Knowing how rhetoric

    functioned in the past gives today’s feminists an important body of knowledge from which to work for


    Feminists working for contemporary social change, using modern technology and a modern sensibility, also receive ample attention by feminist rhetorical critics. For example, Anne Teresa Demo explored the visual rhetoric of the Guerrilla Girls, a New York activist group that challenges the sexism of the art world. Guerrilla Girls, formed in mid 1980s and still active today, use posters, bill boards, flyers, and press conferences, to draw attention to the grotesque under representation of female artists in galleries, museums and art history reviews. Guerrilla Girls never reveal their identity; instead, they appear on literature and at press conferences clothed in black garb and gorilla masks. Demo analyzes the group’s

    rhetoric, largely visual in nature, and argues that their techniques of humorous mimicry (they mimic

    traditional femininity by using the color pink, calling themselves “girls,” and writing in ultra polite, feminine tones), historical re-vision (they published their own art history book and take on the persona of overlooked artists in press conferences), and strategic comparison (they use quotes given by conservatives

    to support their progressive agenda) are persuasive because they highlight the tension and incongruity in our social order.

    While analyzing speeches and texts particular to the feminist agenda remains essential, today feminist rhetorical scholars analyze a vast array of cultural communication for its relation to gender concepts. Not surprisingly, feminist rhetorical critics tend to focus on mediated communication, as television, film, newspapers, music, music videos etc., transmit messages about gender widely and quickly.

     Brenda Cooper, for example, examines the narrative structure of the film Thelma & Louise. By

    examining the way the movie was filmed and the point of view privileged by the movie’s plot packaging and camera angles, Cooper argues that Thelma & Louise turns the idea of a “male gaze” on its head and, in

    turn, constructs a “female gaze.” Put differently, the film is framed in such a way that it makes a mockery of violent masculinity and blatant sexismactivities glorified in many other Hollywood films. In the story,

    Thelma and Louise often encounter an obnoxious, leering truck driver. In the story, Thelma and Louise often encounter an obnoxious, leering truck driver. The camera does not show the perspective of the camera gazing luridly at the women as they drive. Instead, the film invites the viewers to see the sexist behavior of the truck driver from the women’s perspective. Additionally, the women find strategies of empowerment to deal with the trucker’s unsavory behavior. In a very controversial scene, “[. . .] both women fire shots that turn the tanker truck into a ball of fire. As Thelma and Louise race away from the burning wreckage, congratulating each other on their sharp shooting, we hear the trucker scream over the noise: `You bitches. You bitches from hell.’ In the final indignity, Thelma retrieves the trucker’s hat, xxiemblematic of male machismo, and jams the trophy on her head.” This is one example provided by

    Cooper in which the audience sees “female characters actively challenging patriarchal conventions rarely available in mainstream media.”

    In the last half of this chapter you will read an essay about the 2001 film Shallow Hal. The

    directors of Shallow Hal, Bobby and Peter Farrelly, also directed the wildly successful comedy Something

    About Mary. Feminist rhetorical scholars Kristin J. Anderson and Christina Accomando analyze the 1998 box office smash for the way the film normalizes stalking, a crime that disproportionately affects women, and blames the victim, in this case, Mary. They do not, however, end their analysis with the film itself. They also look at the way movie reviews serve to translate the misogynist messages of Something About

Published in The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006).

    Mary. To support both these conclusions, Anderson and Accomando analyze the use of a modern Greek chorus in the film. When another stalker is revealed in the film, the chorus returns to sing, “`There’s

    something about Mary that [those who don’t know her] don’t know.’ That is there’s something about Mary xxiithat actually causes men to stalk her.”Turning their attention to reviews, Anderson and Accomando

    analyze the description of stalking in major newspapers for the authoritative framing of the criminal behavior. They write, “How is the film described if it isn’t described as a woman stalked by five men? Reviews construct the film, as at least in part, a sweet and innocent love story.” By constantly referring to

    the stalking as romantic behavior, the theorist note, “That half the reviews examined here reinterpret illegal surveillance techniques, false identities, and violence [. . .] to mean courtship.”

    These films are just a few of the modern mediated messages examples feminist rhetorical scholars find socially significant. As noted above, feminist rhetorical critics have analyzed paintings, songs, videos, editorials, advertisements, web pages, and television, as sites in which gender and power are communicated.

     Having been introduced to some examples feminist rhetorical criticism, the section that follows concretely outlines some of the more common methods of feminist criticism used by rhetorical scholars. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but you should be able to see that many of the approaches discussed in the following section were used in the examples of feminist rhetorical criticism described above.


    Feminist rhetorical scholars are important to feminism because patriarchy is maintained by a symbolic system, a language that defines gender in narrow and specific ways. Through our communication practices and language choices we have both a poverty and power when it comes to gender. The poverty comes when language use sculpts masculinity and femininity in ways that are not complex, resulting in disparity and domination. Another poverty of thinking occurs when language and communication practices are used so that masculinity and femininity are seen as the only two gendered choices. In many cultures, xxiiiNative Americans cultures for example, more than two genders exist. Many feminists are interested in

    opening up our symbolic system so that many genders flourish and those wanting to express themselves outside of our current, and often tired, gender codes feel the freedom to do so. Herein lays the power of language. By systematically analyzing our language choices and communication practices, one can in part effectively undermine the patriarchal logic of gender. This is the work of feminist rhetorical critics.

     There are perhaps countless ways one could go about analyzing rhetorical artifacts for the meaning produced about gender. However, if one looks over the history of feminist rhetorical criticism, four xxivprominent critical techniques emerge. (1) Feminists are interested in redefining gendered ideals and

    gendered behavior. (2) Feminist rhetorical scholars are recovering communication practices that have been

    forgotten or considered unimportant. (3) Feminist rhetorical criticism is interested in recording the cultural

    production of the rhetorical artifacts we consume so as to uncover the ways in which gender is created (as well as underscoring that gender is indeed created, not natural). (4) Feminist rhetorical theorists create new theories of rhetoric that champion feminist ideals. They engaged in a revisioning of rhetorical theory. As

    mentioned earlier, depending on the type of feminism that one subscribes to, some of the choices will be more or less appealing. For example, liberal feminists are interested in women’s representation in the current social world. Therefore, a liberal feminist might be more interested in the second and third critical approach. Liberal feminists particular theoretical interests make showcasing forgotten female rhetors and demonstrating how women are excluded from the communication process a priority. Materialist and cultural feminists, interested in reordering our values and institutions, might favor techniques one and four, as both suggest new ways of thinking. That being said, it is possible that all feminist theoretical perspectives could use any number of these approaches to further knowledge about their feminist argument. A feminist rhetorical criticism may use one of these approaches or combine several together.


    While attempting to redefine what it means to be a gendered human being, feminist rhetorical critics generally undertake one of several tasks. First, feminist rhetorical critics note the way language is used to describe gendered ideals in stereotypical ways. Second, they try to create new language that will give non-patriarchal dimension to people’s lives or a language to effectively demystify patriarchy. Third, feminist

Published in The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006).

    critics reclaim words used to straightjacket masculinity and femininity and thereby infuse them with new meaning.

    Prominent rhetorical scholars have long held the premise that patriarchy is largely maintained by language. Put differently, male domination, male identification, and male centeredness are stable ideas because the words we use in everyday speech acts keep them anchored. Dale Spender argues that language xxvis man-made. Men “invented” the words we now use to convey meaning. For much of our rhetorical history, men held center stage; the words they used to generate ideas were disseminated and popularized. Women’s words were silence. Man-made words became further entrenched when societies created

    dictionaries that discerned what a real word is. Dictionaries quickly became the definitive authority for

    what was excluded and included in our language. However, the sources used by dictionary makers were overwhelmingly male authored. The words coined by women to describe their experiences and social situation fell off the map. Kramarae writes, “The dictionary is not designed by women or for women’s exercise of imagination. [. . .] It’s not only a hostile system for women, but it is constantly referred to as the only system. It does not encourage ideas or new connections and relationships, or imagination about how xxviwe could write and talk our past and future.” Every year new words are added to standard dictionaries,

    but the initial deficit of language, it is argued, still haunts women today. Thus, it is important to note the way language is often used to paint a biased picture of gender. The words we choose often unknowingly privilege a patriarchal perspective. As such, feminists are interested in making visible the current, and inadequate, language systems in our culture. Also, women strive to symbolically represent, and thus legitimate, experiences they could not previously explain. For example, words like sexual harassment did xxviinot exist until the second wave of feminism took root in the 1970s. Julia T. Wood notes, “Our language

    gave victims no socially recognized way to label what happened to them as wrong or unacceptable. Since the term was coined, people who suffer unwelcome sexual conduct have a way to name their experiences xxviiiand demand institutional and legal redress.”

    Another example of this sort of redefinition can be found when exploring the intersections of oppression. African American women, and often men, were subjected to a color caste system. African Americans with lighter skin and European facial features consciously and subconsciously gained more privilege and were considered more attractive in both white and black communities. Today, and this is especially true for women, some of the most prominently featured African Americans sport straight hair, xxixAnglo facial features, and lighter skin shades. This subtextual belief was difficult to talk about until it

    was given a name: Colorism. Colorism describes the discrimination that many African American people experience, a discrimination that is certainly racist, but also can be a very complicated mixture of racism and sexism. While some prominent athletes that do not fit the Anglo mold have gained the cultural spotlight, here one can see some examples of colorism’s influence. Ebony, a magazine targeting an African

    American audience, featured tennis great Serena Williams on its October 2000 issue. Although Serena, and her sister Venus, stormed and transformed the largely Caucasian tennis world with their muscular bodies and beaded hair, Ebony’s cover showed Serena with long, blond and straight hair. It is difficult to draw complete conclusions from this example. Serena may have considered the implications of the look and chosen it anyway. Feminists of course believe in personal choice. What this demonstrates is words like colorism and sexual harassment can be controversial because it is not always clear when it is appropriate to use new language . Yet, many feminists believe that a healthy dialogue about such issues will not only legitimate the definitions but also clarify their boundaries.

    With the above belief in mind, students in feminist rhetoric classes strive to create words so as to have the necessary instruments to debunk patriarchal power. Sylvia Doane, a student at California State University, Chico created a word after noting her complicit-ness in an uncomfortable work situation while employed at a technology company. A co-worker asked her to lunch under the premise that she knew a lot about instructional technology and he needed her expertise. Once at lunch, though, he began to ask her personal questions and talking about his interest in hunting. Wanting to keep the conversation professional, she inquired about his interest in instructional technology, whereby he then admitted feigning his interest in the topic. He “just wanted to get to know the hot new girl.” Doane laughed off his repeated “compliments,” but later suggested that a better way to deal with this communication practice is to name it hassertya

    combination of harassment and flattery that is particularly hard to deal with because its demeaning result xxx(she was being valued foremost for her appearance, not her expertise) is couched in a compliment.

    Clearly, not all women would interpret this example the same way, but it does illustrate how language can be created and used to combat subtle sexism.

Published in The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006).

    Not all attempts at definition and redefinition encode the demeaning experiences women feel under patriarchy. Some feminists have created definitions that express empowering ideals. The word “Womanist” was coined by African American women to describe the richness women of color experience when they unite and the fullness such perspective could bring to feminism, if included. Accordingly, Alice xxxiWalker writes, “Feminist is to Womanist as lavender is to purple.”

    The second definitional technique used by feminists involves taking words that were once used to diminish femininity and reclaiming them for feminist purposes. Mary Daly notes that under patriarchy, the term “spinster” is a sexist category used to label unmarried women as unfulfilled and useless. No such

    derogatory word exists for men choosing not to wed. Daly turns the notion of spinster on its head by repeatedly using the term to mean “one who spins.” She adds, “A woman whose occupation is to spin xxxiiparticipates in the whirling movement of creation.” Likewise, young woman are attempting to redefine

    the word “bitch” so that it connotes a strong and desirable feminine energy, not a strong and distasteful one. One of the most popular feminist publications is entitled Bitch and carries smart commentary about politics

    and popular culture. In the description of the magazine, the editors answer, defend, and reorient the name of the magazine:

    When it's being used as an insult, "bitch" is most often hurled at women who speak their minds,

    who have opinions and don't shy away from expressing them. If being an outspoken woman

    means being a bitch, we'll take that as a compliment, thanks. Furthermore, if we take it as a

    compliment, it loses its power to hurt us. And if we can get people thinking about what they're

    saying when they use the word, that's even better. And, last but certainly not least, "bitch"

    describes all at once who we are when we speak up, what it is we're too worked up over to be xxxiiiquiet about, and the act of making ourselves heard.

    Riot Grrrls, started by punk rockers in Washington D.C, also use non-deferential language in their own publications (called “zines,” as in short, self published magazines) to reshape and redefine femininity. “Riot grrrls see zine writing and publishing as a basic method of empowerment; zine production is self-motivated, political activism that a girl can do entirely independently. Zines subvert standard patriarchal xxxivmainstream media by critiquing society and the media without being censored.” The language play

    involved with naming the group Riot Grrrls should not escape notice. Changing the spelling of “girl” to “grrrl” visually as well as semantically alters the passivity of the word. The term girl is often used to

    describe grown women, unconsciously relegating women to a protected and less competent category. When a growl is added to the word, it is given force and stature.

    Many feminist critics have taken to writing their own dictionary definitions or altogether rewriting xxxvthe dictionary. While inventing new language is often considered “against the rules,” many feminists argue the language rules are rigged and need to be reorganized and reinvigorated. Feminist rhetorical criticism utilizing redefinition (1) explains and names how language functions to regulate femininity and masculinity and/or (2) creates or reinvents language that expands the possibilities of gender.


    Throughout this chapter, you will hear that women and feminine ways of speaking have been systematically excluded from the public realm for much of the rhetorical tradition. However, this exclusion was not complete. For periods of time, generally around social reform platforms like suffrage and anti-slavery, women produced rhetorical texts. Some even raucously overtook the podium in defiance of established norms. However, in most anthologies of public discourse you will find few women. In noted compilations of public speeches, women account for a small percentage of speakers. Although the historical exclusion of female rhetors is partly responsible for the disparity, it does not always explain their absence. And, regardless of the dearth, the notable absence of women “confirms that men continue to serve as standard for communication performance and that women are peripheral in terms of significant xxxvidiscourse.”

     Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s anthology Man Cannot Speak for Her uses the approach of recovering

    rhetors lost in a male centered society. Also, Kohrs Campbell’s work recovers the rhetorical options

    surreptitiously proposed by women facing enormous prohibitions. Despite being discouraged from taking

Published in The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006).

    ththe podium, women like Christine de Pizan, a 14 century French feminist, wrote books for women that

    clearly serve as rhetorical theory. Christine de Pizan’s books The Book of the City of Ladies and The

    Treasure of the City of Ladies provide discursive theory that differs from the dominant traditions of time, but is no less valuable. Kohrs Campell takes issue with many rhetorical scholars that argue “no woman has xxxviiadded to rhetorical theory during this time.”According to Kohrs Campbell, the “practices in The Book

    of the City of Ladies add an important dimension to understanding the power of conversation as xxxviiiperformance and, in that sense, embodied discourse.”

    Not all feminist recovering involves archival investigations of classical texts. In contemporary artifacts, our patriarchal society often pushes women to the margins. Maya Ying Lin for example, designed the Viet Nam memorial when she was a 21-year-old student at Yale. Other architects of national monuments have received acclaim, while Lin, the design’s visionary, is often made invisible. So just as the other, taller monuments dwarf Lin’s granite wall, so too has her status as a rhetorician been overshadowed.

    Also, the important influence of a visible woman may also be recovered. Elizabeth Dole, for example, was criticized for stepping down from her office at the Department of Transportation when her husband ran for president in 1996. However, a feminist rhetorical analysis demonstrates that Dole’s rhetorical significance should not be overlooked. Gutgold notes that Dole was a groundbreaking rhetor at the Republican National Convention in 1996. Her rhetorical style, infused with stories, personal pronouns, and non-verbal intimacy, had never been seen at a political convention. Although Gutgold ultimately argues that Dole was unsuccessful in transitioning to a Presidential candidate, “Dole's long and varied career makes for an ideal xxxixexploration into how a woman modifies her speech with her changing roles.” As more women enter the

    public arena, feminist analysis grows increasingly necessary.

    Feminist rhetorical critics approaching a rhetorical artifact by recovering are (1) acknowledging rhetors that patriarchy has erased and/or (2) recovering the lost significance of a visible female rhetor.


    Another analytical approach used by feminists is to record cultural production. This means that the techniques used to create an artifact are scrutinized. An important part of this approach is the understanding that an artifact does not stand apart from the processes that make it. By analyzing these systems of

    production one can understand quite thoroughly how messages about gender are created and sometimes understand why a message is packaged a particular way. In sum, this approach analyzes how the rhetorical artifact was put together, not just the end result.

     Communication scholar Sut Jhally’s criticism of MTV music videos is a form of feminist criticism

    utilizing this approach. Jhally’s highly regarded video Dreamworlds II records the processes comprising

    sexist music videos. His research reveals that men direct 90% of music videos. Additionally, he documents the roles, clothing, and behavior of the men and women performing in the videos to demonstrate that music videos overwhelmingly tell a story about male sexual fantasy. Jhally’s analysis also notes the camera angles that place men at the center and women at the periphery. When the camera does focus on women it usually only focuses on one part of her, generally the buttocks, legs, or breasts. These production techniques serve to visually dismember womenmaking women objects, and even more disturbingly, only

    one part of an object. These are just a few examples of the way that the production of the rhetorical artifact is analyzed.

    Jean Kilbourne’s work in advertising also functions as a rhetorical criticism that analyzes the production of advertisements. Her analysis of advertising parallels that of Jhally’s work in music videos.

    Kilbourne analyzed advertisements for the way women’s bodies were arranged in the ads to convey a message of demure femininity or sexualized objectification; how the print or voice copy accompanying the ads reinforce these gendered messages; as well as how the images were produced to flawlessness through airbrushing, thus equating femininity with physical perfection. In sum, the conscious choices of the artifact’s production are detailed for the meaning they convey.

    A feminist approach to analyzing cultural production (1) uncovers who is behind the rhetorical artifact and (2) closely analyzes how the rhetorical artifact is put together.


Published in The Art of Rhetorical Criticism. Ed. James Kuypers (2006).

    Finally, an important part of feminist criticism is creating new theories about rhetoric. This approach analyzes a specific rhetorical artifact or artifacts as part of a larger project that revisions what it means to engage in rhetoric. As mentioned before, the definition of rhetoric was once solely used to describe the written and spoken word used to persuade. Feminist theoretical thought worked hard to expand that definition. This was important feminist work since women, as historical subjects, would be significantly excluded from the rhetorical history if defined so narrowly. Karen and Sonja Foss’s work in

    this area extrapolates new theories about what constitutes significant rhetoric. In their book Women Speak,

    significant rhetoric emanates from ordinary individuals not noted for their historical accomplishments. Females or even groups of females in private as well as public domains create significant rhetoric. And, significant rhetorical works include on-going rhetorical dialogues that are dramatically different from speechmaking. This is an important theoretical departure, because as Deirdre Johnson notes, much of the xlwork women do is ritualistic and impermanent; hence, feminist rhetoric should include symbolic activities

    that are less concrete and finished. Revisioning these theoretical ideas, then, it is possible to see much of what women do as historically significant rhetoric. These activities include baking, children’s parties, gardening, letter writing, herbology, and needlework, among others. These activities produce meaning, but have had their significance diminished in the patriarchal world.

    Likewise, rhetorical theorists such a Sally Miller Gearhart theoretically question some of the fundamental ideas about the way we disseminate ideas. As a society we have for years believed that trying to persuade somebody through discourse was a rational alternative to violence. However, Gearhart notes that common rhetorical techniques have an ability to produce a personal violation as “real” as violence. Instead of trying to change someone through rhetorical message-making, a feminist rhetorician opposing domination would create a rhetorical situation that makes change possible, but doesn’t insist on change. Using both the feminist rhetorical approach of revisioning and redefining, Gearhart brings new language into the realm of rhetoric. For example, she uses the word enfoldment to describe a rhetorical process

    whereby you offer, make yourself available, surround, listen, and create an opening with your rhetoric, xlirather than “penetrating the mind” of those you engage. Influenced by Gearhart, other theorists have built

    on this premise. Foss and Griffin, for example, have outlined a theory of invitational rhetoric. This theory

    suggests a rubric for actualizing rhetoric of non-domination that invites participants to a point of view, but does not create a rhetorical imposition. “The stance taken by invitational rhetors toward their audience obviously is different from that assumed by traditional rhetors. Invitational rhetors do not believe they have the right to claim that their experiences or perspectives are superior to those of their audience members and xliirefuse to impose their perspective on them.”

    A feminist rhetorical criticism using the approach of revisioning (1) questions the assumptions underlying desirable rhetoric and (2) offers new rhetorical insights and possibilities as well as frameworks to analyze such rhetoric.

     i Susan Faludi, “Whose Backlash Is It Anyway?: The Women’s Movement and Angry White Men,” FSU Student Government Summer Lecture Series, Florida State University, Tallahassee, 25 June. 1997. ii Karen A. Foss, Sonja J. Foss, and Cindy Griffin, Feminist Rhetorical Theories (Thousand Oaks, CA:

    Sage, 1999) 79. iii This definition appears in Kramarae and Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary (London: Pandora Press,

    1985) as well as on many bumperstickers. iv See Christine Hoff Sommers Who Stole Feminism v Allan G. Johnson, The Gender Knot (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 5. vi Johnson 6. vii Mary Spicuzza. “Bad Heroines.” MetroActive [On-line], Available:

    htpp:// viii Johnson 8. ix For example, notes that an estimated 131 million viewers watched Super Bowl

    XXXV and marketing departments spent 2.5 million for each 30-second advertising spot. xth Julia T. Wood, Gendered Lives 5 Ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003) 105. xi Cynthia Cooper. “Do you Know Who I am?” American Society of Newspapers Editors [On-line],

    Available: htpp:// 2000, para. 22. xii Carol Tavris, The Mis-Measure of Woman (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1992) 18.

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