Diffusion of Concepts of Masculinity and Femininity
Summary and Keywords
For much of human history, “femininity” and “masculinity” were unknown terms. But that does not mean that the concept of gender did not exist. Indeed, many societies in recorded history had conceptions of what it means to be a gendered person—most often noted in the binary of “man” and “woman”—but these conceptions were normative and perceived as intrinsic to human behavior and culture. Masculinity and femininity were naturalized concepts, assumed to be the ways in which men and women should act, look, or communicate.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars and activists noted that femininity and masculinity are social constructions of a gendered society, often denoting the ways in which people, objects, and practices conform to or transgress gendered expectations. Both terms are highly contingent upon the cultural, historical, and geopolitical locations in which they are used, meaning that they can only be accurately understood or defined for a given time or context; it is impossible to define either term in a universal manner. Femininity, as an articulated concept, has a longer history of being visible and enforced by communities. Masculinity, on the contrary, historically elided critique or visibility because its attributes were often the normative and prized values and characteristics of a given social context. However, feminist movements and intellectual projects have brought masculinity to light, showing the ways in which masculinity, just as much as femininity, is a learned and enforced way of viewing actions, people, and things.
In communication studies, current scholarship on masculinity and femininity examine how they circulate in a globalized world, picking up new definitions and often restructuring people’s lives. Even though both terms are abstractions with shifting definitions and applications, they create the conditions for people’s sense of identity and limit or enhance their ability to engage in communicative acts. Differently stated, while abstract concepts, they have material consequences. To understand how an abstract social construction creates material consequences, communication scholars have looked at several research locations where masculinity and femininity most obviously manifest, such as leadership and authority, media representations, rhetorical style and delivery, and interpersonal communications.
Making Masculinity and Femininity Visible in Communication Studies
Beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars and activists noted that femininity and masculinity are social constructions of a gendered society, often denoting the ways in which people, objects, and practices conform to or transgress gendered expectations (Butler, 1990; Lerner, 1986). While not the beginning of conversations about gender and women’s rights, 19th-century women’s suffrage movements, in many countries, brought about public debates concerning gender roles and rights. By speaking and advocating publicly for women’s rights, suffragists challenged notions of femininity that barred women from civic participation, economic ownership, and autonomy. Traditionally, “femininity” is often defined as the practices deemed respectable or acceptable for women whereas “masculinity” comprises the practices deemed respectable or acceptable for men. However, discerning which practices are “acceptable” or “respectable” is highly contingent upon the cultural, historical, and geopolitical location, meaning that masculinity and femininity can only be accurately understood or defined for a given time or context; it is impossible to define either term in a universal manner.
Since they are social constructs, masculinity and femininity are performed, reinforced, and subverted in communicative acts. These acts include appearance/self-fashioning, nonverbal gestures, formal speech acts, interpersonal communications, and artistic representations. Femininity and masculinity are taught and learned, meaning that they are inextricably linked to communication studies.
While femininity, as an articulated concept, has a longer history of being visible and enforced by communities, masculinity historically elided critique or visibility because its attributes were often the normative and prized values and characteristics of a given social context (Kimmel, 2009). However, feminist movements and intellectual projects have brought masculinity to light, showing the ways in which masculinity, just as much as femininity, is a learned and enforced way of viewing actions, people, and things.
The concepts of masculinity and femininity are abstractly diffuse and approached through a wide variety of research methods and locations. The boundaries between these methods and locations are often flexible or overlapping, so any attempt to categorize communication scholarship on femininity and masculinity involves some slippage between these boundaries. Furthermore, communication studies is a diffuse discipline, including linguists, media scholars, rhetoricians, and historians (among other scholars). This entry includes scholarship under the broadest umbrella of the discipline, noting when scholars are working from the intersection of communication studies and other fields/disciplines.
This article is broken in four major sections. The first section provides an interdisciplinary perspective on research about femininity and masculinity that is formative to communication studies.
The second section outlines two foundational research methodologies that inform communication studies: discourse analysis and historiography. It provides some groundwork for contemporary projects on femininity and masculinity in communication studies and examines why, even though limited in complexity of gender and nuance, this research is still relevant to current scholars.
The third section offers three concrete examples of how communication studies has contributed to the scholarly investigation of masculinity and femininity. While it does not attempt to be exhaustive and comprehensive, the examples illustrate robust scholarly conversations that have had significant impacts on understandings of femininity and masculinity. One of these examples is “Queer Communications: Engendering and Degendering Femininity and Masculinity,” which addresses how some queer theorists and communication scholars have complicated these gender constructs. It also outlines how masculinity and femininity should be seen as plural and polyvocal constructs, that is, masculinities and femininities, rather than being viewed as singular constructs. Queer communication also investigates how masculinities and femininities transcend or transgress biological sex or static sexual identities. Another example, “Digital Communications: Dis- and Re-embodied Circulations of Femininity and Masculinity,” examines how digital technologies and transnational digital communication reshape and challenge notions of gender, sexuality, masculinity, and femininity. The final example, “Critical Race Theory and Femininities and Masculinities,” emphasizes the ways in which racialized identities inform various masculinities and femininities outside of queer theory and digital communications. This section shows how intersectionality is vital to any understanding of masculinity and femininity.
Because masculinity and femininity are culturally defined constructs, it is impossible to provide a concise and precise overview of all the cultural variations. Instead, this article focuses on Anglo- and Eurocentric conceptions of masculinity and femininity because they have often been exported to other cultures through colonialism, technology, and economic interactions. However, there is robust and urgent scholarship about femininity and masculinity from other cultural and linguistic perspectives.
Finally, the concepts of masculinity and femininity are dialectical, meaning that they cannot exist without each other. While some scholars research them in tandem because of this dialectical relationship, other scholars choose to focus on one concept and its application. Furthermore, in communication scholarship, research often looks at “masculine” or “feminine” patterns, behaviors, and interactions, which provides an understanding of how masculinity and femininity function in material reality. The academic conversation, therefore, often bounces back and forth between terminology and whether to group the concepts together in analysis. The terminology used in this article mimics that of the scholarship presented in each section in order to stay true to the original data source.
Femininity and Masculinity: An Interdisciplinary Overview
Scholarship from other disciplines, such as psychology, art history, anthropology, and philosophy, structures much of the communication scholarship on femininity and masculinity. In order to understand femininity and masculinity within a specific context, psychologists note that one must first identify the sex roles given to men and women in that community. An example of a sex role for women, in many communities, is caring for children. A common sex role for men is providing—economically—for the family unit. If these two sex roles are upheld by a community, then femininity would be defined as caring, patient, and nurturing, while masculinity would be built around independence, action outside the home, and ambition (see Spence & Helmreich, 1978, p. 4). While some people still assert that sex roles are biologically determined—meaning that sex roles are natural based on biological bodies, that is, women give birth so they must care for children—anthropologists have documented communities that do not conform to these “biologically determined” sex roles, thus showing that sex roles are constructed by a given community. (For concrete examples of this type of research, see Margaret Mead’s 1935 book Sex and Temperament: In Three Primitive Societies. Regardless of this debate, sex roles provide communication scholars with frameworks for examining masculinity and femininity.) Sex roles such as parenting (i.e., motherhood and fatherhood) continue to be productive research locations for scholars interested in feminine and masculine communication patterns.
In tracing the emergence and circulation of femininity and masculinity, art historians and archaeologists have proven that gender norms and sex roles existed in many ancient societies, meaning that there is no singular origin for masculinity or femininity. Art historians in particular have noted how artistic representations of human bodies have presented such values for a given historical community. While in most ancient societies there is no documentation of words translating to “masculinity” and “femininity,” artistic representations provide evidence that there were gender ideals for male and female bodies, both in terms of aesthetic and social function.
As just one example, in Mesopotamia extant artifacts such as sculptures and terracotta plaques show female and male bodies in different poses and activities, thus creating a sense of what was expected or valorized for men and women of the time. Undressed male figures are shown in wrestling or combat poses while undressed female figures are in goddess poses or playing musical instruments (Zainab, 2001, pp. 51–57). While these artifacts cannot provide concrete proof of feminine or masculine ideals, nor can these ideals be understood as universal, the artifacts document that historically there was differentiation between male and female bodies and that they appear to conform to some contemporary understandings of femininity and masculinity. According to Zainab (2001), some of these artifacts show “that various societies have indeed used Woman as a sign for all that is inconsistent or frightening” (p. 152). While careful not to call this “sign” femininity, Zainab highlights that sex differentiation was used to symbolize social norms of the society.
While Mesopotamia is just one ancient example, the point of scholarship like Zainab’s is to demonstrate that femininity and masculinity have circulated powerfully throughout history, manifesting themselves in symbolic representations such as visual arts and writing. (For more scholarship about masculinity and femininity in ancient societies, see Glenn, 1997; Blundell & Williamson, 1998, for ancient Greece; Hinsch, 2013, for ancient China; and Tyldesley, 1995, for ancient Egypt).
In communications studies, scholars continue to look at artistic representations for historic evidence of masculinity and femininity, but they also look at more contemporary representations, often through a lens of critical media studies. In critical media studies, scholars investigate how femininity and masculinity manifest in theater, television, film, and digital media (see “Digital Communications”). Composition studies, like media studies, analyzes how femininity and masculinity appear in written communication such as letter writing, postsecondary educational writing, and other text-based genres (see Flynn, 1988).
One of the most debated questions in the theoretical conversations about femininity and masculinity is not their pervasive presence throughout history but rather how these abstract concepts function in the social contract. In philosophy, the question was famously taken up by Simone de Beauvoir (1949) when she wrote that “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (often translated as “One is not born woman: one becomes woman”). What de Beauvoir notes in this phrase is that being a woman requires a performance of social norms ascribed to womanhood. In order to become a “woman,” one must conform to the femininity of the time. De Beauvoir provides a much-needed philosophical critique to the notion of femininity as natural and biologically determined.
Luce Irigaray continues the philosophical investigations into gendered concepts by introducing a psychoanalytic (more specifically a Lacanian) and Marxist framework. Irigaray’s The Sex Which Is Not One (1985) posits not that one becomes a woman, but that the subject position of “woman,” outside of relation to “man” is an impossibility because society functions under a phallic economy where “woman . . . is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies” (p. 25). In other words, Irigaray notes that woman is not a subject but an object of a phallologocentric society.
Working out of a similar Marxist and psychoanalytical tradition, Hélène Cixous (1976) directly addresses the role that masculinity and femininity play in communication. In “Laugh of the Medusa,” Cixous theorizes how women can and must write about femininity because “with a few rare exceptions, there has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity” (p. 878). In the foundational essay, Cixous highlights how writing and speaking have been psychoanalytically connected to the phallus and how women speakers and writers can “confirm women in a place other than that which has been reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence” (p. 881). Instead of stony, monstrous silence, Cixous imagines the Greek figure of Medusa as beautiful and laughing. This piece is a central text of écriture féminine, a theory emerging in the 1970s that focused on how language (writing, in particular) is phallologocentric.
Regardless of whether or not the label of “woman” is a biological subject position, a subject position that a person becomes, an object of patriarchal social order, or a transgressive figure (e.g., Medusa), the category of “woman” still structures everyday lives by providing some bodies a stable sense of identity while also limiting people’s participation and freedoms in society. The labels of “man” and “woman” persist in spite of these debates, and often change the ways in which people’s communication practices are viewed and received.
People’s bodies—their facial and nonverbal gestures, their sex characteristics, and their clothing—become signs of masculinity and femininity, even if they do not conform to normative gender notions. Materialist feminists like Susan Bordo (1993) and Elizabeth Grosz (1994) return to the physical body to examine femininity and masculinity, noting how the mind/body dichotomy works in these constructs. Infants—in and of themselves—are only differentiated through their visible sex organs. But this physical differentiation has been theorized through a mind/body dichotomy, linking biological sex to a gendered identity:
Typically, femininity is represented (either explicitly or implicitly) in one of the two ways in this cross-pairing of oppositions: either mind is rendered equivalent to the masculine and body equivalent to feminine (thus ruling out women a priori as possible subjects of knowledge, or philosophers) or each sex is attributed its own form of corporeality.
(Grosz, 1994, p. 14)
The latter or “its own form of corporality” is what is called gender essentialism, assuming that female and male bodies have their own way of being in the world. In academic conversations, gender essentialism has been resoundingly critiqued by feminist scholars. However, the former conception of femininity/masculinity as linked to the mind/body dualism, is still often the basis of academic inquiry. According to the Cartesian mind/body dualism, masculinity is the performance of the mind’s capabilities: intellect, courage, assertiveness. Femininity is the body, which lacks those capabilities.
While critical of this perspective, Susan Brownmiller (1984) acknowledges the pervasiveness of this binary and builds upon how these terms are composed in opposition to one another: “The masculine principle is better understood as a driving ethos of superiority designed to inspire straightforward, confident success while the feminine principle is composed of vulnerability, the need for protection, the formalities of compliance and the avoidance of conflict” (p. 16). However, in contemporary scholarship, especially in queer theory (see “Queer Communication”), it has become clear that while masculinity and femininity are constituted by their differences, they are not zero-sum concepts, meaning that the presence of masculinity does not require the absence of femininity.
In sum, femininity and masculinity have been examined by philosophers, psychologists, art historians, archaeologists, women’s and gender studies scholars, and anthropologists. In truth, most academic fields have at least some extant scholarship about femininity and masculinity. However, since these terms manifest in communicative acts such as art and media, behavior patterns, written documents, aesthetics and fashion, and social interactions, communication studies have been a fruitful academic space for further investigation.
Foundational Methodologies in Communication Studies
In communication studies, current scholarship looks at how masculinity and femininity circulate in a globalized world, picking up new definitions and often restructuring people’s lives. Even though both terms are abstractions that shift in their definitions and applications, they create the conditions for people’s sense of identity. Furthermore, these gender norms can limit or enhance a person’s ability to engage in communicative acts. Differently stated, while masculinity and femininity are abstract concepts, they have material consequences for communicative acts.
To understand how an abstract social construction creates material consequences, communication scholars often look at several research locations where masculinity and femininity most obviously manifest, such as leadership and authority, rhetorical style and delivery, media representations, and interpersonal communications. However, the beginnings of such inquiries often relied on research methods from many disciplines, most notably linguistics (i.e., discourse analysis) and history (i.e., historiography). Research using discourse analysis and feminist historiography shows that gendered communication practices exist and that narrow definitions of rhetoric and oratory—as well as systematic oppression or erasure—have excluded gender minorities, in this case, women, from full view. In other words, since women were erased or overlooked in the canon of rhetoric and masculine forms of communication were privileged as “effective” or normative, communication scholars had to establish that (1) women had engaged in communicative acts throughout history and (2) communication patterns could be described as masculine and feminine. By proving these two major arguments, masculinity and femininity came into fuller view as communication quandaries.
Both of these methodologies—discourse analysis and historiography—continue to be important to the academic conversation about masculinity and femininity in communication.
Discourse Analysis of Sex Differences
Since the 1960s, communication scholars have most notably analyzed “sex differences” in communication patterns. While there are many variants to this research method, discourse analysis uses qualitative and quantitative research methods to trace patterns of communication among participants and to analyze language use that transcends “grammar.” While this methodology often relies on a gender essentialism based on biological sex (and often overlooks the intersection of race, sexuality, class, and gender) to classify research participants, scholars began to investigate gendered forms of communication. Many studies, especially quantitative discourse analyses, looked at the ways that children manifested gendered differences in communication. In one study, a scholar examined how boys and girls use nonverbal facial cues and how those nonverbal strategies align with concepts of femininity and masculinity (Zuckerman, 1982). Another study examined patterns of interruption, silence, and overlaps in communication among boys and girls playing, finding that boys interrupted at similar rates as male adults (Esposito, 1979).
Studies like these, while important for beginning the conversation on femininity and masculinity, cannot account for divergent and context-specific understandings of these constructs, nor do they account for nonbinary gender expressions such as genderqueer, gender nonconforming, or transgender and how they relate to masculinity and femininity. However, during this period some notable examples, usually under framework of a feminist analysis, forecast a more complex view of femininity and masculinity in communication. Robin Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place (2004) introduces a feminist analytical lens to linguistics. Lakoff asserts that gendered communication patterns are symptomatic of “social and psychological inequalities of the sexes” (p. 19). Instead of merely noting that “sex differences” exist in communication, Lakoff investigates the roots of those differences, moving beyond gender essentialism, highlighting that these differences relate to the “masculine” and “feminine” instead of to male bodies and female bodies.
Building on the work of Lakoff, Deborah Tannen (1994) uses discourse analysis to demonstrate how gendered communication styles manifest power relations related to gender, sexuality, race, and class. Furthermore, Tannen notes that any scholarly investigation into gender and communication requires interdisciplinarity, which means that such studies become “cross-cultural communication, require[ing] compassion, flexibility, and patience” (p. 4). This call for interdisciplinarity is important because rarely are studies on masculinity and femininity in communication disciplinarily structured. Instead, scholarship on the topic can appear in psychology, education, business and management studies, women’s and gender studies, rhetoric, communication, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology. As Tannen notes, this makes scholarship on gender and communication “risky” while also “rewarding” and “meaningful” (p. 3).
Tannen (1994) also discusses the issue of nature versus nurture in gendered communication styles, addressing critiques and employment of gender essentialism in communication scholarship (pp. 11–13). She acknowledges that she is not focused on this binary debate because she wants to document “patterns of human behavior as they exist today” (p. 13). Discourse analysis, as a methodology, provides communication scholars evidence of patterns of communicative difference, and Tannen’s work serves as a foundation for identifying those differences in patterns of interruption, body positions and eye contact, topics of conversation, directness, or “cooperative overlap” (when one talks while the speaker is talking to show support and understanding). By proving that there are gendered patterns in talking, Tannen’s work foregrounds how specific communication patterns get coded as masculine or feminine, aggressive/effective, or passive/ineffective.
With works like Tannen’s and Lakoff’s, it becomes possible to describe communication patterns that conform to or diverge from notions of masculinity and femininity. Even if scholars critique the method, discourse analysis shows how certain interpersonal communication strategies play a role in masculinity (e.g., assertiveness, interruption, and lecturing) or femininity (e.g., cooperation, passivity/listening, and agreement).
Feminist Historiography: Expanding the Canon
While discourse analysis looks at contemporary and often interpersonal communications, other scholars, using methods relating to historiography, research women rhetors who have been erased from the canon of oratory, rhetoric, and communication. In the 1980s, many scholars expanded the canon of rhetoric, engaging in what is often called the historiography of rhetoric. Scholars such as Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and Kenneth Burke constituted more than the majority of the rhetorical canon, as it had been accepted that women were not “rhetoricians” or “rhetors” throughout history because they were not granted citizenship status or were prevented from giving formal speeches. While rarely directly stated, oratory or rhetoric was framed as a masculine pursuit. Yet, many communication scholars proved that women produced important speech acts including pieces of oratory as well as written documents. Feminist historiography seeks to challenge the classification of rhetoric as a masculine practice.
Complicating the notion that rhetoric is a project of masculinity, communication scholars in the 1980s reclaimed feminized rhetors for the canon. In 1987, the journal Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory published a special volume on “Historiography and Histories of Rhetorics I: Revisionary Histories,” which collected scholarly efforts to challenge the predominantly male canon. One of the foundational texts during this period is Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s Man Cannot Speak for Her: A Critical Study of Early Feminist Rhetoric (1989). In this book, Campbell documents the rhetorical acts of 19th-century women who argued for their suffrage. Campbell explains how women have been left out of the canon of rhetoric: “when women began to speak outside the home on moral matters or matters of public policy, they faced obstacles unknown to men. Further, once they began to speak, their words were not often preserved, with the result that many rhetorical acts by women are gone forever” (Campbell, p. 1). In an effort to address this erasure, Campbell analyzes the rhetorical acts of American women like Ida B. Wells, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, and Lucretia Mott.
Other scholars, like Shirley Wilson Logan (1999), expand the canon to specifically include women of color. Logan’s work identifies the diversity of spaces and audiences where 19th-century black women, in particular, engaged in rhetorical acts, especially in religious settings and with mixed-race audiences. Likewise, Nan Johnson (2002) considers that same time period and alters the definition of a “rhetorical act” to include private, domestic spaces such as “parlors,” which were full of women’s rhetorical activities during the period.
Not all historiographical scholarship in rhetoric has focused on American rhetoricians. Anthologies like Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition (Lunsford, 1995) examine women’s rhetorical acts across different historical time periods, geographical spaces, and genres of rhetoric. These historiographical projects show that women have always been prodigious rhetoricians, especially considering the cultural oppression that worked to suppress their ideas and voices. While there are time periods and cultures that are still underrepresented in the canon, many gaps are have resulted from a lack of archival resources and others are under investigation. With feminist historiography, rhetoric is no longer the sole domain of masculinity and men. Instead, rhetorical acts and style are expanded to include activities considered to be feminine or ideals of femininity, such as letter writing or parlor conversations.
Like discourse analysis, feminist historiography of rhetoric prompted methodological criticism. In 2000, several feminist scholars of the history of rhetoric engaged in a public debate in the journal College English about the merits and limitations of feminist historiography. At stake was the ethics of reclaiming voices that had been forgotten, erased, or overlooked in the canon. While the debate centered on reclaiming women rhetors, the critique resides in all historiography: which subjects are worth writing about/canonizing? How do we contextualize a historical text when much of that context has been lost over time? What can rhetoricians actually learn from these historical documents about rhetoric and communication when the time period and cultural context were so different from contemporary ones? (For an overview of this debate and a critical response to it, see Hui Wu, 2002.)
In sum, feminist historiography shows that rhetoric does not belong only to those with power and privilege and that “great speeches” or written tracts are not in the domain of masculinity or male activities. Communication scholars, however, should continue to question gaps in the canon, asking why certain voices have been omitted or underrepresented.
Femininity and Masculinity in Communication Studies: Moving Beyond the Foundations
Apart from discourse analysis and historiography, communication studies tackles many lines of inquiry related to masculinity and femininity. It would be impossible to outline all of the urgent academic conversations taking place at the crossroads of gender and communication: religious communication, cross-cultural communication, technical and professional communications, and oratory. To illustrate the diversity and impact of communication studies on discussions of femininity and masculinity, this section outlines three thriving conversations: queer communications, digital communications, and critical race and ethnic studies. These three areas of robust scholarship have continual impact on how masculinity and femininity circulate and change people’s lives. Moreover, they are examples of how communication studies has taken the foundational methodologies and blended them with interdisciplinary perspectives.
Queer Communication Studies: Engendering and De-gendering Femininity and Masculinity
While it might seem a large detour into sexuality studies, queer theory provides much needed nuance to communication studies research on femininity and masculinity. The connection between these two fields of inquiry is best understood in the history and evolution of queer theory.
Queer theory emerged as a scholarly and activist pursuit once the gay liberation movement inspired by the Stonewall Riots of 1969 was well underway. Gay liberation and gay and lesbian studies seek to make visible gay and lesbian notions of sexuality. In an effort to move away from heteronormativity, or the ideology that heterosexuality is a natural and dominant sexuality, gay liberation could not account for the diversity and fluidity of sexual and gender identities and often reaffirmed the gender binary (e.g. man and woman) instead of unsettling it. For example, Adrienne Rich (1980), a poet and radical lesbian feminist, outlines how heteronormativity asserts control and domination over women and their sexualities, offering an alternative that all women exist on a lesbian continuum. While Rich’s argument is a valid critique of how heteronormativity is a tool of patriarchal control over women’s lives and bodies, it cannot account for de Beauvoir’s critique, that one becomes woman, or for the fact that not all bodies fit into the gender binary of man/woman.
In many ways, queer theory is a response to the identity politics of the gay liberation movement, especially in relation to gender nonconforming people, trans people, and people who embrace fluid sexualities. But queer theory also complicates communication studies for people of all genders: men and women, queer or not, trans or cis. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) provides one of the central tenets of queer theory, arguing that rather than being biological, “natural,” or static, gender is constructed through performativity, which inherently requires communicative acts. To describe gender performativity, a term that resists simple definition, and explain how communicative acts contribute to gender performativity, Butler (1998) writes:
gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceede [sic]; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of the gendered self. (p. 519; emphasis in original)
Butler highlights how a constellation of communicative acts constitutes gender performativity and how that performativity is for a specific period of time. Therefore, the gender binaries man/woman, gay/straight, or masculine/feminine can be limiting for describing many people’s way of being in the world. In sum, queer—rather than denoting a specific sexuality such as lesbian—describes people and practices that are nonnormative, resistant, or transgressive.
Therefore, queer theory allows the multiplicities of femininities and masculinities to come into full view since queer theory troubles the notion that there is a singular form or expression of femininity or masculinity. Halberstam (1998) examines the way in which female bodies have engaged and constructed masculinities, “female masculinities,” such as those associated with the tomboy (female masculinity in childhood) or the stone butch (a term for masculine lesbians made famous by Leslie Feinberg’s 1993 Stone Butch Blues). Halberstam’s work unearths these often overlooked, marginalized, or oppressed forms of masculinity without valorizing masculinity above femininity. Instead, one of the outcomes of this research is that “masculinity . . . becomes legible as masculinity where and when it leaves the white male middle-class body” (Feinberg, 1993, p. 2).
With scholarship like Butler’s and Halberstam’s, communication scholars began looking to speech acts, media representations, and interpersonal and occupational communications to examine how queer theory might trouble notions of femininity and masculinity. While there has been extensive research into identifying gay and straight communication patterns, much of that scholarship relies on stable or fixed sexual identities (e.g., gay male communication instead of queering gender and sexuality binaries. This research is important for examining gay masculinities and in-group communication practices. However, as Sally Miller Gearhart (2004) identifies, the methodology of this sexual identity research reinforces dichotomies instead of finding correlations between identities and communication practices: “to think correlatively is to name, to connect, to unify, and to affirm, while to think dichotomously is to Label, to disconnect, to separate, and to negate” (p. 31, emphasis in original). Indeed, a queer orientation to communication scholarship on femininity and masculinity asks how these constructs are mutually reinforcing and how they can apply to diverse practices.
Under the label of queer theory, contemporary and emerging communication scholarship on femininity and masculinity often resists the gender binary. Instead, queer communication scholars show how masculinity and femininity are not forcibly aligned with specific bodies and gender expressions. Furthermore, masculinity and femininity become frameworks to understand a person (or group of people’s) participation in and rejection of gender norms.
The anthology Queer Theory and Communication (Yep, Lovaas, & Elia, 2004) provides several examples of how communication studies engage queer theory to complicate masculinity and femininity. Gust Yep, writing about the harms done by heteronormativity, argues that institutionalized heterosexuality creates notions of femininity that involve the “good wife” or “good mother,” thus constraining women as mere objects in helping other people’s lives (Yep et al., 2004, p. 88). Yep astutely notes that heterosexuality also constrains men through heterosexist masculinity, but that men are still positioned as subjects—not objects—especially in relation to discourses about sexual pleasure and labor. Yep’s chapter outlines how heterosexist masculinity and femininity function discursively, which leads to both symbolic (e.g., homophobic) and physical (e.g., abuse) violence.
Elsewhere in the same anthology (Yep et al., 2004), scholars analyze interpersonal communications, nonverbal communication, drag queen performances, films, and political movements to show how queer theory can intervene in hegemonic discourses about essentialized and identity-based femininity and masculinity. The anthology also explores how queer theory can lead to an intersectional analysis—meaning attentive to the interaction between gender, race, class, etc.—of femininity and masculinity. Notably, E. Patrick Johnson’s chapter, “The Specter of the Black Fag: Parody, Blackness, and the Hetero/Homosexual Brothers,” outlines the slippage between black heteronormative masculinity with queer black masculinity through analyses of comedic standup and television performances of black men (Yep et al., 2004, pp. 443–476). In sum, Johnson shows that these two masculinities are dialectically engaged rather than in opposition. Furthermore, Bryant Alexander urgently investigates how the term “queer” can discursively occlude significant differences in people’s lived experiences, especially people who are sexual and racial minorities. Alexander’s critique reminds scholars that while queer theory can complicate understandings of femininity and masculinity, it can simultaneously reinforce other political, dominant categories such as whiteness.
Communication scholars have developed a thriving line of research into queer femininities and masculinities in media representations, especially in relation to film and television. Shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Will & Grace, and Queer as Folk—all of which center around sexual minorities—provide potential representations of queer masculinities and femininities. However, several scholars note that the mere inclusion of gay, lesbian, and queer characters rarely challenges heterosexist notions of masculinity and femininity; in particular, such scholarship highlights how queer characters are often framed through femininity where femininity is subjugated or marginalized in relation to heterosexual masculinity (Avila-Saavedra, 2009; Ramsey & Santiago, 2004). Yet, other scholars note that there are nuanced media representations of queer people that subvert gender norms and build upon Halberstam’s work to show that masculinity and femininity can be fluid and multiple (Cooper, 2002).
In spite of the strength of the anthology (Yep et al., 2004) and this media studies work, communication studies—especially the flagship journals—has been slow to pick up on queer theory. In response to this lag, the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication published a special issue in 2013 on queer communication studies. The authors and editors made a concerted effort to include trans theory, critiques of nationalism and globalization, and militarism, all urgent lines of inquiry involving queer theory, masculinities, and femininities. Karma Chávez‘s introductory essay notes that the issue emphasizes an intersectional approach to queer theory, thus responding to Alexander’s critique.
Moving forward, communication scholars committed to queer theory should continue to complicate femininity and masculinity using trans theory, critical race theory, transnationalism, and disability studies in order to enact Gearhart’s call to “think correlatively” (2004, p. 31).
Digital Communications: Disembodied and Re-Embodied Circulations of Femininity and Masculinity
Like many other subfields within communication studies, scholarship on femininity and masculinity also attends to how digital media alter interpersonal communications, identity creation, speech acts, and genre expectations. Because digital communications allow for audiences and content creators to interact without the physical body, they have been sites of extensive research looking at how masculinity and femininity can be reinforced or subverted through technologies. In communication studies, scholars investigate user-based interactions, discourse analysis, circulation studies, and transnational studies to examine the impact of digital technologies on the concepts of masculinity and femininity.
Some linguistic scholars, like Naomi Baron (2008), focus on discourse analysis of digital communication. While Baron’s work is not singularly focused on either masculinity or femininity, she does highlight the differences in digital communication practices between female and male technology users. Much like the interpersonal discourse analysis scholarship of the 1980s (see “Foundational Methodologies”), scholarship like Baron’s seeks to show gendered patterns of digital discourse, not to reaffirm a biological imperative, but to show how the linguistic performance of gender takes on different strategies in digital communications. Discourse analysis shows that there are gendered patterns in digital communication and that normative communication patterns of masculinity and femininity persist in digital spaces. This type of research establishes that femininity and masculinity circulate beyond embodied interactions and manifest in digital communication practices.
Accepting that masculinity and femininity manifest in digital communications, one major line of inquiry is whether digital communication privileges masculinity over femininity in the same hierarchal manner as in-person communication. Practices such as trolling, cyberbullying, and hacking are often framed through traditional understandings of masculinity: aggression and domination. Data on these practices show that there is a gender disparity in “online harassment,” especially noting that women experience high rates of harassment (Duggan, 2014). However, because these digital communication practices are often performed under the guise of anonymity, scholars cannot reduce this phenomenon to male digital communication patterns. Instead, what can be asserted is that aggressive masculinity and misogyny in digital communication is pervasive and persistent (Phillips, 2015; Poland, 2016).
Digital communications also allow for a mediated version of self-fashioning that can circulate beyond the local context. YouTube videos, selfies, and social media sites allow consumers to simultaneously be content producers who can reconstitute their performances of masculinity and femininity beyond their physical selves. News outlets and popular sources have described how people—young people in particular—use such interactive media to self-fashion, especially in terms of gender performativity (see “Queer Communication”), to their own detriment; some practices of this gender performativity, particularly sexting, revenge porn, and catfishing (a term meaning to fake an identity on social media, usually with the goal to pursue online romance or sexual encounters, originated in the 2010 documentary Catfish) can result in legal, emotional, and physical harm. However, communication scholars argue that the moral panic produced by these widely accessible reports often overlook the gender, sexual, and racial implications in the practices of re-embodied gender performances in digital media, noting that there is more concern over these digital acts when the content creator is a girl or a woman (Senft & Baym, 2015). Therefore, these types of digital gendered communication are often subjected to a gendered “double bind,” or a communicative situation that is deemed acceptable for masculine subjects but unacceptable for feminized subjects. In other words, the double bind reinforces normative notions of femininity and masculinity in the digital space.
Some scholars working at the intersection of digital and gendered communication turn to circulation studies, researching how specific communications practices or acts are picked up, contested, or ignored as a way of enforcing conceptions of masculinity and femininity. Communication scholars interested in circulation trace how a communicative act evolves over time, which communities encourage or deny its circulation, and how that message communicates differential understandings of gender as it circulates. Transnational feminist rhetorician Rebecca Dingo (2012) calls this practice “networking arguments,” or investigating “how arguments are networked, how and why rhetorics travel and circulate, and then how (due to rhetorical occasions such as the rise of neoliberal economics) they shift and change as they move across geopolitical boundaries to reflect different ideas about production, labor, and global citizenship” (p. 7).
Arguments are networked, with or without digital communications, but digital technologies increase the speed and distance of networked arguments about femininity and masculinity, effectively de- or reterritorializing gendered norms. Instead of a specific community defining and enforcing femininity and masculinity for itself, digital communication allows for the transmission and adaptation of these norms across location and time. Mary Queen (2008) provides a rhetorical analysis of how digital communications frames the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan’s (RAWA) self-representation through US conception of femininity and “women’s rights.” Queen’s work asks communication scholars to “trace the transparent processes of digital circulation and thus re-encounter how our own ideologies come to “stand (in) for” others” (p. 486). Circulation studies can show how digital communicative acts export and import notions of femininity and masculinity outside of a local context and how such circulation can alter the understandings of gendered communication. (See Richards, 2015, for examples of how gendered understandings of leadership circulate in transnational flows.)
Digital communication also provides a mechanism to create affinity groups—or group identities based around shared values and practices—that transcend the local community. Hashtags, social media groups, and blogging sites allow for people to connect around both normative and marginalized gendered identity. For example, Mommy Bloggers—mothers who keep blogs about parenting and motherhood—can challenge the masculinity of the blogosphere and also show divergent autobiographical writing strategies of women who are parents (Lopez, 2009). As another example, artists like Alok Vaid-Menon use selfie captioning, emojis, and social media humor to critique notions of authenticity of femininity for transfeminine people (Morse, 2017).
Digital communication has a clear impact on the definitions and circulations of femininities and masculinities by moving these constructs out of a local and historical context and into diffuse, transnational, and affinity-based contexts. It also allows for problematic, regressive, oppressive, and even violent masculinity to circulate widely and move under the guise of anonymity. The challenge for communication scholars is to keep up with the proliferation and shifting territories of gendered digital communications. Furthermore, there still needs to be scholarship that shows the relationship between these productive “affinity group” communications, online harassment, and the double bind of digital self-fashioning.
Critical Race Theory and Femininities and Masculinities
Some communications scholarship overlooks the connections between racial identity and notions of masculinity and femininity, but other studies foreground how hegemonic or normative masculinity and femininity marginalize racialized communication practices. Critical race theory (CRT) began as a sociological theoretical framework to examine the intersection of race and the law, especially as it relates to cultural and social power. One major tenet of CRT is the concept of “intersectionality,” a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to denote the ways in which race intersects with other socially constructed identities such as class, gender, nationality, and sexuality, especially in relation to how US law perpetuates racial discrimination.
When contemporary scholars refer to CRT, they often include race and ethnic studies scholarship such as the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, Angela Davis, Winona LaDuke, and Patricia Hill Collins, who provide foundational theoretical work on racialized identities that do not always engage explicitly in the legal studies perspective. While the specific research methods of critical race communication scholars differ, the unifying line of inquiry focuses on intersectionality between race and femininity or masculinity.
Much like queer theory, scholars use a CRT framework to explore (1) the ways in which racialized people and communities engage in gendered communicative acts and (2) the ways in which communicative acts have represented racialized people. For example, Patricia Hill Collins’s (2008) work on black feminist thought outlines the ways in which black women have engaged in knowledge production and how those intellectual histories have been overlooked in scholarly communities because they often exist in communicative acts that are not viewed as legitimate knowledge production (e.g., familial storytelling/knowledge exchange).
In terms of media representations of race and gender, scholars analyze media representations, especially in the black music industry (e.g., hip-hop, jazz, and rap), often finding that media provide ambivalent representations of black femininity. Weekes (2004) highlights how rap and hip-hop, while promoting misogynistic views of black women, also gives black women in the United Kingdom a temporary space to resist norms of femininity. The anthology Home Girls Make Some Noise! (Pough, Richardson, Durham, & Raimist, 2007) provides an extended analysis of how the music industry has also constructed an ambivalent global media ecology for black femininity.
The communication scholarship about other racial identities such as Chicanx, Latinx, and Indigenous people follows similar trajectories as the example of black femininity, noting both the ways that communicative acts—especially in the media, including written text—have represented racial minorities and the ways in which racial minorities have engaged in communicative acts involving femininity and masculinity. Latina/o Communication Studies Today (Valdiva, 2008) addresses Latinx femininities and masculinities, noting how nationality and code switching—along with media representations—impact these constructs.
CRT has helped broaden the historiography of the field (see “Foundational Methodologies”), including speech acts in the canon that were often overlooked or erased because of the rhetor’s racialized and gendered identity. Communication scholars have reclaimed the writings and speeches of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Phillis Wheatley, and Kishida Toshiko, showing how women from different racial, national, and linguistic backgrounds engaged in public discourse in spite of gendered, colonial, or racial oppression. This work unsettles the notion of a normative masculine identity of a speaker or writer, but it also unsettles the normative whiteness and Anglo- and Eurocentricity of communication studies.
Critical race and ethnic studies continue to provide frameworks for communication scholarship on femininity and masculinity because the research highlights how power and prestige circulate and are resisted in gendered speech acts.
The Future of Communication Studies on Masculinity and Femininity
This article does not attempt to be exhaustive, but aims to show the extent of the diffusion of communication scholarship on femininity and masculinity. Some scholarship relies on static notions of femininity and masculinity in interpersonal communication while other scholarship explores the fluidity of masculinity and femininity in media representations. Each of these scholarly decisions allows gendered communicative acts to be observed, documented, contested, and critiqued—bringing masculinity and femininity into full view. The synthesis of this scholarship proves that masculinity and femininity are communication quandaries; masculinity and femininity are social constructs that manifest themselves in communicative acts. Communication scholars must balance the interdisciplinarity and methodologies necessary to bring forth or challenge notions of masculinity and femininity. As Tannen (1994) notes, this work is “risky” but “rewarding” (p. 3). Therefore, communication scholars need to look at the intersections of methods and research locations to see how they inform one another.
As Halberstam notes in an interview, the categories of masculinity and femininity are not going anywhere, even if they are social constructs that do not adequately describe human experience and can oppress people (Crowley, 2004). Therefore, the intellectual discussion around femininity and masculinity will likely continue to be a diffuse academic conversation.
Fields of study like history (Conway, 1970), anthropology (Mead, 1935), philosophy (de Beauvoir, 1949), and psychology (Brown, 1957; Gall, 1969; Spence & Helmreich, 1978) provide significant scholarship on the constructs of femininity and masculinity. This research outlines some important concepts for communication studies. First, it defines the concept of sex roles and shows that sex roles have existed in most recorded history. Next, it proves that gender norms differ between communities. Finally, it illustrates that people’s lived experiences and practices are often defined or constrained by these sex roles and gender norms.
Communication scholarship from the late 1970s and early 1980s used the concepts from these fields to examine gendered communication (see “Foundational Methodologies”). In particular, linguists focus on patterns of communication that showed sex role differentiation in practices and sites of gendered communication (Esposito, 1979; Lakoff, 2004; Tannen, 1994; Zuckerman, 1982). This foundational scholarship documents how men/boys and women/girls use communication strategies, like interruption (Esposito, 1979) and nonverbal cues (Zuckerman, 1982), with different frequency. Meanwhile, other linguists (Lakoff, 2004; Tannen, 1994) complicate these patterns by linking communication strategies to topics and specific discourse communities, noting that masculine communication practices have historically been privileged over feminine ones.
Rhetorical analysis of masculinity and femininity has emerged as another way to examine gendered communications. Campbell (1983, 1989) examines women’s participation in public speech acts as a way to grapple with the complexities of masculinity and femininity. Campbell’s work draws on public speech acts from a variety of rhetors responding to the ideologies of femininity, showing how consciousness-raising was a common invention strategy to address the ambiguities of “personhood” and “womanhood” (1983, p. 107). Foss (1984) provides a cluster rhetorical analysis of religious images to show how that which is deemed “female” has been linked with negative terms and embodied shortcomings while masculinity is linked to positive and powerful terminology.
Another active thread of gendered communication scholarship involves expanding and complicating the canon of rhetoric to include women’s writing and diverse communicative acts (Johnson, 2002; Logan, 1999; Lunsford, 1995). This historical methodology began in the 1990s and continues to thrive in contemporary scholarship. It has expanded the history of women’s rhetorical strategies (Graban, 2015; Stillion Southard, 2012) as well as the canon.
Media studies communication scholarship (Avila-Saavedra, 2009; Cooper, 2002; Hegde, 2011; Ramsey & Santiago, 2004; Pough et al., 2007) focuses on representations of femininity and masculinity, especially noting how other identities such as race and sexuality alter these gendered constructs. Digital communications complicate and reinforce normative notions of masculinity and femininity, especially in terms of self-fashioning or identity creation, and they also allow for broad circulations of these concepts (Dobson, 2015; Lopez, 2009).
Current communication scholarship on masculinity and femininity investigates diffuse research locations such as interpersonal communications, business and technical communications, political discourse, activism, digital communications, media representations, and rhetorical acts. The extant research shows that gender greatly informs how a communicative act is received and circulates. Scholars continue to look back at historical communicative acts (Enoch, 2008) as well as forward to emerging communication practices (Hegde, 2011). Since communication studies is an inherently interdisciplinary enterprise, scholars use a wide variety of research methods and theories to engage questions of masculinity and femininity, including queer theory (Halberstam, 1998), critical race theory (Collins, 2008), transnational theory (Dingo, 2012), and feminist theory (Grosz, 1994).
Many of the works cited in this article are excellent primary sources to begin an investigation into femininity and masculinity. The works of Tannen (1994) and Lakoff (2004), in particular, are foundational explorations into how masculinity and femininity emerge in interpersonal communicative acts. However, there are several additional sources that provide strong overviews. Wood (2012) notes the historical contexts that create gendered communication patterns. The book is written so as to be useful to undergraduates and more advanced scholars.
Walking and Talking Feminist Rhetorics: Landmark Essays and Controversies (Buchanan & Ryan, 2010) compiles over 30 years of research by rhetoricians about femininity, feminist historiography, or feminine or feminist rhetorics. The collection organizes articles thematically to show how conversations about feminist rhetorics emerged in the field.
Bonnie J. Dow and Celeste Condit (2005) provide a critical summary of how communication scholars have taken up issues of femininity and masculinity. The authors note that not all communication scholarship on gender is feminist in orientation and their article helps scholars locate scholarship that seeks to challenge sexist conceptions of gender.
Manhood in America: A Cultural History (Kimmel, 2012) is a comprehensive overview of how masculinity functions in the US context. The edited collection by Jackson and Hopson (2011) shows how communicative acts structure black masculinity in the United States and describes how black masculinity circulates globally.
The Masculinity Studies Reader (Adams & Savran, 2002) presents influential texts about masculinities and includes chapters on queer, postcolonial, critical race, and feminist theory.
Radha S. Hegde’s edited collection Circuits of Visibility: Gender and Transnational Media Cultures (2011) explores the intersection of gendered communication in media—including digital media. Many of the chapters present research on underexplored masculinities and femininities.
Finally, the journal Feminist Media Studies regularly publishes articles about masculinities and femininities in media. Some notable examples are cited in the reference list.
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