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.
Rebecca S. Richards
The decolonization of nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the late 20th century made possible the arrival of postcolonial academics who engaged in a critical and thoroughgoing analysis of the ways in which colonial histories have affected and continue to influence not only our understanding of phenomena, such as culture, but have influenced the very frames and processes of the creation and dissemination of knowledge about phenomena such as culture. While this work was initiated by postcolonial scholars of literature, postcolonial theory and frameworks have been adopted by several allied fields, including the communication field. Since the 1990s, communication scholars have been using postcolonial frameworks to deconstruct the colonial and neocolonial representations and tropes present in news and popular culture discourses. They have also brought communication theory to bear upon key concepts within postcolonial study, such as hybridity and diaspora. In the mid-1990s communication scholars joined the larger debate on the continued relevance of the postcolonial framework, and as with postcolonial scholars in other fields, they have continued to insist that the interruptive and political impetus of postcolonial theory provides an important entry point for the study of a world still shot through with colonial and neocolonial power relations. Although there is still a lot of scope to make the postcolonial approach more central to the communication field and its subfields, communication scholars have continued to use postcolonial theory to shed important insight on several vital communication issues. Feminist scholars of communication have been at the forefront of the effort to increase awareness and use of postcolonial frameworks for the study of communication.
Isaac N. West
Queer studies in critical and cultural communication studies concerns itself with interrogating the symbolic and material manifestations of desires, sexualities, genders, and bodies in all manners of our lives, including public policy, everyday talk, protests and direct political actions, and media representations. Although the genealogy of this subfield often rehearses queer studies’ emergence as a point of radical rupture from previous theories and perspectives, another mapping of queer studies is possible if it is understood as an evolution of core questions at the heart of communication studies. Queer studies’ mode of inquiry generally involves a double gesture of identifying implicit and/or explicit biases of a communicative norm and promoting alternative ways of being in the world that do not comport with those norms. Indebted to and conversant with critical race, feminist, and lesbian gay, bisexual, and transgender studies, queer studies in critical and cultural communication studies occupies and contests the terrain of its own possibility in its attention to the intended and unintended consequences of privileging one set of cultural arrangements over another. Without any pure vantage point from which one may start or end a cultural analysis, communication scholars have embraced the contingencies afforded by queer studies to imagine otherwise the cultural legitimacy afforded to some bodies and not others; the necessity of sanctioning some sexual desires and not others; the intersectional affordances of sexuality, race, gender, ability, and class; more and less effective modes of dissent from the various normativities governing our behaviors and beliefs; and the necessity of memory politics and their pedagogical implications.
Davi Johnson Thornton
Communication studies identifies bodies as both objects of communication and producers (or sites) of communication. Communication about bodies—for example, gendered bodies, disabled bodies, obese bodies, and surgically modified bodies—influences bodies at the physical, material level by determining how they are treated in social interactions, in medical settings, and in public institutions. Communication about bodies also forges cultural consensus about what types of bodies fit in particular roles and settings. In addition to analyzing the stakes of communication about bodies, communication studies identifies bodies as communicating forces that cannot be accounted for by standards of reason, meaning, and decorum. Bodies are physical, material, affective beings that communicate because of, not in spite of, their messy, ineffable status. Moreover, communication is an embodied process that involves a range of material supports, including human bodies, technological bodies, and other nonhuman physical and biological bodies. Investigating bodies as communicating forces compels an understanding of communication that is not exclusively rational, meaning-oriented, and nonviolent.
Christina R. Foust and Raisa Alvarado
What moves the social? And what is rhetoric’s relationship to social movement? Since 1950, scholars studying the art of public persuasion have offered different answers to these questions. Early approaches to social movements defined them as out-groups that made use of persuasion to achieve goals and meet persistent challenges. However, protest tactics that flaunted the body and spectacle (e.g., 1960s-era dissent) challenged early emphasis on social movements as nouns or “things” that used rhetoric. Influenced by intersectional feminist theories and movements that featured identity transformations (along with ending oppression) as political, rhetoric scholars began to view “a social movement” as an outcome or effect of rhetoric. Scholars treated movements as “fictions,” identifying the ways in which these collective subjects did not empirically exist—but were nonetheless significant, as people came to invest their identities and desires for a new order into social movements. Scholars argued that people manifested “a social movement’s” presence by identifying themselves as representatives of it. More recently, though, rhetoric scholars emphasize what is moving in the social, by following the circulation of rhetoric across nodes and pathways in networks, as well as bodies in protest. Inspired by social media activism, as well as theories of performance and the body, scholars concentrate on how symbolic action (or the affects it helps create) interrupts business as usual in everyday life. To study rhetoric and social movement is to study how dissent from poor and working-class people, women, people of color, LGBTQ activists, the disabled, immigrants, and other non-normative, incongruous voices and bodies coalesce in myriad ways, helping move humanity along the long arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice.