Gender-specific Speech in Disney Animated Movies

Language as an Indicator of Female Inferiority and Politeness?

by Lisa Henigin (Author)

Bachelor Thesis 2016 72 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1. Aim

2. Background
2.1 What is ‘Gender’?
2.2 Previous research: Disney’s portrayal of gender roles
2.3 Gender linguistics
2.4 ‘ Genderlects’
2.5 Politeness, Inferiority and their Relationship

3. Gender-specific speech in Disney animated movies
3.1 Method and materials
3.2 Hypothesis
3.3. Results
3.3.1 The Little Mermaid Interruptions Tag Questions Compliments Apologies Please
3.3.2 FINDING NEMO Interruptions Tag Questions Compliments Apologies Please
3.3.3 Tangled Interruptions Tag Questions Compliments Apologies Please
3.3.4 Not using specific lexical features
3.4 Summary and discussion
3.5 Conclusion

4. List of works cited

5. List of movies

6. Appendices

7. Abstract in German

1. Introduction

This thesis deals with the research area of gender linguistics, especially with the communicative behavior of men and women in single and mixed-gender communications. The differences in communication between genders have been addressed often in our society within the last few decades. The common misunderstandings between men and women resulting from these differences serve as the basis for many books, films and television shows. But not only is this apparent in society and entertainment media, but also in sociolinguistics, which deals with the differences between men and women more and more intensively. According to Wardhaugh literature on this topic shows the highest growth rate within the area of sociolinguistics (315). This literature repeatedly observes, that the communication behavior of men and women does actually differ, but the possible reasons for these diversities are still unclear and questioned.

In this thesis I first of all want to address the term Gender and some of the existing research on gender representations in Disney movies. After that I want to touch on gender-specific speech in detail, and summarize what I found to be the most important findings. At that point I also want to talk about the highly discussed essay Language and Woman’s Place, which was published in 1973 by Robin Tolmach Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California Berkley (Lakoff and Bucholtz xiii). Afterwards, I will analyze selected features, which gender linguists in previous research ascribed to female language, in reference to three well-known animated movies by Disney, namely The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo, and Tangled.

1.1. Aim

This thesis aims to analyze what type of gender-specific language Disney movies reflect and how this language concurs with existing research on natural gender-specific speech. The overall intention is to assert what kind of female role models young children, especially young girls, are exposed to by the language in Disney movies.

2. Background

2.1 What is ‘Gender’?

The term gender means, in opposition to the term sex, not a person’s biological gender, but their social one. While the term sex refers to anatomical features that mark a person male or female, the term gender refers to the “socially produced differences between being feminine and masculine” (M. Holmes 2). The behavior patterns which are regarded feminine or masculine can be highly different cultures and societies (Zimbardo, Gerrig, and Graf 34).

Originally, the term gender was only used in terms of linguistics, since it referred exclusively to the grammatical gender. The first person to use it for distinguishing social and biological gender was psychologist Robert J. Stoller in 1968 (Bösefeldt 33). Now the term gender is used in this sense all around the world.

2.2 Previous research: Disney’s portrayal of gender roles

Three Disney movies were chosen for linguistic analysis in this thesis, which are The Little Mermaid (1989), Finding Nemo (2003), and Tangled (2010). Although there are not many works on gender-specific language in Disney movies, many studies exist on Disney’s general representation of gender roles. In her article Disney Dolls, published in 1998 in the Internationalist Magazine, Kathi Maio argues that Disney depicts female heroines generally as “natural-born happy homemakers who wait until a man comes to give them a life” (12). According to her, this started with the first Disney Princess, Snow White, who set standards for each Disney heroine to follow. Snow White, an innocent and untouched young girl, pretty and obedient, does not mind doing domestic work because she knows that someday a handsome man will come and save her. When she finds an old dirty hut in the woods, she immediately starts cleaning it, assuming that the residents have no mother to do it for them. At the end of the story, when she is in danger, a handsome prince comes to her rescue, whom she immediately takes as her lover, leaving her friends, the dwarfs, behind (Maio 12). According to Maio, this pattern has changed very little from Snow White (1937) to Cinderella (1950) to Sleeping Beauty (1959) (12). Each of the three Disney princesses is depicted as a virginal, sweet-natured, and obedient young girl, dependent on a man, or more specifically a prince, to save her from her distress, regardless if she has to be kissed awake from death or sleep, or if she needs to be saved from an evil stepmother and evil stepsisters. After Walt Disney’s death, it took the Disney Studios about 30 years to produce another successful movie. The success came in 1989, with The Little Mermaid. In this movie one of the very few differences in the depiction of female characters is, according to Maio, that the princess is no longer depicted as virginal, but rather as sexy, especially regarding Ariel’s half naked appearance (12). At first glance, as Giroux and Pollock write, Ariel seems to portray a modern role for women, being strong and independent, wanting to break free from parental control and discover the human world (104). But in the end she gives away her voice in exchange for a pair of human legs, to look appealing to a human prince. By this, young girls are made to believe, that “desire, choice and empowerment are closely linked to catching and loving a handsome man.” (Giroux and Pollock 104). Maio writes, that in The Little Mermaid, Ariel is, by willing to trade her voice, “literally silenced by her need to be attractive to a man”, which seems to tell young girls that a female should be quiet and beautiful (13). And just like Snow White, Ariel in the end marries the man she met only a few days before and leaves her family and friends behind to live with him (Maio 13). Disney’s negative stereotypes of women and girls, can also be found in other Disney movies. Maio writes, that in Aladdin, the princess, whose life seems to be completely defined by men, appears not only as an object of desire to the male protagonist, but also as a social stepping stone (13). In Beauty and the Beast, Belle appears feminist at the first glance, because she rejects the ultimate macho Gaston and is intelligent and well-read. But by her reforming the Beast, the movie seems to suggest that “women are responsible for controlling male anger and violence. If a woman is pretty and sweet she can transform an abusive man into a prince – forever.” (Maio 13). Additionally it is ironic that a movie, which seemingly wants to teach children the importance of inner values and the pettiness of appearance, applies this concept only to the male character, the potential love interest, while the female protagonist is so beautiful, that she is called ‘Belle’ and that in the introductory scene a whole town sings a song about her beauty. In Pocahontas, the princess, who is portrayed in a historically inaccurate way, is also drawn mainly by the male characters around her and falls in love with a white man, who came to destroy her land and her family (Maio 14). Since in The Lion King all rulers of the kingdom are men, the movie represents the idea of men as independent leaders, while portraying females as the subordinates (Giroux and Pollock 107). In Disney’s Mulan, based on the legend of a female Chinese warrior, the heroine enters the Chinese army disguised as a male and is eventually discovered and sentenced to death. Later, a handsome officer, who does not exist in the myth, saves her. Therefore, men seem to have power of life and death over Mulan in the Disney movie, while in the legend she was not discovered until the war ended and did not need a man to rescue her (Maio 13). In Finding Nemo, even if one of the primary characters is a female, female characters are, like in many other Disney productions (e.g. Pinocchio), immensely underrepresented. The same can be said about A Bug’s Life, Cars, and The Incredibles, where only few female characters exist (Lamb and Brown 337). Dory, the only primary female character in Finding Nemo, is no more than a sidekick, who represents typical stereotypical beliefs about women, for example: they talk too much, they have mood swings, they are less intelligent than men, or they are mentally unstable. In Tangled, the princess is again the damsel in distress, who needs saving by a man. Rapunzel is only able to escape her tower by the help of the handsome bad boy Flynn, who shows the inexperienced Rapunzel the outside world and helps her to find out the truth about herself and her family. In the end they marry, and the movie stresses in the last few sentences by the narrator, namely the love interest himself, that he asked her to marry him and not vice versa.

Lamb and Brown sum up, that Disney girls seem to be incomplete without a man and that they would do anything to meet or to be chosen by the man of their dreams (337). Ariel gives away her voice, the step-sisters of Cinderella betray her and each other, Tinkerbell in Peter Pan betrays Wendy. Additionally, in other Disney movies, female characters are often underrepresented, or romance is created, where no romance existed, like in Pocahontas or Mulan (Lamb and Brown 337).

Lamb and Brown also point out, that the only powerful Disney women are most of the time evil, ugly, and jealous of the female protagonist (337). Examples are the step mother in Cinderella, the Evil Queen in Snow White, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, or Cruella DeVille in 101 Dalmatians. This seems to degrade female power itself to evil and ugly (Lamb and Brown 337).

Previous studies on the representation of gender in Disney movies made clear, that most Disney movies contain negative or stereotypic representations of female characters to some extent. In this study I want to focus on the linguistic behavior of these female characters, and find out if their speech also represents them as submissive and inferior to male characters. To achieve this, an overview about existing research on gender-specific speech will be necessary and before that, a short outline of the research area of gender linguistics.

2.3 Gender linguistics

Gender linguistics, also called feminist linguistics, is a sub discipline of sociolinguistics and deals with the relationship between language and gender. Subject areas aside from the way men and women talk are also the way society is talking about them, so how they are linguistically referred to (Bochenek 8).

According to many feminists, most languages, including the English language as well, are discriminatory and sexist for several reasons. Examples are the generic he, that there are only few lexical resources to refer to women and their experiences, or that women are mostly discussed regarding their appearance, whereas men are discussed in terms of their actions (Weatherall 17-19). Another claim by feminists is that the English language has an underlying pattern by which male is positive and female negative, which is automatically and probably unconsciously transferred from language use to everyday life and that language mostly presents a masculine viewpoint on our world. There are, for example, many more insulting words for women, than for men. Inequality can be found everywhere, even the terms ‘Mr.’ for Mister and ‘Mrs.’ for Misses are unequal, since the relationship status of the male ‘Mister’ is not divulged, while the female term ‘Misses’ marks the woman as married and ‘Miss’ as unmarried (Cameron 9-10).

The claims made by gender linguistics show that gender linguistics not only describe language and language use, it also practices language criticism to a high degree.

In the 1960s the American linguist Wiliam Labov, one of the first people to deal with gender in terms of linguistics, constructed a theory which was and still is the basis of many linguistic works: Women’s language is closer to what is generally regarded as standard language than men’s language is (Mironovschi 29). Later, in 1973, Professor Robin Lakoff published her article Language and Woman’s Place, in which she examines women’s English on several linguistic levels. She constructs the hypothesis that women use a type of speech, which makes them seem weak and powerless (qtd. in Günthner and Kotthoff 17). Lakoff’s hypothesis will be elaborated on later, because even today it is, just like Labov’s thesis, still under discussion and often used as a starting point for many other linguistic works.

Gender linguistics spread also to Germany in addition to the United States. Here, Ingrid Guentherodt was the first, who provided a seminar on female linguistic behavior in 1974 (Bochenek 7). At the end of the ‘70s the first German works regarding this topic were published, and the professors and feminists Senta Trömel-Plötz and Luise F. Putsch are two of the most important authors and cofounders of German feminist linguistics. Both wrote their first essays about the neglect and suppression of women in linguistic areas. (Bochenek 7) Both in the United States and in Germany more and more studies regarding gender-specific speech were held and several aspects were brought together, in which, according to gender linguistics, the communicative behavior of men and women differs. These aspects, especially the language behavior of females, will be addressed in detail in the following section.

2.4 ‘ Genderlects’

Robin Lakoff deals in her publication Language and Woman’s Place with the way women themselves use language, as well as with the way women are represented in and by language. In the following I want to concentrate on the first mentioned point and elaborate on Lakoff’s hypotheses and the way public responded to it.

Lakoff writes in her essay, that women use a language, which is characterized by insecurity, weakness, and excessive politeness (qtd. in Talbot 36). According to Lakoff women talk in a submissive way, to conform also in conversations to the submissive role of a woman, which is how they are usually taught by society. Altogether Lakoff mentions seven main points, where women’s language behavior differs to that of men, and that make the language of women a submissive one.

1) Women use certain vocabulary, which are not used by men. Hereby Lakoff is mainly referring to so called ‘empty adjectives’, for example cute or lovely, or the fact that women differentiate more between shades of color than men (43).
2) Women use more interrogative forms and tag questions, for example ‘This'll work, won't it ?’ or ‘This means he passed the test, right?’, even if it is not necessary (Günthner and Kotthoff 18). According to Lakoff, people make a statement in a dialogue when they are sure they have a certain degree of knowledge about the topic they are talking about. A question, on the other hand, is asked when people think they have gaps in their knowledge, which might be filled by their conversation partner. Tag questions are to be classified right between these two extremes, because they are used the moment someone makes a statement, about which’s verisimilitude he or she is not entirely sure (Lakoff 48). By using a tag question, a statement loses its force. Lakoff interprets the frequent use of tag questions by women as a form of wishing for approval and endorsement, which puts women in a submissive position and makes them seem insecure (qtd. in Talbot 37).
3) Women use more polite forms than men. By this Lakoff means that women use more euphemisms and less taboo words. She gives the following example:

“(a) Oh dear, you’ve put the peanut butter in the fridge again.” (44)
“(b) Shit, you’ve put the peanut butter in the fridge again.” (44)

Lakoff claims that most people would identify statement (a) as the statement by a woman and statement (b) as the statement by a man. The reason for this, according to Lakoff, is the upbringing of women by society, which expects that women are ‘lady-like’. For a woman to express strong emotions by swearing is not appropriate in the eyes of western societies.(44)

4) Women use more hedges than men. Hedges are expressions like kind of, or so, or I think, which are, just like tag questions, used to soften a statement. By using hedges, a statement seems insecure and loses its power (qtd. in Günthner and Kotthoff 18).

5) Women use grammar that is more correct than the grammar used by men and they do this to enhance their low social status by speaking more intelligently (qtd. in Günthner and Kottoff 19).

6) Women often raise the pitch of their voice at the end of a statement, which is in most cultures an indicator for questions. Just like tag questions, raising the pitch of one’s voice makes a statement seem more like a question and conveys insecurity and the wish for approval (qtd. in Talbot 37).

(a) When will dinner be ready?
(b) Oh… around six o’clock?
(Lakoff 50)

7) Women are politer than men, in the sense that they utter please and thank you more often (Lakoff 50-51).

After the publication of Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place, there were mainly two kinds of reactions. On the one side there were those people who dismissed the topic as a ridiculous manifestation of feminist paranoia. This attitude towards gender linguistics and the debate about gender and language still exists today. Consistently people classify the topic as trivial, they smile at or ignore it, which applies to English speaking areas more than German speaking ones. Also they try to treat the genders equally on a linguist level, so called political correctness, is still seen as some kind of temporary fashion and an unnecessary want to change our everyday language use (Eigler 45-46).

While the topic of language and gender, as well as Lakoff’s article, was degraded as something needless by some people, there were some others who started to deal with Lakoff’s theses in earnest, who tested and discussed them. Most of these people were women (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 37). The reason for that was mainly the historical context of the article’s time of publication, which was during the time of the second feminist wave in the United States, which also spread in Europe, one of the highlights of the feminist movement (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 37).

Even though Lakoff’s article was based less on systematic analysis of language and more on her personal impressions, her hypotheses were treated by many linguists as if they were carved in stone. The reason for this might be that they confirmed the stereotypical view on female language (Coates 90). In 1976 Siegler and Siegler presented university students with sixteen sentences, of which some contained tag questions, some did not. The students were asked to find out, which of the sentences were uttered by women and which by men. As a matter of fact, the sentences which contained tag questions were ascribed more often to female speakers, the ones without tag questions to male speakers. (qtd. in Coates 90) This clearly shows the prejudices society has about female language, but it does not support Lakoff’s assumption that women actually do use more tag questions than men.

It took a while until, little by little, empirical studies were published, which tried to analyze the validity of Lakoff’s hypotheses. Object of investigation was, on the one hand, the question if women actually do use the linguistic elements, which Lakoff classifies as characteristic of female speech, more often than men, and, on the other hand, the question if these elements really play the roles Lakoff ascribes to them (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 38).

Is, for example, the tag question’s only function to express insecurity and hesitance, or is there more behind it? Janet Holmes, a linguist from New Zealand, reveals how important it is to differentiate between tag questions. According to her, there are, on the one hand so called affective, and on the other hand referential tag questions. Referential tags signal, as also Lakoff states, insecurity about a produced statement and its information content and validity (qtd. in Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 36). When it comes to affective tag questions, Holmes differentiates once more between two different kinds: the facilitative and the softening tag questions. The facilitative tags express solidarity and are mostly used to encourage a conversation partner to contribute to the conversation. Softening tags are used, according to Holmes, to lessen the force and threat of criticism and orders (qtd. in Eckert and McConnel-Ginet 37).

(a) Referential: Men also use tag questions, don’t they?
(b) Affective-facilitative: It’s about your back, right?
(c) Affective-softening: That was stupid, wasn’t it? (qtd. in Eckert and McConnel-Ginet 37)

By taking conversation samples, Holmes found out that women actually do use more tag questions than men, which would support Lakoff’s hypothesis, however, the tags uttered by women were mostly of the affective-facilitative kind, which doesn’t express uncertainty, but solidarity, and which is used to encourage someone to take part in a conversation. In contrast, the tags mostly used by men, were referential tags, so tags that express uncertainty (qtd. in Eckert and McConnel-Ginet 37). In the past few years not only Holmes, but also other linguists claimed that female language is more empathetic and that women respond to other people in a more thoughtful way than men do. While Lakoff describes the female linguistic behavior as more negative and weak, other linguists see it in a more positive way. By this, the picture of a linguistically submissive female and a linguistically dominant male was joined by the picture of a linguistically cooperative and considerate female and a linguistically competitive male (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 38).

While there are many studies regarding tag questions, there are, according to Coates, quite few studies regarding hedges, which are according to Lakoff also a sign for uncertainty. (88) In a study by Bent Preisler in 1986, there were several groups of people, some of them same-gender, others mixed-gender, which were observed while they were talking about controversial topics, like the depiction of violence on TV. In the end the conclusion of the study was, that women do use more hedges when explaining their points and arguments than men do (qtd. in Coates 88).

Just like with tag questions, it was Holmes who started to differentiate between hedges. She concentrated, for example, on the English hedge you know and differentiated between two different kinds of usages, mostly on the basis of intonation. One kind of intonation expresses security and determination, whereas the other kind of intonation, a rising one, expresses uncertainty. Here Holmes also concludes that women use the hedge you know more in the way that expresses determination, while men use it more when they are uncertain (qtd. in Coates 89). This again disproves one of Lakoff’s hypotheses, albeit only in this specific case. At least it shows that also hedges can and should be classified further, before they are ascribed a specific function. Another point in Holmes’ study, which is worth mentioning, is that women here, in contrast to Preisler’s study, did not use hedges more often than men. In her study women and men used you know equally often (qtd. in Coates 89).

However, other linguists, who deal with this topic, found out that specific hedges are in fact used more often, especially by young women. According to Coates the reason for this could be the choice of topic for a conversation. In her opinion men, in contrast to women, often avoid sensitive topics and prefer to talk about impersonal things. The moment personal and sensitive things are discussed, it is often essential to use hedges, so that the force of one’s statement is lessened and that no one’s feelings are hurt. Because women, according to Coates, often talk about more sensitive topics, they automatically use more hedges (90).

Lakoff’s thesis that women use less taboo words than men, was confirmed by several studies. In a study by Isabel Gomm in 1981, conversations between men and women were recorded, to analyze their use of taboo language. It turned out that men not only curse more often and use taboo language more than women, but they do so even more if the conversation takes place in a single-gender group, with no women present. This was also the case with women. They did not use taboo words to the extent men did, but their use of taboo language increased when there was no man present (qtd. in Coates 97).

Also Lakoff’s hypothesis that women have more specialized terms for colors, has been proved by several studies. Suzanne Romaine writes in her article Corpus Linguistics and Sociolinguistics, which was published in the volume Corpus Linguistics in 2008 that, on the basis of the British National Corpus, it can be seen that women use the color terms mauve, beige, pink, maroon and terms like pale blue or pale green more often than men (104).

Thus Lakoff’s publication was and still is frequently discussed and criticized. One of the main points of criticism is, that Lakoff implicates that the female language is a defective version of the more effective male language. With this she also implicates, that there is something wrong with female speech and that it is women’s job to do something about it. In addition, it is often criticized that, as mentioned above, her claims are not based on empirical studies, but rather on her own everyday experiences (Speer 36-37).

Talbot points out, that Lakoff’s speculations are nevertheless extremely important and useful, because they got the ball of discussion about gender- specific language rolling (41). With her article she gave linguists food for thought and prepared the basis for many further works in this area of study. Today she still has great influence in this domain and publishes works in which she enhances and refines her ideas (Speer 37).

After Lakoff’s essay many other linguists started to do research on the topic and found further features they ascribed to female speech. The German linguists Günther and Kothoff for example writes that women apologize more often than men (18). This supports the hypothesis of female speakers being more polite. Jennifer Coates discusses in her book Women, Men and Language, aside from the characteristics that were already mentioned by Lakoff, as for example tags, hedges or taboo words, the following five elements as characteristics of female language are also included:

1) Expressions, which Coates names minimal responses, are used more often by women. Minimal responses are expressions like yeah, mm, or huh, that are used by listeners to signal that they are paying attention or to signal approval (Coates 87).
2) Aside from tag questions women use, according to Coates, yes- or no-questions more often than men, which underlines their submissive position in a conversation. However, Coates points out that some kinds of questions can also be associated with dominant speaking-behavior, since questions can be used to control a conversation (93).
3) Order and commands: here it is not explicitly mentioned that men order or command others more often than women, but it is mentioned that the ways of uttering a command or an order can differ between the two genders. As an example Coates mentions a study by Goodwin, in which boys on the playground give more direct commands, whereas girls pack up their commands in more indirect and alleviated forms (qtd. in Coates 94-95). She gives the following examples:

Boys: Gimme the pliers!

Girls: Let’s ask her, so you have any bottles? (qtd. in Coates 95)

The form let’s includes the speaker in the proposed action and turns the demand into a suggestion. It is the same with the modal auxiliaries can and could, which were often used by female subjects during the study: We could go around looking for more bottles (Coates 95). Male subjects rarely used such forms. This shows, according to Goodwin, that boys like to demonstrate dominance, control, and power, by using direct orders, whereas girls try for cooperation on an equal basis (qtd. in Coates 95).

While Goodwin’s study came to the conclusion that boys use direct commands more often than girls, a study by Engle shows that fathers issue direct orders and commands more often than mothers, and that they utter these direct commands more often towards their sons than their daughters (qtd. in Coates 95-96).

That female speakers like to lessen the force of their commands, again supports the hypothesis that female speakers are more polite.

4) According to Coates there are several studies that prove that women both give and receive more compliments than men (98). Most compliments are paid to women by other women, whereas men rarely compliment each other. Between men and women, men are the ones who give more compliments (Coates 98).

5) According to Coates, a habit of male speakers is to interrupt others, while women don’t interrupt others as much (113). Interruptions break the rule of taking turns in a conversation. Speakers prevent their conversation partners from finishing their turn, by starting to talk themselves (Coates 113-114). Coates gives a few studies between 1979 and 1998 as examples that all came to the same conclusion: Men interrupt their conversational partners in general more often than women. It is interesting that men also interrupt their conversational partners more often if they are female. Women in contrast pretty much never interrupt their male conversational partners, but rather interrupt other females more frequently, although rarely (Coates 115). This shows, according to Coates, clearly that men take women’s rights to finish their turn in conversations quite frequently, whereas women try especially hard to not interrupt others and let, especially their male conversational partners, finish their utterances (115). This supports Lakoff’s hypothesis that men are more dominant.

In this section I only listed some of the many features that gender linguistics attributes to female speech. As mentioned before, these features are still much discussed and relatively unresolved, which might be the case because gender linguistics is such a young field of study. Nevertheless, it is clear that female speakers are more reserved in dialogues and that their language contains features that are most of the time generally viewed as polite.

Politeness and inferiority often go hand in hand in the case of conversations. Someone whose conversational behavior is dominant and straight forward, is mostly viewed as bold and impolite, whereas someone who is more reserved, more submissive, someone who tries not to hurt others and asks for their opinions, is most of the time regarded as a polite person. Politeness and inferiority will be discussed further in the next section.

2.5 Politeness, Inferiority and their Relationship

As it was mentioned several times, women are regarded as more polite and more submissive than men by many gender linguists. Also Sarah Mills writes in her book Politeness and Gender, that femininity is mostly associated with “civilizing moves”, whereas “masculinity is stereotypically associated with directness and aggression.” (204). In this section I want to focus on how politeness and impoliteness connect to power relationships.

Politeness itself is described by Janet Holmes as somewhat formal and distancing behavior, “where the intention is not to intrude or impose.” (J. Holmes 5) According to her, politeness means to be respectful towards the person you are talking to, to not offend them and to actively express concern for them (J. Holmes 5).

Brown and Levinson go further into the topic and define politeness in terms of a concept called Face. Face is a term to describe “the self-image which the speaker or hearer would like to see maintained in the interaction.” (qtd. in Mills 58). According to gender linguists, politeness means to respect the negative face and the positive face of a person. The negative face is the human need not to be imposed on, while the positive face means the desire to be liked and admired (Coates 105). A threat to a person’s face is called Face Threatening Act and Brown and Levinson state, that such threats require some kind of ‘repair’ to mitigate its force, otherwise the conversation could break down. A ‘device’ lessening the force of a Face Threatening Act is politeness (qtd. in Mills 58). Brown and Levinson differentiate between positive politeness and negative politeness. Positive politeness wants to satisfy the hearer’s positive face, negative politeness wants to satisfy the hearer’s negative face (72-73). Positive politeness strategies therefore demonstrate closeness and admiration, whereas negative politeness is based on avoidance-strategies and means to distance oneself and to be formal (Brown and Levinson 71-72). Based on this, examples for positive politeness are compliments and affective-facilitative tags, which encourages others to participate in the conversation, while examples for negative politeness are apologies, hedges, and affective-softening tag questions, which mitigate criticism.

Coates states, that politeness strategies, especially negative politeness, where the speaker apologizes, for example, can be found “where people are in an inferior position in society” (107). She brings the linguistic features of holding back, or trying to please someone, in direct relation to inferiority. She quotes a study by O’Barr and Atkins, in which they analyze the linguistic behavior of male and female witnesses in court rooms regarding women’s language features, which are largely based on the features Lakoff names (qtd. in Coates 107). They came to the conclusion, that women do not necessarily use what is categorized as women’s language, but that men use it as well. In their study the features of female language in the witnesses’ speech don’t correlate with gender, but with social status, meaning, that witnesses with a high social status had a low score of women’s language features and vice versa, no matter what their gender was. On the basis of this, O’Barr and Atkins suggest to rename features normally associated with women’s language as powerless language. They claim that women’s language is often confused with powerless language, because women are often in a subordinate position to men and do therefore use powerless language a lot more (qtd. in Coates 108-109). However, these findings are not supported by more recent studies by gender linguists, who found out, that women in powerful social positions do still take an inferior role in interactions. An example would be a study by Candace West, who analyzed doctor-patient interactions. Doctors frequently interrupted their patients, except when the doctor was female and the patient a white male (qtd. in Coates 109).

Power itself is a complex phenomenon, which is “linked to domination” (Radtke and Stam 7). The findings above show that gender overrides social status and that low-status males still try to dominate interactions with high-status females and are therefore using linguistic strategies to achieve dominance in conversation. According to Coates, interruptions are the most unambiguous linguistic dominance strategy (111). They violate someone’s right to finish their turn and give the interrupter the opportunity to control the conversation.

This section shows that inferiority and politeness are strongly connected with each other. Politeness strategies, especially negative politeness, are, according to many linguists, often used by people in inferior positions to please others and not impose on them. Linguistic strategies, which have the purpose to dominate a conversation, like interruptions, are relatively impolite, since they are Face Threatening Acts (Mills 123). Interruptions are, for example, threatening the negative face of someone, since the interrupter imposes on the interrupted person and shows that he or she is not interested in them finishing what they have to say. Using a negative politeness strategy could lessen the force of the Face Threatening Act, an example would be: ‘I’m sorry to interrupt, but...’

As mentioned before, women seem to use more politeness strategies and less domination strategies than men, which puts them in a more polite, but also in an inferior position.

3. Gender-specific speech in Disney animated movies

As mentioned above, students ascribed sentences which contained tag questions more often to female speakers, and sentences without tag questions more often to male speakers. This shows that the communicative features that are regarded as more insecure and polite in our society are automatically associated with the way women talk. This means, that the stereotypical images people – maybe unconsciously – have, match with the hypothesis of a linguistically weaker and more submissive woman and the ensuing hypothesis that women are more polite than men. Stereotypical images are simple concepts and patterns, often based on prejudices, which are so firmly fixed within a society that most people adopt them without questioning them (Thiele 17). They materialize, especially nowadays, also because of the influence by mass media, which was, as Martina Thiele writes in her book Medien und Stereotype, mostly disregarded as a facilitator of stereotypes by researchers (17).

For several years now, children and teenagers tend to grow up more and more under the influence of mass media and are therefore exposed to these stereotypes communicated by it. Movies are loved especially by young generations and Disney movies are particularly popular. In the following section I want to deal with the question of how Disney animated movies depict female language in contrast to male language. Also, I want to analyze how the female way of speaking presented by Disney fits to the features of female language discussed by gender linguists. It is important to point out that language in movies is not to be regarded as natural speech, even though script writers try to make it sound as natural as possible. But it is a kind of language, which is presented by a medium that influences young people and contributes to forming stereotypes. Are children, particularly girls, exposed to the image of a linguistically inferior and politer woman by Disney animated movies?



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University of Koblenz-Landau – Institut für fremdsprachliche Philologien: Anglistik
Disney genderspecific tangled politeness communication speech bachelor thesis bachelorthesis mermaid nemo ariel female language gender genderlinguistics sociolinguistics


  • Lisa Henigin (Author)

    5 titles published



Title: Gender-specific Speech in Disney Animated Movies