TOK Interlude

Is the English Language Sexist?

Why might a woman be described as “bossy”, while a man is more likely to be “assertive”? In this video, language expert Lane Greene explores the gender stereotypes used in everyday speech.

English has no masculine or feminine forms for words (unlike, say, French, in which the gender of words is marked by ‘le/la’ and masculine/feminine endings). But does this mean that the English language is inherently non-sexist? Begin with How Language Governs Our Perceptions of Gender, then read a couple more articles to find different points of view on this topic:

Class Activity 1: unconscious gender bias

The idea that language can stunt or stimulate mental responses is interesting. Nominate one person to read each word from the lists below one at a time. When you hear a word, does it automatically or subconsciously associate with a particular gender? Use a simple M / W system to keep track of your responses, then compare your responses to others? Are there any patterns? Areas of agreement or disagreement? Can you add any more adjectives associated with a particular gender to the list?

  • Beautiful
  • Handsome
  • Coy
  • Rambunctious
  • Lively
  • Buff
  • Hot
  • Demure
  • Athletic
  • Cute
  • Teacher
  • Nurse
  • Farmer
  • Computer Technician
  • Firefighter
  • Traffic Warden
  • Doctor
  • Cashier
  • High School Principal

Class Activity 2: feisty women?

In the Economist video embedded above, Lane Greene suggests that, in order to see how the word ‘feisty’ has feminine connotations in English, a google search for images will be insightful. Conduct research into this issue in the following ways:

  1. Think of your own keywords, or use this list, to test Google (or another search engine) and see what images come up. Decide to what extent your results are ‘gendered’ or ‘neutral’.
  2. The Mr Men and Little Miss books are a popular series of books aimed at young children. Examine the titles and cover images of these books. Do you think they fall into the pattern described by Lane Greene?

Learner Portfolio

Take a look at this webpage, called The Double Standards of Our Society Revealed in Comics. The aim of curating these illustrations was to reveal how, while many societies have worked hard to create a more equal and balanced arena for men and women to live their lives, some fixed views about the role of different genders are still entrenched in people’s minds.

Create your own illustration, comic strip or infographic about this issue. Share it with your class, talk about your intention, and add it to your Learner Portfolio.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: gendered texts

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are examples of various texts in which you might like to explore the ways men and women are represented and discussed. Annotate and analyse these texts and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Body of Work: Essays and Articles by Rebecca Solnit

Emma Watson sits down with author Rebecca Solnit to discuss her books, feminist themes and intersectionality and inclusiveness.

At dinner one evening in 2008, Rebecca Solnit joked to a friend about writing an essay called Men Explain Things to Me. The friend told her that such an essay was definitely worth writing — younger women needed it. So early the next morning, Solnit wrote out her thoughts in one sitting; she would later describe the process “poured out with ease or rather tumbled out seemingly of its own accord,” Her essay is about her encounter at a dinner party with a man who explained her own book to her as if she was ignorant; from there she discusses the silencing of women in the world at large by men in general. The essay surprised her by going viral and (although she did not use this word herself) Solnit has been credited for the gestation of the word ‘mansplaining.’

Since 2008, Solnit has written and published several books including Recollections of My Non-Existence. You can read the seminal essay Men Explain Things to Me, and other essays and articles, in this collection which represents a Body of Work. You can also visit Solnit’s website to find more of her writing, as well as interviews, reviews and links to related resources.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

IB Language and Literature Guide

This essay would work very well as a non-literary text in your Individual Oral. The named author would be ‘Rebecca Solnit.’ You could explore the Field of Inquiry of Beliefs, Values and Education and a pertinent Global Issue could easily be Feminism or Sexism. You may have ideas about how to pair the articles with the literary texts you are studying. If not, don’t worry; speak to your teacher or use the following suggestions as a starting point:

  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – compare the presentation of Very Important Men from one of Solnit’s essays to Lorenzo’s character, perhaps in Act 5 Scene 1 in which he reveals his true colours when speaking to Jessica. Alternatively, you might find parallels with the self important Duke of Morocco in the first casket scene.
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – Higgins and Liza argue twice in Acts 4 and 5 – either would be good extracts to pair with an essay by Solnit.
  • Carter’s The Bloody Chamber – you may recognise the ways women are silenced and marginalised by powerful men in the relationship between the Marquis and his young bride-to-be.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians – in this powerful novel, an unnamed magistrate takes in a nomadic girl who has been brutally tortured. But what are his motivations? How does he treat her? In what ways is she ‘silenced’? A focus on chapter two would make an excellent pairing with Solnit’s essays.
  • Duffy’s The World’s Wife – this literary work would make a perfect companion piece to Solnit’s essays, as Duffy’s intention is to give voice to women marginalised and silenced by the way historical, mythical and biblical stories are skewed towards the man’s point of view.
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie – another great pairing could be made with these two texts. You might like to investigate Luo’s attitude towards his girlfriend and his expectations of how she should look, dress and act.

Wider Reading and Research


Categories:TOK Interlude

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