Single People’s Weeks: Hedging, Kathryn Bigelow, and “Women’s Language”

As promised, as part of Single People’s Week(s), today’s post is not about relationships, but it is about gender. And language. Maybe. I mean, it seems that way. Maybe you can tell me at the end?

Is language gendered? Was Robin Tolmach Lakoff right when she wrote in her book Language and a Woman’s Place that women use more approval seeking constructions (“that’ll be okay, right?”), more intensifiers (very, extra) and qualifiers (a bit, not exactly, maybe), and more uncertain rising intonations (ending a sentence on an upswing, suggesting the interrogative, kind of a verbal question mark) in order to not offend men? Does a female director/writer/producer, or, to be more general, a female leader, have to speak differently in order to be accepted by the mainstream?

Generalizations like this are a little dangerous so let’s back up. What Lakoff is calling “women’s language” is often called “hedging” by linguists. It appears in the work of young writers (male and female) all the time. It’s a habit that Strunk and White warn against in The Elements of Style. Hedging results in unnecessary words, which is the ultimate sin. Being sure of your writing (and, it follows, your speech) is to be sure of yourself.

As E.B. White wrote of Strunk in his 3rd introduction to the book:

I treasure The Elements of Style for its sharp advice, but I treasure it even more for the audacity of its author. Will [Strunk] knew where he stood. He was so sure of where he stood, and made his position so clear and so plausible, that his peculiar stance his continued to invigorate me–and, I am sure, thousands of other ex-students–during the years that have intervened since our first encounter.

But Strunk and White are men.

This is pretty obvious, but, just so you know, I am not a man. I am a woman in what can pretty much be described as a man’s profession (whether we talk about film or theater.) This doesn’t bother me because I have amazing role models like director/choreographer Susan Stroman, director/puppet master/specialist in Shakespeare and Spider-man Julie Taymor, and youngest woman to direct on Broadway Leigh Silverman in the theater and ballsy actress/writer/comedian/producer Mae West, actress/producer/director of TV and film/pioneer Ida Lupino and first woman to win Best Director from the DGA (this week. Seriously. It’s taken this long.) Kathryn Bigelow.

[If you want some more female film directors that are doing great work under the radar, look here.]

But does the gender of my role models really matter? Until I knew who Kathryn Bigelow was (I’m ashamed to confess, I didn’t until The Hurt Locker.), I wanted to be Steven Spielberg. I wanted to have made the Indiana Jones films and Jaws and Munich. I wanted to be the person you went to if you made a blockbuster. And I guess the question from the rather moderate third-wave feminist in the back is why isn’t Kathryn Bigelow that person? Why is it Spielberg and Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic, Aliens)?

Manohla Dargis, a film critic for The New York Times, has said:

The take on Kathryn Bigelow is that she is a great female director of muscular action movies, the kind with big guns, scenes, themes and camera movements as well as an occasional fist in the face, a knee to the groin. Sometimes, more simply, she’s called a great female director. But here’s a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker. Because while it is marginally interesting that she calls “action” and “cut” while in the possession of two X chromosomes, gender is the least remarkable thing about her kinetic filmmaking, which gets in your head even as it sends shock waves through your body.

Yet we can’t stop talking about how a woman made this incredible action film, a film that depicts a culture of men in their element, a film where shit blows up. A lot. [If I used woman’s language I would say pardon my French but I’m not going to. Just this once.] Yes, The Hurt Locker depicts the complexities of these men’s emotional lives but these men don’t cry much. They are Army Strong and Army Stoic. How did she lead a film crew and a male cast when she tends not hedge in interviews. As Dargis says:

It’s hard to imagine Ms. Bigelow letting anyone push her around. She’s unfailingly gracious — and tends to speak in the second person, preferring “you” over “I” — but there’s a ferocious undercurrent there too, as might be expected. She works to put you at ease, but even her looks inspire shock and awe. Because she was early for our interview and already tucked into a booth, I didn’t realize how tall she was until we both stood up, and I watched, from a rather lower vantage, her unfurl her slender six-foot frame. It was like watching a time lapse of a growing tree. Like a lot of tall women she describes herself as shy, but she has learned to take up space.

How did this beautiful lady get into these guys heads, onto the bridge of a ship driven by explosions and testosterone?

Why HELL-OOOO Nur- Director!

The simple answer is by being a damn good filmmaker:

This issue hits home to me because I once had a professor say off hand to me, “This is a very male play” to me about a play that I had cast gender blind. He suggested that the women I had cast might not be able to muster up the savagery the text required. I had never felt so helpless and frustrated in my life. It was my freshman year as a director. I didn’t know what to say. I thought they could. Because I knew that I loved to curse. That I loved to use “neutral (i.e. male) language.” That I had been warned about being condescending so I had pulled it back. So I had hedged. So I developed a shyness that I still get yelled at for in acting class every once in a while.

I changed the way I talked because I believed and still believe that I had to. That the world couldn’t handle me the way that I was. And it is easier to change your behavior than change the world.

But here’s the thing: even if I do have to hedge, even if somehow being a woman makes me a less likely candidate to direct the works of Sam Shepard or my favorite playwright Martin McDonagh, I’m going to get there someday because Kathryn did. (And she will win an Oscar. SHE WILL. SHE HAS!) This is what I want to do with my life:

And no one's gonna stop me.

Maybe I should hedge a little more. What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Single People’s Weeks: Hedging, Kathryn Bigelow, and “Women’s Language”

  1. OK, I hope your first paragraph was supposed to be ironic because it was Mayoress of Hedgetown status.

    Hedging happens because women have to be accommodating because that is their place. When women are direct and in charge and aggressive, that is them “asking for it.” Writing guides discouraging hedging just serve to keep women out of powerful writerly positions by saying that the way they have been conditioned to communicate is wrong and unprofessional.

    You will probably disagree because you are moderate and third wave while I am fairly radical and kinda secondwavey.

    • Or do writing guides try and guide women back towards “neutral language”? Suggesting that you don’t have to apologize for your writing or your thoughts, regardless of your gender. Since I know you tend to regard “neutral” as “male,” Kendra, I know that’s probably not the right answer.

      What’s the best case scenario here? Mine is that women can stop hedging because they don’t need to anymore. Would it be better if the writing guides argued that either way is okay?

      (And yes, the first paragraph was an attempt at irony. I was attempting to illustrate how annoying and pointless hedging can be.)

      • I am struggling with regarding neutral as neutral and not neutral as male. I rationalize for that by saying that I recognize that the culture at large sees neutral as male.

        Still though, while hedging can oftentimes be annoying and pointless and sucky, a lot of the time it’s necessary for not sounding like a douche. We can’t just say it always sucks and is never right. Kinda like the passive voice (really!)

  2. WHOA OK I was trying to figure out how to phrase that last sentence with minimal hedging, but there was just no way to say it without hedging that didn’t make me sound like an Epic Mansplaining Douche. Have you read some of the recent posts in the feminist blogosphere on “mansplaining?” That’s what happens when men don’t hedge and don’t respect women. Here’s where it started:

  3. Pingback: Single People’s Weeks: The Hurt Locker Undergoes the Chick Flick Test « Lillian Lemoning

  4. I legit critiqued a student’s paper yesterday with “don’t use ‘really’ and ‘very’–they’re words women use which weaken their points. Don’t weaken your point.”

    Lilly’s influence in the Middle East!

  5. Pingback: A Little Note on “Women’s History,” Search Terms, and Kathryn Bigelow « Lillian Lemoning

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