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Date: Wed, 18 Jun 2003 11:59:45 +0000 From: Anna Kristina Hultgren Subject: Men Talk: Stories in the Making of
Coates, Jennifer (2003) Men Talk: Stories in the Making of Masculinities Masculinities. Blackwell Publishing.
Reviewed by Anna Kristina Hultgren, Institute of Education, University of London
This book examines how men construct their masculinity through talk. It builds on rich conversational material and focuses on the stories that occur within these conversations. The data has been collected from a range of contexts in order to include a variety of social parameters, such as age and social class. The main argument is that, through a combination of strategies, men orient to hegemonic masculinities, i.e. approved ways of being male.
The book is suitable to readers interested in language and gender and conversational narratives. As well as being the first in-depth study of all-male conversation, it is one of few books that actually shows how gender is constructed through talk.
Chapter one serves as an introduction and exemplifies how speakers use talk to construct their identity. The chapter includes a brief literature review with the aim to show that maleness has gone from the privilege of unmarked to marked status, testified by the proliferation of books about men and masculinity in the 1990s. The focus of the book, i.e. conversational narratives, is defined and it is shown how these play a crucial role in helping us express who we are and who we are not. The author discusses some methodological considerations, for instance whether speakers censor themselves in the awareness that the researcher is female, but notes that there is no indication of this in the data. The chapter finishes with an account of how the book is structured.
In the second chapter, the formal characteristics of stories are outlined. A story must have two things: a narrative core, which is a sequence of clauses with a verb in the simple past tense or the historic present and tellability, i.e. it must have a point. The question whether stories are gendered is raised and Coates suggests that men and women differ in what they consider as being tellable. The chapter goes on to show how speakers draw on various strategies to make a story more dramatic, e.g. by shifting between historic and simple past tense, by using direct speech and adding evaluative comments. It also shows how a third person narrative can be used to frame oneself and the listeners as in-group and the protagonist of the story as out-group members.
Chapter three introduces the central theme of the book, i.e. how masculinity is constructed and maintained in all- male talk. Though the stories are told in groups of men with different ages and belonging to different social classes, they have commonalities in the way in which gender is constructed. Coates identifies four of these. First, the topics are stereotypically masculine, dealing with cars, modern technology, drinking and travel. Second, the characters in the stories are all male. Third, the narrator pays great attention to detail. Finally, the narrator makes elaborate use of taboo words. According to Coates, these features all interact to accomplish dominant values of masculinity, which include emotional restraint, ambition, achievement and competitiveness. Coates shows how sometimes alternative masculinities expressing e.g. vulnerability are voiced, but that these are silenced by peer pressure. She also argues that hegemonic masculine discourses are homophobic and misogynistic and tend to avoid self-disclosure.
Chapter four explores the way in which stories told in sequence help signal friendship and solidarity. A sequential story is defined as having a topical link with the previous story and as being contiguous. Coates observes that one speaker dominating talk by telling a series of stories is allowed in all-male talk but not in all-female talk. The chapter goes on to show how sequential stories differ in structure from stories told in isolation and how men friends construct solidarity through telling second stories. Coates suggests that telling stories in sequence is valued by men because other ways of showing mutual understanding are taboo for fear of appearing feminine or gay.
Chapter five introduces the topic of gender differences in narratives by comparing stories told in all-male groups to stories told in all-female groups. Coates laudably aims to avoid oversimplifying by examining stories that break with traditionally gendered scripts as well as stories that conform to gender stereotypes. Despite this, Coates claims that she was forced 'to recognize that there are some stark differences between the stories told by men and those told by women' (p. 137). Where men's stories focus on action, women's focus on people and relationships. This ties in with the finding that men depict a storyworld populated entirely by men, while the characters of women's stories are of both sexes. The absence of women from men's narratives is highlighted as a disturbing aspect in that it maintains an ideology where men are all-important and women are invisible. Another difference is that men's stories are characterised by emotional restraint whereas women^Òs stories frequently involve self-disclosure.
Chapter six focuses on mixed-sex talk in order to investigate whether men construct their masculinity differently when talking to women than when talking to men. Coates finds that the narratives told by males in mixed conversation vary far more than those told in all- male groups both in form and in content. A range of masculinities are produced, from most macho to more sensitive and expressive, depending on the recipient. Coates distinguishes between two types of recipients: peer-group members and family members. Though the stories told in peer-groups in many ways fits in with hegemonic masculinity, they also deviate from this by introducing a wider range of topics, by depicting storyworlds that often contain women, by including emotions, e.g. fear, and by making less use of taboo words. It is also shown how all participants, whether male or female, collaborate in the construction of normative gender roles. In family talk, Coates argues that older, male family members have privileged access to the narrative floor. There is some evidence, however, that female family members sometimes co-operate to undermine the father's authority.
Chapter seven examines another type of mixed-sex conversation, couple talk. Coates observes that it is not possible to make general claims about the behaviour of couples in conversation but one finding is that male speakers are more likely to construct talk collaboratively in mixed company than in all-male company. Coates suggests that co-construction of narratives is allowed only in contexts where it functions as a display of heterosexual coupledom. Thus, by co-constructing a story with a female partner, a man displays heterosexuality, which is a central feature of dominant values of masculinity.
In the eighth and final chapter, the main finding of the book is perspectivised. Through talk, men construct and maintain hegemonic masculinities even though (or perhaps because) traditional male roles are disappearing as a result of social changes. Coates draws on several sources to argue that there is a crisis in masculinity and that 'men, in particular young men, seem to be angry and out of control' (p. 194). This is visible across the globe in problems such as gang violence, race riots, football hooliganism, etc. According to Coates, male lack of self- disclosure, a feature of hegemonic masculinity, plays a crucial role in these problems.
The book provides valuable insight into the social construction of gender and is a significant contribution to our understanding of the intersection of language and masculinity. Coates is immensely perceptive in her analyses and communicates her findings in a clear and accessible style. Where her arguments are backed with statistical evidence, for instance on gender of storyworld characters and use of taboo words, I found their convincingness even stronger. Other more qualitatively supported arguments are also convincing, notably the section on homophobia.
Some of the more subjective claims, however, would have benefited from further discussion. For instance, Coates claims that men have a propensity to pay attention to detail in their narratives. It is questionable whether a quantitative approach would reveal that they pay more attention to detail than women. Moreover, Coates sees men^Òs attention to detail as a way for them to avoid talking about more personal matters. Arguably, this point is valid only when male talk is compared against and seen as deviating from a female norm. The tradition has been the reverse ever since Lakoff (1975) wrote her pioneer book comparing women's speech to men's. Admittedly, it is Coates' explicit intention to problematise male speech, but I am wondering whether this can be done without regarding it as inferior to a female ideal.
Indeed, the main argument of the book is that there is something missing from male speech and male inexpressivity is given the blame for a crisis in masculinity. Though this may have something to do with the problem, it is questionable whether it is the sole cause. Today's society attributes highly positive values to talk, yet Cameron (2000) questions whether all talk is necessarily good and all lack of talk is necessarily bad.
According to Coates, another feature of hegemonic masculinity is achievement. Stories of achievement can take the form of heroic action, exemplary skill or getting away with a clever prank. Coates claims that 46% of narratives told by men focus on achievement compared to 6% of narratives told by women. Is it possible that this difference has more to do with the definition of an achievement than with any real gender differences? For instance, it is not clear whether a girl's story of managing to acquire a set of earrings at the bargain price of 25 pence is interpreted as an achievement story or not.
The absence of women from men's narratives is highlighted as a disturbing aspect of hegemonic masculinity in that it maintains an ideology where men are all-important and women are invisible. This rests on the assumption that a speaker's language use determines his or her awareness of the real world, c.f. the whorfian hypothesis. There is a big step, however, from arguing that language functions as an identity marker to arguing that it will shape one's worldview. In day to day life, men do seem to be aware of the presence of women and the impact they have on the world around them.
On the whole, this book is highly recommendable as it shows how important it is for men to adhere to traditional notions of masculinity. This may have implications for their potential to enact unfamiliar roles and, in turn, for society to dissolve outdated gender demarcations.
Cameron, Deborah (2000) Good To Talk? Sage. Lakoff, Robin (1975) Language and Woman's Place. New York: Harper & Row.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Anna Kristina Hultgren is based at the Institute of Education in London where she is studying for a Ph.D. in Sociolinguistics. Her research interests include language and gender, notably how expectations of gender-appropriate behaviour limit the individual's possibility to engage in untraditional roles.