An Examination on Sociocultural “Marking” of Women – Rhetorical Analysis of “There Is No Unmarked Woman” by Deborah Tanen

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Nicole Carper
Professor M. Keith
English 1101, sec. C20
08 November 2012
An Examination On Sociocultural “Marking” of Women – Rhetorical Analysis of “There Is No Unmarked Woman” by Deborah Tanen
What is it that makes a woman a woman, or what makes a man a man? Deborah Tannen, author and Ph.D. of linguistics, investigates this question within the essay, “There Is No Unmarked Woman.” An excerpt from a larger publication, “Talking from 9 to 5,” written in 1994, “There Is No Unmarked Woman” is an effective examination of the social injustice as to why the state of womanhood is “marked” while the state of manhood is “unmarked”, and what this means for each sex. The book itself is a result of real-life research about the conversational styles in a workplace setting and how conversation impacts productivity and success. Although Tannen uses many effective strategies within the excerpted essay, she most pointedly uses devices such as narration, vivid description, definition, compare-contrast, and example to make herself heard. She also adopts a critical, but humorous, outlook in order to effectively analyze why these social structures exist without discrediting her own voice or style. In the opening paragraphs of “There Is No Unmarked Woman,” Tannen narrates a past experience from a professional conference, therefore beginning the essay on a more personal and relatable note. She begins with, “Some years ago I was at a small working conference of four women and eight men. Instead of concentrating on the discussion I found myself looking at the three other women at the table, thinking how each had a different style and how each style was coherent.” These few sentences allow the reader insight into the author’s thinking process and that even she may judge other women for how they dress and act, creating a more intimate atmosphere between the audience and the author. “One woman had dark brown hair in a classic style, a cross between Cleopatra and Plain Jane...Because she was beautiful, the effect was more Cleopatra than plain.” Although it is not yet clear at this point what Tannen’s purpose for writing this essay may be, because of how the excerpt was begun, the reader will feel drawn into the essay without feeling intimidated by some deeper meaning. In continuing, Tannen uses vivid imagery to describe the other women. One is described as “full of dignity and composure” and “fashionable.” Her hair is modern and stylish, and although interesting, regularly impedes the woman’s vision and that “[it] created a barrier between her hair and her listeners.” Then, the second woman’s hair “was [a] wild, frosted blonde avalanche falling over beyond her shoulders.” If this was not distracting enough, she goes on to describe the woman’s actions: “When she spoke she frequently tossed her head, calling attention to her hair and away from her lecture.” However, what makes these descriptions significant is that there is no similarly detailed description for any man at the conference. Tannen goes into great detail about the manner in which each woman is dressed and styled, but only provides a vague idea of how the men were dressed and styled. What’s more, the men were all lumped into one general category, allowing for no opportunity to distinguish themselves from one another. This observation is the very core of Tannen’s argument. There are infinite ways in which a woman can choose to present herself through appearance and behavior, but there is no such freedom for men. The men at the conference exemplify precisely the very narrow mold around which men are “supposed” to act. With the thesis of the essay now apparent, Tannen goes on using another very effective rhetorical device. After observing real-life situations in which women stand out from men, she goes on to define this boundary in terms of linguistics. “The term “marked” is a staple of linguistic theory,” Tannen explains, “It refers to the way language alters the base meaning of a word...
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