English Language
Dominance Approach

Dominance Approach

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The Connection between Communication and Gender: Examining the Dominance Theory

The Dominance Theory is an approach that explores the link between communication and gender. It delves into the differences in communication styles between men and women and suggests that power dynamics can be observed in daily conversations and nonverbal cues.

According to this theory, men tend to:

  • Use an instrumental communication style, which is focused on achieving goals and putting the sender's needs first.
  • Interrupt others more frequently.
  • Take up more space.

The development of the Dominance Theory can be traced back to linguistic research conducted in the early 20th century by Otto Jesperson. Later, linguists such as Robin Lakoff and Dale Spender contributed to the theory with their studies on language use by men and women in the 1970s and 80s. Lakoff, in particular, introduced the Dominance Theory to explain women's language.

In this article, we will examine the strengths and weaknesses of the Dominance Theory by considering the perspectives of other linguists who have either supported or challenged the theory. Additionally, we will explore the practical application of this approach in everyday situations, using the film industry as an illustration.

The Dominance Theory in Linguistics

Robin Lakoff introduced the Dominance Theory in the 1970s as a way to challenge the traditional perception of women's communication.

To fully grasp Lakoff's critique, we must first understand the Deficit Theory, which was the prevailing belief at the time.

The Origins of the Dominance Theory

The Deficit Theory, also known as the "lack of" approach, was originally proposed by Otto Jesperson in 1922. It suggests that factors such as education, social freedom, or cognitive ability can influence an individual's use of language. Jesperson's observations included:

  • Women tend to think before speaking.
  • Women use unfinished sentences.
  • Generally, women have a smaller vocabulary than men.
  • Women use more emotional language than men.
  • Women prefer standard language and avoid slang, while men are more likely to use technical terms.
  • Women with higher education tend to avoid slang and profanity, while educated men may use them in their speech.

Jesperson was among the first modern linguists to study the differences in language use between men and women, and his theory remained unchallenged until Robin Lakoff's work in the 1970s.

However, Lakoff's Dominance Theory questioned Jesperson's theory and challenged the traditional view of women's language.

The Dominance Theory in Action

Let's take a closer look at the key figures behind the Dominance Theory:

Robin Lakoff

In 1975, Lakoff published "Language and Woman's Place," offering a counterargument to Jesperson's theory. She argued that girls were socialized to use language that portrayed them as the weaker gender.

Lakoff also observed that women tend to speak less frequently than men, often using short phrases like "mmm" or "yes" to show attention. Additionally, she identified certain characteristics of a "woman's register," including:

  • Hedging, using indirect language such as "sort of" or "kind of."
  • Rising intonation in statements, indicating uncertainty.
  • Using "empty" adjectives like adorable, divine, charming, or lovely.
  • Being excessively polite, such as using euphemisms or indirect requests.
  • Using tag questions at the end of statements to seek validation.

Since the publication of her book, researchers have both supported and challenged Lakoff's theory. Some critics argue that her work lacks empirical evidence and is biased towards feminism, meaning it favors women without proper scientific backing.

Overall, the Dominance Theory provides valuable insights into the relationship between communication and gender. However, it is essential to consider different perspectives before drawing conclusions about language use between men and women.

Lakoff's work sparked a crucial discussion about the linguistic treatment of women and its impact on their status and behavior. It serves as a reminder to critically analyze and challenge societal norms and expectations regarding gender and communication.

Examining the Dominance Approach in Language and Gender Studies

The study of language and gender has been an ongoing topic of interest, with various theories attempting to explain the differences in communication patterns between men and women. One such theory, the Dominance Approach, was first introduced in 1975 by Don Zimmerman and Candice West, who analyzed conversations among individuals of the same and opposite sex. However, this theory and its supporters and critics have been continuously challenged and expanded through further research.

Zimmerman and West's study, based on 31 recorded conversations, revealed that men were responsible for the majority of interruptions in mixed-sex conversations. This led them to conclude that men dominate and manipulate communication for their own benefit, supporting Robin Lakoff's argument about male dominance in language. Similarly, author Dale Spender supports the Dominance Approach in her book Man Made Language (1980) and argues that language is mainly controlled by men, who use it to maintain their power over women.

However, researcher Pamela Fishman challenges both Zimmerman and West's study and Lakoff's assertion that women's use of questions reflects their insecurity in communication. Through her own research, Fishman found that women ask questions not out of uncertainty but as a strategy to exert power in interactions. She refers to this as "conversational shitwork," emphasizing the effort women put into keeping a conversation going, while men make minimal effort to respond adequately.

Furthermore, Geoffrey Beattie's study in 1982 disputes Zimmerman and West's theory, as he found a higher number of interruptions than their study recorded. However, Beattie raises the possibility that the presence of a highly talkative male in the study could have significantly influenced the results.

The Dominance Approach in Film

Apart from everyday interactions, the Dominance Approach can also be applied to the world of film and television. In 1992, researcher Jane Pilkington challenged the theory, suggesting that men are not necessarily dominant but rather competitive. She found that in same-sex conversations, women were more cooperative and polite, while men were less collaborative, complimentary, and supportive.

Pilkington's 1998 study on female and male friendships and in-group conversations in New Zealand revealed that gossip is present in both men and women, but their styles and purposes differ. She concluded that women tend to cooperate, while men compete, aligning with traditional gender roles. However, Pilkington also acknowledged the role of gossip in building identity and community in both male and female groups.

One example of the Dominance Approach in film can be seen in Disney movies, where there has been criticism for the white male-dominated production and dialogue. A study by researchers Hannah Anderson and Matt Daniels in 2016 found that male-oriented trends emerged in Disney films during the 1990s, with male characters speaking around 75% or more of the dialogue in movies like Beauty and the Beast (1991), Pocahontas (1995), and The Princess and the Frog (2009).

In conclusion, the Dominance Approach has both supporters and critics, with further research into language and gender continuously challenging its claims and expanding our understanding of this complex topic. It can also be applied to various aspects of our lives, including everyday interactions and the media we consume, providing insights into the dynamics of gender in society.

In the animated film Aladdin (1992), it was found that 90% of the dialogue was spoken by male characters. Surprisingly, this trend continues in more recent princess films, like Frozen (2013), where women only account for approximately 45% of the total dialogue.

This raises the question - do modern films like Frozen portray women in submissive roles? Or do we need to shift our focus towards the content of communication rather than the quantity? This ongoing debate reflects the societal views and expectations of gender roles.

Evaluating Gender Representation in Films

Dialogue distribution is not the only factor that affects the portrayal of women in films. Anderson and Daniels also noted ageist trends in the film industry, with female actresses in their 20s and 30s having the most lines, while this number decreases as they reach their fifties. On the other hand, male actors have less dialogue in their twenties but tend to speak the most lines once they reach their fifties. This discrepancy can also be observed in our beloved films and TV shows.

There have been various tests developed to assess the portrayal of women in fiction and film, including the Bechdel Test, the Mako Mori Test, and the Sphinx Test. The Bechdel Test, originally created as a tongue-in-cheek comment by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, gained mainstream recognition in the 2010s and has three rules to evaluate the depiction of women in a film or work of fiction: 1) at least two women must be present, 2) they must engage in conversation with each other, and 3) they must discuss something other than a man. However, this test has received criticism for its limitations as it may not accurately measure quality or gender equality in films. As a result, other tests have been developed, such as the Mako Mori Test, which focuses on whether the female character has her own storyline that is independent of the male lead.

The Sphinx Test: Examining Female Representation in Language

The Sphinx Test, created by the Sphinx Theatre in London, is a method of assessing how female characters are depicted in language. It takes into account how female characters interact with others, respond to situations, and whether their representation is stereotypical.

What are your thoughts on this approach, and what other tests would you create?

The Dominance Approach - Key Points

The Dominance Approach, based on Robin Lakoff's Dominance Theory, suggests that women are taught to be submissive in language from a young age. This theory identifies a "women's register," a language used by girls that is perceived as weaker. On the other hand, the Deficit Approach proposes that there are differences in how women communicate influenced by their thought processes. Pamela Fishman suggests that women put in more effort in communication because they have less confidence in their success.

Dale Spender argues that language is patriarchal and was created by men to maintain their dominance. However, the Dominance Approach has been challenged by theories such as Deborah Tannen's Difference Approach and the Diversity Approach. Nonetheless, elements of this approach can still be observed in contemporary media, such as films and TV shows.


H. Anderson and M. Daniels. 'Film Dialogue from 2,000 Screenplays, Analyzed by Gender and Age.' The Pudding. 2016.

Understanding the Dominance Approach

The Dominance Approach in linguistics suggests that women are conditioned from a young age to speak in a way that is deemed inferior. It can also be described as a theory that views male language as the norm or 'superior' form, while female language is considered weak or inferior.

The Deficit Approach in Language

The Deficit Approach proposes that there are differences in how women communicate, influenced by their thought processes. This theory suggests that women put in more effort in communication because they have less confidence in their success, compared to men.

Exploring the Concept of the 'Women's Register'

The 'women's register' was first brought up in linguistic research by Otto Jesperson. It refers to a language style that is instilled in girls and presents them as weaker in society.

Pioneers of the Dominance Approach

The Dominance Approach was first introduced by Otto Jesperson in the early 20th century and has been expanded upon by linguists such as Robin Lakoff and Dale Spender.

The Never-Ending Debate: Dominance Approach vs Difference Approach

The study of linguistics has long been intrigued by the concept of male and female language, and two distinct approaches have been proposed for its analysis - the Dominance Approach and the Difference Approach.

The Dominance Approach considers male language as the norm and the ultimate standard of linguistic superiority. It argues that male language is linguistically superior to female language and should be seen as the benchmark for all language forms.

On the other hand, the Difference Approach shifts the focus to identifying the differences between male and female language. It highlights the unique linguistic features and patterns that distinguish the two genders, while rejecting the idea of one form being superior to the other.

Despite being in opposition, both theories continue to be a topic of ongoing debate and analysis in the field of linguistics. The Dominance Approach, with its emphasis on male language, has often been criticized for perpetuating patriarchy and reinforcing gender stereotypes. The Difference Approach, while shedding light on the distinct linguistic traits of both genders, has been criticized for oversimplifying the complexities of language and disregarding other factors that may influence communication.

Regardless of the criticisms, these two theories offer valuable insights into the study of language and the role of gender in its use. As linguists continue to delve deeper into this topic, a better understanding of male and female language is sure to emerge, leading the way for further advancements in the field.

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