Perception of gender and sexuality

Kathryn Campbell-Kibler and deandre miles-hercules


Recent work in the third wave of sociolinguistic variation (Eckert 2012) has focused on how speakers use variation to build social constructs, including gender and sexual identity. Speakers can use language features like phonetic cues, lexical choices, or syntactic constructions to invoke contextually constrained concepts like feminine, professional, or friendly (Ochs 1992; Silverstein 1976, 2003). While production studies examine how and when features are used by specific speakers in specific contexts, perception studies examine how language features shape the reactions of observers. This chapter sketches the current literature on sociolinguistic perceptions of gender and sexuality. The field has focused heavily on linking acoustic characteristics to masculinity and sexual orientation in perceptions of the voices of English- speaking cisgender men. Some work has extended from this core, exploring other languages, other speakers, or asking more complex questions about the perceptual landscape of gender and sexuality. Despite these attempts, by and large, the perceptual literature has not kept pace with the production literature in developing a deeper and more nuanced approach to the multidimensional landscape of gendered and sexual identities. In particular, perception work has for the most part retained a basically binary view of gender and has neglected the turn towards intersectional approaches to gender and race found elsewhere in the literature.

We present a small study of the perception of performative super-masculine types which explores new methods for examining the landscape of gendered percepts. The results underline the role of listener gender ideology in the construction of any percept of a given voice by a given listener. We suggest that focusing on the listener is one way for perceptual work to move towards a more complex view of gender and sexuality. Two key concerns in this respect are disrupting the hegemonic positioning of the gender binary in the analytical approaches to perception and developing a greater emphasis on speakers of colour and the intersection of race with gender and sexuality.

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