Different Positions of Critique
From the initial statements about the content of the texts, students gradually started to collaborate to make sense of the text around the questions which focused more specifically on the pragmatic aspect of the text (audience/aim) as well as structure and argument. My intention had been to focus specifically on this immediate context of text production, but students continued to relate the text further to its wider cultural context.
In my own answer to the question of what the text was aiming to achieve, I indicated that there were two sections in the article where the reader was addressed directly; in the first paragraph this consisted of a warning (as Eve had indeed noticed earlier), and further on in the article, as Sarah had noted above, the reader was presented with advice on ‘what to do when trapped in a relationship with a career woman’. However, apart from these paragraphs which indicated a warning and advice, at the surface level the article as a whole seemed to present itself as an informative text, albeit in a humorous tone, setting out the phenomenon of ‘single career women’ and its ‘associated problems’.
Claire focused on the latter notion in saying that the function of the text was (in part) a commentary. However, as the data below show, Claire’s position shifted immediately from taking part in the classroom exercise of looking at what the text was aiming to achieve to critiquing the text itself for its positioning. She used both levels of criticality I referred to in Chapter 4; on the one hand, she criticized the text for not achieving its aim, and on the other hand, she critiqued the text (albeit implicitly) for its ideological view:
Claire: Ik denk dat er zijn een paar serieuze commentaren want je denkt, ja… er zijn vrouwen die hebben problemen, maar ja sorry hoor, dit is niet normaal. er zijn veel vrouwen die ik ken, maar ik ken geen stereotiep… Dit is een heel streng stereotiep.
G: Welk stereotiep?
Claire: De eerste, op het begin…. ‘leuke goed gebekte meiden, zalm in de koelkast’… ja….
Emma: Ik weet niet wat hij hiermee wil zeggen. Hij noemt een aantal vrouwen op die een bepaalde leeftijd zijn en een bepaalde levensstijl, maar wat wil hij daarmee zeggen? Is dat een probleem van alle vrouwen? Of van de vrouwen die hij toevallig is tegengekomen?
G: Ja, maar Claire zegt hij heeft het over een bepaald verschijnsel en jullie zeggen ook… je herkent dit verschijnsel, zo van de succ…
Claire and Emma: de succesvolle carrièrevrouw
Emma: Maar gaat dit altijd hand in hand met dit [gedrag]?
Claire: Ja, precies, precies.
Claire: I think there are a few serious comments because you think, yes…there are women who have problems, but sorry, this is ridiculous. I know many women, but I don’t know a stereotype[ical one]… this is a very strong stereotype.
G: Which stereotype?
Claire: The first… at the beginning… ‘good looking girls with the gift of the gab, salmon in the fridge’… yes…
Emma: I don’t know what he intends to say with that. He talks about a few women of a certain age and leading a certain lifestyle, but what does he want to say with that? Is that a problem of all women? Or just the women he has happened to have met?
G: Yes, but Claire said… you recognize the phenomenon, that of the succ…
Claire and Emma: of the successful career woman
Emma: Yes, but is that always accompanied by this [behaviour]?
Claire: Yes, exactly, exactly.
Rather than staying with the task of identifying the aim of the text, which Claire brushes off with the comment that it could be seen to be a commentary about problems that women have, she immediately turns to the implication of the text by relating it to her own experiences and evaluating it in accordance with those.
Claire makes use of her personal experiences at two levels. In stating that the text aims to be a serious commentary she legitimizes the topic, it seems and confirms that ‘women who have problems’ do exist. So she does not dismiss the text as ludicrous or not worthy of discussion outright (although which ‘problems’ Claire is referring to is again not clear: women who are ‘hunting’, women not having successful relationships, women harassing men, women feeling the biological clock?).
But Claire also makes use of her lifeworld knowledge as she starts to deconstruct the text. She looks not just at the text, but she uses – implicitly - the context of her own experiences as a reality check against which to gauge her own response to the text; there isn’t anyone she knows who is like this. Claire is moving on from ‘text’ to critique its representation.
By asking students to look at the text at a textual level in relation to the immediate context, I had assumed students would take on an ‘outside’ position (i.e. looking at the text for its textual intricacies and specificity at a seemingly objective level). This outside perspective is surrounded by its own conventions of ‘educational talk’, where, in class, students usually employ an ‘analytical voice’. However, as Claire is taking on a position of critique and using her experience of the world to look at text at a cultural level, she, in contrast with the convention of this approach, switches to using a ‘personal’ voice: ‘well, I’m sorry, but this [stereotype] is ridiculous’.
Emma then contributes to Claire’s analysis and critique by trying to link the excerpt quoted by Claire with the motivation or intention of the author. Emma is also critical of the text in different ways. On the one hand, she criticizes the author’s lack of clear purpose and his lack of intellectual rigour in using stereotypes. But, at the same time, she also takes a more critical cultural perspective on board; she starts to consider that the excerpt is a generalisation which suggests all women display the same lifestyle characteristics. Both Claire and Emma are starting to relate the text to social and cultural perspectives and knowledge, Claire critiquing the text for not according to reality, Emma for its generalization.
Text Alignment in Order to Understand the Male Perspective
Sarah, on the other hand, provided a very different take on the idea of what the text aimed to achieve. Since the students had brought the discussion on to a cultural level, I wanted to build on this by focusing their attention on what these particular stereotypes might signify. The stereotypes to which Claire above had referred, were a set of lifestyle characteristics that successful career women displayed, such as having a house with a balcony, luxury food, snazzy car and so on. But when I ask, in response to Claire’s statement in the set of data above, why the author might have chosen those particular clichés, Sarah interpreted my question not as an invitation to refer to the social world or other views she may have had. Instead, she brought the discussion back to the textual level referring to the aim of the text, which was indeed the aim of this pedagogical activity in the first place. In doing so, Sarah introduced the notion of the intended reader:
Sarah: Ik denk dat hij zo begint om ze zo aan te trekken, ze zijn daarin geïnteresseerd… als je aan een leuke goed geklede mooie vrouw denkt, dan als je als man dat artikel leest dan denk je van ‘he mmmm’ interessant en dan wat is het, hoe gaat het verder, dus het is eigenlijk… het trekt precies de mannen aan… dus het werkt alsof het zo’n vrouw is, ‘t zegt: hier is een groepje mooie vrouwen en we gaan hun houding bespreken en dat… dus het brengt de man die de tekst leest, in, zeg maar, om eh om het verder te gaan lezen en aan het eind is het zo andersom dat eigenlijk eh dan willen ze niet meer… dan zijn ze niet meer in deze vrouwen geїnteresseerd want ze zijn eigenlijk een beetje kinderachtig.
Sarah: Ja maar volgens het artikel... dus aan het eind dan is dan wordt de mannen vrijgelaten, zeg maar, van de vrouwen in de tekst.
G: Hoe wordt hij daardoor vrijgelaten…?
Sarah: Omdat gewoon hoe het aan het eind is dan zou hij niet meer geїnteresseerd zijn in de vrouw want het lijkt alsof ze een beetje stom is en nergens naartoe gaat.
G: Waar zie je dit precies? aan het eind hè, ja ‘t eind is interessant hè, Claire noemde het eind ook al...
Sarah: Ja ik denk niet dat het oppervlakkig is want ‘t gaat over de relatie met hun vader. Als je kijkt daarnaar dan zie je dat het is een sociologische en psychologische analyse over wat er in hun hoofden zitten. Dus eigenlijk denk je: ze zijn een beetje gek, het is eigenlijk... ze weten niet wat ze willen. Ze willen gewoon alles wat ze denken te kunnen krijgen. Dus eh ‘t gaat eigenlijk over de manier waarop mannen oppervlakkig in deze vrouwen geїnteresseerd zijn, maar de doel van de tekst is eigenlijk te zeggen: nou deze vrouwen zijn niet goed voor je want ze kunnen niet goed met je praten, want ze kunnen alleen maar over hun praten en...
G: Ja ze zijn niet goed voor je en ze zijn alleen maar met zichzelf bezig.
Sarah: I think that he starts like that to attract them. [To draw the male readers into the article] They are interested in that… if you think about a nice well-dressed beautiful woman, then when you read the article as a man then you think: mmmm interesting and then:…what is it? How does it continue? So really. It attracts exactly the men… so it works as if it is one of those women, it says: here is a group of beautiful women and we are going to talk about their attitude and that… so it brings the man who is reading the text in, as it were, to eh to read further and at the end, it is the other way round that actually eh then they don’t want them anymore… then they are not interested in these women anymore, because really they are a bit childish.
Sarah: Yes, but according to the article… so at the end the men are released as it were from the women in the text
G: How is he released by that?
Sarah: Because, well just how at the end he is not interested anymore in the woman because it seems as if she is stupid and going nowhere.
G: Where do you see that exactly? The end is interesting isn’t it, Claire also mentioned the end…
Sarah: Yes, I don’t think that it is superficial because it is about the relationship with their father. If you look at that then you see that it is a sociological and psychological analysis about what is in their heads. So actually you think… they are a bit mad, it is really… they don’t know what they want. They really want everything that they think they can get. So eh it is really about the way these men are superficially interested in these women, but the aim of the text is really to say: these women are no good for you because they can’t really talk with you because they can only talk about themselves and…
G: Yes, they are not good for you as they are only concerned with themselves.
Sarah is constructing a different context in which to interpret the aim of the text by referring to the intended reader. In explaining why these stereotypes were mentioned in the text, Sarah focuses on the rhetorical structure of the text. She sees a parallel between the way that the text is structured as if it were a metaphor for the women themselves; the quote which Claire called stereotypical, (the description of women in terms of lifestyle characteristics) Sarah regards as a rhetorical effect: the male reader would be attracted to these women because they are good looking, and so would be inclined to read further. But, further on in the article, Sarah says, the male reader would realize these women are ‘stupid’ (stom). With her interpretation, Sarah brings the discussion back again to the textual level; both in term of how the text is constructed which leads her to conclude that the aim of the text is to say to the reader: ‘these women are not good for you’. The text function is then, as Eve had suggested in the first set of data, a warning to men.
Assigning a function to a text takes account of a social context; the immediate context in which the text functions as a communicative act. Sarah did indeed consider a social context: that of the male reader who needs to be warned against ‘these’ women. By describing this text function from the perspective of how a male reader might approach this text, it might seem that Sarah is trying to read the text interculturally: she is trying to understand the ‘other’; the ‘other’ being the male author as well as the male reader for whom the text is intended. It would seem that Sarah is trying to relate the text to the context of reception, but as she is not referring to previous knowledge, or experiences of the context of the intended readers of the text, she is taking her cue from the text itself. So by explaining how a male reader might read the text, she is actually ‘imagining’ this context.
Like Emma and Claire, Sarah focuses just on one of the discourses in the article; but unlike Claire and Emma, she does not see the article to be about women who are out to hunt or hurt men, but women who are ‘stupid’ and ‘a little bit mad’. She seems to refer to the part of the text which describes women in therapy in order to deal with their inability to have long-term relationships. She does not see the text as representing women as such, but as a description of how women ‘are’.
Sarah, like Emma and to a lesser extent Claire, also feels sure about her interpretation is the ‘correct’ one. In one of her interviews, she later states that she really doesn’t see how you can interpret the article in any other way.