Marked/Unmarked

Read a really interesting article today. I read it first sometime in high school and was fortunate enough to stubble upon it on Tumblr this evening. The article was written by Deborah Tannen and published in the early 90s, just to lend you some perspective. The author writes about her experience at a work conference where she spent most of her time observing the three other women and making mental notes about their wardrobe, appearance, and composure. Her rather innocent observations led to the conclusion that there is no such thing as an “unmarked” woman. That every woman is marked by her particular choices on personal appearance.

Tannen goes on to explain that every choice that a woman makes in regards to her appearance – what she chooses to wear, how she does her hair, whether or not she wears  makeup – “marks” her. Everything that a woman does sends out a message and communicates an idea or an assumption about her, whether or not she is conscious of it or whether or not she even wants to send out any kind of message. For example, I can get up in the morning and neglect to comb my hair just simply because. This inaction sends just as strong a message as any action. Wearing no makeup at all sends just as strong a message as a full face of makeup. While it is true that men too can be “marked”, it is easier for them to avoid it. Tannen maintains that “every style available to us is marked”. The marked-ness extends beyond fashion and appearance to women’s names and titles. A lot can be inferred about a woman, correctly or incorrectly, by the name or title she chooses – Mrs. vs. Ms., taking another name after marriage, hyphenating the last name. As Tannen worked through her simple argument, it became evidently clear that it is very hard for women to simply exist without constantly projecting, whether they want to or not.

The author draws a pretty remarkable parallel to language. The terms “marked” and “unmarked” originate from linguistic theory and are terms that “refer to the way language alters the base meaning by adding a linguistic particle that has no meaning on its own”. While the marked derives its meaning from this added linguistic particle, the unmarked carries an obvious meaning “that goes without saying”. Most words of the English language are unmarked or “male”. Endings like -ess or -ette are used to alter the word and change the meaning of the word toward “female”. They also tend to denote a lesser, more frivolous meaning.

There are even more interesting points in the article. I will definitely post the link for anyone up for a short, insightful read. It just got me thinking about the choices I make. Not that I care an incredible amount about the opinions random people may formulate about who I am based on my wardrobe/appearance. It just puts some stuff in perspective. Presentation matters. I won’t dispute the fact. I’m just bothered by the fact that it seems to matter so much more for women.

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One response to “Marked/Unmarked

  1. This language also turns up in relation to bodies — an unmarked body is the default subject position of a white, Western, straight, upper or middle-class man, and all other bodies are marked as raced, gendered, queered, othered, etc. In my _other_ favourite Donna Haraway article, ‘Situated Knowledges’, she talks about the way that the scientific method is grounded in the ideal of objective observation (she calls it ‘the god trick’ of ‘seeing everything from nowhere’), which is only possible for unmarked bodies which are conceived of as neutral, universal, without positionality, without bias. Haraway ultimately argues that marked perspectives are more valuable because they offer more information (especially about relationships between phenomena) and because they _add up_ (one reason why collaboration and open discussion is so important to feminism).

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