Gendered Language in Book-Marketing Copy

Although I can’t believe it’s true, this is my last blog post as the copy chief for Ooligan Press! During my time in this position, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as both the managing editor for our Library Writers Project titles (read more about our exciting partnership with the Multnomah County Library here) and the editor for everything outward facing at the press. And while the former job will probably feel familiar to most of you, the latter may be a little bit more confusing. But don’t worry! It just means that the copy chief at Ooligan is responsible for copyediting anything that’s going to be seen by the world, including press releases, review requests, and tip sheets. This list also includes the marketing copy for our titles. The language we use in our marketing copy is hugely important, as it helps position our titles in the book publishing world and also communicates to our target readers what the book is about and why they should buy it.

Book-marketing language, particularly copywriting, is a critical part of how publishers reach their readers, and the predicted gender of a target audience has long been a particularly important consideration when determining the most effective language to use. But with readers increasingly expressing frustration with overtly gendered language in book-marketing copy, it’s clear that such methods are outdated, and book marketers and copywriters should look to gender-neutral language to describe their titles.

But let’s back up. What do researchers (sociolinguists in particular) mean when they talk about gendered language? Importantly, a discussion of feminine- and masculine-gendered language does not simply refer to pronouns and proper nouns historically associated with the male and female sexes. Instead, the terms are used to describe words traditionally connoted with the masculine and feminine. Language stereotypically associated with the masculine emphasizes dominance, independence, power, and the achievement of goals. Contrastingly, language stereotypically associated with the feminine emphasizes relationships, emotions, social functioning, and trust. The use of gendered language reinforces negative cultural stereotypes that label traits related to agency and competence as masculine, and traits related to community and warmth as feminine. In turn, those cultural values perpetuate the use of that same gendered language.

Sociolinguists work to demonstrate how accepted cultural beliefs, values, and attitudes surrounding gender are constantly shifting and evolving, much like how language itself constantly changes and evolves. And while written language also reflects these beliefs, these changes are accepted at a considerably slower rate than they are in spoken vernacular. This slow pace is often a source of aggravation for readers who (rightly) expect the language in their books to reflect their own language and beliefs. Researchers have exposed the historical sexism embedded in the English language, pointing to metaphors and imagery that cast women in a sexist and often insulting light. The morphology of traditional English itself suggests woman as lesser, with suffixes like –ess and –ette carrying diminishing connotations. And while the use of these forms in the spoken vernacular has diminished, their written counterparts are slower to catch up. This slow change is evidenced by the very recent acceptance of gender-neutral third-person pronouns in the seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. But does the change have to be that slow? Can book marketers and copywriters help?

First, it’s important to establish that this slow change does not mean that written language has an insignificant effect on readers, or that the demand for gender-neutral language isn’t there. As people have become increasingly aware of and outspoken about sexism in language, it has become crucial for book marketers to consider their word choice more carefully. Book marketers play an important role in shaping and informing culturally accepted values surrounding gender. Language both reflects the culture of the community that uses it and is itself influenced by its cultural and functional context. In other words, the copy we write at Ooligan Press matters greatly, and not only because it can help convince people to buy our books. We can also use our marketing language thoughtfully to reflect cultural beliefs and values and to work against negative stereotypes.

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