Ok, I have a terminology problem!

I'm in ur history - emphasizin ur wimmenzWhen talking about audiences of my thesis texts, I would like to divide them along gender lines.* I want to talk about women-in-the-audience without using hyphens.

I see two commonly used terms:

Women Readers


Female audience.

Medieval: a woman readingEach of them has a significant methodological problem. Women Readers implies that the act of reading is central to being in the audience. Although I think Kreuger, in her book of the same title, did tackle this problem in her introduction, as a general term, it’s misleading.

Female audience relies on the adjective female, meaning “possessing breasts and vagina and other appropriate ladyparts”.** When actually what I care about is audience-members who are women, that is, identified by themselves and/or those around them as women; individuals performing and expected to perform femininity; and individuals who are not performing femininity and are marked as transgressing the bounds of their gender because of it. Even if most or even ALL of that audience possess female junk, I don’t actually care about their ladyparts! Their ladyparts are not relevant to this conversation.

But woman audience just sounds wrong, and rather like I think there was only one woman who received this text (which it shouldn’t; nouns in compound must be the same in number – see also bookshelf) and women audiences still sounds like I want to treat them in discrete sets. Given that it’s also foolish to assume that an audience is homogenous, women audiences might be an acceptable option. But then you’d have to also say lay audiences (pl) and men audiences (pl) – doesn’t the latter one sound RIDICULOUS?

A rainbow-coloured small fluffy creature thingSo far, I’m sticking with female audience, on the grounds that the 12th century isn’t known for its sophisticated concepts of gender fluidity; an individual born with ladyparts had even less opportunity to self-identify as anything else than do genderqueer and transgendered people today. But it’s not an entirely satisfactory solution. What if I want to have a cross-disciplinary conversation about ladies-who-consume-literature with modern scholars? How does the gender-savvy modern literary theorist refer to an audience composed of women, without excluding transwomen? Perhaps the modern literary theorist can get away with women readers – but a film theorist, or pop culture theorist, surely can’t.


Also, speaking of genitalia and gender, here is a post about Christ’s penis. Go on, you know you want to.


*But why, I wonder? I mean, I am talking about gendery stuff, so it seems natural. And I think I agree with whoever-it-was (probably Kreuger) who argued that the gender gap between Man Dude Writing Things and women in his audience is bigger than the vocational gap between Clerk Dude Writing Things and his lay audience. Although as I recall that wasn’t so much argued as stated as if it were obvious to all right-thinking feminist readers. Hmmm. Given that this is romance, the fact that we have a Celibate Dude writing about love and sex and stuff is pretty damn important. Tracy Adams goes interesting places with this, as I recall. All that stuff about sex and rape and love and more rape? Probably written by celibate dudes who, at least in theory, were not supposed to do any of these things.

**In modern terms we might also mean “possessing XX chromosomes”, and then we can get into a fun conversation about how sex isn’t really binary at the chromosomal level, or the hormonal, or the neurological, and certainly not in the what-bits-go-where level. Unless someone has citations to the contrary, I’m operating on the assumption that the “male/female” decision was usually made in the Middle Ages on the basis of whether a baby was in possession of a penis or a vagina. If anyone has read fun and exciting articles about people with ambiguous genitalia in the middle ages, I would like to hear about it!


4 Responses to “Ok, I have a terminology problem!”

  1. Vellum Says:

    Looks like you’ve hit a bit of a sticky wicket there. I’ve always found the use of woman or women as an adjective problematic, but I can see the distinction you’re trying to make. Woman audience member is a bit long… woman spectator? At times like this I wish that English had kept a few of those case endings so you could just end reader with a female ending. Have you considered using another language’s words? Maybe feminizing the latin auditor/auditoris into auditora/auditorae?

  2. Hannah Kilpatrick Says:

    I have in the past used spectatrix when talking about female (theatre) audience members, which worked well.

  3. Annelise Says:

    If the words man/woman are now used to describe gender, and male/female to describe sex, your problem isn’t surprising: the two aren’t grammatically interchangable. “Women readers” is an interesting usage. Instead of the usual splitting of synonyms to match the splitting of a concept, I agree that you would need some new words.

    Despite the current sensitivity, though- which must be the deeper heart of this conundrum- I’d think that ‘female’ in terms of audienceship does normally (in the lay mind at least!) refer to identity rather than biology. It can be differentiated wherever not if you want it to. As long as you have a terminological understanding with your audience- a thing often required and easily provided- no worries!

    Or you can invent words, which is also alluring in terms of fun.

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