Language and Sexuality throughout the Decades

Both language and sex are controversial issues, and they have drastically changed and evolved throughout the decades. The media has played a considerably large role in this. Women especially have been portrayed through the media by their language and sexuality. Since the 1950’s, each decade has brought something new and a little different on screen to represent the outlook people had during that generation towards language and sexuality.

Language and sexuality go hand in hand. Without language, one would not have sexuality, and without sexuality, one would not have language.

This is because these two things are interconnected. Women often exploit their sexuality through words. They use language to send out the message they want men (or other women for that matter) to receive. On the other hand, it can be looked at from the perspective that one cannot have language without sexuality. This brings about a controversial topic.

Similar to the question “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” is the question, what came first, language or sexuality? This issue of gender as performance is discussed in Deborah Cameron’s article, “Performing Gender Identity: Young Men’s Talk and the Construction of Heterosexual Masculinity.

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” Both linguists, Cameron and Judith Butler, agree that language/speech is a “repeated stylization of the body.” In other words, as Butler claims in her book, Gender Trouble , we are not ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, and those are not traits that we possess. They are merely effects that are produced by things that we do/the way we act.

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In the 1950’s, the United States was flourishing. After World War II, Americans began to settle down, start families, and move into the suburbs. When people look back on the 1950’s, they think of the square “family value” programs that some actually thought represented reality. A typical woman in the 1950’s had high societal expectations put on her to become a housekeeper and to raise a family. The image that the media portrayed of the 1950’s woman was one of innocence. Family shows and sit-coms such as “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” illustrate how women were viewed. These shows taught girls to be a good house wife: have dinner ready for your husband, minimize all noise when he arrives home, make him comfortable, and listen to how his day went. The women in a majority of sit-coms during this decade spoke in low, soothing, and pleasant voices. Their language was very delicate and proper. A sit-com that veered off from this path of your typical suburban family lifestyle was the show “I Love Lucy.” Lucy was definitely not your typical 1950’s housewife. She spoke in a very loud and obnoxious voice throughout most of the show, and she was constantly making mistakes. She was still viewed as innocent though. These women’s roles were void of sexuality for the most part.

With the 1960’s came a vast sudden increase of fantasy-themed shows, and along with the fantasies came more sexuality. The top-rated shows of the time featured martians, genies, talking horses, flying nuns, and a “deserted” island that attracted more tourists than Hollywood. I think the most drastic change in the shows from the 1950’s to the 1960’s was the lack of children. Many shows did not even have children in them, and the shows that did featured families that were very different from the traditional families of the 1950’s. Another change from the 1950’s was the onset of sexuality present in the female roles. Along with this sexuality came a change in language from the female characters. The women in shows like “The Adam’s Family,” “Bewitched,” and “Gilligan’s Island” were very in tune with their sexuality and were not afraid to show it. Morticia Adams spoke very seductively to her husband and many times was the initiator of sexual acts. That would never have happened in a show run during the 1950’s.

Another show that had an ample supply of sexuality was “Gilligan’s Island.” The three female characters on this show are great examples of how different language and sexuality can be portrayed. There is Ginger, who used her looks and language to convey her sexual energy. She spoke very sensually at all times with a soft breathy voice, and the men on the show obviously responded to her use of language. Then there was Mary Ann, who had a slight resemblance to a character that might have been found on a sit-com during the 1950’s. Her bubbly voice and tomboy attitude were very opposite from Ginger, but she too was more in tune with her sexuality than the female character of the 1950’s. She was much more direct and stood her ground when she had an opinion. During this decade, women were by no means were more powerful than men, but they had more of a say in what went on in a relationship. The third female character in “Gilligan’s Island” was Mrs. Howell. What is unusual about her character is that she seems to have the control in the relationship between her and Mr. Howell. This is something that was new to this decade. She spoke adamantly and usually got what she wanted. Again, this would not have been acceptable on a show in the 1950’s.

The programs of the early 1970’s were quite similar to those of the 1960’s, but by the mid-1970’s, variety shows became virtually non-existent. The mid-seventies brought about an increase in “adult” shows nighttime soaps. The change continued in the way female roles were viewed. Shows such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Maude,” and “The Jeffersons” brought about the independent woman. Mary Tyler Moore opened the door for female characters to emerge as independent women. She was real. Her language was one of a sophisticated, educated woman, but a woman who made real mistakes and was full of humor. That was something new: the emergence of female comedians. She was hilarious, yet kept her sexuality at the same time. Independence became sexy.

Maude was yet another strong female character. No woman during this time was allowed to have such a strong personality unless she was an antagonist. What made this show so great was the presence of her husband Walter. This showed that a man can still have a strong personality without having to dominate a woman. He accepted the fact that they were equal without being threatened. Their use of language was similar and of course, during that time, many people saw that as a negative thing. Maude’s strong personality shone through her use of language. Another female character’s whose strong personality shone through her use of language was Mrs. Jefferson from “The Jeffersons.” The women’s language in this show was bright and engaging, and what was so interesting was that the men were portrayed basically as idiots. I think the most distinct change in the 1970’s was the onset of the independent woman. Women were viewed as independent and strong through their use of language, and their sexuality was expressed through that as well.

The 1980’s offered a variety of female characters. On one hand there was the sit-com “Roseanne,” and on the other there came “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Both of these shows are perfect examples of how women’s language was changing and evolving and how language and sexuality is related. Roseanne’s character was definitely a shock at first, I think, but a well needed one. Many viewed her language as atrocious. I think this was because she did not talk like many people thought women should. She talked more like a man, and this was viewed as unacceptable. She did not speak properly; she used slang words, and often cursed. Her use of language made her appear uneducated and low-class. This was a change that occurred in the 1980’s.

On the other hand, there was “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” I think Oprah has become one of the most influential people in the world today, and it all started in the 1980’s. Oprah’s show was groundbreaking for several reasons, but the thing that set Oprah apart from other talk show hosts was that she was not afraid to bare her soul to her audience. In my opinion, that only attributes that fact that her success has stemmed from her use of language. Sandra Brennan, a critic for the All Movie Guide wrote, “Oprah, who is beautiful no matter what size she is, took a lot of heat from unkind critics who were unable to cope with the notion that a round woman could possibly be considered attractive, intelligent, and vital.” When she speaks, she is very understanding and caring, yet at the same time strong and in control of every situation. One of the biggest changes in language and sexuality throughout the decades has been the onset of independence. An independent woman would most likely not have been looked upon as “sexy” during the 1950’s or 1960’s, but that began to change in the 70’s and continued to in the 80’s.

The 1990’s only brought more changes in women’s use of language and sexuality. One show that was the first of its kind was “Ellen.” There was the infamous coming-out episode that brought about the gay aspect of language and obviously sexuality. This is a perfect example of how the two coincide. Ellen’s use of “man talk” only made clearer the fact that she was a homosexual. This concept is also illustrated in Deborah Cameron’s article, “Performing Gender Identity. Young men’s talk and the construction of heterosexual masculinity.” Ellen “came out” on an episode of the show, and she was (as was her language) then labeled gay. Cameron’s article brings about the idea that gay refers not so much to sexual deviance but gender deviance, failing to live up to the group’s standards of femininity. Most of Ellen’s comments on the show are sarcastic. Her humor is a big part of the dialogue that unravels during each episode. This is definitely the case for the fourth episode that aired during the final season. The jest of this episode is that Ellen likes this girl Laurie, and throughout the half hour, Paige and Spence try to give her advice.

Scene 8: (Ellen’s kitchen)

Paige: Ellen, if you let little things bother you, you WOULD think that tings went wrong.

Ellen: Paige, she brought another woman!

Spence: In my opinion, that’s a cool date.

Ellen: I don’t know why she would bring her friend along on a date. That is, unless it wasn’t a date. It’s obvious that Laurie is too afraid to put herself out on the line.

Spence: Then why don’t you?

Ellen: Are you kidding? And run the risk of making a fool of myself?

Paige: I could never be gay! I need clarity. When I’m with a guy for more than three hours, I tell him that we’re on a date. If he has a problem with it, then I just put on my dress and leave.

Spence: In the het world . . .

Ellen: On the het world! I remember visiting that place when I was a kid. There’s also the bi world where I’ve heard they have twice as many rides.

Spence: Ellen, skirt chaser to skirt chaser, dating is like driving. You have to be quick on the road . . . you need to step on the gas and drive this baby . . . otherwise you’re going to run out of gas and end up in Friendville.

Ellen: Then you’d have to call the triple A guy to tow you back to Lonelyville.

Paige: Boy, you guys really are cousins.

(Ellen calls up Laurie and asks if they can go somewhere to talk.”

Scene 9: (at a very loud LA dance club)

Ellen: I thought we would be able to talk here!

Laurie: What? I can’t hear you!

Ellen: Maybe we should go somewhere else!

Laurie: What!

Ellen: I want to take you like a wild animal!

Laurie: What?

(They go into the quiet part of the club.)

Ellen: I’m sorry, I wanted to take you somewhere where we can talk about things.

Riot Girl: Would you like to dance, or are you two together?

Bartender: The drinks are $8, are you two paying this together?

Ellen (to Riot Girl): Just one second. (Turns to Laurie) I thought we might talk. I want to set things straight. Well, here goes . . . I’ve been living my whole life in Friendville. I’m very slow, take my time . . . just want to know where we stand. (Laurie gently gives Ellen a tender kiss.)

Ellen (turns to Riot Girl immediately): We’re together. So why didn’t you say anything? Why did you bring Maura along to the movies?

Laurie: You said you didn’t like pushy people.

Ellen: You let me ride home with Maura!

Laurie: Maura’s pushy! I’m sorry, I was supposed to give her the signal, but I forgot to.

Ellen: So, is this a date?

Laurie: I sure hope so (walking out), especially since you want to take me like a wild animal!

These couple of scenes from this one episode illustrate several important aspects of the relationship between language, gender, and sexuality. As mentioned before, Ellen’s use of “man talk” is shown throughout this scene. The line where she yells, “I want to take you like an animal,” demonstrates her taking control. The issue of control is relevant to Julia T. Wood’s article, “Gender and Relationship Crises: Constrasting Reasons, Responses, and Relational Orientations.” Wood found that one crisis that lesbian couples often face is the issue of dominance. It is quite clear how things could be unclear, when dealing with two women in a relationship. That seems to be the case with Ellen and Laurie. Ellen thought that Laurie was not being forward enough, and Laurie thought that if she was pushy, she would turn Ellen off.

Although the 1980’s and 1990’s did introduce gay characters to the television viewing audience, they were merely quests on shows or problems that came about. Now, it seems that the number of gay characters on television has exploded. Since the “Ellen” coming-out episode, it is nearly impossible to recall all of the shows that have featured gay characters as main characters. Some of the most frequently watched shows today feature main homosexual characters. Examples of these shows would include “Will and Grace”, “Friends,” “Dawson’s Creek,” and “Spin City.” A show that is the first of its kind is “Queer as Folk,” which airs on Showtime. This controversial series is a groundbreaker for two reasons; the first reason being that all of the main characters in this series are gay. The second aggressive move that this series made was to display active and explicit gay sexuality. That is definitely progress for gay audiences. (Walters)

As Suzanna Walters puts it in her book, All the Rage:

The 90’s has ushered gays into the family living room via the omniscient tube, but has done so in a way that continues to refuse and avoid gay identity. In making gays palatable to the TV-consuming culture-to the denizens of Ricki Lake and soap operas and sexy yarns – gays have been made invisible in a new ay, confined to the roles of straight wannabes or exotic “others.” There are the brave and rare exceptions – images of gays that are rich, specific, and varied – but too often gays are trapped in the twin roles of heterosexual look-alikes or deviant outsiders. The intimacy of television proves a rare stage to play out American anxieties – about sex, about class, about race, about gender – and as such it is, in my mind, the site of the most interesting attempts to reckon with the anxiety of sexual difference. In that reckoning, we see the anxiety at work – containing, curtailing, dumbing down, roping off. But in seeing the anxiety, and having it brought into our living rooms, television provides opportunities to move beyond and through the vexing contest between sameness and difference

The sexuality on television skyrocketed in the 1990’s and increased even more into the twenty-first century. The women on television today pour off sexual energy through their use of language. Just consider such shows as “Sex and the City,” “Friends,” and even teenage-hits like “Dawson’s Creek.” The women of “Sex and the City” perfectly illustrate how women’s language and sexuality have evolved since the 1950’s. With the exception of Charlotte at one point, all four of these women are independent, working, sophisticated, sexy women, and it is through their use of language that these characteristics are conveyed. The fact that Carrie is a journalist only makes this clearer.

She is columnist who explores Manhattan’s world of dating through her use of words. Her strong choice of words and sense of humor appeal to almost every man she comes in contact with on the show. Men are often attracted to her because of her column, which is completely related to her use of language. Samantha and Miranda both are professionals, and their dominating language makes them powerful and often times intimidating to men. Charlotte is the most “stereotypical” of the four. When she married Trey, she was giving audiences flashbacks to the homemaker women of the 1950’s. There was a difference though. She never let anyone push her around, even though she was innocent and na�ve. She always stood her ground. This show explores female heterosexual language while these four women pursue love, sex, and happiness.

In conclusion, language and sexuality have undergone a variety of changes since the 1950’s. Who knows what the future will hold, but I believe that sexuality will become even more obvious and present with time. The correlation between language and sexuality was quite clearly represented by the female characters in the sit-coms of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and the twenty-first century. In each decade there was a change and revelation in the way women were viewed.

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Language and Sexuality throughout the Decades. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Language and Sexuality throughout the Decades

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