Main Ideas in Deborah Cameron’s The New Pygmalion: Verbal Hygiene for Women

Categories: Pygmalion

Argument Mapping

The goal of this essay is to present an argument mapping of Deborah Cameron’s “The New Pygmalion: Verbal Hygiene for Women”. First I will define any important terms that are used by Cameron. Next, I will try to identify her central claim and any supporting claims that she makes in her argument. Then, I will assess and analyze the evidence provides for these claims. Afterwards, I will propose Cameron’s suggested use values. Finally, I will try to outline the format of Cameron’s argument.

One important term that seems to be mentioned very frequently in this argument is ‘verbal hygiene’. Verbal hygiene, at least in the context of Cameron’s argument, can be described as any attempt to improve or correct speech and/or writing. This is very similar to a concept discussed in lecture, which we referred to as the standardization/legitimization of language. Cameron seems to focus on the impact of verbal hygiene that women underwent when they participated in ‘assertiveness training’.

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Assertiveness training (AT), “focuses on particular strategies for communicating verbally: its ideal is, to quote a statement of purpose made by one leading British organization, ‘clear, honest and direct communication’” (144).

Cameron’s argument proposes a central claim, however within this central claim there seems to be a contradiction that arises as a result of her proposed formal-functional regularity, that she frequently refers to using the term ‘double-bind’. The form that is being analyzed is the assertiveness of women in professional settings and in her argument, Cameron points out that when women are assertive their actions are usually interpreted as non-feminine, but when they choose not to be assertive they will not be taken seriously.

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This is the ‘double-bind’ that Cameron refers to, which can also be described as a ‘lose-lose’ situation, and Cameron points this out when she asks, “On one hand, being assertive and direct carries an extra risk for women because it is seen as ‘unfeminine’ behavior; on the other hand, would we therefore want to recommend that women should stick to acting out traditional stereotypes?” (153). Cameron’s proposed formal-functional regularity seems to have two negative outcomes in which women seem to lose in both situations, if they choose to be passive or assertive. In order to support her claim, she points out that there has been a pattern of assertiveness training that seems to target women and it also seems to criticize their speech and promote verbal hygiene.

Cameron relies on ethnographic support to defend her central claim. She studies the effect of AT classes and texts on sixteen test subjects. In these training programs the women were taught how to act like men, with the goal of preparing them for the workplace. However, what Cameron found was that these classes back fired and ending up decreasing the confidence levels of these women because acting like men was just as bad as acting like a woman in professional settings.

A great deal of Cameron’s argument seems to reference Shaw’s book, Pygmalion, and My Fair Lady. These examples are excellent depictions of verbal hygiene, however Cameron fails to account for the fact that these are pieces of fiction, and thus her claims that are based off of these works cannot be considered very strong evidence. However, she relates these works to real world examples, which seems to strengthen her argument. For example, she discusses the gender bias that is present in Pygmalion, and relates it to Northern Ireland, where “it is still thought more important for girls than for boys to moderate their stigmatized local accents” (140). Cameron also discusses the predicament that Margaret Thatcher faced, and makes it clear “that there are additional pressures on women’s speech that have less to do with the linguistic markers of class and more to do with those of gender per se” (140). Although these examples are not necessarily directly related to the author’s central claims, they provide strong support for the prejudice that is faced specifically by women.

The use value of Cameron’s work seems to be to point out the flaws of the assertiveness training when it comes to women. She wants to make it clear that although these courses seem to have good intentions, the ‘double-bind’ ends up hurting women in professional settings, by teaching them how to be assertive in the wrong way. Cameron says, “But we need to be clear about what it is we criticize: not the idea of self-transformation per se, but the banal and stereotypical images in which the pundits and experts of the self-help industry would like us to be transformed” (168). Thus, it seems that Cameron believes that these verbal hygiene programs need to be redesigned to free from “the restrictive norms of linguistic femininity” (168).

In conclusion, I will present an outline of Cameron’s argument. First she proposed a formal functional regularity in her central claim and supported it with subsequent claims and ideologies. She supports these claims using a variety of texts and studies, and presents ethnographic support and appropriate anecdotes. She also provides use value for her research to make it clear how her research could be applicable to society.

Updated: Feb 14, 2024
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Main Ideas in Deborah Cameron’s The New Pygmalion: Verbal Hygiene for Women. (2024, Feb 14). Retrieved from

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