Social gender norms in body language : The construction of stereotyped gender differences in body language in the American sitcom Friends

University essay from Karlstads universitet

Abstract: Nonverbal communication such as body language is a vital component of our communication, and since scholars agree that there are some notable differences in the way men and women use body language, the study of gendered nonverbal communication as a social construction is vital to our understanding of how we create gendered identities. The aim of this paper is to investigate how social gender norms concerning body language appear in constructed communication. By studying the body language of the characters in the American sitcom Friends, and with focus on leg postures, I examine how the show Friends enacts and represents stereotyped sex differences in body language. The study encompasses both the distribution of leg positions between the genders, and what these postures seem to accomplish in interaction. As for the relationship between gender and leg postures, I observed the sitting positions of the characters Chandler, Ross, Joey, Monica and Rachel in six episodes from the 1999/2000 season of Friends for the first study. For the analysis of leg postures in relation to the communicative situation, the entire corpus of ten episode recordings was used. Based on repeated inspection of scenes where leg positions could be studied in relation to gender and communication, systematic patterns were identified. The results of the study are consistent with the findings of scholars like Vrugt and Luyerink (2000); women tend to sit in closed postures or with their legs crossed, which is regarded feminine, while men sit in wide positions with their legs spread, which is regarded masculine. Furthermore, the characters/actors in Friends seem to perform their gender roles partly by using different leg positions and wideness of postures. However, leg positions alone were not found to be decisive in the messages communicated, and emotions and stance were communicated using verbal and other non-verbal channels and cues. Instead, leg positions remained gender-stereotypical regardless of the message communicated, and men and women seem to communicate the same message using different leg positions. It is therefore concluded that leg positions are an inherent part of “doing gender”, but that leg positions as such are not necessarily related to the type of message or emotional stance that is communicated.

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