Language, gender, power, and performance on the fantasy lines

In her fascinating article about fantasy line operators, “Lip Service on the Fantasy Lines” Kira Hall uses adult fantasy lines as a basis to examine issues related to gender and linguistic power. She uses the interactions in this very specific community of practice to argue for a “more multidimensional definition” for linguistic power while placing a great deal of focus on individual variability. (Hall 183) In this paper I will discuss the main points in Hall’s article as they relate to the four models of language and gender that we have worked with in Language in Society.

A natural starting point for any discussion of gender, language, and power is Robin Lakoff’s pioneering theory. Actually, Hall starts with Lakoff’s 1975 book, Language and Womans Place, and writes that the notions of “women’s language” as powerless and “men’s language” as powerful come from this book. (Hall 183) Lakoff argued that both the way women use language and the way language is used to describe them acted to maintain and emphasize women’s subordinate status in American society. (Holmes 297) In other words, “sex differences in language use reflect and reinforce the unequal status of women and men in our society.” (Hall 184)

Lakoff felt that “women’s speech” was characterized by features that displayed a lack of confidence. She suggested that lexical hedges, tag questions, rising intonation on declarative sentences, ‘empty’ adjectives, precise color terms, intensifiers, ‘hypercorrect’ grammar, ‘superpolite’ forms, emphatic stress and the avoidance of strong swear words were typical of “women’s language.” (Holmes 298) The Deficit Model, which considered “women’s language” weak and hesitant, is no longer academically viable but it has been extremely influential on thought related to gender, language and power.

Many of the linguistic features that the operators employ appear on Lakoff’s list above. The women that Hall interviewed said that they frequently use feminine lexical items and intensifiers as much as possible. (Hall 199) The use of words like peach, apricot and charcoal for colors sounds like it is taken from directly Lakoff, who wrote about women’s use of precise colors. (Hall 199) The operators stated that they try to create sexy language by way of lexical choices. It seems that in selling their language they adopted many aspects of “women’s language.”


In reference to the Deficit Model Hall writes that she has, “no desire to reopen the academic wounds of what remains a divisive subject among language and gender theorists, but a discussion of my research on the discursive functions produced by phone-sex employees in San Francisco would be incomplete without reference to Lakoff’s early description of ‘women’s language.’” (Hall 184) It is interesting to note that the language that has become economically powerful for the fantasy-line operators is exactly the type of language that was previously considered powerless.

Power is a main concern in the Dominance Model. The premise of this model is that those in positions of power use different types of language than those in weaker roles. In patriarchal societies the differences in language use between men and women can be attributed to differences in power. This theory has some elements of truth, but it is too simplistic. In actuality, the dynamics between language, gender and power are much more complicated.

The word power is used frequently in Hall’s article. A common theme is that the operators enjoy financial success as a result of employing submissive speech patterns. This submissive speech derives its power from the fact that it is found sexual by the male callers. Hall writes, “The notion that behavior that is perceived as powerless can, in certain contexts, also be perceived as sexual may be old hat to anthropologists and sociologists, but language theorists have yet to address this connection explicitly.” (Hall 184) One could argue that Hall does a very good job of addressing this connection. She asks, “How can current definitions of linguistic power account for the fact that on the fantasy lines, speech that has been traditionally thought of as “powerless” suddenly becomes a very powerful sexual commodity?” (208)

The operators’ use of “sweet talk” is viewed as inherently sexual by the callers. “Sweet talk” itself is more strongly associated with the speech patterns of women than men in the American heterosexual mainstream. (Hall 185) The “sweet talker” is viewed as sexually available by the callers. Hall characterizes the operators’ speech as powerful in and of itself and writes that, “The speaker is not the naïve, playful, and supportive interactant her male audience has taken her to be but a mature calculating adult with a subversive goal in mind.” (Hall 185)

The operators use linguistic features that are commonly associated with submissive and weak women in a subservient position. One poignant example was from a voice message in which a woman described here unrequited lust for her English professor. She painted a scenario where she was the eager sexualized college student obsessed with her older professor. In this situation the professor was seen as an “aloof, self-involved intellectual.” (Hall 193) This scenario clearly created a power imbalance based on the reality that the message line is hoping to foster. Men are made to be powerful and intellectual while women are emotional, powerless, and subservient.

Hall illustrates that the operators are actually not in subservient positions. Many of the operators feel that the job provides them with a stable lucrative employment without the trials of working in the mainstream, patriarchal business world. In fact, the operators view women who work fifty hours a week while dressed in fancy suits and make sixty-five percent of what men make as “the real prostitutes in our society.” (Hall 196) Many of the operators are graduate students, freelance artists and writers who gain economic and social independence from their work on the fantasy lines.

Most of the women interviewed saw their work as artistic. Job titles like “telephone fantasy artist” and an actor in “auditory improvisational theater on the theme of eros” might strike some people as odd but they show how the operators view their jobs. (Hall 204) The operators interviewed generally saw themselves as superior to the customers, again calling the balance of power into question. In fact, most of those interviewed felt that they were so linguistically superior to the average customer that they didn’t see male power as an issue at all. (Hall 205) Many of the operators refused to take domination calls where the caller limited their responses to subservient yes sirs and no sirs. One woman provided a poignant example as she preferred these calls because the low conversational demands gave her a chance to do a lot of dishes.

Mentioning that the local meanings are of utmost importance when discussing gender, Hall writes that, “Within the context of the adult-message industry, women have learned that manipulating the female conversational stereotype can in fact be powerful, and sometimes even enjoyable.” (Hall 208) This seems to prove that there is much more to these relationships than simply oppressor and oppressed. The operators are clearly not powerless in these phone interactions.

Since it is a marketplace the operators try to give the customers what they want. In the phone transactions the callers want the operators to sound like women. Part of this is adopting the “women’s speech” detailed above. The operators also try to be very attentive to their male callers, emphasizing maintenance work in the conversations. They use strategies like supportive questions and comments to draw out the shyer male callers.  In order to create an effective fantasy the operators consciously try to match the common male perception that women should be inviting and supportive in their speech patterns. This seems to fit in well with the Difference Model, which is based on the idea that males and females are socialized in different ways so that the language differences that exist are to be expected.

Parts of the Difference Model are illustrated in the training manual for 970-Live, a fantasy service based in New York City. Under the subheading “To start a conversation” women are instructed to use phrases like, “What’s on your mind?”, “What would you like to talk about?”, “What do you do for fun?” and “What are you doing right now?” (Hall 191) A cultural generalization is that men are expected to develop the topics of discussion and the operators give them room to follow this precept. The same training manual instructs women to, “Always be bubbly, sexy, interesting and interested in each individual caller.” (Hall 191) The operators are asked to perpetuate stereotypes of how women should interact conversationally in order to make the situation seem as real as possible. While the Difference Model is viewed as too simplistic in the field of sociolinguistics it is still popular with the general public and, apparently, fantasy line callers.

In this paper, three separate models of gender and language have been discussed. The first was Lakoff’s pioneering but often and justifiably criticized Deficit Model. The Dominance and Difference models have both been labeled as overly simplistic and have been largely replaced by another framework. What is that framework? The Performance Model is the framework that most contemporary thinking related to gender in sociolinguistics is based upon. The key to this model is that gender is something we do or construct rather than something we are. In life, we have many identities and gender is one of them. Gender identities are constructed.

The gender identities of the fantasy-line operators are certainly constructed ones. The construction of these identities is a major focus of Hall’s article. The identities constructed can be different characters or personalities. The identities that the operators construct vary depending on the wants of the customers and there are even racial and cultural stereotypes that the operators play on. The performances in these cases are conscious ones.

The operators create identities that match what their customers want. They might act “black” or “Asian.” They might act or even be sexually aroused. They might simply be creative with words and imagery. They might use intonation to “sound like a woman.” They might act submissively. They might act submissively while doing the dishes. They might be nurturing. The might actually even be a man acting as any number personas. All of these things that they might do are choices, or performances, based on the linguistic marketplace.

The aforementioned training manual provides some insight into the nature of these constructed identities. After being told to create different characters, operators are provided with a framework. “Start with the one that resembles the ideal woman. Move on to bimbo, nymphomaniac, mistress, slave, transvestite, foreigner, or virgin. If the caller wants to speak to someone else, don’t waste time being insulted. Be someone else.” (Hall 191) Operators are expected to transform and perform different characters immediately. This is performance, gender performance. The performers are reminded, “Remember, you are not your character on your phone.” (Hall 191) This shows that while operators are expected to be a character for a short time it is simply a performance and they can be themselves when they are not on the phone. This idea of being someone else fits right in with the notion of doing gender, performing roles.

Interestingly, the roles that the operators play tend to resemble the use of language explained in the Deficit, Dominance and Difference models. The operators use “women’s language” features to show subordinate roles and cultural differences between men. The idea that there are different femininities and masculinities is a powerful one which means that neat, clear, stable, static and binary categories are not a good way to think about and discuss gender in linguistics.

By starting locally with a community of practice Hall shows that simplistic categorizations simply do not work. She easily dismissed the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy by showing that the operators were not really operating from a position of weakness. The operators might have to perpetuate stereotypes of women to be successful in the market, but they are not oppressed. Within this context, many of the operators learned that the manipulation and performance of female conversational stereotypes could be powerful, lucrative and even enjoyable. This leads to a larger point that local and individual variables need to be considered when discussing gender and language in contemporary society. Hall shows that a flexible understanding of gender and speech is preferable and, in fact, needed.



















Hall, Kira and Bucholtz, Mary (eds.) Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Contstructed Self. New York: Routeledge. 183-216.

Holmes, Janet (2008) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. London: Longman.

Meyerhoff, Miriam (2006) Introducing Sociolinguistics. London: Routledge.








One comment

  1. Pingback: A look back at 2013 on this blog | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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