Regarding Jonathan Y. Cheng’s Fleshing Out Models of Gender in English-Language Novels (1850 – 2000)

This week, I examined Fleshing Out Models of Gender in English-Language Novels (1850 – 2000) by Jonathan Y. Chen. This piece interestingly examines a semi-literal sort of “fleshing-out” – that is, Cheng discusses how anatomy factors into characterization and the presentation and representation of characters, and the relationship between this and gender. Cheng also examines how models of gender have changed over the 150 years proceeding 1850 and addresses notions of heteronormativity and binary gender.

In his introduction, Cheng writes that “it is difficult to overstate the significance of the body in scholarly accounts of gender” but that “[anatomical] details have long played a larger role in the representation of women” (Cheng 2-3). He also comments that “[anatomical] characteristics have increasingly been deployed along gendered lines until only very recently” but that “men and women are increasingly embodied using different words,” to the point of descriptions of actions such as “clasping one’s hand” are indicative of gender (Cheng 3). In brief, Cheng asserts that as time goes on, anatomical descriptions become more common in writing.

In his second section, titled Methods and Limitations, Cheng uses a modified version of BookNLP, a natural language processing pipeline, to perform what is largely supervised text analysis of the works in his corpus (clearly stated to be over 13000 English language novels on page 7). He posts images of several samples of his process, including an array depicting locations of references to a character in text (in terms of page number), the pronouns or proper nouns that those references consist of, and the way those references are tied back to the character in question. Cheng describes “[adding] onto [characters’ models] by extracting additional words that physically describe each character” and “[gathering] the verbs and adjectives modifying their bodily features” (Cheng 4).

Essentially, Cheng attempts to associate verbs and adjectives with parts of the body, and then associate all of those and their combinations with a gender. Cheng gives the example of the phrase his hands compared to the phrase his hands grasped: in this case, the verb “grasp” would be associated with the noun “hands” and both words, as well as the combination of the two words, would be associated with the male gender. Of course however, his results use the entire corpus. If he were to encounter three instances of “her hands grasped” later on, it would shift the words towards femininity for the purposes of the analysis.

In terms of limitations, Cheng mentions that “labelled as either feminine, masculine, or unknown” isn’t sufficient to “capture the complexity of gender identity” (Cheng 6). However, he takes into account that his corpus includes works from a time of much more rigid gender norms, thus almost using this limitation to his advantage. Additionally, he admits that pronouns such as “I,” especially in a vacuum, are not sufficient to present a clear gender identity. As a result, he is unable to count such characters’ physical features in a matter applicable to his study.

In the section entitled Embodying Fictional Men and Women, 1850 – 2000, Cheng displays graphs of his results, depicting a trend he describes as “body language [becoming] a growing aspect of all characters as we get closer to the twenty-first century” – on one table of results, the slope (“shown to provide sense of rate of increase”) of the data covering the percentage of physical description of men over time is over double that of the percentage of physical description of women over time (Cheng 9). Later, he posts two graphs comparing the use of body language by gender of characters, but segregated by the gender of the writer of the pieces. Interestingly, both of these graphs show the same general trend as the first graph. However, Cheng comments that “the correlation has dropped a fair amount for female characters written by women” – he keeps in mind the possibility of this being because of a reduce sample size, but comments that there could be “a less poignant relationship between historical progression and the amount of physical description attributed to women”(Cheng 14-15).

Cheng’s last sections before his conclusion are Gendering the Body and Transformations of the Gendered Body. The former presents a very interesting graph showing the accuracy to which text analysis models can predict gender from physical description of texts from given years. While showcasing a lack of accuracy from the model may seem counterproductive without context, Cheng does so to make an intriguing point – at some points in history, specifically towards either end of the 1850-2000 range, gender was harder to predict from physical description. This is supported by the graph showing the least accuracy to the extremes of the X-axis, and the most accuracy towards the middle-right, around 1955.

In his conclusion, Cheng admits that he “[doesn’t] want to make it seem like [he has] provided a complete solution,” but rather that he “merely sketched out one way of analyzing the varied relationship between character and gender” that could very well be considered incomplete (Cheng 29). This may relate back to something he says in a prior section: that some of the analysis “provides a lot of avenues for future research” (Cheng 24).

All in all, I really liked Cheng’s piece. The subject matter of the piece is something I’d like to continue to study and look into more; perhaps what interested me most was how going forward, the models Cheng used had more trouble predicting gender. I’m also curious about how one could theoretically conduct a similar study, but one that accommodates for first-person pieces and character. Certainly, Fleshing Out Models of Gender in English-Language Novels (1850 – 2000) will be something I think back to if I ever have to do research on a related topic.