“Otherness” has long been a concern of social scientists. It refers to those who are marked, set-apart, excluded, or included with qualification. Those who fail to fit into normative conceptions of belongingness are treated, unsurprisingly, as though they do not belong. They are a polluting force, an intruder, an outsider. In this post, we discuss the dual nature of Otherness and the Othered subject, as they must navigate a social space in which they are either excluded or fetishized, but never fully integrated. We exemplify this dual nature with a discussion of new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer—a tech industry power player marked with femininity, amplified by pregnancy. We begin with a theoretical discussion of Otherness.
The Dirty Other
As suggested by Sigmund Freud and Marry Douglas, “Dirt is matter out of place”; it threatens the integrity of boundaries—moral, aesthetic, symbolic, experiential and otherwise. The removal or neutralization of dirt is not an easy matter for its methods of contamination are many. The most effective method of contamination occurs within and through fantasy. Case in point, the non-normative Other acquires her pollution powers from the fantastic projections of “Normals.” But in analyzing the non-normative Other, we find that not all dirt is abject. Rather than demonstrating the power of horror, dirt may acquire the quality of seduction, indulgence and exotic profundity. Of course, Kristeva notes that the abject—while maintaining its horrifying quality—is the sight of fascination. Although such a stipulation is relevant to the present discussion, we may note that said fascination need not coincide with horror. For example, the “out of place” position of non-normative others facilitates the fantastic lure of systemic escape, reparation or atonement. After all, that which is not dirt: the normative, the systemic, the homogenized, carries the weight of morality and social judgment.
Those who are dirty, at least in fantasy, serve as a reprieve from judgment. They are the sight of the Normals’ non-normative desires. Normals project fantasies of understanding, care and esoteric wisdom upon the dirty. We need not, then, limit the fetishization of dirt to the repressed wish for incestuous or other sexually aberrant relations. Normals may look to the dirty to recapture maternal care in an otherwise uncaring environment. Perhaps because the Normal believes that she hides or represses an affinity for the unheimlich (the unfamiliar) she sees (fantasizes) the heimlich (familiar) in dirt.
However, like their fascination with the abject, Normals best enjoy dirt at a distance. Fantastic projections cannot sustain close inspection. The dirty, counter-systemic Other, when viewed up close, appears all the more normal. Her ability to save, to provide care, wanes with the waning of her Otherness.
Marissa Mayer as the Fetishized Other
Women have long been Others within the business world, and in no industry is this more apparent than the technology industry. The exclusion of women from this field was made painfully evident when, in preparation for its IPO, Facebook released a picture of its all male board of directors (they have since added one woman: Sheryl Sandberg). Indeed, Twitter, Zynga, Pandora, and Foursquare still maintain all male boards.
As we point out above, however, inclusion is by no means an escape from Otherness. The included Other is exotic, marked, qualified, and fetishized. Marissa Mayer, with her 88% approval rating, demonstrates the treatment of an included—yet still dirty—Other.
Mayer’s Otherness is first seen in the marked language with which analysts talk about her. She is not merely the new Yahoo CEO, but the new female yahoo CEO (see examples here, here, here, here and here—you get the point). Like the gay soldier, male nurse, or black politician, the female president and CEO of Yahoo is first and foremost, a categorized subject.
And indeed, analysts focus on this categorization as a frame with which to celebrate her sexual and maternal roles within and outside of the corporate realm. While nurturing an ailing corporation back to health, her presence constitutes an air of family and sexuality. This is exemplified in the following content from around The Web:
Yahoo Now Has the Hottest CEO Ever (Thread title on Reddit.com)
I wish the company, and Mayer, nothing but luck. They’re going to need it. Having a baby can be nothing short of an earthquake—the best, most joyful kind of personal destruction, but a total upending nonetheless. I hope her delivery is free of complications and her baby is healthy. I hope if Mayer chooses to breastfeed, that all goes smoothly, that her son latches and her supply is plentiful. I hope he’s not colicky. I hope he sleeps well. I hope she doesn’t have post-partum depression or even the simple baby blues that can trigger tears at an inappropriate moment’s notice. I also hope that other firms don’t pick, say, Oct. 12th to launch their most competitive assault on Yahoo. I hope her executive team hangs together and works well. Maybe activist investor Dan Loeb, who has put pressure on the company lately, sends a nice baby gift (Wall Street Journal Blog).
Perhaps Mayer’s role as the Fetishized Other is unsurprising. She is not only a woman, but The Woman: an Other whose only deviation comes in the form of her newly granted position of power. She maintains this position without threat to other boundaries. She is white, thin, heterosexual, well-educated, married, and embodies a quintessential womanly state (i.e. pregnancy).
The public portrayal of Mayer spans the spectrum of the pleasure derived from “dirt.” She nurtures and fulfills, maternally and seductively. She challenges Others like her—evoking debates about women, work, and motherhood—but does not threaten the structural system which Others her.
James Chouinard is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University. He studies social theory with a focus on embodiment.
Jenny Davis is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University and a regular contributor to the Cyborgology blog. Follow Jenny on Twitter @Jup83