First, there was the domestication of the cabin. As air travel became more comfortable (e.g., pressurized cabins and quieter rides), airlines were looking to increase their customer base. Female “stewardesses” in the ’40s and ’50s were an opportunity to argue that an airplane was just like a comfortable living room, equally safe for women, children, and men alike. Marketing at the time presented the flight attendant as if she were a mother or wife:
Twenty years later, air travel was no longer scary, so airlines switched their tactics. They sexualized their flight attendants in order to appeal to businessmen, who still made up a majority of their customers. Here’s a ten-second Southwest commercial touting the fact that their stewardesses wear “hot pants”:
The intersection of the labor movement and women’s liberation in the ’60s and ’70s inspired women to fight for workplace rights. Flight attendants were among the first female workers to organize on behalf of their occupation and among the most successful to do so. Their work won both practical and symbolic victories, like the discursive move from “stewardess” to “flight attendant” that transformed women in the occupation from sex objects to workers. A quick Google Image search shows that the association — stewardess/sex object vs. flight attendant/worker — still applies. Notice that the search for “stewardess” includes more sexualized images, while the one for “flight attendant” shows more images of people actually working.
“Flight attendant”:My impression is that today’s marketing tends to feature flight attendants in all three roles — domestic, sex object, worker — echoing each stage of the transformation of the occupation in the public imagination.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. This granted women the right to have a credit card in her own name. This translated into an unprecedented degree of independence for women. Feminists and their allies fought for this new world and it’s a good thing because we love to buy things with our credit cards sooooooo muuuuuuuuch!
And, thankfully, credit card companies like Banif know just how to make us comfortable, by combining feminism and infantilization and kissing our asses because We. Are. So. Special. “Every day is women’s day!” Wheeeee!
The husband in this ad, though, likely thinks he would have been better off if his wife wasn’t allowed to make financial decisions without his approval. Stupid women and their stupid financial decisions. Ruining everything.
It’s okay though because we are multiracial and credit is love.
Of course, sometimes the men still pay. Amirite, ladies!?
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
@bfwriter tweeted us a link to a college design student’s photograph that has gone viral. Rosea Lake posted the image to her tumblr and it struck a chord.
What I like about the image is the way it very clearly illustrates two things. First, it reveals that doing femininity doesn’t mean obeying a single, simple rule. Instead, it’s about occupying and traveling within a certain space. In this case, usually between “proper” and “flirty.” Women have to constantly figure out where in that space they’re supposed to be. Too flirty at work mean’s you won’t be taken seriously; too proper at the bar and you’re invisible. Under the right circumstances (e.g., Halloween, a funeral), you can do “cheeky” or “old fashioned.”
The second thing I like about this image is the way it shows that there is a significant price to pay for getting it wrong. It’s not just a faux pas. Once you’re “‘asking for it,” you could be a target. And, once you’re reached “prudish,” you’ve become socially irrelevant. Both violence and social marginalization are serious consequences.
And, of course, all women are going to get it wrong sometimes because the boundaries are moving targets and in the eye of the beholder. What’s cheeky in one setting or to one person is flirty in or to another. So women constantly risk getting it wrong, or getting it wrong to someone. So the consequences are always floating out there, worrying us, and sending us to the mall.
Indeed, this is why women have so many clothes! We need an all-purpose black skirt that does old fashioned, another one to do proper, and a third to do flirty… at the very least… and all in casual, business, and formal. And we need heels to go with each (stilettos = provocative, high heels = flirty, low heels = proper, etc, plus we need flats for the picnics and beach weddings etc). And we need pants that are hemmed to the right length for each of these pairs of shoes. You can’t wear black shoes with navy pants, so you’ll need to double up on all these things if you want any variety in your wardrobe. I could go on, but you get the picture.
Women’s closets are often mocked as a form of self-indulgence, shop-a-holicism, or narcissism. But this isn’t fair. Instead, if a woman is class-privileged enough, they reflect an (often unarticulated) understanding of just how complicated the rules are. If they’re not class-privileged enough, they can’t follow the rules and are punished for being, for example, “trashy” or “unprofessional.” It’s a difficult job that we impose on women and we’re all too often damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don’t.
What would you think of Woody from Toy Story if he wore pink?
Would you think the color choice was incongruous — that it didn’t seem masculine enough for a 1950s-era cowboy toy?
Well, you’d be wrong. Check out these images from the 1955 Sears Christmas Book catalog that Elizabeth Sweet, a newly minted Ph.D. from the University of California at Davis, sent me. Here’s Roy Rogers Apparel, featuring Roy Rogers and his son, Dusty – who is wearing a cowboy outfit with red, yellow, and pink accents:
To modern eyes, this is surprising. “Pink is a girls’ color,” we think. This association has become so firmly entrenched in our cultural imagination that people are flabbergasted to learn that until the 1950s, pink was often considered a strong color and, therefore, was associated with boys.
But it wasn’t only for boys. Although gender segregation is de rigeur today, it wasn’t back then. Look at these outfits for boys and girls, also from the 1955 Sears catalog: There are brown and red outfits for boys and girls. Pink and blue outfits for boys and girls. Blue and green outfits for boys and girls.
These spreads make it clear that in the 1950s, when Woody’s Roundup is supposed to have originated, Woody would have been pretty darned stylish in pink.
A decade later, things had started changing; pink was more closely associated with girls. (As Elizabeth notes of the Sears catalogs in her collection, “I didn’t find anything similar in 1965.”)
In today’s marketplace, I believe parents would love to see options like these. In fact, just yesterday, one of my friends posted this to facebook about his failed shopping trip:
Alright, parents, I went to buy my daughter cool costume stuff like pirate stuff and cowgirl stuff and all I found was princess outfits. She doesn’t know the word “princess.” She knows the words ‘cowgirl” and “pirate.” What’s the deal? Why does every company want her to be a princess? Why can’t she be an awesome cowgirl pirate?
Sadly, the reason is that in the retail world, this kind of diversity just doesn’t fly anymore. The status quo is segregation; as Elizabeth Sweet has argued, “finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.” And the more entrenched this practice becomes, the harder it becomes to change, as change is perceived by marketers and retailers as a risk.
Therefore, for the foreseeable future, pink will serve as a clear delineation in the marketplace: If something is pink, it is most definitely not for boys, who regard it as a contagion — something to be avoided at all costs.
So it is that if Woody wore pink today, he would be unintelligible in the marketplace. And so it is that my friend can’t find a good cowgirl outfit for his little girl: he’d have to travel back to 1955 to do so.
The push for “girly” to be synonymous with “pink” saddens me. It has caused girls’ worlds to shrink, and it only reinforces for boys the idea that they should actively avoid anything girlish. Monochromatic girlhood drives a wedge between boys and girls — separating their spheres during a time when cross-sex play is healthy and desirable, and when their imaginations should run free.
I once heard a transgender woman give a talk about the process of socially transitioning to being recognized as a woman. She discussed various decisions she made in taking some final critical steps toward the social identity of woman. She talked at length about her hair. She asked, “What kind of woman am I and how is my haircut going to indicate that?” She talked about being preoccupied with her hair for a long time as she attempted to figure out a cut and style that “felt right.” But what struck me the most was her discussion of carrying a purse.
She said that getting used to carrying a purse everywhere was one of the more challenging elements of the transition. If asked what I thought would be a significant everyday challenge if I were a woman, I don’t think purse would have been high on my list. But, it was high on hers. She discussed remembering to bring it, how to carry it, norms surrounding purse protection in public, but also more intimate details like: what belongs in a purse?
Purses and wallets are gendered spaces. There’s nothing inherent in men’s and women’s constitutions that naturally recommends carrying money and belongings in different containers. Like the use of urinals in men’s restrooms, wallets and purses are a way of producing understandings of gender difference rather than as a natural consequence of differences.
I got the idea for this post after reading Christena Nippert-Eng’s book, Islands of Privacy— a sociological study of privacy in everyday life. One chapter deals specifically with wallets and purses. In it, Nippert-Eng discusses one way she interviewed her participants about privacy. She used participants’ wallets and purses as a means of getting them to think more critically about privacy. Participants were asked to empty the contents of their wallets and purses and to form two piles with the contents: “more private” and “more public.” As they sifted through the contents of their wallets and purses, they talked about why they carried what they carried as well as how and why they thought about it as public or private.
After collecting responses, she documented all of the contents and created categories and distinctions between objects based on how people thought about them as public or private. One question that was clearly related to privacy was whether the objects were personally meaningful to the participant. Invariably, objects defined as more personally meaningful were also considered more private.
Another question that routinely arose as participants made sense of the objects they carry around everyday was how damaging it might be for participants if a specific object was taken. Based on this findings, she creates a useful table delineating participants concerns surrounding and understandings of the objects they carry with them (see left).
Just for clarification, there’s sort of a sliding scale of privacy going from most to least private as one proceeds from the bottom left cell to the top right cell. Thus, items classified by participants in the lower left cell (1) are the most private objects. Here, participants identified things like prescription medications, letters from friends, and a variety of personally meaningful objects that were thought of as completely private and carried only for the self.
Other items were still considered private, but “less private” than objects in cell 1 because they were shared selectively. Consider cell 2. While credit cards, bank cards, memberships, credit cards and money were all classified as “private,” individual’s also thought of them as “more public” than object in cell 1 because they were required to share these objects with institutions throughout their lives.
Similarly, some objects were thought of as “private,” but were also carried to share with certain others, such as photographs of children (cell 4). Finally, items classified in the top right cell (3) are the most public objects in wallets and purses—carried for the self and, potentially, “anyone” else. Items here include things like tissues, lip balm, money classified as “extra,” gum, breath mints, etc.
Objects from most of the cells exist in both wallets and purses, but not all of them. The contents of cell 3 (containing the “most public” objects in wallets and purses) are inequitably distributed between wallets and purses. As Nippert-Eng writes, “This is the one category of objects that is overwhelmingly absent for participants who carry only wallets, yet universally present for those who carry purses” (here: 130). She also found that some of her participants only carried objects all fitting the same cell in the above table. These participants — universally “wallet carriers” in her sample — carry only objects necessary for institutional transactions (cell 2).
This is, I believe, a wonderful analysis of one of the more subtle ways in which gender is accomplished in daily life. Certain objects are simply more likely to be carried in purses. Interestingly, this class of “feminine” objects are also objects that play a critical role in social interactions. Indeed, many of us are able to travel without these objects because we can “count on” purse-carriers as having them. Things like packs of gum, tissues, breath mints and more might seem like inconsequential objects. But, they play a crucial role in social interactions, and many of us count on purse-carriers to provide us with these objects when we are “in need.” It’s an aspect of care work by which some (those carrying purses) care for others (those without purses). And if they’re any good at it, the caring goes virtually unacknowledged, though potentially highly acknowledged when these objects are absent in purses. Children routinely ask their mothers for objects they presume they’ll be carrying in their purses. Indeed, these objects may be carried in anticipation of such requests. It’s a small aspect of doing gender, but a significant element of social interactions and life.
When I was learning about interviewing and ethnography, I was told to always carry a pack of gum, a pack of cigarettes (something “lite”), and a lighter. My professor told me, “It opens people up. It’s a small gesture that comforts people–puts them at ease.” These are the ways you might want people to feel if you’re asking them to “open up” for you. I still remember my first foray into “the field.” I bought my gum and cigarettes (objects I don’t typically carry) and the first thought I had was, “Where the heck am I going to keep these things?” What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was asking an intensely gendered question.
Lindy West for the win at Jezebel, asks what’s so sexualizing about calling a child’s costume “naughty.” The costume below was widely criticized for sexualizing little girls, but West nicely observes that there is a non-sexual, child-related meaning to the word naughty. You know, being bad. The non-sexual version of bad. Doing something you’re not supposed to do. A non-sexual thing. You know what I mean! West writes:
Sure, naughty has had sexual connotations as far back as the mid-19th century, but it’s been used to describe disobedient kids since the goddamn 1600s. So why did we let hornay college chicks hijack the word in all its forms? Why can’t children be naughty anymore?
Nevertheless, West is right. The biggest problem with this costume’s title is that it includes the word “leopard.” Because that’s just false advertising. It doesn’t say sexy leopard and the dress — I’ll stop calling it a costume now — is not particularly sexualizing.
West calls for change:
Why don’t we send “naughty” back from whence it came—into the realm of wedgies and spitballs and pies cooling on the windowsill with bites taken out of them!? It’s time, people. You know it is. Take Back the Naughty. For the children.
And for the grown ups, too, who are tired of the idea that being a sexual person makes us bad, bad girls and boys.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
The Smurfs, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people – with their unique qualities and abilities – while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity. The sequel doesn’t upend the premise of Smurfette.
In the original graphic novels, Smurfette (or La Schtroumpfette in French) was the creation of the evil Gargamel, who made her to sow chaos among the all-male Smurf society. His recipe for femininity included coquetry, crocodile tears, lies, gluttony, pride, envy, sentimentality, and cunning.
In the Smurfs 2, there are a lot of Smurfs. And they all have names based on their unique qualities. According to the cast list, the male ones are Papa, Grouchy, Clumsy, Vanity, Narrator, Brainy, Handy, Gutsy, Hefty, Panicky, Farmer, Greedy, Party Planner, Jokey, Smooth, Baker, Passive-Aggressive, Clueless, Social, and Crazy. And the female one is Smurfette–because being female is enough for her. There is no boy Smurf whose identifying quality is his gender, of course, because that would seem hopelessly limited and boring as a character.
Here are the Smurf characters McDonald’s is using for their Happy Meals:
When you buy a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, the cashier asks if it’s for a boy or a girl. In my experience, which is admittedly limited to my daughters, girls get Smurfette. I guess boys get any of the others.
The Way It’s Never Been
Identifying male characters by their non-gender qualities and females by their femininity is just one part of the broader pattern of gender differentiation, or what you might call gendering.
There are two common misconceptions about gendering children. One is that it has always been this way – with boys and girls so different naturally that all products and parenting practices have always differentiated them. This is easily disproved in the history of clothing, which shows that American parents mostly dressed their boys and girls the same a century ago. In fact, boys and girls were often indistinguishable, as evident in this 1905 Ladies’ Home Journal contest in which readers were asked to guess the sex of the babies (no one got them all right):
Source: Jo Paoletti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America
The other common perception is that our culture is actually eliminating gender distinctions, as feminism tears down the natural differences that make gender work. In the anti-feminist dystopian mind, this amounts to feminizing boys and men. This perspective gained momentum during the three decades after 1960, when women entered previously male-dominated occupations in large numbers (a movement that has largely stalled).
However, despite some barrier-crossing, we do more to gender-differentiate now than we did during the heyday of the 1970s unisex fashion craze (the subject of Jo Paoletti’s forthcoming book, Sex and Unisex). On her Tumblr, Paoletti has a great collection of unisex advertising, such as this 1975 Garanimals clothing ad, which would be unthinkable for a major clothier today:
And these clothing catalog images from 1972 (left) and 1974 (right):
Today, the genders are not so easily interchangeable. Quick check: Google image search for “girls clothes” (left) vs. “boys clothes” (right):
Today, a blockbuster children’s movie can invoke 50-year-old gender stereotypes with little fear of a powerful feminist backlash. In fact, even the words “sexism” and “sexist,” which rose to prominence in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s, have once again become less common than, say, the word “bacon”:
And the gender differentiation of childhood is perhaps stronger than it has ever been. Not all differences are bad, of course. But what Katha Pollitt called “the Smurfette principle” – in which “boys are the norm, girls the variation” — is not a difference between equals.