In Michael Kimmel’s sociology of gender textbook, The Gendered Society, he offers us the following two pictures and asks us to decide, based on our gut-level reactions, whether the two individuals pictured are male or female:
If you are like most people, you find, perhaps to your own bewilderment, that the first individual seems male despite the female pubic hair pattern and apparent female genitalia and the second individual seems female despite the presence of a penis and scrotum.
Kimmel suggests that this is because, in our daily life, we habitually judge individuals as male or female on the basis of their secondary sex characteristics (e.g., body shape, facial hair, breasts) and social cues (e.g., hair length) and not, so much, their primary sex characteristics (i.e., their genitalia).
In that sense, Kimmel argues, social cues and secondary sex characteristics “matter” more when it comes to social interaction and gender is really about gender (socially constructed ideas about masculinity and femininity), not so much about sex (penises and vaginas).
Images borrowed the images from Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, by Kessler and McKenna. University of Chicago Press. Originally posted in 2009.
I came across this ad for bathing suits from the 1920s and was struck by how similar the men’s and women’s suits were designed. Hers might have some extra coverage up top and feature a tight skirt over shorts instead of just shorts but, compared to what you see on beaches today, they are essentially the same bathing suit.
So, why are the designs for men’s and women’s bathing suits so different today? Honestly, either one could be gender-neutral. Male swimmers already wear Speedos; the fact that the man in the ad above is covering his chest is evidence that there is a possible world in which men do so. I can see men in bikinis. Likewise, women go topless on some beaches and in some countries and it can’t be any more ridiculous for them to swim in baggy knee-length shorts than it is for men to do so.
But, that’s not how it is. Efforts to differentiate men and women through fashion have varied over time. It can be a response to a collective desire to emphasize or minimize difference, like these unisex pants marketed in the 1960s and 70s. It can also be, however, a backlash to those same impulses. When differences between men and women in education, leisure, and work start to disappear – as they are right now – some might cling even tighter to the few arenas in which men and women can be made to seem very different.
What should we make of changes in fashion? Are they the visible outward expression of new ways of thinking? Or do fashions themselves influence our sentiments and ideas? Or are fashions merely superficial and without any deeper meaning except that of being fashionable?
It’s summer, and once again magazines and newspapers are reporting on beachwear trends in France, proclaiming “the end of topless.” They said the same thing five years ago.
As in 2009, no systematic observers were actually counting the covered and uncovered chests on the beach. Instead, we are again relying on surveys – what people say they do, or have done, or would do. Elle cites an Ipsos survey: “In 2013, 93% of French women say that they wear a top, and 35% find it ‘unthinkable’ to uncover their chest in public.”
Let’s assume that people’s impressions and the media stories are accurate and that fewer French women are going topless. Some of stories mention health concerns, but most are hunting for grander meanings. The Elle cover suggests that the change encompasses issues like liberty, intimacy, and modesty. Marie-Claire says,
Et en dehors de cette question sanitaire, comment expliquer le recul du monokini : nouvelle pudeur ou perte des convictions féministes du départ ?
But aside from the question of health, how to explain the retreat from the monokini: a new modesty or a loss of the original feminist convictions? [my translation, perhaps inaccurate]
The assumption here is that is that ideas influence swimwear choices. Women these days have different attitudes, feelings, and ideologies, so they choose apparel more compatible with those ideas. The notion certainly fits with the evidence on cultural differences, such as those between France and the U.S.
Americans are much more likely to feel uncomfortable at a topless beach. But they are also much less likely to have been to one. (Northern Europeans – those from the Scandinavian countries and Germany – are even more likely than the French to have gone topless.) (Data are from a 2013 Harris survey done for Expedia.)
This second graph could also support the other way of thinking about the relation between fashion and ideas: exposing your body changes how you think about bodies. If people take off their clothes, they’ll become more comfortable with nudity. That is, whatever a woman’s original motivation, once she did try going topless, she would develop ideas that made sense of the experiences, especially since the body already carries such a heavy symbolism. She would not have to invent these topless-is-OK ideas all by herself. They would be available in the conversations of others. So unless her experiences were negative, these new ideas would add to and reinforce the thoughts that led to the original behavior.
This process is much like the general scenario Howie Becker outlines for deviance.
Instead of deviant motives leading to deviant behavior, it is the other way around; the deviant behavior in time produces the deviant motivation. Vague impulses and desires … probably most frequently a curiosity … are transformed into definite patterns of action through social interpretation of a physical experience. [Outsiders, p. 42]
With swimwear, another motive besides “vague impulses” comes into play: fashion – the pressure to wear something that’s within the range of what others on the beach are wearing.
Becker was writing about deviance. But when the behavior is not illegal and not all that deviant, when you can see lots of people doing it in public, the supportive interpretations will be easy to come by. In any case, it seems that the learned motivation stays learned. The fin-du-topless stories, both in 2009 and 2014, suggest that the change is one of generations rather than a change in attitudes. Older women have largely kept their ideas about toplessness. And if it’s true that French women don’t get fat, maybe they’ve even kept their old monokinis. It’s the younger French women who are keeping their tops on. But I would be reluctant to leap from that one fashion trend to a picture of an entire generation as more sexually conservative.
At the end of last year, Robin Thicke took a lot of heat for both the lyrics of his song, Blurred Lines, and the accompanying video. The latter is a transparent instance of a very common strategy for making men look cool: surround them with beautiful and preferably naked women.
It seems especially effective if the men in question act unimpressed and unaffected by, or even disinterested in, the women around them. It’s as if they are trying to say, “I am so accustomed to having access to beautiful, naked women, I don’t even notice that they’re there anymore.” Or, to be more vulgar about it, “I get so much pussy, I’ve become immune.”
This is all to introduce a satirical series of photographs featuring performance artist Nate Hill who, on the mission page of his “trophy scarves” website (NSFW), writes: “I wear white women for status and power.” And, so, he does. Here are some maybe safe-for-work-ish examples:
There are more, definitely NSFW examples, at his site (and thanks to German C. for sending the link).
Hill brilliantly combines a tradition of conspicuous consumption – think mink stoles – with a contemporary matrix of domination in which white women are status symbols for men of all races. It’s not irrelevant that he’s African-American and the women he chooses are white and, yes, it is about power. We know it is because women do it too and, when they do, they use women below them in the racial hierarchy. Remember Gwen Stefani’s harajuku girls? And consider this FHM Philippines cover:
I’m amazed at the ubiquitousness of this type of imagery and our willingness to take it for granted that this is just what our visual landscape looks like. It’s social inequality unapologetically laid bare. We’re used to it.
Somebody — lots of somebodies, I guess — sat around the room and thought, “Yeah, there’s nothing pathetic or problematic about a music video in which absolutely nothing happens except naked women are used to prop up our singer’s masculinity.” The optimist in me wants to think that it’s far too obvious, so much so that the producers and participants would be embarrassed by it. Or, at least, there’d be a modicum of sensitivity to the decades of feminist activism around the sexual objectification of women.
The cynic in me recognizes that white supremacy and the dehumanization of women are alive and well. I’m glad Hill is here to help me laugh about it, even if nervously. Gallows humor, y’all. Sometimes it’s all we got.
Earlier this year, Barbie posed for Sports Illustrated, triggering a round of eye-rolling and exasperation among those who care about the self-esteem and overall mental health of girls and women.
Barbie replied with the hashtag #unapologetic, arguing in an — I’m gonna guess, ghostwritten — essay that posing in the notoriously sexist swimsuit issue was her way of proving that girls could do anything they wanted to do. It was a bizarre appropriation of feminist logic alongside a skewering of a feminist strawwoman that went something along the lines of “don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful.”
Barbie is so often condemned as the problem and Mattel, perhaps tired of playing her endless defender, finally just went with: “How dare you judge her.” It was a bold and bizarre marketing move. The company had her embrace her villain persona, while simultaneously shaming the feminists who judged her. It gave us all a little bit of whiplash and I thought it quite obnoxious.
But then I came across Tiffany Gholar’s new illustrated book, The Doll Project. Gholar’s work suggests that perhaps we’ve been too quick to portray Barbie as simply a source of young women’s self-esteem issues and disordered eating. We imagine, after all, that she gleefully flaunts her physical perfection in the face of us lesser women. In this way, Mattel may be onto something; it isn’t just her appearance, but her seemingly endless confidence and, yes, failure to apologize, that sets us off.
But, maybe we’re wrong about Barbie?
What if Barbie is just as insecure as the rest of us? This is the possibility explored in The Doll Project. Using a mini diet book and scale actually sold by Mattel in the 1960s, Gholar re-imagines fashion dolls as victims of the media imperative to be thin. What if Barbie is a victim, too?
Excerpted with permission:
Forgive me for joining Mattel and Gholar in personifying this doll, but I enjoyed thinking through this reimagining of Barbie. It reminded me that even those among us who are privileged to be able to conform to conventions of attractiveness are often suffering. Sometimes even the most “perfect” of us look in the mirror and see nothing but imperfection. We’re all in this together.
Usually, you want to match up with someone at about your level, or a little higher. The trouble is that many people overestimate their own level. Maybe that’s especially true of men.
One summer many years ago at the tennis courts, a guy I didn’t know came over and asked me if I’d like to play. I hadn’t arranged a game with anyone, but I didn’t want to wind up playing some patzer.
“Are you any good?” I asked. He paused.
“Well, I’m not Jimmy Connors,” he said (I told this was many years ago), “but neither are you.”
In chess and other games, serious players have ratings. Give a roomful of possible partners, they can sort through the ratings and find a match with someone at roughly the same level. It’s called assortative mating, though that term usually refers to the other kind of mating, not chess. It’s the basis of the conflict in this poignant scene from “Louie.”
Vanessa is not a ten, neither is Louie. According to principles of assortative mating, the tens will wind up with other tens, the nines with nines, and so on down the attractiveness scale. One problem in the “Louie” scene is that Louie seems to have an inflated view of his own attractiveness. He’s aiming higher than Vanessa. That’s typical. So is the importance that Louie, the man, places on physical attractiveness. This excerpt begins with Louie telling Vanessa that she’s a really beautiful . . . . He can’t bring himself to say “girl”; he’s probably going to say “person.” But he’s obviously not saying what he thinks.
Or as Dan Ariely and colleagues concluded from their study of HotOrNot members:
[Men] were significantly more influenced by the consensus physical attractiveness of their potential dates than females were. [Men also] were less affected by how attractive they themselves were . . . In making date choices, males are less influenced by their own rated attractiveness than females are.
Another dating site, OK Cupid, found a similar pattern when they looked at data about who gets messages. They asked their customers to rate profile photos of the opposite sex on a scale of 0 to 5. They then tracked the number of messages for people at each level of attractiveness. The graph below shows what women thought and what they did – that is, how attractive they found men, and who they sent messages to.
Men who were rated 0 or 1 got fewer messages than their proportion in the population. That figures. But even men who were only moderately attractive got more than their share. Generally, the fewer men at a level of attractiveness, the fewer total messages women sent. The 4s, for example, constituted only 2% of the population, and they got only 4% of all the messages. The Vanessas on OK Cupid are not sending a lot of inquiries to guys who look like George Clooney.
But look at the men.
Men are more generous in their estimates of beauty than are women. But they also ignore the Vanessas of the world (or at least the world of OK Cupid) and flock after the more attractive women. Only 15% of the women were rated as a 4, but they received about 26% of the messages. Women rated 5 received messages triple their proportion in the population.
What about those with so-so looks? Women rated as 2s received only about 10% of the messages sent by men. But men at that same level received 25% of the messages women sent. The women seem more realistic.
Vanessa too has no illusions about her own attractiveness. She refers to herself as “a fat girl,” and when Louie, trying to be kind, says, “You’re not fat,” she says: “You know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? [pause] ‘You’re not fat.’” But it’s only when she challenges Louie’s view of his own attractiveness that their relationship starts to change.
Y’know if you were standing over there looking at us, you know what you’d see?
That we totally match. We’re actually a great couple together.
She doesn’t explain what she means by “totally match.” It could be their interests or ideas or personalities, but the imaginary stranger looking at them from over there couldn’t know about any of that. What that generalized other could see is that they are at roughly the same place on the assortative mating attractiveness scale.
We commonly hear claims that men are naturally more muscular and physically intimidating than women. “It’s a biological fact,” someone might say. If that were true, though, we wouldn’t have to work so incredibly hard to make it so.
@IllMakeItMyself sent in this great example of the way in which we are pushed to force our bodies into a gender binary that we pretend is natural. On the upper right part of the Men’s Health cover, it reads: “Add 15lb of muscle” and, right next door on the Women’s Health cover, it reads “5 ways to lose 15 lbs.”
If we have to try this hard to make it true, maybe we’re not as different as we think we are.
This is a picture of a statue in Lexington, KY, in honor of Civil War general John H. Morgan. It depicts him on his favorite horse, Black Bess. The inscription is “Gen. John H. Morgan and His Bess.”
Here’s what’s interesting about this: Bess, as you might guess, was a mare — a female horse. The statue, however, has testicles. You can see them in the picture below. The sculptor gave Bess testicles because he considered a mare an unworthy mount for a general — despite the fact that Morgan himself seemed to think she was just fine.
I found out about this in Lies Across America: What Our Historical Sites Get Wrong by James W. Loewen. Images borrowed from here and here. This post originally appeared in 2007.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.