Sociologists often say that gender is partly a performance. How we talk and laugh and what we say; how we stand, sit, and move; how we dress, wear our hair, and adorn our faces and bodies with make up and accessories — all these things are gendered. Insofar as we follow the rule that we perform in ways that match our genitalia, male-bodied and female-bodied people will seem more different, more “opposite,” than they really are.
Today I stumbled across another really striking example of gender performance. This one involves model Erika Linder doing both masculinity and femininity in a commercial for JC Jeans Company. What is striking to me is how she does gender with her face. It reveals that the “sexy model face” isn’t built into our DNA, bone structure, or psychology, but projected. Here are two stills, both Erika Linder; the whole commercial is embedded below.
Like a lot of moms, I faced the Barbie dilemma when my daughter was younger. Ultimately I figured a little bit of Barbie would sate her appetite (and stop the nagging) without doing too much harm. Like a vaccination, or homeopathic inoculation against the Big Bad. I told myself my daughter didn’t use her dolls for fashion play anyway: her Barbie “funeral,” for instance, was a tour de force of childhood imagination. I told myself I only got her “good” Barbies: ethnic Barbies, Wonder Woman Barbie, Cleopatra Barbie. Now that she’s 10 and long ago gave the dolls away (or “mummified” them and buried them in the back yard in a “time capsule”), I can’t say whether they’ll have any latent impact on her body image or self-perception. It would seem ludicrous, at any rate, to try to pinpoint the impact of one toy.
But now, according to a study published this week, it turns out that playing with Barbie, even career Barbie, may indeed limit girls’ perception of their own future choices. Psychologistsrandomly assigned girls ages 4-7 to play with one of three dolls. Two were Barbies: a fashion Barbie (in a dress and high heels); and a “career” Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. (NOTE: I just pulled these images from the web: I don’t know which actual Barbies they used.)
The third, “control” doll was a Mrs. Potato Head, who, although she comes with fashion accessories such as a purse and shoes, doesn’t have Barbie’s sexualized (and totally unrealistic) curves.
So, after just a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers, according to the authors, were male-dominated and half were female dominated. The results:
Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.
More to the point:
There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.
Obviously, the study is not definitive. Obviously, one doll isn’t going to make the critical difference in a young woman’s life blah blah blah. Still, it’s interesting that it doesn’t matter whether the girls played with fashion Barbie or doctor Barbie, the doll had the same effect and in only a few minutes.
That reminded me of a study in which college women enrolled in an advanced calculus class were asked to watch a series of four, 30-second TV commercials. The first group watched four netural ads. The second group watched two neutral ads and two depicting stereotypes about women (a girl enraptured by acne medicine; a woman drooling over a brownie mix). Afterward they completed a survey and—bing!—the group who’d seen the stereo- typed ads expressed less interest in math- and science-related careers than classmates who had watched only the neutral ones. Let me repeat: the effect was demonstrable after watching two ads.
And guess who performed better on a math test, coeds who took it after being asked to try on a bathing suit or those who had been asked to try on a sweater? (Hint: the latter group; interestingly, male students showed no such disparity.)
Now think about the culture girls are exposed to over and over and over and over and over, whether in toys or movies or tv or music videos, in which regardless of what else you are—smart, athletic, kind, even feminist, even old—you must be “hot.” Perhaps, then, the issue is not “well, one doll can’t have that much of an impact,” so much as “if playing with one doll for a few minutes has that much impact what is the effect of the tsunami of sexualization that girls confront every day, year after year?”
I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa. I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.
Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa. That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.
One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.
She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting. She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so. To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”
You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:
Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs. I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway. If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds. Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t like.
In 2010 a scandal that erupted when designer Mark Fast decided to use four plus-size models (US sizes 8-10) in his catwalk show at London Fashion Week. Protesting his decision, his stylist and creative director quit, leaving him just three days to find replacements.
The incident is a great example of how even relatively powerful figures (e.g., designers with catwalk shows) often have to pay a price for deviating from cultural rules. Designers are often criticized for only hiring waif-like models, but this shows that they don’t get to do whatever they like without consequences.
While it’s easy to condemn Fast’s stylist and creative director for walking out on him, the truth is that even being associated with deviance can bring consequences. Sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the idea of the “courtesy stigma” to refer to the stigma that attaches to those who are merely associated with a stigmatized person. A recent Grey’s Anatomy episode dealt with exactly this idea in a story about the reaction to an attractive blonde married to an obese man. Her willingness to stay with such a person was a source of curiosity and disbelief. Similarly, siblings of the mentally ill or mothers of children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder might suffer courtesy stigma when people wonder if the mental illness is genetic or the parenting is bad, respectively.
So, while it’s tempting to say that Fast’s employees hold reprehensible ideological beliefs (a hatred or intolerance for “plus-size” women), it’s also possible that they thought being associated with the show could hurt their chances of success in a very competitive career. In an industry that stigmatizes fat so powerfully, I can imagine it might be terrifying indeed to be seen as endorsing it.
Cartoons aren’t meant to accurately portray people, EVER. They are meant to exaggerate features, so that they are more prominent and eye catching. So feminine features are made more feminine, and masculine features are made more masculine. … The less realistic the proportions, the more endearing and charming we find the character. The closer to realistic they are, the creepier/blander they can become.
Flipping through IMDB’s list of the top 500 animated movies reveals that Disney is certainly not alone in emphasizing the larger size of males. But there are a few successful counterexamples as well.
Here are some good ones where the male and female characters are similarly proportioned. Note these are not just random male and female characters but couples (more or less).
Even some old Disney movies have romantic moments between physically-similar males and females. The original Snow White (from the 1937 movie) was paired with a Prince Charming whose wrists were barely bigger than hers:
Disney non-human animal pairs were sometimes quite physically matched. Consider Bambi and Faline (Bambi, 1942):
Or Dutchess and O’Malley from Aristocats (1970) in which their exaggerated femininity and masculinity are not conveyed through extreme body-size difference:
In other realms of animation, Marge and Homer Simpson, the most durable couple in animation history, have very similar features: heads, eyes, noses, ears. His arms are fatter and neither of them really have wrists, but I’d put this in the category of normal sex difference:
Of course, Lucy and Charlie Brown were virtually identical if you think about it:
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Last yearLynne Grumet set the internet a-flutter when she appeared on the cover of TIME magazine breastfeeding her toddler. Reactions were largely negative, often reflecting unease at the open display of a sexualized body part being used to feed a child older than the age we generally find acceptable. Others objected to what they saw as the sensationalism of the photo. Grumet later posed on the cover of another magazine in a pose that focused on bonding and intimacy, commonly cited as benefits by breastfeeding advocates. The entire episode tapped into larger cultural anxieties about appropriate mothering.
And as Jill Lepore explains in The Mansion of Happiness, it’s just the latest round in the changing discourse about breastfeeding; in the mid-1800s, images of breastfeeding mothers became a fad in the U.S. The use of wet nurses had never been as common in the U.S. as in Europe, and it became even less popular by the early 1800s; breastfeeding your own child became a central measure of your worth as a mother. Cultural constructions of femininity became highly centered on motherhood and the special bond between a mother and her children in the Victorian era.
As daguerreotypes became available, women began to pose breastfeeding their infants, capturing them in this most essential of maternal roles:
Within decades, American women suddenly seemed to lose the ability to adequately feed their babies, just as infant formula hit the market. Doctors continued to push breastfeeding, but cultural perceptions changed, and with them the social construction of femininity. Rather than being a symbol of maternalism, breastfeeding seemed incompatible with femininity — or, specifically, with white upper-class femininity. Breastfeeding didn’t mesh well with ideas of delicate, refined white women; it was too animal-like, too uncivilized. As Lepore relates, by the early 1900s, a study in Boston found that 9 out of 10 poor mothers breastfed, but only 17% of wealthy mothers did.
By the 1950s, only 20% of mothers nursed their children. Then, ideas about motherhood changed once again; suddenly comparatively privileged, white women were drawn to movements that advocated breastfeeding. Formula came under increased scrutiny. And so continued the ongoing cultural debate over breastfeeding, motherhood, and proper femininity.
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
The philosopher Susan Sontag has written achingly about the way in which men are allowed to age and women are not.
The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life-cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks — heavier, rougher, more thickly built…
There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every gray hair, is a defeat.
What a stunning example of Sontag’s observation. The men are not considered unattractive by virtue of the fact that you can tell they have skin. The women, in contrast, have faces that are so smooth that they look inhuman; their images are halfway between photograph and cartoon. Amazingly, this treatment of images of men and women is so ubiquitous that it now looks more or less normal to us.