Cats and dogs are gendered in contemporary American culture, such that dogs are thought to be the proper pet for men and cats for women (especially lesbians). This, it turns out, is an old stereotype. In fact, cats were a common symbol in suffragette imagery. Cats represented the domestic sphere, and anti-suffrage postcards often used them to reference female activists. The intent was to portray suffragettes as silly, infantile, incompetent, and ill-suited to political engagement.
Cats were also used in anti-suffrage cartoons and postcards that featured the bumbling, emasculated father cruelly left behind to cover his wife’s shirked duties as she so ungracefully abandons the home for the political sphere. Oftentimes, unhappy cats were portrayed in these scenes as symbols of a threatened traditional home in need of woman’s care and attention.
While opposition to the female vote was strong, public sentiment warmed to the suffragettes as police brutality began to push women into a more favorable, if victimized, light.
As suffragettes increasingly found themselves jailed, many resisted unfair or inhumane imprisonment with hunger strikes. In response, jailers would often force-feed female prisoners with steel devices to pry open their mouths and long hoses inserted into their noses and down their throats. This caused severe damage to the women’s faces, mouths, lungs, and stomachs, sometimes causing illness and death.
Not wanting to create a group of martyrs for the suffragist cause, the British government responded by enacting the Prisoner’s Act of 1913 which temporarily freed prisoners to recuperate (or die) at home and then rearrested them when they were well. The intention was to free the government from responsibility of injury and death from force feeding prisoners.
This act became popularly known as the “Cat and Mouse Act,” as the government was seen as toying with their female prey as a cat would a mouse. Suddenly, the cat takes on a decidedly more masculine, “tom cat” persona. The cat now represented the violent realities of women’s struggle for political rights in the male public sphere.
The longevity of the stereotype of cats as feminine and domestic, along with the interesting way that the social constructions flipped, is a great example of how cultural associations are used to create meaning and facilitate or resist social change.
Ms. Wrenn is an instructor of Sociology with Colorado State University, where she is working on her PhD. She is a council member of the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section and has published extensively on the non-human animal rights movement.
Read this with the movie trailer voice in your head: In a world where men and masculinity are valued above women and femininity and the voice of god sounds like a man. Can there be any sense of justice? Can a hero rise from the ashes that were this country’s dreams of equality?
Now read this with nerdy sociologist voice: In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses how we manipulate our voices to perform gender and asks us to think about what our vocal performances say about patriarchy in our culture.
My Mom’s Phone Voice
Voice & The Performance of Gender
We have talked extensively on SociologyInFocus about how gender is a performance. That is, we “do gender”. Right now if you wanted to act feminine or to act masculine you could change your clothing, how you move, how you sit, the facial expressions you use, but arguably the first thing you would change is your voice. Gender is a performance and like any performance there are costumes, lines, mannerisms, etc. that you embody to perform the role. The rules of gender performance are so clear and present throughout society that even my 5 year old can recite them:
Patriarchy, Cultural Symbols, and In A World
As a sociologist concerned with inequality, I think the juiciest question to ask is, are all voices treated equally? That is, do we empower some gender presentations and disempower others? This question is the central question explored in the movie In A World:
The movie, which was written and directed by it’s star Lake Bell, is about a young woman who is trying to break into the voice over acting world, but struggles mightily because the industry is male dominated. In the movie and in reality, when Hollywood wants an authoritative voice, a powerful voice, or simply “the voice of god”, they turn to male voice over actors more often than not. We should stop and ask, why is it this way? Are masculine voices just naturally more powerful? Nah. If you’ve spent anytime with opera singers you know that both male and female voices can rattle your ribcage. The answer then must be cultural.
So what does it say about our culture if we associate power with masculinity? The answer is simple, it suggests that we live in a patriarchal society (i.e. a society that values men and masculinity above women and femininity). That’s why it was so surprising to me when I read/watched interviews with Lake Bell where she put the blame back on women and something she calls the “sexy baby vocal virus.”
There is one statement in this film and I am vocal about it: There is a vocal plague going on that I call the sexy baby plague, where very smart women have taken on this affectation that evokes submission and sexual titillation to the male species,” she says.
“This voice says ‘I’m not that smart,’ and ‘don’t feel threatened’ and ‘don’t worry, I don’t want to take charge,’ which is a problem for me because it’s telling women to take on this bimbo persona in order to please a man.
The problem of the sexy baby voice
To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of Bell’s criticism of the women who use the “sexy baby” voice. She asserts that “these women” have been “victimized” and “fallen pray to something”, but then clearly seems to be angry at them for their use of the voice. Furthermore Bell’s critique of women’s voices takes a social issue (patriarchy and the devaluing of all things feminine) and redefines it as an individual problem. If the women who use the “sexy baby” voice are using it to present themselves as non-threatening or highly sexual, then where did they get the idea in the first place? I’m not sure if Bell is arguing that the “sexy baby” voice is a reaction to a patriarchal society or that it the creates a patriarchal society.
In a world working through the issue of patriarchy, it would seem that even movies that are critiquing patriarchy can reinforce it.
Oddly, three high profile female musicians find themselves in a public debate about what it means to be a feminist. We can thank Miley Cyrus for the occasion. After claiming that the video for Wrecking Ball was inspired by Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You, O’Connor wrote an open letter to the performer. No doubt informed by Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, she argued that the music industry would inevitably exploit Cyrus’ body and leave her a shell of a human being. Amanda Palmer, another strong-minded female musician, responded to O’Connor. She countered with the idea that all efforts to control women’s choices, no matter how benevolent, were anti-feminist.
I keep receiving requests to add my two cents. So, here goes: I think they’re both right, but only half right. And, when you put the two sides together, the conclusion isn’t as simple as either of them makes it out to be. Both letters are kind, compelling, and smart, but neither capture the deep contradictions that Cyrus – indeed all women in the U.S. – face every day.
O’Connor warns Cyrus that the music industry is patriarchal and capitalist. In so many words, she explains that the capitalists will never pay Cyrus what she’s worth because doing so leaves nothing to skim off the top. The whole point is to exploit her. Meanwhile, her exploitation will be distinctly gendered because sexism is part of the very fabric of the industry. O’Connor writes:
The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth… and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, “they” will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body…
Whether Cyrus ends up in rehab remains to be seen but O’Connor is, of course, right about the music industry. This is not something that requires argumentation, but is simply true in a patriarchal, capitalist society. For-profit industries are for profit. You may think that’s good or bad, but it is, by definition, about finding ways to extract money from goods and services and one does that by selling it for more than you paid for it. And media companies of all kinds are dominated at almost all levels by (rich, white) men. These are the facts.
Disagreeing, Palmer claims that O’Connor herself is contributing to an oppressive environment for women. All women’s choices, Palmer argues, should be considered fair game.
I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze…
In Palmer’s utopia, no one gets to decide what’s best for women. The whole point is to have all options on the table, without censure, so women can pick and choose and change their mind as they so desire.
This is intuitively pleasing and seems to mesh pretty well with a decent definition of “freedom.” And women do have more choices – many, many more choices – than recent generations of women. They are now free to vote in elections, wear pants, smoke in public, have their own bank accounts, play sports, go into men’s occupations and, yes, be unabashedly sexual. Hell they can even run for President. And they get to still do all the feminine stuff too! Women have it pretty great right now and Palmer is right that we should defend these options.
So, both are making a feminist argument. What, then, is the source of the disagreement?
O’Connor and Palmer are using different levels of analysis. Palmer’s is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do. O’Connor’s is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic.
The truth is that both are right and, because of that, neither sees the whole picture. On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system. They are architects of their own lives. On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system. The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure. No amount of wishing it were different will make it so. No individual choices change that reality.
So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it. She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition. But why? Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.
In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain. Both men and women make them and they come in many different forms. Generally, however, they involve a choice to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage without challenging the system itself. This may maximize the benefits that accrue to any individual woman, but it harms women as a whole. Cyrus’ particular bargain – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power – is a common one. Serena Williams, Tila Tequila, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga do it too.
We are all Miley, though. We all make patriarchal bargains, large and small. Housewives do when they support husbands’ careers on the agreement that he share the dividends. Many high-achieving women do when they go into masculinized occupations to reap the benefits, but don’t challenge the idea that occupations associated with men are of greater value. None of us have the moral high ground here.
So, is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs? No. Can her choices be fairly described as good for women? No.
That’s how power works. It makes it so that essentially all choices can be absorbed into and mobilized on behalf of the system. Fighting the system on behalf of the disadvantaged – in this case, women – requires individual sacrifices that are extraordinarily costly. In Cyrus’ case, perhaps being replaced by another artist who is willing to capitulate to patriarchy with more gusto. Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place. In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.
Americans want their stories to have happy endings. I’m sorry I don’t have a more optimistic read. If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it. To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.
The Sexual Politics of Meat is a scathing, powerful analysis of the relationship between the oppression of women and the farming of animals for food. Written by Carol J. Adams and published in 1990, it inspired many a feminist to choose vegetarianism and made many more take pause.
In the six-and-a-half minute video below, she discusses the sexualization and feminization of chicken specifically. She shows lots of examples of the ways in which chicken carcasses are objectified as women: put in high heels, bikinis, sexual positions, etc. We feature many examples of this at our Pinterest board collecting gendered and sexualized food, some of which we’ve borrowed from Adams.
Adams then argues that this is a way to distract us from the fact that we are eating the flesh of an animal that has been killed for us. She writes:
By sexualizing animals, we trigger another thing, that uneasiness becomes sexual energy… and everybody knows what to do about sexual energy. You can laugh at it, you can talk about it, it reduces whoever is presented to an object. And so it makes it okay again.
So the sexualization of animals enters into and participates in the wider issue of “Why are we doing this to animals?” Oh yeah, because it’s funny, because it’s fun, because we can have fun with it. And it takes the ethical out.
Moreover, presenting chicken as dressing up for the male gaze suggests that the animal wants to be consumed. The animal appears to desire to inspire (culinary) lust and, accordingly, it’s okay if you eat her. This works best alongside feminization, as it is women who are typically presented as objects of a lustful male gaze.
Bonus: Fifty Shades of Grey makes an appearance, and not incidentally. In response to its popularity, a book was published called Fifty Shades of Chicken. Here’s the book trailer:
Adams call Grey a “regressive book that implied that despite all the advances feminism has made, women really just wanted to be in bondage.” In both books, she argues, we’re seeing the “packaging and sexualizing [of] dominance over another being.”
The book is an interrogation of the popularity of hormonal birth control in the U.S. In one argument, Grigg-Spall begins with the fact that women’s bodies are a fraught topic. For hundreds of years, the female body has been offered as proof of women’s inferiority to men. Feminists have had two options: (1) embrace biological difference and claim equality based on essential femaleness or (2) reject difference and claim equality based on sameness.
Largely, Grigg-Spall argues, the latter has won out as the dominant feminist strategy. Accordingly, all things uniquely female become suspect; they are possible traitors to the cause. This includes ovulation, menstruation, and the mild mood swings that tend to accompany them (men have equivalent mood swings, by the way, they’re just daily and seasonal instead of monthly-ish).
Hormonal birth control, then, can be seen as a way to eliminate some of the things about us that make us distinctly “female.” ”Science is making us better,” the message goes. By getting rid of our supposedly feminine frailties, “we are [supposedly] becoming better humans…” A quick look at birth control pill advertising reveals that this goes far beyond preventing pregnancy. Commercials frequently claim other benefits that conform to socio-cultural expectations for women: reduced PMS, clearer skin, and bigger breasts. This Yaz commercial, for example, claims that the pill also cures acne, irritability, moodiness, anxiety, appetite, headaches, fatigue, and bloating.
To add insult to injury, Grigg-Spall notes, advertising then frames consumption of the pill as liberation. In this commercial for Seasonique, the pharmaceutical company positions itself as women’s answer to a mysterious oppressor. ”Who says?” is repeated a full eight times.
Othershavecriticized Grigg-Spall for, among other things, essentializing femaleness: utilizing that strategy for equality that embraces women’s difference from men and asks others to do so as well.
I’m coming down on the side of “huh!?” The Pill made an immeasurable difference for women when it was introduced as the first effective, female-controlled birth control method. There’s no doubt about that. Her book asks us whether our designation of The Pill as a holy pillar of women’s equality still applies today. I think it’s worth thinking about.
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.
Philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky once observed that being feminine often means using one’s body to portray powerlessness. Consider: A feminine person keeps her body small and contained; she makes sure that it doesn’t take up to much space or impose itself. She walks and sits in tightly packaged ways. She doesn’t cover the breadth of the sidewalk or expand herself beyond the chair she occupies.
Likewise, burping and farting, raising one’s voice in an argument, and even laughing loudly are considered distinctly unfeminine. A feminine person doesn’t use her body to forcefully interact with the world, she lets others do for her when possible. ”Massiveness, power, or abundance in a woman’s body is met with distaste,” Bartky wrote.
Stunningly, when you think about it, these features of feminine body comportment are, in fact, not uniquely feminine, but associated with deference more generally. Bartky again:
In groups of men, those with higher status typically assume looser and more relaxed postures; the boss lounges comfortably behind the desk while the applicant sits tense and rigid on the edge of his seat. Higher-status individuals may touch their subordinates more than they themselves get touched; they initiate more eye contact and are smiled at by their inferiors more than they are observed to smile in return. What is announced in the comportment of superiors is confidence and ease…
Acting feminine, then, overlaps with performances of submissiveness. Both men and women use their bodies in more feminine ways when their interacting with a superior, whether it be their boss, their commander, a police officer, or their professor.
New evidence suggests that this is not pure theory. Psychologist Andy Yap and his colleagues tested whether “expansive body postures” like the ones associated with masculinity increase people’s sense of powerfulness and entitlement. They did. In laboratory experiments, people who were prompted to take up more space were more likely to steal, cheat, and violate traffic laws in a simulation. A sense of powerfulness, reported by the subjects, mediated the effect (a robust finding that others have documented as well).
In a real world test of the theory, they found that large automobiles with greater internal space were more likely than small ones to be illegally parked in New York City.
Research, then, has shown that expansive body postures that take up room instill a psychological sense of power and entitlement. The fact that this behavior is gendered may go some way towards explaining the persistence of gender inequality and, more pointedly, some men’s belief that they have earned their unearned privileges.