Men and women in Western societies often look more different than they are naturally because of the incredible amounts of work we put into trying to look different. Often this is framed as “natural” but, in fact, it takes a lot of time, energy, and money. The half-drag portraits below, from photographer Leland Bobbé, illustrate just how powerful our illusion can be. Drag, of course, makes a burlesque of the feminine; it is hyperfeminine. But most all of us are doing drag, at least a little bit, much of the time.
Last year Lisa posted about Wonder Woman’s pose on a Justice League cover and the way it revealed performative aspects of gender. DC Comics recently released a new Catwoman series. Majd Al-Shihabi sent in a link to the cover of Catwoman #0. The cover drew a lot of attention for the degree of sexualization of Catwoman, whose unrealistic and painful-looking pose maximizes the prominence of her breasts and butt:
I tried to imagine how you’d have to hold your body to even approximate that pose, but at a certain point it hurt to even think about it.
And some time ago Hark! A Vagrant presented Strong Female Characters, which awesomely parodies the “it’s not problematic to sexually objectify all your female characters as long as they’re able to kick ass ‘n stuff!” argument (thanks to Erin R. and Gabrielle M. for sending it in). Here’s just one panel; I recommend following the link to check out the whole thing:
Gamma Squad has several other examples, including one where someone tries to use a graphics design program to reproduce the Catwoman pose without breaking her spine. Results: can’t be done.
Kevin L. let me know about Independent Woman, a PBS documentary in which a number of TV actresses discuss how their roles reflect the pressures, expectations, and opportunities women face, from the happy housewives of the 1950s to a variety of current shows. I don’t always agree with their interpretations, but if you love pop culture, as I do, it’s worth a watch:
We’ve posted before on the way that kids’ products, and the way they are marketed, often reinforces an active boys/passive-and-pretty girls binary. Rebecca Hains noticed that the Stride Rite store near her, as well as the Stride Right website, does so. For instance, girls can “sparkle” and “shine”:
The descriptions for girls’ sneakers on the website emphasize how they’ll help girls shine:
Boys are encouraged to identify with superheroes:
The descriptions for the boys’ shoes emphasize action and speed, as well as their ability to protect the feet of adventurous boys:
Erica B.-K. found these onesies which, though sold by a site called uncommongoods, reflect rather common gendering:
Hiroshi H. noticed that the website for Specialized Bicycle Components divides bikes into ones for boys and girls, though the only noticeable difference was color:
And finally, Anne R. noticed that there’s a Tinker Toy set that, because it is pink and purple, is thus “designed especially for girls”:
As someone who loved Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs as a kid, I’m all for encouraging as many kids as possible to play with them, yet saddened if we are at a point where parents and/or children cannot imagine Tinker Toys could be for girls unless the package screams it at them. But I would kinda like to build that flamingo.
A while back, in a post about Kim Kardashian’s fame, Lisa summarized the concept of a patriarchal bargain as “a decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power one can wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact.”
Christine B. sent in an excellent example of an individual-level attempt at empowerment with the confines of gender inequality. The video, part of the Howcast series of how-to videos, explains to women how to get men to buy them drinks at a bar:
In case you didn’t feel like watching the video, I can sum it up for you:
Dress sexy, but not slutty, or you’re asking for it. How do you know if you’ve crossed the line? Well, if any men act inappropriately toward you, you must have shown too much boob. Better luck next time!
Instead of planning a fun night out with your female friends, select only one — the bubbliest one, obviously — and go find a male-dominated environment.
Buy yourself one drink right off the bat, so it looks like you’re an independent-minded woman who isn’t trying to get free shit in return for being pretty. I mean, you are doing that, but you don’t want to make it obvious. Men might be turned off if the gendered exchange were made explicit.
Assume all men are stupid.
Don’t ever stop to question a system that tells women that trading on our appearance, faking interest in people, excluding friends from social outings because they might be annoying to random men you’ve never met, and being manipulative are all totally empowering and socially-acceptable ways to behave as long as ladies get a fairly low-cost item for free in return for our efforts.
YetAnotherGirl sent us a link to a post at Jezebel about a sign MarketFair Mall, in New Jersey, put up (and then took down after criticism and a petition) to apologize for any inconvenience some remodeling might cause:
The sign does a couple of things. It normalizes the idea that the type of verbal harassment women often face when in public (see my post from a couple of years ago for a personal example) is, in fact, the natural outcome of how women look. Rather than feeling harassed, women should interpret such comments as the compliments they really are. Yes, yes, we can shake our heads and act annoyed, but isn’t it ultimately nice to know we look good?
The sign also reinforces a certain view of working-class masculinity, one in which working-class men are crude and lacking in basic civility, unable or unwilling to control how they express themselves, a fact that everyone else may find a bit irritating but should ultimately shrug off with a bit of a smile.
This view of working-class masculinity is reinforced in a Dutch commercial sent in by Sarah van B. The commercial is for Gamma, a chain of hardware stores in the Netherlands. In it, boys build houses out of Legos, displaying various stereotypes of rough, brutish masculinity: lack of middle-class manners (burping, nose-picking), uncontrolled bodies (belly hanging out, visible butt crack), and group harassment of women:
Sarah translates the call to the woman as “Where are those pretty little legs going?”
Such depictions normalize the harassment of women while also associating it with a general lack of sophistication, something that only the lower classes would engage in. They encourage the audience to laugh at the men who do so, finding humor in their brutish antics, but also reinforce the idea that women should just expect this type of behavior from the type of men who do manual labor.
Paul (an Irish grad student), Carys G., Zeynep A., Marjan vdW., and one other reader all sent in a link to a new video released by the European Commission. The video, “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”, is meant to encourage girls to consider careers in the natural and physical sciences, presenting science, as the title suggests, as an area compatible with femininity and other “girl things” — make-up, high heels, and fashion:
The video has been roundly criticized (check out the Twitter feed for #sciencegirlthing), both for presenting a stereotyped image of girls and for misrepresenting the scientific workplace (one female scientist Tweeted wondering what will happen to any girls possibly drawn in by this campaign when they learn that in many labs, open-toed heels violate safety codes).
I suspect the makers of the video believe they are doing that first thing — trying to push back against the idea that science is unfeminine. Indeed, the video is part of the larger Science: It’s a Girl Thing! campaign, and the website also contains 12 profiles of female European scientists, which provide more realistic depictions of women working in a range of scientific fields. But many viewers, including a lot of scientists (both women and men), see it as the second thing — another example of what I described in my original post of the cartoon as “superficial attempts to overcome the often structural constraints that keep women out of masculinized arenas of social life.”
Indeed, girls don’t just need to be told “you can do science and look cute too!” In fact, a post at New Scientist discusses the results of a recently-published article by Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa, “My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls”. Betz and Sekaquaptewa found that images of conventionally feminine women in science fields actually demotivated female middle school students and decreased their perceptions of their likelihood of success in science and math. Girls appeared to see these images and, instead of thinking “Oh, I can like makeup and clothes but still do science!”, they thought, not unreasonably, “Oh, great, so I have to be smart and still meet all the demands of conventional femininity, too?” Instead of inspiring girls, the images were threatening, making them feel less likely to succeed in science and math. This effect was most pronounced for those girls who weren’t already interested in such fields — presumably the exact group campaigns such as Science: It’s a Girl Thing! are meant to attract. As the authors conclude (p. 7), “Submitting STEM role models to Pygmalian-style makeovers…may do more harm than good.”
S. Alfonzo sent us a link to the abridged version of The Codes of Gender, in which Sut Jhally, known for a number of documentaries on pop culture, analyzes current messages about masculinity and femininity in advertising, applying the ideas of Erving Goffman regarding gender and cultural performance. Definitely worth the time to watch: