Tag Archives: gender: femininity

Move Over Halloween, Here Comes Christmas

‘Tis the season to remind us that men and women are different and one of women’s jobs is to pander to a hypothetical heterosexual male gaze.  The University of Akron’s Will LeSuer photographed the Christmas-themed costumes for sale at a local store, noting the not-so-implicit gendered expectations.

Surprise, the main theme of the women’s costumes was cute and flirty:

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The men’s themes are, let’s see, comfortable and… superhero?

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And, yes, it starts when they’re kids.IMG_20131209_172436

Here’s a fun compare-and-contrast for maximum icky feeling.  The sexualization of girls and the infantilization of women, in one holiday-themed shot (“child” costume on left, “adult” on right):

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Woman-as-Cat in Anti-Suffrage Propaganda

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cross-posted at Jezebel and Human-Animal Studies Images.

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. 

Men and Women! They Talk Like People!

I absolutely love this comic from Robot Hugs!  Yes, people are people!  Or, as Kathryn Dindia once said, “Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.”

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Sexy Baby Voice vs. The Voice of God

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.

In any culture the people in it use symbols to communicate with one another. They fill these symbols with shared meaning and connect them with other ideas and symbols. For instance, today we associate blue with masculinity and pink with femininity, but a hundred years ago pink was a, “a more decided and stronger color, more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”. The point here is that any symbol, whether it’s a color or the sound of a voice, is not inherently masculine or feminine, powerful or weak, etc. As a culture we put the meaning into the symbols.

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.”

Bell expanded on this idea further in another interview:

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.

Nathan Palmer, MA is a visiting lecturer at Georgia Southern University. He is a passionate educator, the founder of Sociology Source, and the editor of Sociology in Focus, where this post originally appeared.

Why Do We Sexualize Chicken?

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.

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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.

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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.”

Hear it straight from Adams, via Uncooped:

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

50 Years Later: Is the Birth Control Pill Patriarchy-Compliant?

If I have one thing to say about Holly Grigg-Spall’s new book, Sweetening the Pill: How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control, it’s that it brings together ideas in creative ways and comes out with conclusions that are new to me.

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.

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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.

Others have criticized 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.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Power, Mickey Mouse, and the Infantilization of Women

Here and there the media becomes interested in the sexualization of little girls and, when they do, I often get a call from a reporter or two.  I’ve yet to see any of them pick up on what I think is the really interesting story.  They want to talk about child models, little girls in beauty pageants, and the transitional tween years for Disney star prodigies, but I always want to add into the mix the infantilization of adult women.

The sexualization of girls and the infantilization of adult women are two sides of the same coin.  They both tell us that we should find youth, inexperience, and naivete sexy in women, but not in men.  This reinforces a power and status difference between men and women, where vulnerability, weakness, and dependency and their opposites are gendered traits: desirable in one sex but not the other.

Now, thanks to @BonneZ, I know that this has something interesting to do with Mickey Mouse.

The original Mouse, Stephen Jay Gould has observed, was a kind of nasty character.  But, as he has evolved into the “cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom,” he has appeared increasingly childlike. This six figures below indicate Mickey’s evolution over time:

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Childlike features, Gould argues, inspire a need to nurture: “When we see a living creature with babyish features,” he writes, “we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness.”   Allison Guy observes that we see a similar trend in recent toy makeovers – larger eyes, bigger heads, fatter stumpier limbs — but we see this primarily in toys aimed at infants and girls, not boys:

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Guy interprets this trend as the “result of a cultural imperative for women to embody both the cute and the sexual.”  So, women don “cute” clothes with colorful patterns associated with children and wear “flippy skirts” and “baby doll” t-shirts. They wear eyeliner to give the illusion of the large eyes of childhood, foundation to hide the marks of aging on the face, and pink on their cheeks to mimic the blush of youth.  They are taught these imperatives from an early age.

What does it mean that feminine beauty is conflated with youthfulness, but masculine beauty is not – that we want women to be both cute and sexual?  It means that we feel comfortable with women who seem helpless and require taking care of, perhaps we even encourage or demand these traits from women.  Perhaps these childlike characteristics are most comforting in women who are, in fact, the least needy; I submit that we are more accepting of powerful women when they perform girlish beauty.  When they don’t, they are often perceived as threatening or unlikable.

So, yes, the sexualization of girls is interesting — and no doubt it’s no good for girls and likely contributes to older men’s sexual interest in young women — but it’s not just about sexualizing kids early.  It’s about infantilizing adult women, too, as a way to remind women of their prescribed social position relative to men.

Cross-posted at Jezebel and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Power of Pork: Who Needs Feminism?

Look at this cute ad from the 1950s.  Mom is so satisfied as she watches her three children husband and two kids discover the Swift’s Premium bacon she just cooked up.  We should wax nostalgic because that kind of feminine domesticity and helpless husbandry just isn’t expected in marriage any more.  Right?

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Wrong!  Enjoy this dizzying ad from Maple Leaf in which a woman finally gets her three children husband and two kids to be decent human beings by feeding them, you guessed it, bacon:

Thanks to Tom Megginson, The Ethical Adman, for both of these examples and the title of this post.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.