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.
The winter of 1620 was a devastating one for the colonists who had just arrived from England in New Plymouth. They suffered from scurvy, exposure to the elements, and terrible living conditions. Almost half (45 out of 102) died; only four of the remaining were women.
They made contact with the Wampanoag tribe in March. The tribe taught them how to grow corn and donated food to the colony. Thank to their help, the pilgrims were able to celebrate a harvest, or thanksgiving, that fall. It was attended by the 53 remaining pilgrims and 90 indigenous Americans.
That’s why this Red Bull commercial is so annoying. In the final 12 seconds, you see four pilgrims and two Indians, three women and three men. So, by pure numbers, reversed and heavily female. The turkey is served by a pilgrim, sending the message that the pilgrims were feeding the Indians and not vice versa. It’s a woman, of course, but likely most of the food preparation would have done by men, since they were 77% of the colonist population.
But, it nicely lines up with how we apparently think the world should be today: multicultural but majority white, with women cooking, and everyone paired up in same-race, heterosexual monogamy.
In my lecture about the sex lives of college students, I remind students that they didn’t invent casual sex. This always prompts some snickers. The fact that today’s students have about the same number of sexual partners as their parents did at their age evokes an even stronger response. About 1/5th of college students will be virgins when they graduate college.
In fact, college students aren’t as sexually active as the moralizing makes it seem. And neither, it turns out, are teenagers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 57% of girls and 58% of boys age 15 to 19 have never had penile-vaginal intercourse. Moreover, the percent of teenagers that have had intercourse has been dropping consistently over the last 20 years.
So, despite the fact that young people are more likely than earlier generations to engage in oral sex before initiating penile-vaginal intercourse (especially fellatio), they continue to take intercourse very seriously. This may be, in part, because men are becoming more like women in this regard. Men’s numbers have dropped much more sharply. In addition, for the first time the CDC study found that boys’ #2 reason for not having engaged in intercourse was that they were waiting for the right person. Men cited this reason 29% of the time, compared to 19% for girls. For both boys and girls, the #1 reason is that it’s against their religion (41% of girls and 31% of boys). Concerns about pregnancy come in third.
“Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.”
Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.
The rise of Second Wave feminism in the ’70s posed serious threats to the patriarchal order — as well it should have. But even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, with a hat tip to the universality of being bullied, is one of the reasons Carrie scares everyone.
While men in the ’70s felt threatened by the unprecedented numbers of women standing up for themselves and attempting such radical social changes as being recognized as equal under the law, women themselves must have felt some anxiety that the obstacles to fully realizing themselves might be too big to conquer. The story therefore resonates with men in terms of the fear of (metaphorical) castration prompted by changing gender roles, and with women in terms of the fear that no matter how powerful we become, social forces are still so aligned against us that fighting back might destroy not just the patriarchy but ourselves.
Feminism was not the only thing on the rise in the ’70s: so was Christian fundamentalism. In 1976, the year that the original movie debuted, 34 percent of Protestant Americans told the Gallup Poll that they had had born-again experiences, leading George Gallup himself to declare 1976 the Year of the Evangelical. In fact evangelism, then as now — when 41 percent of Americans report being born again — was one of feminism’s more formidable foes, one of those very social forces that would rather destroy women than see them powerful.
The triggering event of Carrie–the infamous shower scene–is a product of the meeting of these two forces. Because of a fundamentalist Christian worldview in which menstruation is not simply a biological process but rather evidence of Eve’s original sin being visited upon her daughters,Carrie‘s mother does nothing to prepare her for getting her period. When she starts bleeding at school, Carrie naturally panics, and as a result faces the scorn of her peers — who laugh at her for not knowing what’s happening – and the scorn of her mother, who believes that “After the blood the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is.”
I can’t believe I’m about to go all Freudian here, but for the male viewer the shock of seeing unexpected blood between one’s legs clearly represents a fear of castration–a literal embodiment of King’s anxieties about feminism. From the woman’s perspective, the menstrual blood obviously signifies Carrie’s maturation — coming into her power — which has been marred by fundamentalism.
Without making the new remake of the movie any more violent, director Kimberly Peirce emphasizes the imagery of this inciting event by adding waaaaay more blood to her Carrie. When Carrie gets her period in the shower, there’s more blood than in Brian De Palma’s film. When Carrie gets some of that blood on her gym teacher, which happens in both films, Peirce adds more of it, and the camera lingers on it longer and returns to it more often.
When Carrie’smother locks her in the closet, Peirce has the crucifix bleed–something that doesn’t happen in the first movie. The blood of the crucifix connects Carrie’s first period to the suffering of Christ, deepening the relationship between debased femininity and religion.
Then, when Carrie gets pig blood dumped on her head at the prom, there’s not just more of it in the second film: Pierce shows the blood landing on her in slow motion three times. This final deluge of blood echoes a scene that Pierce added to the beginning of the movie, in which Carrie’s mother endures the bloody birth of her daughter. Carrie, then, is essentially born again at the prom, and the devastation she wreaks can be read as a result not of her feminine power but of the corruption of it by religion.
Peirce told Women and Hollywood that her goal was to make Carrie as sympathetic as possible. She removes the male gaze aspect of the original shower scene, in which many of the girls are naked and the long, slow shots of Carrie’s body are rather pornified. She makes sympathy for Carrie’s primary nemesis at school pretty much impossible by changing her from an angry girl in an abusive relationship to a sociopath without a conscience. In the new film, Carrie even has the strength to challenge her mother’s theology. Her prom date is more likeable and Peirce uses his death–something De Palma doesn’t reveal until the end — as further motivation for Carrie’s rampage.
None of this changes the fact that Carrie dies at the end, but it does foreground the idea that the message doesn’t have to be that powerful women are indeed dangerous. It can be that fundamentalism is dangerous to women.
If you’re a feminist, I say go see Carrie. Watching her be destroyed — but not without taking out a lot of the patriarchy with her — and then, as a viewer, emerging again into the sunlight unscathed, allows feminists to process some of our deepest fears about what we’re up against. Then we can get on with making the world a place where religious beliefs don’t corrupt our sexuality, where women don’t have to destroy themselves to be powerful and where women’s equality doesn’t trigger men’s fear of their own doom.
Every once in a while the internet is abuzz being horrified by vintage ads for Lysol brand douche. The ads seem to suggest that women are repulsing their husbands with odorous vaginas caused by neglected feminine hygiene. In fact, it only looks like this to us today because we don’t know the secret code.
These ads aren’t frightening women into thinking their genitals smell badly. According to historian Andrea Tone, “feminine hygiene” was a euphemism. Birth control was illegal in the U.S. until 1965 (for married couples) and 1972 (for single people). These Lysol ads are actually for contraception. The campaign made Lysol the best-selling method of contraception during the Great Depression.
Of course, we’re not wrong to be horrified today. Lysol was incredibly corrosive to the vagina; in fact, it’s recipe was significantly more dangerous than the one used today. Hundreds of people died from exposure to Lysol, including women who were using it to kill sperm. It was also, to add insult to injury, wholly ineffective as a contraceptive.
Here’s to safe, legal, effective contraception for all.
The Smurfs, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people – with their unique qualities and abilities – while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity. The sequel doesn’t upend the premise of Smurfette.
In the original graphic novels, Smurfette (or La Schtroumpfette in French) was the creation of the evil Gargamel, who made her to sow chaos among the all-male Smurf society. His recipe for femininity included coquetry, crocodile tears, lies, gluttony, pride, envy, sentimentality, and cunning.
In the Smurfs 2, there are a lot of Smurfs. And they all have names based on their unique qualities. According to the cast list, the male ones are Papa, Grouchy, Clumsy, Vanity, Narrator, Brainy, Handy, Gutsy, Hefty, Panicky, Farmer, Greedy, Party Planner, Jokey, Smooth, Baker, Passive-Aggressive, Clueless, Social, and Crazy. And the female one is Smurfette–because being female is enough for her. There is no boy Smurf whose identifying quality is his gender, of course, because that would seem hopelessly limited and boring as a character.
Here are the Smurf characters McDonald’s is using for their Happy Meals:
When you buy a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, the cashier asks if it’s for a boy or a girl. In my experience, which is admittedly limited to my daughters, girls get Smurfette. I guess boys get any of the others.
The Way It’s Never Been
Identifying male characters by their non-gender qualities and females by their femininity is just one part of the broader pattern of gender differentiation, or what you might call gendering.
There are two common misconceptions about gendering children. One is that it has always been this way – with boys and girls so different naturally that all products and parenting practices have always differentiated them. This is easily disproved in the history of clothing, which shows that American parents mostly dressed their boys and girls the same a century ago. In fact, boys and girls were often indistinguishable, as evident in this 1905 Ladies’ Home Journal contest in which readers were asked to guess the sex of the babies (no one got them all right):
Source: Jo Paoletti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America
The other common perception is that our culture is actually eliminating gender distinctions, as feminism tears down the natural differences that make gender work. In the anti-feminist dystopian mind, this amounts to feminizing boys and men. This perspective gained momentum during the three decades after 1960, when women entered previously male-dominated occupations in large numbers (a movement that has largely stalled).
However, despite some barrier-crossing, we do more to gender-differentiate now than we did during the heyday of the 1970s unisex fashion craze (the subject of Jo Paoletti’s forthcoming book, Sex and Unisex). On her Tumblr, Paoletti has a great collection of unisex advertising, such as this 1975 Garanimals clothing ad, which would be unthinkable for a major clothier today:
And these clothing catalog images from 1972 (left) and 1974 (right):
Today, the genders are not so easily interchangeable. Quick check: Google image search for “girls clothes” (left) vs. “boys clothes” (right):
Today, a blockbuster children’s movie can invoke 50-year-old gender stereotypes with little fear of a powerful feminist backlash. In fact, even the words “sexism” and “sexist,” which rose to prominence in the 1970s and peaked in the 1990s, have once again become less common than, say, the word “bacon”:
And the gender differentiation of childhood is perhaps stronger than it has ever been. Not all differences are bad, of course. But what Katha Pollitt called “the Smurfette principle” – in which “boys are the norm, girls the variation” — is not a difference between equals.
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?
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.