Tag Archives: gender: history

Bathing Suit Fashion and the Project of Gender

I came across this ad for bathing suits from the 1920s and was struck by how similar the men’s and women’s suits were designed.  Hers might have some extra coverage up top and feature a tight skirt over shorts instead of just shorts but, compared to what you see on beaches today, they are essentially the same bathing suit.

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So, why are the designs for men’s and women’s bathing suits so different today? Honestly, either one could be gender-neutral. Male swimmers already wear Speedos; the fact that the man in the ad above is covering his chest is evidence that there is a possible world in which men do so. I can see men in bikinis. Likewise, women go topless on some beaches and in some countries and it can’t be any more ridiculous for them to swim in baggy knee-length shorts than it is for men to do so.

But, that’s not how it is.  Efforts to differentiate men and women through fashion have varied over time.  It can be a response to a collective desire to emphasize or minimize difference, like these unisex pants marketed in the 1960s and 70s.  It can also be, however, a backlash to those same impulses.  When differences between men and women in education, leisure, and work start to disappear – as they are right now – some might cling even tighter to the few arenas in which men and women can be made to seem very different.

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

Caveman Courtship and its Mythology

Flashback Friday.

Somewhere we got the idea that “caveman” courtship involved a man clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her by the hair to his cave where he would, presumably, copulate with an unconscious or otherwise unwilling woman.  This idea, as these two products show, is generally considered good for a chuckle.

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(glasses sent in by Cole S.H.)

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(tray for sale at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, photo by me)

Of course, we have little to no knowledge of the social lives of early humans.  First, long buried bodies and archeological dig sites simply can’t tell us much about how men and women interacted.  Second, to speculate about early humans based on humans today is to project the present onto the past.  To speculate about early humans based on today’s apes is (at least) as equally suspect.  Ape behavior varies tremendously anyway, even among our closest cousins. Which type do we choose?  The violent and hierarchical chimp or the peace-loving Bonobos who solve all social strife with sex?

In other words, the caveman-club-’er-over-the-head-and-drag-her-by-the-hair narrative is pure mythology. The mythology, nonetheless, affirms the idea that men are naturally coercive and violent by suggesting that our most natural and socially-uncorrupted male selves will engage in this sort of behavior.  Rape, that is.

The idea also affirms the teleological idea that society is constantly improving and, therefore, getting closer and closer to ideals like gender equality.  If it’s true that “we’re getting better all the time,” then we assume that, whatever things are like now, they must have been worse before.  And however things were then, they must have been even worse before that.  And so on and so forth until we get all the way back to the clubbing caveman.

Thinking like this may encourage us to stop working to make society better because we assume it will get better anyway (and certainly won’t get worse).  Instead of thinking about what things like gender equality and subordination might look like, then, we just assume that equality is, well, what-we-have-now and subordination is what-they-had-then.  This makes it less possible to fight against the subordination that exists now by making it difficult to recognize.

The idea of caveman courtship, in other words, seems silly and innocuous.  But it actually helps to naturalize men’s aggressive pursuit of sex with women.  And that naturalization is part of why it is so difficult to disrupt rape myths and stop rape.

Originally posted in 2008 and cross-posted at Ms. magazine.

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

One Hundred Years of the Fridge

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Since their invention in 1913, and since this Kelvinator ad first ran in 1955, refrigerators became bigger, better, and went from a luxury to a necessity. It’s nearly impossible to imagine life today without having somewhere to store your vegetables and a place to keep your leftovers: in the one hundred years it’s been around, the fridge altered our grocery shopping habits and our attitudes towards food.

Appliance companies and advertisers worked hard to transform refrigerators from “a brand new concept in luxurious living” to an everyday household object. They succeeded in the 1960s, after years of fine-tuning its features to appeal to the middle-class housewife, writes historian Shelley Nickles. Besides ensuring the fridges were spacious, easy to clean, and had adjustable shelving, designers even took care of minutiae such as including warmer compartments – so that the butter kept in them would be easier to spread. Having attracted the housewives’ attention and become affordable with ideas such as government-sponsored fridges floating around, the appliances made their way into middle-class homes.

Buying too many perishable items suddenly became a minor concern. Buy one, get one free! Get more value for your money – purchase a bigger container! As the number of fridge compartments increased, so did the number of refrigeration-dependent foods and “supersize” deals offered in stores (or the other way around). Ultimately, grocery shoppers – mainly women – returned home with more food than they otherwise would have. Fridges enabled families to stock up, and the major weekend grocery haul was born. Now we have this:

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But while having a fridge to store all the groceries made it possible to save more on “deals” at the supermarket, it also enabled us to waste more later on. That is because the fridge operates much like a time machine, but not without its limits. Sociologists Elizabeth Shove and Dale Southerton describe freezers as appliances that allow us to manage time: in addition to no longer having to shop multiple times per week, we can now prepare our meals in advance. The same holds for refrigerators.

Food has its own rhythm, however, and a fridge can only delay the inevitable for so long. Leftovers simultaneously get pushed down in the hierarchy of what we’d like to eat, and pushed back on refrigerator shelf, only to be forgotten and perhaps rediscovered when it’s already too late. An exotic fruit rots in the produce compartment after its exciting novelty wore off, and we were no longer sure what to do with it. And so they all end up in the trash. Domestic food waste only represents part of all the food thrown away in the U.S. today – about a third of all that is produced – but the way fridges altered out food purchasing and consumption habits is partly to blame.

Not all is bad, however. Fridges not only allow us to eat a greater variety of foods and be more efficient in our everyday lives, we use them as centers of communication and managing household life. And as they become smarter, more energy-efficient, and with some individuals refusing to use them altogether, these cultural objects will doubtless have more stories to tell in the next hundred years.

Teja Pristavec is a graduate student in the sociology department, and an IHHCPAR Excellence Fellow,  at Rutgers University. She blogs at A Serving of Sociology, where this post originally appeared.

The Invention of the Playboy

Flashback Friday.

In Hearts of Men, Barbara Ehrenreich talks about the launching of Playboy in 1953 and how it forever changed how we thought about single men.

At that time, a man who stayed single was suspected of homosexuality.  The idea of being an unmarried heterosexual adult of sound mind and body was totally foreign.  Hugh Hefner changed all of that by inventing a whole new kind of man, the playboy.  The playboy stayed single (so as to have lots of ladies), kept his money for himself and his indulgences (booze and ladies), and re-purposed the domestic sphere (enter the snazzy bachelor pad full of booze and ladies).

With this in mind, check out this attempt to attract advertising dollars from a 1969 issue (found at Vintage Ads).  It nicely demonstrates Playboy‘s marketing of a new kind of man, one who lives a free and adventurous life that is unburdened by a boring, dead-end job needed to support a wife and kids.

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What sort of man reads Playboy? He’s an entertaining young guy happily living the good life. And loving every adventurous minute of it. One recipe for his upbeat life style? Fun friends and fine potables. Facts. PLAYBOY is read by one of out every three men under 50 who drink alcoholic beverages. Small wonder beverage advertisers invest more dollars in PLAYBOY issue per issue than they do in any other magazine. Need your spirit lifted? This must be the place.

Today, we commonly come across the idea that men are naturally averse to being tied down, but Hefner’s project reveals that this was an idea that was invented quite recently and promulgated for profit.

This post originally appeared in 2008.

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

Thankfully, Violence Against Women on the Decline

Shock, frustration, and rage. That’s our reaction to the hate-filled video record that Elliot Rodger left behind. The 22-year-old, believed to have killed 6 people in Santa Barbara this week, left behind a terrible internet trail.

I cannot and will not speculate about the “mind of the killer” in such cases, but I can offer a little perspective on the nature and social context of these acts. This sometimes entails showing how mass shootings (or school shootings) remain quite rare, or that crime rates have plummeted in the past 20 years. I won’t repeat those reassurances here, but will instead address the bald-faced misogyny and malice of the videos. It outrages us to see a person look into a camera and clearly state his hatred of women — and then, apparently, to make good on his dark promises. It also raises other awful questions. Are these sentiments generally held? If you scratch the surface, are there legions of others who would and could pursue “retribution” as Mr. Rodger did? Is serious violence against women on the rise?

Probably not. Rates of sexual violence in the United States, whether measured by arrest or victimization, have declined by over 50 percent over the last twenty years. As the figure shows, the rape and sexual assault victimization rate dropped  from over 4 per 1000 (age 12 and older) in 1993 to about 1.3 per 1000 in 2012.  And, if you add up all the intimate partner violence (including all rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault committed by spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends), the rate has dropped from almost 10 per 1000 in 1994 to 3.2 per 1000 in 2012. The numbers below include male victims, but the story remains quite consistent when the analysis is limited to female victims.

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Of course, misogyny and violence against women remain enormous social problems — on our college campuses and in the larger society. Moreover, the data at our disposal are often problematic and the recent trend is far less impressive than the big drop from 1993 to 2000. All that said, “retribution” videos and PUA threads shouldn’t obscure a basic social fact:  22-year-olds today are significantly less violent than 22-year-olds a generation ago.

Chris Uggen is a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the author of  Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, with Jeff Manza. You can follow him on twitter and at his blog, where this post originally appeared.  Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Sunday Fun: Cinderella and the Glass Stripper Slipper

I guess I’m a little bit of a masochist, so I watched the trailer for Disney’s Cinderella re-make, due out in 2015. All they do is show a shoe, but what a shoe it is! Notice anything different?

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Point to Gail Dines; Pamela Paul; Carmine Sarracino and Kevin Scott; and Kaarina Nikunun, Susanna Paasonen, and Laura Saarenmaa, all who argue that we’re seeing a “pornification” of everyday life.

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

How Republican Women Lose Out in the Polarization of Politics

There are more women in political office than ever, but the U.S. is not on the forefront of this change.  In 2013, the U.S. Congress was 18% female which, internationally, places us in the middle of the pack.

The Democrats can boast better numbers than the Republicans, but it wasn’t always this way.  At the Scholars Strategy Network, sociologist Danielle Thomsen observes that the Democratic party (green and blue) has increased female representation much quicker than the Republicans (red and purple), but only since the ’80s or so.

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Thomsen argues that part of the reason for this difference has to do with increasing polarization in politics.  Both the Democratic and Republican parties have become more ideologically extreme, but this has hurt Republican recruitment of women more than Democratic ones.  This is because Republican women tend to be more moderate, on average, than Republican men.  Since there is less room for moderation in the party, the selection process favors more conservative politicians.  Among that group, there are very few women.

This hasn’t hurt the Democrats as much, since Democratic women are not more likely than Democratic men to hold moderate views.  The opposite, in fact, may be true, increasing the rate at which women may be picked up and supported by the party.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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

1954 and the Fantasy of Friendship

Ads are always selling more than just a product. They’re selling a fantasy.  In this case, buy Ballantine Ale and you’ll get this:

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The this is this ad from 1954 is what interests me.  I see same-sex friendship. These are presumably two heterosexual married couples — though some would disagree — but the ad isn’t about love, marriage, or sex.  The ad is about the friendship that each spouse finds with their same-sex counterpart.  The two couples come together not for platonic cross-sex companionship, in other words, but same-sex friendship.

For much of American history, the idea that men and women could be friends made little sense.  This was not for the reason we tend to think this today (that is, sexual temptation), but because men and women were believed to be psychologically different.  Differences between the sexes were believed to make cross-sex friendship impossible and pointless.  You wouldn’t have anything in common and couldn’t understand one another.  Women needed men for marriage, domestic divisions of labor, and children — and vice versa — but true friendship was reserved for someone of the same sex.

We certainly don’t need to return to that type of thinking — even if it was adorable — but I do appreciate the way this ad is committed to the idea that simple friendship is fantastic.

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