Tag Archives: gender: history

The Blood of Carrie: A Feminist Review of the Re-Make

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.”

– Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Screenshot_1Most 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.

10304319383_31b0b70ec7Without 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’s mother 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.

Holly L. Derr, MFA, is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist FandomFor more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwoThree, and Four at the Ms. Magazine blog.

Cross-posted at Ms. Magazine.  Photos courtesy of Jade and thefanboyseo1 via Creative Commons 2.0

Halloween Costumes: Then and Now

It’s become a tradition, every year about this time, to have a national conversation about the rise of sexy Halloween costumes, especially for little girls.  But are they really sexier than before?

Sure enough.  Jessica Samakow at the Huffington Post put together a gallery of then and now photos, sent along by Katrin.  See for yourself:

More about sexy costumes for women and girls: boy and girl cookie monster costumeswhen sexy overtakes all reasonsexy femininity and gender inequalitysexy scholarHarem girl, the sexy body bag costume, and a Halloween gender binary.

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.

The Secret Life of Vintage Lysol Douche Ads

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.

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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.

Via Buzzfeed and @CreativeTweets.

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.

The Banal, Insidious Sexism of Smurfette

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Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Animation

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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:

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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):

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Source: Jo Paoletti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

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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:

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And these clothing catalog images from 1972 (left) and 1974 (right):

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Today, the genders are not so easily interchangeable. Quick check: Google image search for “girls clothes” (left) vs. “boys clothes” (right):

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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”:

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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.

Cross-posted at The Atlantic and Family Inequality

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or 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 co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Before the Stewardess, the Steward: When Flight Attendants Were Men

The world’s first flight attendant was a man. He was a German named Heinrich Kubis and he was a steward on LZ-10 Schwaben zeppelin, a rigid blimp like aircraft that began ferrying passengers in 1912.  Here’s Kubis at work:

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The first flight attendant to serve on an airplane was a 14-year-old boy named Jack Sanderson. It was 1922 and he was hired by The Daimler Airway (later part of British Airways):

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When commercial airlines took to the sky in the U.S., it was with an all-male staff.  A 19-year-old Cuban American named Amaury Sanchez was the steward for Pan American’s inaugural flight in 1928.  Pan Am maintained an all-male steward workforce for 16 years.

Unnamed steward, 1920s (source):

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Like Kubis’ suit and bow tie, Sanderson’s military-style jacket, and our anonymous steward’s white coat reveal, the steward role was taken very seriously: they played an important role in an elite world.  This would change with the democratization of air travel and the introduction of the female flight attendant during World War II.  By the ’50s, many airlines would only hire women and the occupation would become increasingly feminized and trivialized, just like the once all-male activity of cheerleading.

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.

Relax, “Breadwinner Moms” Do Not Portend a Coming Matriarchy

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

The other day when the Pew report on mothers who are breadwinners came out, I complained about calling wives “breadwinners” if they earn $1 more than their husbands:

A wife who earns $1 more than her husband for one year is not the “breadwinner” of the family. That’s not what made “traditional” men the breadwinners of their families — that image is of a long-term pattern in which the husband/father earns all or almost all of the money, which implies a more entrenched economic domination.

To elaborate a little, there are two issues here. One is empirical: today’s female breadwinners are much less economically dominant than the classical male breadwinner — and even than the contemporary male breadwinner, as I will show. And second, conceptually breadwinner not a majority-share concept determined by a fixed percentage of income, but an ideologically specific construction of family provision.

Let’s go back to the Pew data setup: heterogamously married couples with children under age 18 in the year 2011 (from Census data provided by IPUMS). In 23% of those couples the wife’s personal income is greater than her husband’s — that’s the big news, since it’s an increase from 4% half a century ago. This, to the Pew authors and media everywhere, makes her the “primary breadwinner,” or, in shortened form (as in their title), “breadwinner moms.” (That’s completely reasonable with single mothers, by the way; I’m just working on the married-couple side of the issue — just a short chasm away.)

The 50%+1 standard conceals that these male “breadwinners” are winning a greater share of the bread than are their female counterparts. Specifically, the average father-earning-more-than-his-wife earns 81% of the couple’s income; the average mother-earning-more-than-her-husband earns 69% of the couple’s income. Here is the distribution in more detail:

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This shows that by far the most common situation for a female “breadwinner” is to be earning between 50% and 60% of the couple’s income — the case for 38% of such women. For the father “breadwinners,” though, the most common situation — for 28% of them — is to be earning all of the income, a situation that is three-times more common than the reverse.

Collapsing data into categories is essential for understanding the world. But putting these two groups into the same category and speaking as if they are equal is misleading.

This is especially problematic, I think, because of the historical connotation of the term breadwinner. The term dates back to 1821, says the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s from the heyday of America’s separate spheres ideology, which elevated to reverential status the woman-home/man-work ideal. Breadwinners in that Industrial Revolution era were not defined by earning 1% more than their wives. They earned all of the money, ideally (meaning, if their earnings were sufficient) but, just as importantly, they were the only one permanently working for pay outside the home. (JSTOR has references going back to the 1860s which confirm this usage.)

Modifying “breadwinner” with “primary” is better than not, but that subtlety has been completely lost in the media coverage. Consider these headlines from a Google news search just now:

Further down there are some references to “primary breadwinners,” but that’s rare.

Maybe we should call those 100%ers breadwinners, and call the ones closer to 50% breadsharers.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Domestic Behavior as Both Gendered and Raced: Who Does What for Airlines?

Screenshot_1While the flight attendant might be a quintessentially feminized occupation today, the first “stewardess” was, in fact, a “steward.” Pan American had an all-male steward workforce — and a ban on hiring women — for 16 years.  It was forced to integrate during the male labor shortage of World War II, when female flight attendants were considered as revolutionary as “Rosie” riveters and welders.  By 1958, their ban on hiring women would be reversed. There was now a ban on hiring men.  This is just some of the fascinating history in Phil Tiemeyer‘s new book, Plane Queer, a history of the male flight attendant.

By the 1950s women dominated the aisles in the sky.  Airlines accepted this.  Women (1) were cheaper to employ, (2) domesticated the cabin, making commercial travel seem suitable for women and children, and (3) sexualized the experience for the business men who still made up the bulk of travelers.

By the time Celio Diaz Jr. invoked the 1964 Civil Rights Act and sued Pan Am on the basis of gender discrimination, white male flight attendants were seen as downright queer.  Servile behavior — the cooking, serving, nurturing, and aiding behavior characteristic of the job at the time — was both gendered and racialized.  When black men or white women performed domestic duties, it was seen as natural.  (The gender dimension might seem obvious but, from slavery to the early 1900s, black men were also concentrated in domestic occupations: coachmen, waiters, footmen, butlers, valets  etc.)

So, when white men served others — but not black men or white women — it challenged the supposedly natural order on which both hierarchies were founded.  This is why male flight attendants caused such a stir. The airlines wouldn’t hire black men or women, so they hired white men and women. The men, as a result, were suspected of being not-quite-heterosexual from the get-go and have suffered the ups and downs of homophobia ever since.

The double-definition of servile behavior as simultaneously racialized and gendered absolutely leapt out at me when I saw this commercial for Virgin Atlantic, sent in by Grace P.  It captures both the race and gender dimension of a segregated workforce. The two women and single black man play the role of service worker, while the two white men are a pilot and an engineer.  Each is framed as being literally born to do these jobs, thus the insistent and troubling naturalization of these hierarchical roles.

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.