Philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky once observed that being feminine often means using one’s body to portray powerlessness. Consider: A feminine person keeps her body small and contained; she makes sure that it doesn’t take up to much space or impose itself. She walks and sits in tightly packaged ways. She doesn’t cover the breadth of the sidewalk or expand herself beyond the chair she occupies.
Likewise, burping and farting, raising one’s voice in an argument, and even laughing loudly are considered distinctly unfeminine. A feminine person doesn’t use her body to forcefully interact with the world, she lets others do for her when possible. ”Massiveness, power, or abundance in a woman’s body is met with distaste,” Bartky wrote.
Stunningly, when you think about it, these features of feminine body comportment are, in fact, not uniquely feminine, but associated with deference more generally. Bartky again:
In groups of men, those with higher status typically assume looser and more relaxed postures; the boss lounges comfortably behind the desk while the applicant sits tense and rigid on the edge of his seat. Higher-status individuals may touch their subordinates more than they themselves get touched; they initiate more eye contact and are smiled at by their inferiors more than they are observed to smile in return. What is announced in the comportment of superiors is confidence and ease…
Acting feminine, then, overlaps with performances of submissiveness. Both men and women use their bodies in more feminine ways when their interacting with a superior, whether it be their boss, their commander, a police officer, or their professor.
New evidence suggests that this is not pure theory. Psychologist Andy Yap and his colleagues tested whether “expansive body postures” like the ones associated with masculinity increase people’s sense of powerfulness and entitlement. They did. In laboratory experiments, people who were prompted to take up more space were more likely to steal, cheat, and violate traffic laws in a simulation. A sense of powerfulness, reported by the subjects, mediated the effect (a robust finding that others have documented as well).
In a real world test of the theory, they found that large automobiles with greater internal space were more likely than small ones to be illegally parked in New York City.
Research, then, has shown that expansive body postures that take up room instill a psychological sense of power and entitlement. The fact that this behavior is gendered may go some way towards explaining the persistence of gender inequality and, more pointedly, some men’s belief that they have earned their unearned privileges.
You know all those badass ladies out there that are inexplicably single? Well, maybe it’s not so inexplicable.
In a study contending for most-depressing-research-of-the-year, psychologists Kate Ratliff and Shigehiro Oishi tested how a romantic partner’s success or failure affects the self-esteem of people in heterosexual relationships. The short story: men feel bad about themselves when good things happen to their female partners. Women’s self-esteem is unaffected. Here’s some of the data.
The vertical axis represents self-esteem. In this experiment, respondents were told that their partner scored high on a test of intelligence (“positive feedback”) or low (“negative feedback”). The leftmost bars show that men who were told that their partners were smart reported significantly lower self-esteem than those who heard that their partners weren’t so smart.
In the second condition, respondents were asked to imagine a partner’s success or failure. Doing so had no effect on women’s self-esteem (rightmost bars). For men, however, imagining their partners’ success made them feel bad about themselves, whereas imagining their failure made them feel good.
The various experiments were conducted with American and Dutch college students as well as a diverse Internet sample. The findings were consistent across populations and were particularly surprising in the context of the Netherlands, which is generally believed to be more gender egalitarian.
Far fewer people are expressing concern about the catchy song in which a husband and father outlines with complete confidence his ability to infer when “good girls” “want it.” The same guy who, when discussing the lyrics to his song, tells an interviewer:
Even very good girls have a little bad side. You just have to know how to pull it out of them.
The guy who boasts that he based his hit song on the time-honored masculine performance of hollering at bitches:
We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, ‘Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!’ That’s why, in the video, we’re doing all these old men dances. It was great.
That does sound pretty great, Robin.
Overall, the 2013 VMA debacle provides a painfully accurate example of the sexual double standard we have for women and men. A woman who performs sexuality (for whatever reason) is to be castigated, while a man who engages in the exact same performance (and who has unabashedly doubled down on his support for the rape myth that no means yes) hardly raises an eyebrow.
Brett Wheeler is a part-time psychology professor who is pursuing a PhD in positive psychology. His research interests include human sexuality, humor, and how these variables contribute to well-being.
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:
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:
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.
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.
Leontine G. sent in a troubling example of the framing of children’s deviance, and their own complicity in this framing. She included two links: one to a Today show story about a 7-year-old boy who took his family’s car on a joyride and got caught by police, and one to a CNN story about a 7-year-old boy who took his family’s car on a joyride and got caught by police. Different 7-year-olds. One white, one black.
The white boy, Preston, is interviewed with his family on the set of the Today show. Knowing his kid is safe, his Dad describes the event as “funny” and tells the audience that if this could happen to a “cotton candy all-American kid like Preston,” then “it could happen to anybody.”
When the host, Meredith Vieira, asks Preston why hid from the police, he says, “cause I wanted to,” and she says, “I don’t blame you actually.” With Preston not too forthcoming, his Mom steps in to say that he told her that “he just wanted to know what it felt like to drive a car.” When Vieira asks him why he fled from the police, he replies with a shrug. Vieira fills in the answer, “You wanted to get home?”
Vieira then comments on how they all then went to church. The punishment? Grounded for four days without TV or video games. Vieira asks the child, “Do you think that’s fair?” He says yes. And she continues, “Do you now understand what you did?” He nods and agrees. “And that maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing?” He nods and agrees. “You gonna get behind the wheel of a car again?” He says no. Then she teases him about trying out model toy cars.
They conclude that this incident just goes to show that “Any little kid, you never know what can happen…” and closes “I’ll be seeing you at church buddy boy!”
All in all, exactly what you’d expect from the Today show: a heartwarming, human interest story with a happy ending. The child is framed as a fundamentally good kid who was curious and perhaps a bit impetuous. When he has no answers for Vieira’s questions, she slots in innocent ones. And the mild punishment is seen as incidental to the more important idea that he learned something.
This story contrasts dramatically to the CNN story about Latarian Milton, a black 7-year-old who took his family’s car on a joy ride. I’ll put the video first, but be forewarned, it’s disturbing not only because of the different frame placed on the boys actions, but because of the boy’s embracing of the spoiled identity (apology for the commercial):
With an absolutely polar introduction of “Not your typical 7-year-old,” this story is filmed on the street. Whereas the Today show screened the chase footage in real time, this one is sped up, making it seem even more extreme.
The interviewer, off-camera, asks Latarian why he took the car. He replied: “I wanted to do it ’cause it’s fun, it’s fun to do bad things.” The interviewer asks further, “Did you know that you could perhaps kill somebody?” And he replies: “Yes, but I wanted to do hoodrat stuff with my friends.”
The interviewer asks him what punishment he should receive and Latarian offers a punishment very similar to Preston’s: “Just a little bit… no video games for a whole weekend.” In a longer version of this news story, now taken down, the camera focuses on a reporter who explains that the police plan to go forward with charges of grand theft against him. While he’s “too young to go into any type of juvenile facility,” he says, “police say they do want to get him into the system, so that they can get him some type of help.”
The implication here, of course, is that this child is not innocent or impetuous like Preston, he’s a pre-criminal who needs “some type of help.” The sooner they get Latarian into “the (prison?) system,” the better. No cotton candy kid this one.
Unfortunately, Latarian says all the right things to make the narrative fit. He says he likes to do “bad” things, calls himself a “hoodrat,” and seems unremorseful, even defiant, for at least part of the interview (he looks a bit sheepish in the end when he finds out his grandmother is going to have to pay for the damage he did to other cars).
One way to interpret this is to say that Latarian IS a pre-criminal. That he DOES need to get into the system because he’s clearly a bad kid. Someone inclined to believe that black people were, in fact, more prone to criminal behavior could watch these two videos and feel confirmed in their view.
Originally posted in 2010. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men. Crossposted at Racialicious, the Huffington Post, and Love Isn’t Enough.
In May we featured a block of cheese that inspired quite the response. Riffing off the name “Monterey Jack,” a company was selling “Monterey Jill”: the same old cheese, but reduced fat. It was an excellent example of the way dieting is feminized.
People — myself included — were pretty stunned to see gendered cheese; who knew this was going to be a thing. In fact, Liam sent us an example of gendered string cheese with the exact same theme: there’s string cheese animated by a male character and reduced-fat string cheese animated by a female character. Also, they’re surfing; aaaaaand I have no analysis of that.
Desmond, who put himself through college fighting fires in Arizona, returned to his old job as a graduate student in order to study his fellow firefighters. When he asked them why they were willing to put their lives at risk to fight fires, the firefighters responded, “Risk? What risk?”
It turned out that the firefighters didn’t think that their work was dangerous. How is this possible?
Desmond explains that most of the firefighters were working-class men from the country who had been working with nature all of their lives. They raised cattle and rode horses; they cut down trees, chopped firewood, and built fences; they hunted and fished as often as they could. They were at home in nature. They felt that they knew nature. And they had been manipulating nature all their lives. Desmond wrote: “…my crewmembers are much more than confident on the fireline. They are comfortable.”
To these men, fire was just another part of nature. They believed that if you understood the forest, respected fire, and paid attention, then you could keep yourself safe. Period. Fire wasn’t dangerous. One of the firefighters put it like this:
Cause, personally, I don’t consider my life in danger. I think that the people I work with and with the knowledge I know, my life isn’t in danger… If you know, as a firefighter, how to act on a fire, how to approach it, this and that, I mean you’re, yeah, fire can hurt you. But if you know, if you can soak up the stuff that has been taught to you, it’s not a dangerous job.
When these men were called “heroes,” they laughed. Desmond wrote: “The thought of dying on the fireline is so distant from firefighters’ imaginations that they find the idea comedic.”
When a fellow firefighter did tragically die on the fireline during Desmond’s study, he discovered just how deep this went. Unwilling to consider the possibility that fire was dangerous (at least in front of each other), the only way to make sense of the death was to find fault in an individual, or even blame the dead firefighter for being “stupid.” Desmond recounts this conversation:
“That sucks,” J.J. said.
“Someone fucked up,” Donald responded, immediately. “I’ll tell you what happened: Someone fucked up…”
Craig Neilson, the Fire Prevention Officer, added, “Their communications might have been fucked. . . . The fire was under them and burned up.”
“They probably weren’t paying attention,” Donald said…
“They’re probably stupid. Probably weren’t talking to their crew,” Peter guessed.
“Yep. They’re fuckin’ stupid, not talking to anyone. They should’ve known better than to build a helispot on top of the fire,” said Donald.
Heads continued to nod…
Desmond’s answer to why firefighters take such a risky job — because they don’t think it’s risky — was a fabulous counterpoint to dominant theories of risk taking at the time, which tended to suggest that men who did risky things were trying to prove their masculinity or seek adoration as a hero.
It’s easy to conclude that the firefighters are delusional for thinking that fire isn’t risky, but Desmond does a wonderful job of showing that their denial of risk is mundane. We do it every day that we jump into a car and approach 70 miles per hour on the freeway. If we are worried about our safety, it’s usually because we are concerned about the skills and attention of other drivers. Most of us think that we, personally, are pretty decent, even great drivers. The firefighters tend to feel the same about fire.
Today’s deaths remind us that fire is dangerous. We should also remember that risky jobs are disproportionately filled by the least powerful members of our society. Wildland firefighters are typically low income men from rural backgrounds; in Desmond’s study, they were also disproportionately Latino and American Indian. As Desmond wrote: “Certain bodies, deemed precious, are protected, while others, deemed expendable, protect.” Let’s take a moment to remember the 19 who lost their lives yesterday, as well as the other men and women who do the dangerous work of America. And be careful everybody.