A touching BBC story describes a new documentary, Menstrual Man, that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a humble man in India who sought to offer his wife a sanitary napkin. After marrying, he discovered that his wife kept from him a secret: the rags she used and re-used to collect menstrual blood.
Only 12% of women in India used pads; they were simply too expensive for most to buy. Nearly three-quarters of all reproductive diseases were caused by poor menstrual hygiene. A combination of high cost and embarrassment kept women from developing a safe method of managing menstruation. Nearly a quarter of girls dropped out of school when they started their periods.
Arunachalam Muruganantham was driven to offer women a solution. He was going to design a machine that would produce low cost menstrual pads. He asked his wife to serve as an experimental subject, but one woman menstruating once a month wasn’t enough of a sample. He asked medical students to participate, but the responses were slim. He fashioned a fake uterus and collected goat blood, trying to experiment himself.
“Everyone thought he’d gone mad.”
His wife left, his mother left, his friends avoided him; it was suspected he was some kind of diseased or possessed sexual pervert, collecting menstrual blood to do god-knows-what.
Figuring out how to make highly absorptive cotton was a significant challenge. He finally tricked a multinational company into sending him samples of the raw material: cellulose from the bark of the tree. Now he just had to design a cheap machine that would turn the raw material into pads.
Four-and-a-half years later, he was producing affordable menstrual pads for Indian women on a cheaply made machine. He won an award. His wife came back.
He built 250 machines, which he then took to the poorest areas of Northern India. He gave them to women, at no profit, who could then produce the pads and sell them to local women. Each woman now runs her own business. “Over time the machines spread to 1,300 villages in 23 states.”
He is now looking to expand to 106 more countries.
About his success, Muruganantham said:
Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty — everything happens because of ignorance…. I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness.
We’ve highlighted the ways in which society portrays men as people and women as women many times over. So many times, in fact, that we started a Pinterest collection. There are two scenarios in which men are the default person: (1) masculine spaces, like the workplace and politics, and (2) neutral spaces that aren’t associated with men or women, like museums and the internet.
When something is distinctly feminized, however, things flip. @jessimckenzi and @freedenoeur forwarded us a pointed example: a brand of lotion called “everyone.” Everyone lotion comes in two types: everyone lotion “for everyone and every body” and everyone lotion for men:
This practice reminds us who belongs where by making one gender or the other the neutral participant and then adding a modifier in order to selectively include the other sex. Another example of this phenomenon is the masculinizing of feminine products in order to sell them to men and the feminizing of masculine products to sell them to women. Together these practices affirm and naturalize gender-based segregation in our social spaces and activities.
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.
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.
Othershavecriticized 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.
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.
We’ve collected several more examples of the tendency to present men as the norm, while women are a marked, non-default category. @LydNicholas tweeted us this example of a LEGO product advertised on their website. Notice that the blue version is a LEGO Time-Teach Minifigure Watch and Clock, while the pink version specifies that it’s for girls:
Jessica J. noticed that Wal-Mart Target helpfully lets you know where to find both neutral, plain old deodorant and women’s deodorant:
Jane G. sent us this photo of t-ball sets, one for girls and the other with no sex specified:
Aline, in Brazil, found these two wall painting kits. One is just a painting kit and the other is specifically “for women” (“para mulheres”). The latter, she said, claims to be a special offer, but is actually about $2 U.S. dollars more.
Eric Stoller pointed out that ESPN differentiates between college basketball and “women’s” basketball:
Lindsay H. pointed out that when you go to the U.S. Post Office’s website to forward your mail, it offers you the chance to subscribe to magazines. Those aimed at women (Cosmopolitan, First for Women, etc.) are in the category “Women,” while equivalent magazines for men (Esquire, Maxim) are not in a category titled “Men” but, rather, “Lifestyle”:
And Jane V.S. noticed that REI has various types of marked, “non-standard” sleeping bags, including those for tall people and women:
Renée Y. sent along another example, bike helmets:
Jessica B. spotted this pair of sibling outfits, coming in “Awesome Girl” and “Awesome Kid”:
E.W. searched Google for men’s specific road bikes and Google asked, “Don’t you mean women’s specific road bikes”? Because there are road bikes for people and road bikes for women.
Ann C. sent a screenshot of bubblebox, a site for children’s games. Notice that along the top there are seven options. The last is “girls,” suggesting that all the rest are for boys.
So, there you have it. In this world, all too often, there are people and there are women and girls.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
Cross-posted at Hawkblocker.This Dove commercial for hair dye is just fascinating. It features a woman talking about what color means to her. She observes that color is sensual, drawing connections between certain colors and the feeling of a cool breeze, the sun on one’s skin, a taste on one’s tongue, and more. She says colors are moods: blonde is bubbly, red is passionate. The voice-over explains that dying her hair makes life “more vivid” and makes her want to laugh and dance. She does it to invoke these characteristics.
She then explains that she’s blind. The commercial uses her blindness to suggest that hair dye isn’t about color at all. It’s about the feeling having dyed hair gives you, even if you can’t see the color. “I don’t need to see it,” she says, “I can feel it.”
By using a woman who is (supposedly) blind, the commercial for hair dye uses the element of surprise to detach the product from the promise. The sole purpose of hair dye is changing how something looks, but this ad claims that the change in appearance is entirely incidental. Instead, dying one’s hair is supposed to make all of life more vibrant, every moment incredibly special, every pleasure more intense, and fill you to the brim with happy emotions. It’s completely absurd. Fantastically absurd. Insult-our-intelligence absurd.
And yet, it’s also exactly what nearly every other commercial and print ad does. Most ads promise — in one way or another — that their product will make you happier, your life brighter, and your relationships more magical. The product is positioned as the means, but not an end. Most hair dye commercials, for example, promise that (1) if your hair is dyed to be more conventionally beautiful, (2) you will feel better/people will treat you better and, so, (3) your life will be improved. This ad just skips the middle step, suggesting that chemicals in hair dye do this directly.
So, I’m glad to come across this utterly absurd commercial. It’s a good reminder to be suspicious of this message in all advertising.
In case you were wondering if this is a trend, the Alpha Parent post features TWENTY examples of purses filled with such toys.
It also includes examples of toy make-up bags. Going beyond the inclusion of beauty items in infant toys, these make beauty the sole point of the play. Here are just two of the NINE pretend make-up bags she collected, the Oskar & Ellen Beauty Box and the Learn and Go Make-Up and Go:
Since we wouldn’t want a baby to miss the point, companies also produce and sell vanities for infants. The Alpha Parent’s post included FOUR; here’s two, the Perfectly Pink Tummy Time Vanity Mirror and the Fisher Price Laugh and Learn Magical Musical Mirror:
The Alpha Parent goes on to cover real nail polish made for infants, beauty-themed clothes for little girls, and a common category of dress up: beautician outfits. I counted a surprising ELEVEN of these:
Makeup toys prime girls for a lifetime of chasing rigid norms of physical attractiveness through the consumption of cosmetics and fashionable accessories.
They are also generally non-sex-transferable, meaning that parents are often loath to allow their boys to play with girl toys. Gendered toys, then, increase the rate of toy purchasing, since parents of a boy and a girl have to buy special toys for each.
It’s a win-win for corporate capitalism. Socialize the girls into beauty commodities by buying these toys now, plan on reaping the benefits with the real thing later. Brainwash the boys in an entirely different way (the Alpha Parent notes tools and electronics), do the same with them simultaneously.
Market advocates have had their way for years now and one of the consequences has been the growing dominance of industry after industry by a select few powerful corporations. In short, unchecked competition can and does produce its opposite: monopoly.
As John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna explain:
This [development] is anything but an academic concern. The economic defense of capitalism is premised on the ubiquity of competitive markets, providing for the rational allocation of scarce resources and justifying the existing distribution of incomes. The political defense of capitalism is that economic power is diffuse and cannot be aggregated in such a manner as to have undue influence over the democratic state. Both of these core claims for capitalism are demolished if monopoly, rather than competition, is the rule.
The chart below highlights the rise, especially since the 1980s, in both the number and percentage of U.S. manufacturing industries in which four firms account for more than 50% of sales.
Number and Percentage of U.S. Manufacturing Industries in which Largest Four Companies Accounted for at Least 50 Percent of Shipment Value in Their Industries, 1947-2007:
As the table below shows, the concentration of market power is not confined to manufacturing.
Percentage of Sales for Four Largest Firms in Selected U.S. Retail Industries:
Industry (NAICS code)
Food & beverage stores (445)
Health & personal care stores (446)
General merchandise stores (452)
Book stores (451211)
Computer & software stores (443120)
As impressive as these concentration trends may be, they actually understate the market power exercised by leading U.S. firms because many of these firms are conglomerates and active in more than one industry. The next chart provides some flavor for overall concentration trends by showing the growing share of total business revenue captured by the top two hundred U.S. corporations. Notice the sharp rise since the 1990s.
Revenue of Top 200 U.S. Corporations as Percentage of Total Business Revenue, U.S. Economy, 1950–2008:
These are general trends. Here, thanks to Zocalo (which draws on the work of Barry Lynn), we get a picture of the market dominance of just one corporation–Procter and Gamble. This corporation controls:
More than 75 percent of men’s razors
About 60 percent of laundry detergent
Nearly 60 percent of dishwasher detergent
More than 50 percent of feminine pads
About 50 percent of toothbrushes
Nearly 50 percent of batteries
Nearly 45 percent of paper towels, just through the Bounty brand
Nearly 40 percent of toothpaste
Nearly 40 percent of over-the-counter heartburn medicines
Nearly 40 percent of diapers.
About 33 percent of shampoo, coffee, and toilet paper
A recent Huffington Post blog post, which includes the following infographic from the French blog Convergence Alimentaire, makes clear that Procter and Gamble, as big as it is, is just one member of a small but powerful group of multinationals that dominate many consumer markets. The blog post states: “A ginormous number of brands are controlled by just 10 multinationals… Now we can see just how many products are owned by Kraft, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, P&G and Nestlé. ” See here for a bigger version of the infographic.
And, it is not just the consumer goods industry that’s highly concentrated. As the Huffington Post also noted: “Ninety percent of the media is now controlled by just six companies, down from 50 in 1983…. Likewise, 37 banks merged to become JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and CitiGroup in a little over two decades, as seen in this 2010 graphic from Mother Jones.”
Not surprisingly, there are complex interactions and struggles between these dominant companies. Unfortunately, most end up strengthening monopoly power at the public expense. For example, as Zocalo reports, Wal-Mart, Target, and other major retailers have adopted a new control strategy in which:
…these retailers name a single supplier to serve as a category captain. This supplier is expected to manage all the shelving and marketing decisions for an entire family of products, such as dental care.
The retailer then requires all the other producers of this class of products — these days, usually no more than one or two other firms — to cooperate with the captain. The consciously intended result of this tight cartelization is a growing specialization of production and pricing among the few big suppliers who are still in business…
It’s not that Wal-Mart and category copycats like Target cede all control over shelving and hence production decisions to these captains. The trading firms use the process mainly to gain more insight into the operations of the manufacturers and hence more leverage over them, their suppliers, and even their other clients… Wal-Mart, for instance, has told Coca-Cola what artificial sweetener to use in a diet soda, it has told Disney what scenes to cut from a DVD, it has told Levi’s what grade of cotton to use in its jeans, and it has told lawn mower makers what grade of steel to buy.
And don’t think that such consolidation within the Wal-Mart system makes it easier for new small manufacturers and retailers to rise up and compete. The exact opposite tends to be true. . . . This [system] boils down to presenting the owners of midsized and smaller companies, like Oakley or Tom’s of Maine, with the “option” of selling their business to the monopolist in exchange for a “reasonable” sum determined by the monopolist.
This was the message delivered to many of the companies that in recent decades managed to develop big businesses seemingly outside the reach of the Procter & Gambles, Krafts, and Gillettes of the world. Consider the following:
Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream company that reshaped the industry, was swallowed by Unilever in 2000.
Cascadian Farm, one of the most successful organic food companies, sold out to General Mills and was promptly transformed into what its founder calls a “PR farm.”
Stonyfield Farm and Brown Cow, organic dairy companies from New Hampshire and California, respectively, separately sold con-trol to the French food giant Groupe Danone in February 2003 and were blended into a single operation.
Glaceau, the company behind the brightly colored Vitamin Water and one of the last independent success stories, sold out to Coca-Cola in 2007.
The practical result is a hierarchy of power in which a few immense trading companies — in control of and to some degree in cahoots with a few dominant supply conglomerates — govern almost all the industrial activities on which we depend, and they back their efforts with what amounts to police power. This tiny confederation of private corporate governments determines who wins and who loses in this country, at least within our consumer economy.
Of course the growing concentration nationally is matched by a growing concentration of power globally, with large transnational corporations from different nations battling each other and, in many cases, uniting through mergers and acquisitions. We cannot hope to understand and overcome our current problems and the structural pressures limiting our responses to them without first acknowledging the extent of corporate dominance over our economic lives.