This 1 minute commercial for Pantene, running in the Philippines, is getting a lot of praise. It does a powerful job of pointing out the way that women are disadvantaged in corporate contexts. The men and women in the ad are portrayed similarly, but the women are judged for the behavior while the men are praised.
But then the end. Oh Pantene. The answer to this systemic double bind that damns women if they do and damns them if they don’t is, apparently, to “be strong and shine.”
I suppose we shouldn’t expect much more from a shampoo ad, but I lament the ending anyway. It resonates with a wider cultural trend in which feminist empowerment has been conflated with individual gain within a patriarchal system, not a collective effort to end patriarchy once and for all.
This is the lesson of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: the system’s all set up to fuck you over, she acknowledges, but then she whispers: I will try to help you get to the top anyway. No matter if you have to step all over lots of other women on the way. That’s not feminism, that’s self-interest. And it’s certainly not progressive change.
Sociologists observe that cultures are centered around some people and not others such that members of some groups just seem like people and others are perceived as deviations from that presumed norm.
Names are part of how we divide the world into the normals and the deviants. Illustrating this, the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele are super creative in this 3 minute skit. They reverse the white-teacher-goes-into-the-inner-city trope and put a non-white teacher into a suburban school. As he calls roll, the skit center HIS reality instead of that of the white, middle class kids. He pronounces their names like stereotypically black names, confusing the heck out of the kids, and never considering the possibility that the names he’s familiar with isn’t how all names really are.
It’s not a safe skit — it potentially reinforces the conflation of non-white and urban and the stereotypes of inner city students and the names low-income black parents give their kids — but it does a great job of playing with what life might be like if we shifted the center of the world.
Read this with the movie trailer voice in your head: In a world where men and masculinity are valued above women and femininity and the voice of god sounds like a man. Can there be any sense of justice? Can a hero rise from the ashes that were this country’s dreams of equality?
Now read this with nerdy sociologist voice: In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses how we manipulate our voices to perform gender and asks us to think about what our vocal performances say about patriarchy in our culture.
My Mom’s Phone Voice
Voice & The Performance of Gender
We have talked extensively on SociologyInFocus about how gender is a performance. That is, we “do gender”. Right now if you wanted to act feminine or to act masculine you could change your clothing, how you move, how you sit, the facial expressions you use, but arguably the first thing you would change is your voice. Gender is a performance and like any performance there are costumes, lines, mannerisms, etc. that you embody to perform the role. The rules of gender performance are so clear and present throughout society that even my 5 year old can recite them:
Patriarchy, Cultural Symbols, and In A World
As a sociologist concerned with inequality, I think the juiciest question to ask is, are all voices treated equally? That is, do we empower some gender presentations and disempower others? This question is the central question explored in the movie In A World:
The movie, which was written and directed by it’s star Lake Bell, is about a young woman who is trying to break into the voice over acting world, but struggles mightily because the industry is male dominated. In the movie and in reality, when Hollywood wants an authoritative voice, a powerful voice, or simply “the voice of god”, they turn to male voice over actors more often than not. We should stop and ask, why is it this way? Are masculine voices just naturally more powerful? Nah. If you’ve spent anytime with opera singers you know that both male and female voices can rattle your ribcage. The answer then must be cultural.
So what does it say about our culture if we associate power with masculinity? The answer is simple, it suggests that we live in a patriarchal society (i.e. a society that values men and masculinity above women and femininity). That’s why it was so surprising to me when I read/watched interviews with Lake Bell where she put the blame back on women and something she calls the “sexy baby vocal virus.”
There is one statement in this film and I am vocal about it: There is a vocal plague going on that I call the sexy baby plague, where very smart women have taken on this affectation that evokes submission and sexual titillation to the male species,” she says.
“This voice says ‘I’m not that smart,’ and ‘don’t feel threatened’ and ‘don’t worry, I don’t want to take charge,’ which is a problem for me because it’s telling women to take on this bimbo persona in order to please a man.
The problem of the sexy baby voice
To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of Bell’s criticism of the women who use the “sexy baby” voice. She asserts that “these women” have been “victimized” and “fallen pray to something”, but then clearly seems to be angry at them for their use of the voice. Furthermore Bell’s critique of women’s voices takes a social issue (patriarchy and the devaluing of all things feminine) and redefines it as an individual problem. If the women who use the “sexy baby” voice are using it to present themselves as non-threatening or highly sexual, then where did they get the idea in the first place? I’m not sure if Bell is arguing that the “sexy baby” voice is a reaction to a patriarchal society or that it the creates a patriarchal society.
In a world working through the issue of patriarchy, it would seem that even movies that are critiquing patriarchy can reinforce it.
“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.
In 1999 Jackson Katz headlined a documentary that powerfully revealed the mask of masculinity, a pretense of stoicism and readiness for violence that many men feel compelled to put on, at least part of the time. The film, Tough Guise: Violence, Manhood, and American Culture, became a staple in classes on gender across the country.
Today marks the release of Tough Guise 2 and SocImages was given the honor of debuting an exclusive clip from the new film. In the segment below, Katz explains that men aren’t naturally violent but, instead, often learn how to be so. Focusing on socialization, however, threatens to make invisible the socialization agents. In other words, Katz argues, men don’t just learn to be more violent than they otherwise would be, they are actively taught.
He begins with the fact that the video game and film industries both take money from companies that make firearms to feature their products. The U.S. military then uses the video game Call of Duty for recruitment and training. It’s no use arguing whether the media, the military, or the gun industry are responsible for rates of violence, he observes, since they’re in cahoots. These extreme examples intersect with the everyday, mundane lessons about the importance of being “real men” that boys and men receive from the media and their peers, parents, coaches, and more.
This update of the original will tell the compelling story about manhood and violence to a new generation and remind older ones of the ongoing crisis of masculinity in America.
Oddly, three high profile female musicians find themselves in a public debate about what it means to be a feminist. We can thank Miley Cyrus for the occasion. After claiming that the video for Wrecking Ball was inspired by Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You, O’Connor wrote an open letter to the performer. No doubt informed by Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, she argued that the music industry would inevitably exploit Cyrus’ body and leave her a shell of a human being. Amanda Palmer, another strong-minded female musician, responded to O’Connor. She countered with the idea that all efforts to control women’s choices, no matter how benevolent, were anti-feminist.
I keep receiving requests to add my two cents. So, here goes: I think they’re both right, but only half right. And, when you put the two sides together, the conclusion isn’t as simple as either of them makes it out to be. Both letters are kind, compelling, and smart, but neither capture the deep contradictions that Cyrus – indeed all women in the U.S. – face every day.
O’Connor warns Cyrus that the music industry is patriarchal and capitalist. In so many words, she explains that the capitalists will never pay Cyrus what she’s worth because doing so leaves nothing to skim off the top. The whole point is to exploit her. Meanwhile, her exploitation will be distinctly gendered because sexism is part of the very fabric of the industry. O’Connor writes:
The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth… and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, “they” will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body…
Whether Cyrus ends up in rehab remains to be seen but O’Connor is, of course, right about the music industry. This is not something that requires argumentation, but is simply true in a patriarchal, capitalist society. For-profit industries are for profit. You may think that’s good or bad, but it is, by definition, about finding ways to extract money from goods and services and one does that by selling it for more than you paid for it. And media companies of all kinds are dominated at almost all levels by (rich, white) men. These are the facts.
Disagreeing, Palmer claims that O’Connor herself is contributing to an oppressive environment for women. All women’s choices, Palmer argues, should be considered fair game.
I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze…
In Palmer’s utopia, no one gets to decide what’s best for women. The whole point is to have all options on the table, without censure, so women can pick and choose and change their mind as they so desire.
This is intuitively pleasing and seems to mesh pretty well with a decent definition of “freedom.” And women do have more choices – many, many more choices – than recent generations of women. They are now free to vote in elections, wear pants, smoke in public, have their own bank accounts, play sports, go into men’s occupations and, yes, be unabashedly sexual. Hell they can even run for President. And they get to still do all the feminine stuff too! Women have it pretty great right now and Palmer is right that we should defend these options.
So, both are making a feminist argument. What, then, is the source of the disagreement?
O’Connor and Palmer are using different levels of analysis. Palmer’s is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do. O’Connor’s is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic.
The truth is that both are right and, because of that, neither sees the whole picture. On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system. They are architects of their own lives. On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system. The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure. No amount of wishing it were different will make it so. No individual choices change that reality.
So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it. She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition. But why? Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.
In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain. Both men and women make them and they come in many different forms. Generally, however, they involve a choice to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage without challenging the system itself. This may maximize the benefits that accrue to any individual woman, but it harms women as a whole. Cyrus’ particular bargain – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power – is a common one. Serena Williams, Tila Tequila, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga do it too.
We are all Miley, though. We all make patriarchal bargains, large and small. Housewives do when they support husbands’ careers on the agreement that he share the dividends. Many high-achieving women do when they go into masculinized occupations to reap the benefits, but don’t challenge the idea that occupations associated with men are of greater value. None of us have the moral high ground here.
So, is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs? No. Can her choices be fairly described as good for women? No.
That’s how power works. It makes it so that essentially all choices can be absorbed into and mobilized on behalf of the system. Fighting the system on behalf of the disadvantaged – in this case, women – requires individual sacrifices that are extraordinarily costly. In Cyrus’ case, perhaps being replaced by another artist who is willing to capitulate to patriarchy with more gusto. Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place. In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.
Americans want their stories to have happy endings. I’m sorry I don’t have a more optimistic read. If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it. To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.
The Sexual Politics of Meat is a scathing, powerful analysis of the relationship between the oppression of women and the farming of animals for food. Written by Carol J. Adams and published in 1990, it inspired many a feminist to choose vegetarianism and made many more take pause.
In the six-and-a-half minute video below, she discusses the sexualization and feminization of chicken specifically. She shows lots of examples of the ways in which chicken carcasses are objectified as women: put in high heels, bikinis, sexual positions, etc. We feature many examples of this at our Pinterest board collecting gendered and sexualized food, some of which we’ve borrowed from Adams.
Adams then argues that this is a way to distract us from the fact that we are eating the flesh of an animal that has been killed for us. She writes:
By sexualizing animals, we trigger another thing, that uneasiness becomes sexual energy… and everybody knows what to do about sexual energy. You can laugh at it, you can talk about it, it reduces whoever is presented to an object. And so it makes it okay again.
So the sexualization of animals enters into and participates in the wider issue of “Why are we doing this to animals?” Oh yeah, because it’s funny, because it’s fun, because we can have fun with it. And it takes the ethical out.
Moreover, presenting chicken as dressing up for the male gaze suggests that the animal wants to be consumed. The animal appears to desire to inspire (culinary) lust and, accordingly, it’s okay if you eat her. This works best alongside feminization, as it is women who are typically presented as objects of a lustful male gaze.
Bonus: Fifty Shades of Grey makes an appearance, and not incidentally. In response to its popularity, a book was published called Fifty Shades of Chicken. Here’s the book trailer:
Adams call Grey a “regressive book that implied that despite all the advances feminism has made, women really just wanted to be in bondage.” In both books, she argues, we’re seeing the “packaging and sexualizing [of] dominance over another being.”
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.