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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
In 1979 the New Orleans police department went on strike, using the powerful leverage of Mardi Gras to push for an improvement in their working conditions. The city held fast and the celebration was cancelled. Ish. Some parades moved just out of town. Most tourists stayed away, fearful of unregulated reveling. But lots of locals went forward with the holiday, partying in the streets without the influx of tourists that accompany a typical Fat Tuesday.
The National Guard was called in to ensure a semblance of order, but they ignored vice, intervening only against violence. According to Wikipedia, many French Quarter locals decided it was the best Mardi Gras ever. Photographer Robbie McClaran was there. Here are some of his photographs of the day:
Of the last photo, McClaran writes: “I remember this scene like it was yesterday, it was the moment when I thought to myself Mardis Gras had reached a level of surreality I had never experienced before. Homeless woman dancing with a man in a tutu while Uncle Sam looks on and salutes.”
First, there was the domestication of the cabin. As air travel became more comfortable (e.g., pressurized cabins and quieter rides), airlines were looking to increase their customer base. Female “stewardesses” in the ’40s and ’50s were an opportunity to argue that an airplane was just like a comfortable living room, equally safe for women, children, and men alike. Marketing at the time presented the flight attendant as if she were a mother or wife:
Twenty years later, air travel was no longer scary, so airlines switched their tactics. They sexualized their flight attendants in order to appeal to businessmen, who still made up a majority of their customers. Here’s a ten-second Southwest commercial touting the fact that their stewardesses wear “hot pants”:
The intersection of the labor movement and women’s liberation in the ’60s and ’70s inspired women to fight for workplace rights. Flight attendants were among the first female workers to organize on behalf of their occupation and among the most successful to do so. Their work won both practical and symbolic victories, like the discursive move from “stewardess” to “flight attendant” that transformed women in the occupation from sex objects to workers. A quick Google Image search shows that the association — stewardess/sex object vs. flight attendant/worker — still applies. Notice that the search for “stewardess” includes more sexualized images, while the one for “flight attendant” shows more images of people actually working.
“Flight attendant”:My impression is that today’s marketing tends to feature flight attendants in all three roles — domestic, sex object, worker — echoing each stage of the transformation of the occupation in the public imagination.
What would you think of Woody from Toy Story if he wore pink?
Would you think the color choice was incongruous — that it didn’t seem masculine enough for a 1950s-era cowboy toy?
Well, you’d be wrong. Check out these images from the 1955 Sears Christmas Book catalog that Elizabeth Sweet, a newly minted Ph.D. from the University of California at Davis, sent me. Here’s Roy Rogers Apparel, featuring Roy Rogers and his son, Dusty – who is wearing a cowboy outfit with red, yellow, and pink accents:
To modern eyes, this is surprising. “Pink is a girls’ color,” we think. This association has become so firmly entrenched in our cultural imagination that people are flabbergasted to learn that until the 1950s, pink was often considered a strong color and, therefore, was associated with boys.
But it wasn’t only for boys. Although gender segregation is de rigeur today, it wasn’t back then. Look at these outfits for boys and girls, also from the 1955 Sears catalog: There are brown and red outfits for boys and girls. Pink and blue outfits for boys and girls. Blue and green outfits for boys and girls.
These spreads make it clear that in the 1950s, when Woody’s Roundup is supposed to have originated, Woody would have been pretty darned stylish in pink.
A decade later, things had started changing; pink was more closely associated with girls. (As Elizabeth notes of the Sears catalogs in her collection, “I didn’t find anything similar in 1965.”)
In today’s marketplace, I believe parents would love to see options like these. In fact, just yesterday, one of my friends posted this to facebook about his failed shopping trip:
Alright, parents, I went to buy my daughter cool costume stuff like pirate stuff and cowgirl stuff and all I found was princess outfits. She doesn’t know the word “princess.” She knows the words ‘cowgirl” and “pirate.” What’s the deal? Why does every company want her to be a princess? Why can’t she be an awesome cowgirl pirate?
Sadly, the reason is that in the retail world, this kind of diversity just doesn’t fly anymore. The status quo is segregation; as Elizabeth Sweet has argued, “finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.” And the more entrenched this practice becomes, the harder it becomes to change, as change is perceived by marketers and retailers as a risk.
Therefore, for the foreseeable future, pink will serve as a clear delineation in the marketplace: If something is pink, it is most definitely not for boys, who regard it as a contagion — something to be avoided at all costs.
So it is that if Woody wore pink today, he would be unintelligible in the marketplace. And so it is that my friend can’t find a good cowgirl outfit for his little girl: he’d have to travel back to 1955 to do so.
The push for “girly” to be synonymous with “pink” saddens me. It has caused girls’ worlds to shrink, and it only reinforces for boys the idea that they should actively avoid anything girlish. Monochromatic girlhood drives a wedge between boys and girls — separating their spheres during a time when cross-sex play is healthy and desirable, and when their imaginations should run free.
Cats and dogs are gendered in contemporary American culture, such that dogs are thought to be the proper pet for men and cats for women (especially lesbians). This, it turns out, is an old stereotype. In fact, cats were a common symbol in suffragette imagery. Cats represented the domestic sphere, and anti-suffrage postcards often used them to reference female activists. The intent was to portray suffragettes as silly, infantile, incompetent, and ill-suited to political engagement.
Cats were also used in anti-suffrage cartoons and postcards that featured the bumbling, emasculated father cruelly left behind to cover his wife’s shirked duties as she so ungracefully abandons the home for the political sphere. Oftentimes, unhappy cats were portrayed in these scenes as symbols of a threatened traditional home in need of woman’s care and attention.
While opposition to the female vote was strong, public sentiment warmed to the suffragettes as police brutality began to push women into a more favorable, if victimized, light.
As suffragettes increasingly found themselves jailed, many resisted unfair or inhumane imprisonment with hunger strikes. In response, jailers would often force-feed female prisoners with steel devices to pry open their mouths and long hoses inserted into their noses and down their throats. This caused severe damage to the women’s faces, mouths, lungs, and stomachs, sometimes causing illness and death.
Not wanting to create a group of martyrs for the suffragist cause, the British government responded by enacting the Prisoner’s Act of 1913 which temporarily freed prisoners to recuperate (or die) at home and then rearrested them when they were well. The intention was to free the government from responsibility of injury and death from force feeding prisoners.
This act became popularly known as the “Cat and Mouse Act,” as the government was seen as toying with their female prey as a cat would a mouse. Suddenly, the cat takes on a decidedly more masculine, “tom cat” persona. The cat now represented the violent realities of women’s struggle for political rights in the male public sphere.
The longevity of the stereotype of cats as feminine and domestic, along with the interesting way that the social constructions flipped, is a great example of how cultural associations are used to create meaning and facilitate or resist social change.
Ms. Wrenn is an instructor of Sociology with Colorado State University, where she is working on her PhD. She is a council member of the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section and has published extensively on the non-human animal rights movement.