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.
According to an article at the Wall Street Journal, the average income for the bottom 90% of families fell by over 10% from 2002 – 2012 while the average income for families in all the top income groups grew. The top 0.01% of families actually saw their average yearly income grow from a bit over $12 million to over $21 million over the same period. And that is adjusted for inflation and without including capital gains.
What was most interesting about the article was its discussion of the dangers of this trend and the costs of reversing it. In brief, the article noted that many financial analysts now worry that inequality has gotten big enough to threaten the future economic and political stability of the country. At the same time, it also pointed out that doing anything about it will likely threaten profits. As the article notes:
But if inequality has risen to a point in which investors need to be worried, any reversal might also hurt.
One reason U.S. corporate profit margins are at records is the share of revenue going to wages is so low. Another is companies are paying a smaller share of profits on taxes. An economy where income and wealth disparities are smaller might be healthier. It would also leave less money flowing to the bottom line, something that will grab fund managers’ attention.
Any bets how those in the financial community will evaluate future policy choices?
The current economic recovery officially began June 2009 and is one of the weakest in the post-World War II period. This is true by almost every indicator, except growth in profits.
One reason it has offered working people so little is the contraction of government spending and employment. This may sound strange given the steady drumbeat of articles and speeches demanding a further retrenchment of government involvement in the economy, but the fact is that this drumbeat is masking the reality of the situation.
The figure shows the growth in real spending by federal, state, and local governments in the years before and after recessions. The black line shows the average change in public spending over the six business cycles between 1948 and 1980. Each blue line shows government spending for a different recent business cycle and the red line does the same for our current cycle. As you can see, this expansionary period stands out for having the slowest growth in public spending. In fact, in contrast to other recovery periods, public spending is actually declining.
…public spending following the Great Recession is the slowest on record, and as of the second quarter of 2013 stood roughly 15 percent below what it would have been had it simply matched historical averages… if public spending since 2009 had matched typical business cycles, this spending would be roughly $550 billion higher today, and more than 5 million additional people would have jobs (and most of these would be in the private sector).
The basic stagnation in government spending has actually translated into a significant contraction in public employment. This figure highlights just how serious the trend is by comparing public sector job growth in the current recovery to the three prior recovery periods.
…the public sector has shed 737,000 jobs since June 2009. However, this raw job-loss figure radically understates the drag of public-sector employment relative to how this sector has normally performed during economic recoveries… [P]ublic-sector employment should naturally grow as the overall population grows. Between 1989 and 2007, for example, the ratio of public employment to overall population was remarkably stable at roughly 7.3 public sector workers for each 100 members of the population. Today’s ratio is 6.9, and if it stood at the historic average of 7.3 instead, we would have 1.3 million more public sector jobs today.
In short, the challenge we face is not deciding between alternative ways to further shrink the public sector but rather of designing and building support for well financed public programs to restructure our economy and generate living wage jobs.
The Federal Reserve Bank has said it will maintain its stimulus policy as long as the economy remains weak. One of its key indicators for the strength of the economy is the unemployment rate, which has been steadily falling for several years, from 10% in October 2009 to 7.3% in August 2013. However, this decline in the official unemployment rate gives a misleading picture of economic conditions, at least as far as the labor market is concerned.
The reason, as the Economy Policy Instituteexplains, is because of the large number of “missing workers.” These missing workers are…
…potential workers who, because of weak job opportunities, are neither employed nor actively seeking a job. In other words, these are people who would be either working or looking for work if job opportunities were significantly stronger. Because jobless workers are only counted as unemployed if they are actively seeking work, these “missing workers” are not reflected in the unemployment rate.
We are seeing many more missing workers now than in recent history. The chart below shows the Economic Policy Institute estimate for the number of missing workers.
The next chart compares the estimated unemployment rate including missing workers (in orange) with the official unemployment rate (in blue).
As you can see, while the official unemployment rate continues to decline, the corrected unemployment rate remains stuck at a rate above 10%. In other words labor market conditions remain dismal. And here we are only talking about employment. If we consider the quality of the jobs being created, things are even worse.
In the midst of the recession a new occupation emerged: the sign spinner. These individuals stood on sidewalks outside of businesses, dancing with signs or arrows that they threw and twisted in the air and around their bodies. Some of them were pretty cool, actually.
Yesterday NPR discussed the replacement of some of these spinners with mannequins. Robots that are programmed to spin the sign. Of course, they aren’t nearly as good as a halfway decent human sign spinner. But, it was argued, they’re getting the job done.
From human to machine, then. But no one commented on the bizarre race- and sex-change that accompanied this shift. In my part of the country, most human sign spinners are black or Latino men. I suspect that’s true wherever there’s a substantial non-white, non-Asian population. But the mannequins appear to be overwhelming white women.
The Google image search for each somewhat supports this narrative. The mannequins are overly white women and the humans are almost all men and, arguably, disproportionately men of color.
When the business owner or manager can make choices about what race and gender they prefer, they choose white females. Presumably because “sex sells,” the female body (in a bikini) is the universal symbol for sex, and white women are the most valuable commodity in that market.
When we’re hiring low wage human workers, however, business owners and managers have less control over the race and gender composition of their workforce. It appears most would prefer to hire white women in bikinis for everything but, because of institutionalized racism and the sex segregation of occupations, they get men and, perhaps, men of color.
How amazing that something so simple — the evolution of the sign spinner — can tell us so much about who we value and why.
Here’s a commercial for the new robotic sign spinners, to drive the point home:
Compared to some European countries, the United States has a weak tradition of labor-based activism. All too often, this leads to the invisibility of labor issues. Take for example, this commercial for Simply Orange® brand orange juice. In an attempt to present their product as a natural alternative to other brands, Simply Orange juxtaposes images of natural orange growth with common phrases relating to the structure of a manufacturing organization. The tree is their “plant” (a marvelous pun), the orange blossoms are the “workers” that produce the fruit, and the sun itself becomes “upper management.”
Even though this commercial is humorously centered on the process of producing orange juice, there is not a single human being present in any of the images. It is a story about making a product in which nobody actually makes anything! This message cleverly sells the product, but it also obscures the real labor that went into growing, picking, and juicing the oranges and downplays the contributions to the process made by real people. All that productive effort is condensed into the image of an orange blossom, as if it can be assumed that such production will just naturally occur like an annual blooming.
The reality of orange juice production is much less sunny. According to statistics recently compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are roughly 20,000 undocumented workers in Florida that are subjected to harsh working conditions as growers compete with imported oranges in a “race to the bottom” for a cheaper production process. The illegal status of many of these workers makes them easily exploited for substandard wages, because they are often afraid to challenge the policies of their employers.
In a Marxist theoretical perspective, the way that these workers are rendered invisible by the public image of the commercial is a prime example of alienation: a tension in modern capitalism in which the workers in a mass-producing industry are separated from the fruits of their labor. Where at first it was merely the physical product that was taken from those who produced it to be sold in the market, now the credit for even participating in the process is being abstractly torn away.
This commercial also challenges the realities of the labor process, associating modern concepts of work organization such as “the plant” and “upper management” with images of natural growth. These associations allow the commercial to imply that their methods of labor organization are somehow rooted in a simpler way of doing things that is more harmonious with the natural order. By hearkening back to these roots, the organization is rendered harmless, as if to say the complexities of modern labor relations do not apply to the simple production of orange juice. All together, the choice to portray the associations in this commercial serves to hide the realities of agricultural production in the United States and limit the viewer’s potential curiosity about the way the process really works.
Bri & Alex sent in one of those “oh sigh” submissions. It’s a marketing poster illustrating a gadget that makes it easier to open your door when you have your hands full. With what might you have your hands full? Well, if you’re a dude, it’s probably a briefcase and suitcase from a business trip. If you’re a woman, it’s probably laundry and groceries.
“Next to being a Hollywood movie star, nothing was more glamorous.” This breathless statement, quoted in Femininity in Flight, was uttered by a flight attendant in 1945. At the time being a stewardess was quite glamorous. Like motion pictures do today, airlines trafficked in “the business of female spectacle.” They hired only women who they believed to represent ideal femininity. Chosen for their beauty and poise, and only from among the educated, and slender, they were as much of an icon as Miss America. And they were almost all White.
Victoria Vantoch tells the story of the first African American flight attendants in a chapter of her new book, The Jet Sex. Patricia Banks was one of the first Black women to sue an airline for racial discrimination. She graduated from flight attendant training school at the top of her class and applied to several airlines. But it was 1956 and the U.S. airlines had never hired a Black woman. After 10 months of trying, an airline recruiter pulled her aside and admitted that it was because of her race. Which, of course, it was; airlines disqualified any applicants that had broad noses, full lips, coarse hair, or a “hook nose” (to weed out Jews).
Banks sued. After four years of litigation, Capital Airlines was forced to hire her. She postponed her marriage and took the job (airlines only hired single women as flight attendants). When she put on her uniform for the first time, she said:
After all I had gone through, I couldn’t believe I was finally wearing the uniform. I had made it. I was going to fly. It was such an accomplishment.
Individual women weren’t the only ones pushing to integrate the flight attendants corps. International surveys showed that citizens of other countries knew that America had a “race problem” and this was a problem for then-President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. They needed to do something flashy and they turned to flight attendants to do it. If they could make Black women the face of such an iconic and high-profile occupation, they thought, it would help restore America’s reputation. According to Vantoch, Johnson “made stewardess integration his personal cause.”
That was 1961; in 1964 Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act mandating equal treatment in the workplace. The following year, in response to even more lawsuits, approximately 50 Black women were hired by airlines. This would make them 0.33% of the workforce.
Patricia Banks and her fellow first African American flight attendants, including Mary Tiller and Marlene White, would continue to face racism, now from co-workers, passengers, and supervisors. Banks would quit after one year, citing exhaustion in the face of emotionally draining feminine work and a constant onslaught of racism. She was a great flight attendant, though, and proud to show the world that a Black woman could shine in the occupation.