Originally posted in 2010. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History Month.

When I teach gender I always talk about the ways in which societies actively construct ideas that men and women have very different bodies, capable of different things. In the U.S., our gender ideology includes the belief that female bodies are weaker than male ones, more fragile. Particularly in the Victorian Era, this belief led doctors to discourage physical activity by women. Among a range of other concerns, doctors argued that physical exertion in women might cause their organs (particularly the reproductive organs) to become dislodged and wander around the body, causing all types of problems. I know I’d certainly be distressed if my uterus migrated and I ended up pregnant and carrying a fetus in, say, my elbow.

A result of this, of course, is that (White) women were discouraged from being physically active and taking part in sports. This, combined with heavy clothing and corsets that actually did shove organs around, led to the condition that the medical community claimed already existed: women’s bodies were less capable of physical exertion than men’s and they were more likely to faint (corsets often making it difficult to breathe adequately). It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you believe women’s bodies are weaker than men’s and thus discourage or even prohibit women from being physically active, you create differences in physical capability and fitness that you can then claim prove you were right all along.

James T. found this awesome ad for a product that, among other amazing things, ends “misplaced organs” and will even move them back where they belong (from Modern Mechanix). The ad (from 1934) says that satisfied users include both men and women, but concerns about misplaced organs were a concern applied predominantly to women:

Medical practitioners weren’t just worried about physical exertion. They believed mental activity could be harmful to women as well; perhaps all that thinking meant the brain would take blood away from the reproductive organs and lead to infertility. A common diagnosis for women was “hysteria,” a general term that could be applied to almost any woman. A common “cure” for hysteria was bed rest, preventing both physical and mental activity. The diagnosis of hysteria served as a justification for severely limiting women’s activities, drawing on the ideology of the fragile female body. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” after her own experience of being forced to stay in bed with no mental stimulation, not even books.

Hysteria was also often associated with sexual problems, including a lack of interest in sex. The cure for this was “vaginal massage,” which was exactly what you think it was. This was done manually in doctors’ offices, but eventually mechanical vibrators became widely available, allowing women to treat their hysteria more cheaply and at home, and reducing the time it took to produce a “paroxysm”.

I find it fascinating that the construction of (middle/upper class White) women as “hysterical” and often sexually repressed and frigid made it acceptable for them to purchase a product that allowed them to sexually satisfy themselves at a time when masturbation was still widely vilified, and excuse it on the grounds that it was medically prescribed.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Readers have submitted some great examples of gendered items in the last few months, so I’ve collected just a few here. This includes “the first gender-based wholefood,” certainly a milestone worth commemorating, so let’s get to it!

An anonymous reader pointed out that Barnes & Noble has book collections for boys and girls:


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The summaries of the books reinforce ideas about gender and especially the association of boys with action and girls with relationships. The description of the boys’ collection mentions “excitement” and “tales of action, adventure, and exploration”:

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The girls’ collection, on the other hand, includes “heartwarming tales” that teach us that “friendship is the most priceless and enduring gift of all”:

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Nora Goerne sent in girls’ and boys’ pasta she saw in Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn:


And Emily discovered you can get gender-specific yogurt for kids:


Nick O. noticed these bottle-opener rings, one of which is marketed to women by putting it on a pink background with the word “woman” on it but otherwise seemed the same to Nick:

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Carrie J. sent in this ad for gendered kids computers from 1999:

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Shara found boys’ and girls’ cake sprinkles in New Zealand:

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CBH was looking for birthday supplies on the Party City website and noticed that according to the decorations, by their first birthday girls are already “angels” and boys are “rebels”:

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Helen S. sent us this image posted at Boing Boing of crayon sets that are implicitly gendered through the use of the colors and terms (especially “princess”) that have become codes for boys and girls:


Green gloves are apparently for boys now (thanks, Michelle):


And finally, as promised: You will be relieved to know that “the first gender-based wholefood” is here, and not a moment too soon. According to the website for Sexcereal — no, stop laughing, this is serious — the female version supports “hormonal balance” while the male version has ingredients that “support testosterone and then some,” which actually makes me afraid this product might cause ‘roid rage if eaten too often:


Their website (sent in by Vanessa K.) is an absolute delight, and provides many a hearty laugh. It’s just too bad Sexcereal is only available in Canada. All of us non-Canadians are stuck eating our stupid unisex cereals, leaving our hormones unbalanced and our testosterone feeling sadly unsupported, and then some.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

A new example prompts us to re-post this fun one from 2010.

We’ve posted in the past about the way in which “male” is often taken to be the default or neutral category, with “female” a notable, marked, non-default one. For instance, the Body Worlds exhibit, “regular” t-shirts are men’s, Best Buy assumes customers are male, stick figures on signs are generally male, and default avatars tend to be male.

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.

Originally posted in 2010. Re-posted in honor of the holiday.

This morning I heard an interesting story on NPR about the celebration of Valentine’s Day in Japan.

In the U.S., Valentine’s Day is pretty much for women. While women do give Valentine’s gifts to male partners, the emphasis among adults is on men giving items to women: flowers, candy, cards, taking them out to dinner, and so on. In many cases women aren’t expected to reciprocate, or can give a less expensive/significant present, and I doubt many give flowers or chocolate in heart-shaped boxes.

In Japan, however, the roles are reversed: women give chocolates to men, as well as often buying gifts and providing meals. It apparently isn’t entirely clear how this tradition emerged.

There are two types of chocolates that women give men. Giri-choco, or “obligation chocolate,” is relatively cheap and is what you give to coworkers and the like. Honmei-choco is higher-quality chocolate reserved for men a woman is close to–partners or perhaps a family member. Some women choose to make their own honmei.

Men aren’t off the hook, however. A month later, on March 14th, is White Day, a day when men give candy and other gifts to women. According to wikipedia, these gifts are supposed to be more expensive than what the men received on Valentine’s Day.

A lot of websites say that White Day was invented by a marshmallow company in the ’60s as a way to increase sales, but I can’t find any reliable source for this explanation.

It’s a good example of the social construction of holidays and food. In the U.S., chocolate is highly feminized–we think of it as a food that women particularly like, and ads about chocolate, especially fancy chocolates, are usually aimed at women (or men buying for them). Valentine’s Day and big heart-shaped boxes with large bows on them are likewise feminized. Valentine’s Day is, primarily, a day when men are expected to show their affection for women through the purchase of these things (and, as a side note, the chocolate that comes in those heart-shaped boxes is often pretty unappealing). Insofar as women reciprocate with gifts for men, they’re unlikely to come in a similar heart-shaped box. When I brought up this possibility to my students, they said that would be really unusual and the male recipient would probably feel strange about it.

In Japan, clearly chocolates for Valentine’s Day (even expensive, fancy chocolate), heart-shaped boxes, and big bows are considered appropriate gifts for men. It makes it clear how our association of chocolate with women is culturally specific.

Of course, the fact that on White Day men are supposed to give women more expensive gifts than they received indicates that, while Valentine’s Day specifically is for men, the expectation is that overall, the balance of gift-giving requires men to show more affection-via-spending, similar to U.S. expectations surrounding the holiday.

Other posts: the social construction of chocolate and marketing chocolate to men.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Greenwashing refers to efforts to present products or practices as environmentally friendly while making only minimal efforts to really reduce negative environmental impacts.

I saw a great example of this last weekend at a shopping center here in Vegas. As I was walking by a pond and water fountain, I noticed this sign:

It has several elements of classic greenwashing. The organization “cares about the environment and the community” — a vague, general claim that commits them to nothing specific. And their supposedly eco-friendly behavior is dubious and hard to evaluate. With Lake Mead (Vegas’s main drinking water source) depleted from a decade of drought, certainly any efforts to reduce demands on it are welcome.

But that seems like a rather superficial definition of what it means to care about the environment. The imported water comes from somewhere — an aquifer? another water shed? thousands of bottles of Perrier? — and it seems it would require energy to get it from there to here. The focus on not using a local water source sidesteps the larger question of whether it is environmentally responsible to build ponds and fountains (and grass-based lawns, for that matter) in the desert, regardless of where the water originates.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

In honor of yesterday’s game, we’re re-posting two of our favorite football-related posts. This one and one about a young team that confused its opponent by deviating from the football script without breaking the rules.

In “Televised Sport and the (Anti)Sociological Imagination,” Dan C. Hilliard discusses the rigid segmentation of televised sports programs, a schedule that in some cases requires “television timeouts”–that is, timeouts in the game due primarily to the need to break up the broadcast for commercials. Televised sports programs and advertising have become increasingly intertwined, such that they’re often nearly indistinguishable, what with the frequent mention of sponsors’ products by sports commentators.

In this video from the Wall Street Journal, a journalist talks about the results of a study he completed in which he timed every element of a large number of televised football (as in American football, not soccer) games. The results? In a typical 3-hour broadcast, barely over 10 minutes shows action on the field. What makes up the rest? Well, advertising, of course, but even aside from that, most of the game coverage is made up of replays, players standing around or huddling before plays, shots of coaches or the crowd, and about 3 seconds of cheerleaders:

A breakdown of game coverage:

Here’s a breakdown of the amount of time spent on each element for a bunch of specific games.

Of course, in some cases these breaks in the action are an integral part of the game. But as things such as television timeouts show, games may also be intentionally slowed down to be sure the game fills the allotted time slot… and provides plenty of time for all the advertising they sold during it.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark case establishing women’s right to an abortion (though not an unrestricted right).

The Pew Research Center released some data on current public knowledge and opinion about abortion in the U.S. They found that well under half (44%) of younger people — those under 30 — knew what Roe v. Wade was about. A quarter said they didn’t know, and a third thought it was about another issue. This was a much lower level of familiarity than older age groups:

Abortion is still certainly a contentious issue, but it may not be quite the galvanizing cultural flashpoint it once was. Indeed, fewer people seem to see it as a critical issue. A growing percent of respondents say that abortion isn’t all that important — now over half say so:

That seems to indicate a lessening of the intensity of the culture war surrounding abortion. That could mean less intensity in opposition to abortion (most respondents thought it should be legal, though many personally thought it was morally wrong), but it may also lead to less resistance to the types of restrictions on clinics that leave abortion technically legal, but so difficult to access that it’s a hollow legality.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.

This morning NPR aired a segment on media stories about the “boomerang generation,” college-educated children who return to live with their parents after graduation. A widely-repeated figure is that currently 85% of recent college grads are moving back in with their parents, taken as a sign of the ongoing, and potentially long-term, consequences of the economic crisis.

Except for the part where it’s not true.

You may have heard this figure. CNN Money seems to be the first to cite it, in 2010; Time and the New York Post, among others, repeated the number:

It  continued to spread, most recently ending up in a political ad from American Crossroads that attacks President Obama.

But PolitiFact recently looked into the claim and declared it false. It supposedly came from a survey conducted by a marketing and research firm from Philadelphia. Yet as they dug further into the story, PolitiFact found many things that might make you suspicious. For instance, some people listed as employees claimed never to have worked for them, while others seem to be fictional, their photos taken from stock photo archives. One employee they did find turned out to be the company president’s dad. When they found the president, David Morrison, he said the survey was conducted “many years ago” but refused to release any information about the methodology, saying he had a non-disclosure agreement with the (unnamed) client.

But as the story of this shocking trend was reproduced, it appears reporters did not try to access the original survey to fact-check it, or surely they would have discovered at least some of these discrepancies, or the lack of any available data to back up the claim.

In contrast to the 85% figure, a Pew Center report (based on a sample of 2,048) found that for young adults aged 18-34, 39% were either currently living with their parents or had temporarily moved in with them at some point because of the economic downturn:

And importantly, of those currently living with their parents, the vast majority of 18-24 year-olds said the economy wasn’t the reason they were doing so. The study found no significant differences by education for those under 30 (42% of graduates were living at home, compared to 49% of those who never attended college), but for those 30-34, only 10% of college graduates were living at home (compared to 22% of non-college graduates).

But once the more shocking 85% figure had been cited by a mainstream news source, it was quickly reproduced in many other outlets with little fact-checking. As PolitiFact sums up,

…once a claim enters the mainstream media, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. “The dynamic of trust is built with each link,” Wemple said. “It barely occurs to anybody that all those links may be built on a straw foundation.”

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.