Both men and women face a lot of pressure to perform masculinity and femininity respectively. But, ironically, people who rigidly conform to rules about gender, those who enact perfect performances of masculinity or femininity, are often the butt of jokes. Many of us, for example, think the male body builder is kind of gross; we suspect that he may be compensating for something, dumb like a rock, or even narcissistic. Likewise, when we see a bleach blond teetering in stilettos and pulling up her strapless mini, many of us think she must be stupid and shallow, with nothing between her ears but fashion tips.

The fact that we live in a world where there are different expectations for men’s and women’s behavior, in other words, doesn’t mean that we’re just robots acting out those expectations. We actually tend to mock slavish adherence to those rules, even as we carefully negotiate them (breaking some rules, but not too many, and not the really important ones).

In any case, I thought of this when I saw this ad. The woman at the other end of the table is doing (at least some version of) femininity flawlessly.  The hair is perfect, her lips exactly the right shade of pink, her shoulders are bare. But… it isn’t enough.  The man behind the menu has “lost interest.”

It’s unfortunate that we spend so much time telling women that the most important thing about them is that they conform to expectations of feminine beauty when, in reality, living up to those expectations means performing an identity that we disdain.

We do it to men, too.  We expect guys to be strictly masculine, and when they turn out to be jocks and frat boys, we wonder why they can’t be nicer or more well-rounded.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at Role Reboot.

Why is it that we associate revealing our bodies with liberation and covering it up with oppression?

Sixteen-year-old Je’Nan Hayes of Maryland recently had to sit out a basketball game because she wears a hijab (headscarf), and according to a rarely enforced rule, was required to provide prior documentation that she did so for religious reasons, even though she had played 24 games so far without an objection.

Meanwhile, Nike is facing backlash online for its Pro Hijab—a one-piece headscarf made of lightweight and breathable mesh—designed for those Muslim female athletes who wish to cover their heads.

What is it about the hijab that elicits such negative responses?

Critics of the Pro Hijab assert that a hijab is a tool of oppression. One Twitter user wrote: “#Nike cashing in on the subjugation, domination, and oppression of women.” Yet another tweeted: “@Nike has decided to capitalize off Islamic patriarchy by putting their brand on a chastity helmet.”

These critics fail to consider that Nike’s Pro Hijab, meant for athletes, is marketed to a group of women, who by virtue of their involvement in professional sports, are a group who are already defying gender expectations and norms. Not all Muslim women wear a headscarf, but those who do, why should they be constrained in their ambitions simply because of a scarf? In fact, for many women, the headscarf can be liberating as it allows them to focus on something other than their appearance.

In my work as a sociology professor and as editor of two books about embodiment, culture and globalization, I see the real and more urgent questions as: Why is it that we associate revealing our bodies with liberation and covering it up with oppression? And, how does this kind of thinking hide the real sources of oppression and liberation from us?

But, very importantly, if our concern about the Nike Pro Hijab (or any hijab) is truly with women’s oppression or subjugation, then why not address the issue of female athletes being overly sexualized in the media? Some of the first images of Lindsey Vonn to show up in a Google search are of her in a bikini or less. The same is true for Danika Patrick. There is nothing inherently wrong with a bikini. But if we want to truly address a culture of oppression, why not start with the effect of such images on young girls, or on the athletes themselves? Plenty of research has shown that while images of women playing sports make young girls feel positively, images of scantily dressed women (even when they are athletes), make them feel much worse about themselves and their bodies.

Even elite female athletes themselves struggle with their body image since having an athlete’s body (read: muscular and strong) is often seen to be at odds with a “feminine” body (read: small and delicate). Maria Sharapova, who was adored for her feminine body, famously revealed, “I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite. I think that’s every girl’s wish.” Serena Williams, on the other hand, who has been mocked for having muscular arms and a strong physique has spoken out about the toll this has taken on her and openly discusses her long journey toward accepting her body. But many other female athletes continue to battle with their body image, being forced to choose between athleticism and femininity.

In light of the struggles that many women—athletes and non-athletes—face; struggles that are compounded by the overt sexualization of women and girls in this culture, why are we so convinced women athletes who wish to cover their heads are oppressed? Instead, our indignation should be directed at the increasing rates of body image disorders in girls as young as 9 or 10. We should all be angry when young girls and women believe their worth is defined by how their bodies look and not what their bodies can accomplish. And we should all be sad when even the most talented female athletes continue to be scrutinized for what their bodies look like and not what they have accomplished.

In that sense, the focus on Nike’s Pro Hijab isn’t all that different—the women who want to compete wearing a hijab are also being judged for what they wear and not what they have to offer as athletes. Perhaps we should consider that what might be making us uncomfortable about them is that they refuse to give in to the cultural demands of sexualization of female athletes.

Nike’s Pro Hijab is not a tool of subjugation any more than a tennis uniform is. If we are truly interested in addressing oppression of female athletes, we need to look at the larger cultural norms that make it acceptable for female athletes to be judged on their appearance rather than their ability and that tell female athletes, in no uncertain terms, they need to choose between femininity and athleticism.

Afshan Jafar is an associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project. She is the author of Women’s NGOs in Pakistan, and the co-editor for Bodies without Borders and Global Beauty, Local Bodies.

Late last year Covergirl announced a new spokesmodel, a 17-year-old named James Charles. Their Instagram announcement currently boasts over 53,000 likes, though the comments on the post were decidedly mixed. They ranged from “I will never buy another (coverGIRL) because of this” to  “love love love” and “the world is coming to equality and acceptingness.”

In my circles, the overwhelming response was enthusiasm. Charles’ ascendance to Covergirl status was evidence that gender flexibility was going mainstream. And, I suppose it is.

I am always suspicious, though, of corporate motives. Covergirl’s decision to feature Charles does serve to break down the gender binary, but it does other things, too. Most notably, if makeup companies could convince boys and men that their product is as essential for them as it is for girls and women, it would literally double the size of their market.

That this hasn’t happened yet, in fact, is evidence of the triumph of gender ideology over capitalism. Either companies have decided that there’s (almost) no market in men or men have resisted what marketing has been applied. It’s an impressive resistance to what seems like an obvious expansion. There’s just no money in men thinking their faces look just fine as they are; the fact that we’ve allowed them to do so thus far is actually pretty surprising when you think about it.

If Covergirl had its way, though, I have no doubt that it would make every 17-year-old boy in America into a James Charles. Such a change would contribute to breaking down the gender binary, at least as we know it (though no doubt there are more and less feminist ways of doing this). Of course, if it was advantageous to do so, Covergirl would claim that it had something to do with feminism. But, I wouldn’t buy it.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Does the modeling industry fetishize whiteness?

It turns out that the answer is: it does and it doesn’t.  Ashley Mears, a model turned sociologist, found that high fashion models are overwhelmingly white, but that commercial modeling — the kind you see in catalogs for stores like Target, TJ Maxx, and JC Penney — is much more racially inclusive.  Similarly, extreme thinness is more pronounced among high fashion models, whereas commercial models tend to have a few more inches around their waists.

Mears says that the difference has to do with the contrasting purposes of the different modeling worlds.  High fashion is supposed to be, by definition, unattainable.  The women used in high fashion, then, should be the most idealized, with bodies that are among the most difficult to attain and beauty that is the most rareified.  In this context, whiteness is a marker of elite status because white femininity, thanks to white supremacy in U.S. culture, is the most purely feminine femininity of all.

In contrast, the commercial market is actually designed to sell clothes to everyday people.  In this case, they want consumers to identify with their models.  Their models aren’t supposed to signify social distance, they’re supposed to be just like us.  Using more diverse models and models who are less waif-like helps accomplish those goals.

Screen shot from the JC Penney catalog, thanks to reader Chelsea S.:

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Signaling white supremacy.

On the heels of the Republican national convention, the notorious KKK leader David Duke announced his campaign for the Louisiana Senate. On his social media pages, he released a campaign poster featuring a young white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes wearing a gray tank top decorated with American flag imagery. She is beautiful and young, exuding innocence. Atop the image the text reads “fight for Western civilization” and included David Duke’s website and logo. It does not appear that she consented to being on the poster.

When I came upon the image, I was immediately reminded of pro-Nazi propaganda that I had seen in a museum in Germany, especially those depicting “Hitler youth.” Many of those posters featured fresh white faces, looking healthy and clean, in stark contrast to the distorted, darkened, bloated, and snarling faces of the targets of the Nazi regime.

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It’s different era, but the implied message of Duke’s poster is the same — the nationalist message alongside the idealized figure — so it wasn’t difficult to find a Nazi propaganda poster that drew the comparison. I tweeted it out like this:

Given that David Duke is an avowed racist running on a platform to save “Western” civilization, it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch.

Provoking racist backlash.

I hashtagged it with #davidduke and #americafirst, so I can’t say I didn’t invite it, but the backlash was greater than any I have ever received. The day after the tweet, I easily got one tweet per minute, on average.

What I found fascinating was the range of responses. I was told I looked just like her — beautiful, blue-eyed, and white — was asked if I hated myself, accused of being a race traitor, and invited to join the movement against “white genocide.” I was also told that I was just jealous: comparatively hideous thanks to my age and weight. Trolls took shots at sociology, intellectuals, and my own intelligence. I was asked if I was Jewish, accused of being so, and told to put my head in an oven. I was sent false statistics about black crime. I was also, oddly, accused of being a Nazi myself. Others, like Kate Harding, Philip Cohen, and even Leslie Jones, were roped in.

Here is a sampling (super trigger warning for all kinds of hatefulness):

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It’s not news that twitter is full of trolls. It’s not news that there are proud white supremacists and neo-nazis in America. It’s not news that women online get told they’re ugly or fat on the reg. It’s not news that I’m a (proud) cat lady either, for what it’s worth. But I think transparency is our best bet to get people to acknowledge the ongoing racism, antisemitism, sexism, and anti-intellectualism in our society. So, there you have it.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Many are aghast at a cartoon recently released by a well-known right-leaning cartoonist, Ben Garrison. Rightly, commentators are arguing that it reproduces the racist stereotype that African American women are more masculine than white women. I’ll briefly discuss this, but I want to add a twist, too.

The block versus cursive font, the muscularity and the leanness, the strong versus swishy stance, the color and cut of their dresses, the length of their hair, the confrontational versus the compliant facial expression, and the strategically placed, transphobic bulge in Michelle Obama’s dress — you could hardly do a better job of masculinizing Michelle and feminizing Melania.

This is a racist stereotype not only because it posits that black women are unattractive, unlikable, and even dangerous, but because it has its roots in American slavery. We put middle class white women on pedestals, imagining them to be fragile and precious. But if women were fragile and precious, how could we force some of them to do the hard labor we forced on enslaved women? The answer was to defeminize black women. Thanks for keeping the stereotype alive, Ben Garrison.

What I’d like to add as a twist, though, is about Michelle’s expression, purposefully drawn as both ugly and judgmental. Michelle’s face isn’t just drawn as masculine, it’s aimed at Melania and she isn’t just sneering, she’s sneering at this other women.

The cartoon also places women in competition. It tells a sexist story of ugly (black) women who are hateful toward beautiful (white) women. It tells a story in which women are bitter and envious of each other, a ubiquitous story in which women tear each other down and can’t get along. It’s a terrible stereotype, demeaning and untrue (except insofar as patriarchal relations make it so).

And it’s especially reprehensible when it’s layered onto race.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Television evangelist Pat Robertson once described feminism as “a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” His comment is frequently used as a particularly extreme version of the feminist stereotype, but how far are his sentiments from those of the general public?

A more systematic investigation into what people think about feminists found that many people think that feminists are ugly, uptight, angry, aggressive, harsh, strident, demanding, dogmatic, man-hating lesbians… or think other people think they are. Only 26 percent of people say that feminist is a positive term.

This suggests that actual feminists have lost control over their own reputation. It would be counterproductive, after all, for feminists to portray themselves as unlikeable. Negative stereotypes about feminists, instead, are likely spread by anti-feminists.

Anti-suffrage campaign material is one example. The images below — from the collection of Catherine Palczewski — tell a story about who the feminist women fighting for suffrage are and what they want. It’s all pre-1920s, but the stereotypes and fears are similar.

Feminists are ugly:

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Feminists are manly:4

Feminists neglect their natural role as a mother/are uncaring toward children:13

They’re angry:12

They want to emasculate men and take their role:1a

They’re mean to their husbands, if they can get married at all:2OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They don’t want equality with men, they want to dominate them:1a11

Next time you hear that feminists are ugly or hate men — or any number of stereotypes about women who seek equality — remember that this is exactly what anti-feminists have wanted you to think for the last 200 years.

Thanks to Jay Livingston for the tip! Postcards from: Palczewski, Catherine H. Postcard Archive. University of Northern Iowa. Cedar Falls, IA.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

So, Star Wars is out with a new movie and instead of pretending female fans don’t exist, Disney has decided to license the Star Wars brand to Covergirl. A reader named David, intrigued, sent in a two-page ad from Cosmopolitan for analysis.

What I find interesting about this ad campaign — or, more accurately — boring, is its invitation to women to choose whether they are good or bad. “Light side or dark side. Which side are you on?” it asks. Your makeup purchases, apparently, follow.

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This is the old — and by “old” I mean ooooooooold — tradition of dividing women into good and bad. The Madonna and the whore. The woman on the pedestal and her fallen counterpart. Except Covergirl, like many cosmetics companies before that have used exactly the same gimmick, is offering women the opportunity to choose which she wants to be. Is this some sort of feminist twist? Now we get to choose whether men want to marry us or just fuck us? Great.

But that part’s just boring. What’s obnoxious about the ad campaign is the idea that, for women, what really matters about the ultimate battle between good and evil is whether it goes with her complexion. It affirms the stereotype that women are deeply trivial, shallow, and vapid. What interests us about Star Wars? Why, makeup, of course!

If David — who also noted the inclusion of a single Asian model as part of the Dark Side — hadn’t asked me to write about this, I probably wouldn’t have. It feels like low hanging fruit because it’s just makeup advertising and who cares. But this constant message that women are genuinely excited at the idea of getting to choose which color packet to use as some sort of idiotic contribution to a battle of good versus evil is corrosive.

Moreover, the constant reiteration of the idea that we are thrilled to paint our faces actually obscures the fact that we are essentially required to do so if we want to be taken seriously as professionals, potential partners or, really, valuable human beings. So, not only does this kind of message teach us not to take women seriously at all, it hides the very serious way in which we are actively forced to capitulate to the male gaze — every. damn. day. — and feed capitalism while we’re at it.

This ad isn’t asking us if we want to be on the dark side or the light side. It’s asking us if we want to wear makeup or wear makeup. It’s not a choice at all. But it sure does make subordination seem fun.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.