gender: femininity

Hanna Rosin, senior editor at The Atlantic and author of The End of Men, has written a piece about hook up culture on and off college campuses for the September issue of her magazine.  Given that I’ve done some research on hook up culture, W.W. Norton’s Karl Bakeman asked me to weigh in.  So, here are my two cents: Rosin isn’t wrong to argue that the culture offers women sexual opportunities and independence, but she mischaracterizes the objections to hook up culture and draws too rosy a conclusion.

Those who wring their hands and “lament” hook up culture, Rosin contends, do so because they think women are giving it up too easily, a practice that will inevitably leave them heartbroken.`She writes:

[Critics of hook up culture pine] for an earlier time, when fathers protected “innocent” girls from “punks” and predators, and when girls understood it was their role to also protect themselves.

If this is the problem, the answer is less sex and more (sexless?) relationships.  But, Rosin rightly argues, this wrongly stereotypes women as fragile flowers whose self-esteem lies between their legs.  It also romanticizes relationships.  Drawing on the fantastic research of sociologists Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong, she explains that young women often find serious relationships with men to be distracting; staying single (and hooking up for fun) is one way to protect their own educational and career paths.

All this is true and so, Rosin concludes, hook up culture is “an engine of female progress — one being harnessed and driven by women themselves.”

Well, not exactly.  Yes, women get to choose to have sex with men casually and many do.  And some women truly enjoy hook up culture, while others who like it less still learn a lot about themselves and feel grateful for the experiences.  I make this argument with my colleague, Caroline Heldman, in Hooking Up and Opting Out: Negotiating Sex in the First Year of College.

But what young women don’t control is the context in which they have sex.  The problem with hook up culture is not casual sex, nor is it the fact that some women are choosing it, it’s the sexism that encourages men to treat women like pawns and requires women to be just as cunning and manipulative if they want to be in the game; it’s the relentless pressure to be hot that makes some women feel like shit all the time and the rest feel like shit some of the time; it’s the heterosexism that marginalizes and excludes true experimentation with same-sex desire; and it’s the intolerance towards people who would rather be in relationships or practice abstinence (considered boring, pathetic, or weird by many advocates of hook up culture including, perhaps, Rosin).

Fundamentally, what’s wrong with hook up culture is the antagonistic, competitive, malevolent attitude towards one’s sexual partners.  College students largely aren’t experimenting with sexuality nicely.  Hook ups aren’t, on the whole, mutually satisfying, strongly consensual, experimental affairs during which both partners express concern for the others’ pleasure.   They’re repetitive, awkward, and confusing sexual encounters in which men have orgasms more than twice as often as women:

The problem with hook up culture, then, is not that people are friends with benefits.  It’s that they’re not. As one of my students concluded about one of her hook up partners:  “You could have labeled it friends with benefits… without the friendship maybe?”

Hook up culture is an “engine of female progress” only if we take-for-granted that our destination is a caricature of male sexuality, one in which sex is a game with a winner and a loser.   But do we really want sex to be competitive?   Is “keep[ing] pace with the boys,” as Rosin puts it, really what liberation looks like?  I think we can do better.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Somehow the accidental mis-translation of the Princess/Barbie character is just right

Buzzfeed and CookdandBombd, via Work that Matters.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Liz B. let us know about Slim Jim’s Spice Loss ad campaign, which features a number of commercials about men suffering from the horrible condition of spice loss, also known as emasculation. As Liz explains, “Apparently you need processed meat to stimulate your ‘man gland’, and give you ‘brolectrolytes’ for your ‘menergy’.” The ads feature themes that are common when marketing to men — a very circumscribed version of acceptable masculinity and the idea that women, and feminized things, are threats to masculinity.

Things that endanger men’s lives or just generally sap their will to live, according to the ads:

  • Shakespeare
  • Bird-shaped boats
  • Ironing
  • Making adjustments to their lifestyles to accommodate family life
  • Yoga
  • Salad
  • Spending time with women.




It’s fascinating, really: femininity is depicted as weakness, the sapping of strength, yet masculinity is so fragile that apparently even the slightest brush with the feminine destroys it. This entire ad campaign — and the discourse about masculinity it draws from — is just an adult version of the game of cooties, with men fleeing the symbolic pollution of femininity.

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

In Gay Rights at the Ballot Box, I analyze the long history of transgender smear tactics used by the Religious Right, a large social movement that opposes LGBT rights. One area where this occurs is the production of campaign ads addressing attempts to protect transgender individuals from discrimination. The ads almost always focus on either children or bathrooms.

Back in April, voters in Anchorage, Alaska, rejected Proposition 5, which would have created a law protecting residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Such laws are primarily to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) residents. Transgender inclusion in the potential law was the focus of two commercials by the organization Protect Your Rights.

In both of these political ads, figures of large, hairy male-bodied individuals in dresses, described as “transvestites”, represented transgender inclusion. They present transgender individuals as grotesque and threatening. At the heart of these ads and other transgender smear tactics is anxiety about bodies in gender-segregated spaces that are typically occupied by women.

The women’s bathroom in particular is a site where gender conformity is policed. According to scholar Judith Halberstam in her book Female Masculinity, women’s bathrooms “operate as an arena for the enforcement of gender conformity…a sanctuary of enhanced femininity, a ‘little girl’s room’ to which one retreats to powder one’s nose or fix one’s hair” (p. 24). In this ad, the locker room operates in parallel way, as a space where gender conformity and bodies are strictly policed:

The other ad focused on the possibility of a “transvestite” getting hired at a daycare facility:

In addition to the use of stereotypically-presented “transvestites” to represent all transgender individuals as grotesque and laughable, the ads also argue that employers should have the right to discriminate if they think their customers are prejudiced toward a particular group or uncomfortable with them in certain jobs — an argument that has been used to resist allowing racial minorities and women into various careers. The ads also suggest that Anchorage is already sufficiently tolerant and thus doesn’t need to address the issues Proposition 5 supporters claimed were a problem.

Ads that raise fears about transvestites teaching in the classroom have been used since the 1970s during ballot measure campaigns, and the Religious Right has been raising concerns about transgender women in women’s bathrooms since the late 1980s. These two ads from the Anchorage Proposition 5 campaign are among the newest additions to the long tradition of ads that rely on stereotypes of LGBT individuals as predatory, dangerous to have around children, and having ulterior motives.


Amy L. Stone is an associate professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

Men and women in Western societies often look more different than they are naturally because of the incredible amounts of work we put into trying to look different.  Often this is framed as “natural” but, in fact, it takes a lot of time, energy, and money.  The dozens of half-drag portraits, from photographer Leland Bobbé, illustrate just how powerful our illusion can be.  Drag, of course, makes a burlesque of the feminine; it is hyperfeminine.  But most all of us are doing drag, at least a little bit, much of the time. 

Here’s an example of one we have permission to use for the cover of our Gender textbook:


Many more at Leland Bobbé’s website.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Last year Lisa posted about Wonder Woman’s pose on a Justice League cover and the way it revealed performative aspects of gender. DC Comics recently released a new Catwoman series. Majd Al-Shihabi sent in a link to the cover of Catwoman #0. The cover drew a lot of attention for the degree of sexualization of Catwoman, whose unrealistic and painful-looking pose maximizes the prominence of her breasts and butt:

I tried to imagine how you’d have to hold your body to even approximate that pose, but at a certain point it hurt to even think about it.

Gamma Squad posted a number of parodies that highlight the over-the-top sexualization of this female superhero. From Josh Rodgers, of Mushface Comics:

From King of the Siams:

And some time ago Hark! A Vagrant presented Strong Female Characters, which awesomely parodies the “it’s not problematic to sexually objectify all your female characters as long as they’re able to kick ass ‘n stuff!” argument (thanks to Erin R. and Gabrielle M. for sending it in). Here’s just one panel; I recommend following the link to check out the whole thing:


Gamma Squad has several other examples, including one where someone tries to use a graphics design program to reproduce the Catwoman pose without breaking her spine. Results: can’t be done.

Kevin L. let me know about Independent Woman, a PBS documentary in which a number of TV actresses discuss how their roles reflect the pressures, expectations, and opportunities women face, from the happy housewives of the 1950s to a variety of current shows. I don’t always agree with their interpretations, but if you love pop culture, as I do, it’s worth a watch:

Watch The Independent Woman on PBS. See more from America in Primetime.

We’ve posted before on the way that kids’ products, and the way they are marketed, often reinforces an active boys/passive-and-pretty girls binary. Rebecca Hains noticed that the Stride Rite store near her, as well as the Stride Right website, does so. For instance, girls can “sparkle” and “shine”:

The descriptions for girls’ sneakers on the website emphasize how they’ll help girls shine:

Boys are encouraged to identify with superheroes:

The descriptions for the boys’ shoes emphasize action and speed, as well as their ability to protect the feet of adventurous boys:

More examples of Stride Right marketing at Rebecca Hains’s blog.

Erica B.-K. found these onesies which, though sold by a site called uncommongoods, reflect rather common gendering:

Hiroshi H. noticed that the website for Specialized Bicycle Components divides bikes into ones for boys and girls, though the only noticeable difference was color:

And finally, Anne R. noticed that there’s a Tinker Toy set that, because it is pink and purple, is thus “designed especially for girls”:

As someone who loved Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs as a kid, I’m all for encouraging as many kids as possible to play with them, yet saddened if we are at a point where parents and/or children cannot imagine Tinker Toys could be for girls unless the package screams it at them. But I would kinda like to build that flamingo.