gender: femininity

A while back, in a post about Kim Kardashian’s fame, Lisa summarized the concept of a patriarchal bargain as “a decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power one can wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact.”

Christine B. sent in an excellent example of an individual-level attempt at empowerment with the confines of gender inequality. The video, part of the Howcast series of how-to videos, explains to women how to get men to buy them drinks at a bar:

In case you didn’t feel like watching the video, I can sum it up for you:

  • Dress sexy, but not slutty, or you’re asking for it. How do you know if you’ve crossed the line? Well, if any men act inappropriately toward you, you must have shown too much boob. Better luck next time!
  • Instead of planning a fun night out with your female friends, select only one — the bubbliest one, obviously — and go find a male-dominated environment.
  • Buy yourself one drink right off the bat, so it looks like you’re an independent-minded woman who isn’t trying to get free shit in return for being pretty. I mean, you are doing that, but you don’t want to make it obvious. Men might be turned off if the gendered exchange were made explicit.
  • Assume all men are stupid.
  • Don’t ever stop to question a system that tells women that trading on our appearance, faking interest in people, excluding friends from social outings because they might be annoying to random men you’ve never met, and being manipulative are all totally empowering and socially-acceptable ways to behave as long as ladies get a fairly low-cost item for free in return for our efforts.

Transcript after the jump.


YetAnotherGirl sent us a link to a post at Jezebel about a sign MarketFair Mall, in New Jersey, put up (and then took down after criticism and a petition) to apologize for any inconvenience some remodeling might cause:

The sign does a couple of things. It normalizes the idea that the type of verbal harassment women often face when in public (see my post from a couple of years ago for a personal example) is, in fact, the natural outcome of how women look. Rather than feeling harassed, women should interpret such comments as the compliments they really are. Yes, yes, we can shake our heads and act annoyed, but isn’t it ultimately nice to know we look good?

The sign also reinforces a certain view of working-class masculinity, one in which working-class men are crude and lacking in basic civility, unable or unwilling to control how they express themselves, a fact that everyone else may find a bit irritating but should ultimately shrug off with a bit of a smile.

This view of working-class masculinity is reinforced in a Dutch commercial sent in by Sarah van B. The commercial is for Gamma, a chain of hardware stores in the Netherlands. In it, boys build houses out of Legos, displaying various stereotypes of rough, brutish masculinity: lack of middle-class manners (burping, nose-picking), uncontrolled bodies (belly hanging out, visible butt crack), and group harassment of women:

Sarah translates the call to the woman as “Where are those pretty little legs going?”

Such depictions normalize the harassment of women while also associating it with a general lack of sophistication, something that only the lower classes would engage in. They encourage the audience to laugh at the men who do so, finding humor in their brutish antics, but also reinforce the idea that women should just expect this type of behavior from the type of men who do manual labor.

Cross-posted at Ms.

Paul (an Irish grad student), Carys G., Zeynep A., Marjan vdW., and one other reader all sent in a link to a new video released by the European Commission. The video, “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”, is meant to encourage girls to consider careers in the natural and physical sciences, presenting science, as the title suggests, as an area compatible with femininity and other “girl things” — make-up, high heels, and fashion:

The video has been roundly criticized (check out the Twitter feed for #sciencegirlthing), both for presenting a stereotyped image of girls and for misrepresenting the scientific workplace (one female scientist Tweeted wondering what will happen to any girls possibly drawn in by this campaign when they learn that in many labs, open-toed heels violate safety codes).

I suspect the makers of the video believe they are doing that first thing — trying to push back against the idea that science is unfeminine. Indeed, the video is part of the larger Science: It’s a Girl Thing! campaign, and the website also contains 12 profiles of female European scientists, which provide more realistic depictions of women working in a range of scientific fields. But many viewers, including a lot of scientists (both women and men), see it as the second thing — another example of what I described in my original post of the cartoon as “superficial attempts to overcome the often structural constraints that keep women out of masculinized arenas of social life.”

Indeed, girls don’t just need to be told “you can do science and look cute too!” In fact, a post at New Scientist discusses the results of a recently-published article by Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa, “My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls”. Betz and Sekaquaptewa found that images of conventionally feminine women in science fields actually demotivated female middle school students and decreased their perceptions of their likelihood of success in science and math. Girls appeared to see these images and, instead of thinking “Oh, I can like makeup and clothes but still do science!”, they thought, not unreasonably, “Oh, great, so I have to be smart and still meet all the demands of conventional femininity, too?” Instead of inspiring girls, the images were threatening, making them feel less likely to succeed in science and math. This effect was most pronounced for those girls who weren’t already interested in such fields — presumably the exact group campaigns such as Science: It’s a Girl Thing! are meant to attract. As the authors conclude (p. 7), “Submitting STEM role models to Pygmalian-style makeovers…may do more harm than good.”

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

S. Alfonzo sent us a link to the abridged version of The Codes of Gender, in which Sut Jhally, known for a number of documentaries on pop culture, analyzes current messages about masculinity and femininity in advertising, applying the ideas of Erving Goffman regarding gender and cultural performance. Definitely worth the time to watch:

The Media Education Foundation has provided a full transcript and tips for using the film in the classroom.

Annie C. and another reader sent us a link to a post by Ryan North at what are the haps about a set of gendered “survival guides” for kids published by Scholastic (and which the publisher now says it won’t continue printing). Boys and girls apparently need very different survival skills, which the other sex shouldn’t know anything about:

In his post, Ryan provides the table of contents for each. What do boys and girls need to be able to survive? For boys, no big surprises — forest fire, earthquake, quicksand, your average zombie or vampire attack, that type of thing, many including, according to teen librarian Jackie Parker, practical and useful tips:

How to Survive a shark attack
How to Survive in a Forest
How to Survive Frostbite
How to Survive a Plane Crash
How to Survive in the Desert
How to Survive a Polar Bear Attack
How to Survive a Flash Flood
How to Survive a Broken Leg
How to Survive an Earthquake
How to Survive a Forest Fire
How to Survive in a Whiteout
How to Survive a Zombie Invasion
How to Survive a Snakebite
How to Survive if Your Parachute Fails
How to Survive a Croc Attack
How to Survive a Lightning Strike
How to Survive a T-Rex
How to Survive Whitewater Rapids
How to Survive a Sinking Ship
How to Survive a Vampire Attack
How to Survive an Avalanche
How to Survive a Tornado
How to Survive Quicksand
How to Survive a Fall
How to Survive a Swarm of Bees
How to Survive in Space

Girls seem to require a very different set of survival skills. Like how to survive a breakout — a skill boys don’t apparently need, though they also get acne. Other handy tips are how to deal with becoming rich or a superstar, how to ensure you get the “perfect school photo,” surviving a crush, whatever turning “a no into a yes” is (persuasiveness, I suppose), picking good sunglasses, dealing with a bad fashion day, and of course “how to spot a frenemy”:

How to survive a BFF Fight
How to Survive Soccer Tryouts
How to Survive a Breakout
How to Show You’re Sorry
How to Have the Best Sleepover Ever
How to Take the Perfect School Photo
How to Survive Brothers
Scary Survival Dos and Don’ts
How to Handle Becoming Rich
How to Keep Stuff Secret
How to Survive Tests
How to Survive Shyness
How to Handle Sudden Stardom
More Stardom Survival Tips
How to Survive a Camping Trip
How to Survive a Fashion Disaster
How to Teach Your Cat to Sit
How to Turn a No Into a Yes
Top Tips for Speechmaking
How to Survive Embarrassment
How to Be a Mind Reader
How to Survive a Crush
Seaside Survival
How to Soothe Sunburn
How to Pick Perfect Sunglasses
Surviving a Zombie Attack
How to Spot a Frenemy
Brilliant Boredom Busters
How to Survive Truth or Dare
How to Beat Bullies
How to be an Amazing Babysitter

Aside from the multiple items clearly focused on appearances, Ryan points out that several others emphasize looks. Camping is “excellent for the skin,” while the seaside survival chapter provides a lot of fashion tips.

Many of the girls’ tips are about surviving social situations or dealing with emotions — embarrassment, keeping a secret, dealing with bullies. These are all probably more useful to kids than knowing how to survive quicksand, and tips for handling stardom are statistically more likely to be useful at some point than dealing with a T-Rex. So the issue here isn’t that the boys’ guide is inherently more useful or smarter or better; probably all kids should be issued a guide to surviving Truth or Dare (also, dodgeball). But the clear gendering of the guides, with only girls getting tips about dealing with social interactions, emotions, and looks, while outdoorsy injury/natural disaster survival tips are sufficient for boys, illustrates broader assumptions about gender and how we construct femininity and masculinity.

Rebecca sent in an ad she saw in an Australian women’s magazine that explicitly reinforces the idea that women are in perpetual competition with one another. The ad declares an anti-aging product a weapon to be used “in the war against other women,” reminding women that we should consider ourselves to be in a battle with one another over who is most physically attractive — and thus, presumably, most likely to win the ultimate prize of remaining sexually attractive to men:

Check out our earlier posts on the discourse of women-as-competitors, how objectification divides women, the “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” advertising trope, and an Israeli Bacardi ad campaign that told women to get an ugly friend to make themselves look better.

Today I thought we’d do another round-up of gendered children’s stuff, since we’ve gotten a number of submissions. So here we go.

Missy C. noticed that the manufacturer’s product description listed on Amazon for one of the Fisher Price Imaginext Sky Racers took for granted that the toy was for boys, not, say, “kids”:

Monica C., meanwhile, noticed another example of the association of girls with a diva-ish princess center-of-attention persona when looking at onesies for sale at My Habit. Options included “born fabulous,” “high maintenance,” “born to wear diamonds,” and “it’s all about me,” among others:

Similarly, Melanie J. saw some baby booties for sale at retail chain JR’s in North Carolina that reinforce the idea that boys are mischievous while girls are materialistic:

You can buy them gendered vitamins as well. Nathan, who writes at 1115, sent in this photo he took at Target:

Pete & Emily in Norwich, UK, noticed that you can now allow your hamsters to inhabit gendered worlds too, if you’d like; they sent us this photo they took at a pet store:

But we do have two counter-examples this time! Jackie H. took a photo of a kitchen set she saw for sale at Meijer, which shows both a boy and a girl using it:

And Isabeau P.S., Jesse W., and Anne Sofie B. all sent in images from the catalog for Swedish toy maker Leklust (two of the images were discussed at Mommyish):


U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R, Maine) and Representative Carolyn Maloney (D, New York) have both gone on record claiming that having more women employed in the Secret Service would prevent scandals like the one involving Colombian prostitutes.

In classic Daily Show form, Jon Stewart and his “correspondents” respond (thanks to Dmitriy T.M. for the link!):

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.