Skip to content

Man Up!

March 14, 2011

“Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.” ~ Norman Mailer

In the last few blog entries we’ve explored concepts of gender from distinctly feminist perspectives, in which notions of masculinity are either left out or perceived to be understood as part of a larger social structure. However, we’ve also been considering gender through a primarily binary Western lens. In light of this, if we are to study the notion of femininity we must also look at its counterpart, masculinity.

What does it mean to be man?

As the Norman Mailer quote above suggests, masculinity is commonly seen as something that is cultivated over time and something that must be proved and fought for over and over again. Thus, the masculine man — who is often seen as physically strong and dominant — is prized in the social hierarchy for having attained an ideal that is outside of himself. This dominance is not just over women but over other men who often find themselves labeled in “less masculine” categories. As the commentary on Disney movies (see video below) suggests, this notion of masculinity is normalized (along with notions of femininity) early on in childhood and arguably strengthened in school and other social institutions. Moreover, because “the masculine” is set apart as an ideal for which to strive and fight, many boys and men are unjustly pushed to the margins of society and asked to repeatedly question their own identities.

R.W. Connell and James Messershmidt consider this masculine hierarchy in their article Hegemonic Masculinity (2005), in which they posit that the categories that boys and men are defined by are too limited and static, and thus do not account for the dynamic discourses of everyday life. To come to this conclusion, the authors take an historical account of the concept of hegemonic masculinity, a term that is used to describe a model of multiple masculine hierarchies that has been used in social science and masculine studies since the 1980s (830).

Connell and Messershmidt offer five critiques of this model: (1) that the underlying concept of masculinity “essentializes male-female difference … as if women were not a relevant part of the analysis” (836-837). It also places masculinity into static categories without recognizing the fluid nature of the human existence. (2) There is ambiguity and overlap in the definition of “masculine.” For example a football player is recognized for his masculinity through his physique and athletic prowess on the field; a business man is recognized for his masculinity through his swagger in the board room as well as his perceived wealth. In both situations the men are recognized as being on the top of the social hierarchy, however, in very different ways. (3) The lack of differentiation between historical structures of patriarchy and interaction in terms of gender, and thus a justification for actions deemed masculine. (4) The subject of “masculine” is flawed in that it is a category sought but rarely experienced by any man. (5) The reliance on seeing relations between men and women as self-contained experiences. The authors, note, however that “masculinity is open to challenge and requires considerable effort to maintain” (844). Just as Mailer said, dominance — and thus masculinity — is not a given.

Old Spice Advert

What purposes do Connell and Merssershmidt’s critiques offer us in terms of understanding masculinity?  My take-away is that the something that men are asked by society to fight for does not exist. It is an ideal that is inherently flawed and misleading and does not account for the multiple identities that men must navigate daily. Although the authors do suggest that further research should consider the dynamics of multiple masculinities, including from a regional perspective , they stop short of looking at myriad other identities men are asked to assume outside of gender. This is where Greg Noble’s research steps in.

‘Countless acts of recognition’

Noble considers identities in terms of how they are created, reinforced and often rejected. He writes:

... identities are not simply given, but emerge as complex and conflicted acts of self-identification by others: what we call identities are the result of a dialogic process with others who have the ability to validate one’s identity claims ( 877).

In this way, Noble suggests that people develop their personal identities through others’ perceptions and recognition. This recognition falls into categories, such as gender or ethnicity, or attributes, such as personal accomplishments. Either way, humans navigate this world like the little metal ball in a pinball machine, bouncing back and forth and thus renegotiating space between obstacles (recognition) or falling through the cracks. However, although people may be putting on a face to achieve some degree of acceptance, their actions rarely reflect the people they really are.

Part of Noble’s ethnographic research looked into the lives of young Arab men in Sydney, Australia, who are often marginalized by their immigrant status. Interviews with the men demonstrated how they chose to often ignore the categories, such as ethnicity, in order to avoid being singled out or asked to speak for an entire group of people. They also rarely noted their gender in interviews. What Noble’s interviews offered is that the men strategically chose to hide and highlight their multiple identities in different social contexts. Through his research he argues that “reducing complex social experience to the reproduction of power means foreclosing on the analytical power of recognition as social process” (887). In a similar way to McConnell and Messerschmidt, Noble suggests that we should move to acknowledge human beings as individuals as well as bearers of myriad social identities.

This point is further highlighted in the 1998 film Head On (trailer below), in which a young gay Greek man is asked to navigate of sea of identities, battling with himself and the world around him for both recognition and isolation. Because Ari is from a Greek immigrant family, he is immediately “othered” in Australian society — and like many immigrants, his prospects for a prosperous career are somewhat limited. However, Ari, as a gay man who lacks a job, wife and family, does not easily find recognition in the tight-knit Greek community in which he has grown up. Although recognized for his ability to dance and his good looks, he often runs away into the shadows to embrace his gay identity. Yet, there are short moments when Ari embraces an identity that comes off as inauthentic and forced, yet is received well by others in his life. While watching Head On, the viewer rides the movie like a wave, experiencing Ari’s ups and downs as he goes through them. In this way, the film does a fantastic job in highlighting the fluid nature of identity and demonstrates the limits of static categories.

Men’s Lib: Re-imagining Masculinity

Recently, there have been calls in the press and in online forums to reconsider what it means to “be a man.” Some suggest that women’s access to the workforce and freedom from forced domesticity have resulted in a “weakened man,” whose role is no longer defined by the same social constructs. As the Newsweek article “Man’s Lib” points out, with the “mancession” of the last few years, the term metrosexual has faded off the popular radar and has been replaced by retrosexual, a desire to return to the image of the burly “masculine” Marlboro man — a man with a purpose, drive, strength, and dominance in the social sphere.

Brad Pitt with Children - A New Popular Image of Masculinity?

However, the two writers of the article, both men in the their twenties, suggest that the “musty” image of masculinity is no longer relevant in a world driven by technology — a world in which physical strength is no longer an indicator of success or even masculinity. Rather, the authors suggest that this new world offers an opportunity for men to explore other aspects of their personalities, such as embracing fatherhood, taking on more artistic projects that have personal value, or signing up for jobs that their fathers may have considered too feminine. The authors argue that do this policies will have to change at a government level (for example, extending parental leave to fathers). Yet, they note that greater gender parity will allow both men and women to embrace their individual identities in a less restrictive, categorical manner. (However, in writing the piece, the authors do in fact limit themselves to age-old identifiers of gender, perhaps for journalistic, storytelling purposes.)

Although this article may lean a bit to the romantic, it does highlight a new trend. A unscientific, 2010 survey on suggests that many of the sites readers (who I would suggest from a quick scan of the site are mostly heterosexual) view masculinity at a turning point:

Now collected, compiled and analyzed, the results of the survey suggest that modern-day manhood is made up of a range of discernible characteristics, some well-established and some still in emergence. More specifically, our findings indicate that “the new masculinity” is a combination of, on the one hand, “old-school” values such as honor, loyalty and hard work and, on the other hand, a more contemporary set of beliefs about gender roles at a time when they are changing both at home and on the job.

What most of these reports leave out, however, is that we are still defining masculinity through the lens of a heterosexual, male-female binary. Where does this leave men who identify as transgender or gay … or as feminine? Moreover, what elements of the old “masculine” category linger? Physique, wealth, honor? And what popular images define and support these notions? There is just not enough space in this post to explore these topics.

The point is, even as categories evolve, they still exist, meaning that men (and women) will continue to seek or shy away from recognition in terms of what has been deemed socially acceptably.

For further consideration:

“Mr Mom.” A 2010 New York Times article on shared parenting and gender equality. (By Lisa Belkin)

For further reading:

Connell, R.W., and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society 19.6 (2005): 829-859. Print.

Noble, Greg. “‘Countless acts of recognition’: young men, ethnicity and the messiness of identities in everyday life.”Social & Cultural Geography 10.8 (2009): 875-891. Print.

Romano, Andrew, and Tony Dokoupil. “Men’s Lib: Why We Need to Reimagine Masculinity.” Newsweek 20 Sept. 2010: n. pag. Men’s Lib. Web. 13 Mar. 2011.


For Reflection: The Lived Realities of Women Under the Influence of Globalization

March 6, 2011

[Life politics] is a politics of self-actualisation in a reflexively ordered environment, where that reflexivity links self and body to systems of global scope. (…) [L]ife politics concerns political issues which flow from processes of self-actualisation in post-traditional contexts, where globalising influences intrude deeply into the reflexive project of the self, and conversely where processes of self-realisation influence global strategies. ~ Anthony Giddens*

The concept of globalization has been defined as the influence that large, industrial, Western countries (i.e. America) have on smaller, less economically influential countries. Development advocates argue that the process of globalization, through which this influence takes place, often destroys the communities of nations that are generally located in the global South. They contend that globalization can destroy local cultures through forced industrialization and modernization. Moreover, the introduction of advanced communication technologies (satellite television, mobile telephony and the Internet) has altered the ways in which individuals see themselves as part of the larger world, often straining long-held communal bonds. As Freeman writes, “[in this view] the local, in other words, is always the victim of global capitalist domination” (1015).

However, many also argue that this same process has given individuals throughout the world greater access to jobs and wealth as well as new ways to interact with people outside their communities. Some even suggest that globalization has given rise democratic revolutions and has furthered human rights campaigns.

Yet, as the broad social and economic impacts of globalization are debated, there remains a general underlying assumption that the process is one-to-many, whereby the products and lifestyles of wealthy nations are adopted without protest and question by the communities within poorer nations. I offer McDonald’s, Starbucks and the television show Friends as examples.

However, the authors below support Anthony Giddens’ argument (quoted above) that globalization is more of a many-to-many process, through which individuals self-reflectively take from the global influence what has meaning to them, incorporate that meaning into their local, lived experience, and share with the world their personal interpretation of a globalized product or lifestyle. Just as Ien Ang questioned the “hypodermic needle” hypothesis with regard to media consumption and gender, so do Freeman and Kim with globalization and gender.

The New Style of Caribbean Higglers

Higglers are women who have traditionally managed the informal labor markets of the nations of the Caribbean islands. They are, as Freeman suggests, “a powerful image in Afro-Caribbean history, a woman who symbolizes local economic ingenuity and female independence” (1019). Traditionally, higglers travel great distances to buy agriculture and household goods and then resell these goods in rural communities on the black market. These woman are known to be creative, skirting the law while supporting and nurturing their families and communities.

A cartoon from a Jamaican newspaper on the migration of higglers

Freeman notes that as a result of modernization and globalization, today’s higgler may find herself working as a typist or call-center employee for an international company that outsourced these functions to the Islands. By way of her ethnographic study of higglers in Barbados, Freeman notes that this modern “pink-collar” worker is not in the same situation as a factory laborer, who may also work for an international organization. (Arguably, the passive factory laborer is a more common depiction of “woman as worker” in the global economy.) Rather, Freeman notes, the worker in the “offshore informatics industry in Barbados takes her wage … and invests it in the purchase of goods abroad, with the eventual goal of reselling them in informal networks back home” (1026).

In this way, these women reject the common — masculine — assumption that globalization only flows in one direction, thereby penetrating the markets in which it enters. Rather, because the higgler buys goods abroad with the intent to sell them in local markets, she navigates a complex world of cultural differences. Thus, she uses her new wealth, which is a result of globalization, to more broadly pick and choose the foreign products that will carry meaning in her own community. This is her agency. Freeman writes:

[The higglers’] roles as transnational informatics workers and marketers … represent forms of global action on local stages whose significance affects directly the ways in which they and their customers live their lives and define themselves. (1032)

Individualizing Globalization in Cultural Terms

Youna Kim introduces us to a different, albeit arguably more popular, interaction with globalization — American television and movies. The mass import of Hollywood films is common throughout the world (few studios outside of the US have the budgets to be competitive with American production companies) and many scholars debate the impacts these films and TV series have on vulnerable cultures.

In her ethnographic study of working and middle class Korean women in their early twenties, Kim finds that American movies are used by the women to reflexively consider their own culture in light of their knowledge about the West. Kim’s study demonstrates that “people have a reflexive and critical engagement with the new global television culture, which involves learning to deal with their life conditions with new information” (29).

Kim found that working class women used American television shows and movies to escape their lived realities, in which their own social mobilities are limited by gender and class roles. The women generally appreciated the sense of identity fluidity and freedom of American women, as presented on screen. To the Korean women, the lives of Western women seemed exciting and meaningful, as compared to their self-described dull and routine existences. In this way, the women often imagined that they were living the lives of those on film, disembedding themselves from their own realties to explore the opportunities of another, if only temporarily (35).

Moreover, middle-class, college-educated women viewed the television series and movies as ways through which they could articulate difference. The women described Korean society as being rigid and strictly defined by a pre-defined set of standards. In many ways, the Korean women admired the free lifestyle of American women, who seem on screen to have control over their own destinies. Kim writes:

This manifests television’s great capacity for evoking reflexivity in an endless chain of referentiality, intersected with the microcosm of everyday life. In the context of new cultural experiences, Korean ways of life and traditional norms are interrogated and criticized (38).

However, neither the working nor middle class women interviewed fully embraced the idea, or ideal, of the Western woman as presented on television. In fact, the women generally rejected the perceived loose sexuality of the stars and questioned the morality of an open sexual environment. In this way, the Korean women contested and rejected many of the images being presented to them, as they did not mesh with their desired perceptions of themselves.

Kim’s study thereby best highlight’s Giddens’ assertion that identity is defined through a self-reflexive process, in which some elements of the globalized image are accepted, while others pushed aside.

Incorporating Global Images into the West

Although relevant to the the broader discussion of globalization, the two studies are limited in that they consider only how globalization impacts cultures that are not “Western” — and by  that I mean they are the receivers of globalized products as distributed by the West, specifically the United States. In both examples the women actively incorporated elements of global culture into their lives, but they did so in a way that asked them to question or reject elements of their own cultures. This is especially the case with the Kim study.

My question is to what extent do Western — especially American — audiences incorporate the reflected, globalized images of other cultures? If we follow the logic of Giddens, Americans would also be asked to reflexively consider their own individualities in light of global world. However, I would argue this is not the case — the onus of reflexivity is left on the individuals outside of Western borders. Thus, I disagree that globalization is somewhat multilateral, as Giddens may suggest. Although the dominant culture may not be accepted in its totality, it still drives global change economically, socially, and culturally. Perhaps the receivers are not passive in the globalization process, but they are certainly being imposed upon and forced to ask questions that Americans (and a few of their Western counterparts) are not.

To reinforce this point we return to Lazar‘s piece “Discover the Power of Femininity!,” in which she outlines the role of global female identity in post-feminism (see link for reference). For Lazar, the modern global sisterhood is rooted in consumption — specifically in beauty products. She notes that although many marketing campaigns highlight regional difference, there is an underlying assumption of sameness. Lazar writes:

… with very few exceptions, the global empowered woman is also remarkably uniform. She may be racially varied to some extent, but otherwise curvaceously slender, of moderate height, and with symmetrically proportioned facial features. She is able-bodied and heterosexual. Membership in the global sisterhood of power femininity, therefore, is premised upon certain criteria for inclusion. (2006, 515).

Thus, the question I raise here is what elements of globalization not mentioned in the articles above were adopted by the women a priori? In other words, what normalized images were understood as status quo so that other aspects of Western life could be either adopted or rejected into these women’s lived realities?

*For further reading:

Freeman, Carla. “Is Local : Global as Feminine : Masculine : Rethinking the Gender of Globalization.” Signs 26.4 (2001): 1007-1037. Print.

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and self-identity. Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991. 214. Print.

Kim, Youna. “Experiencing Globalization: Global TV, Reflexivity and the Lives of Young Korean Women.” Media consumption and everyday life in Asia . New York: Routledge, 2008. 27-44. Print.

Uncovering the Mystery: The Rhetoric of the Veil

March 1, 2011

“All knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. This is not to say that facts or data are nonexistent, but that facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation… for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.” ~ Edward W. Said

Perhaps what surprises the West most about the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and now Libya is that the images from the region — that of peaceful demonstrations and of people willing to fight for democracy — is not inline with what we in the West have “seen” and been told about the “others” from the Middle East. In his 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said suggests that our Western interpretations of the East are shaped and thereby prejudiced by the attitudes of and goals of European — primarily British and French — imperialism. (For more on Orientalism from Said, see the video below.)

Consider how this plays out in modern entertainment, from the relatively lighthearted 1992 Disney animation Aladdin to more violent and military-based, post-911 films such as JarHead. Despite their differences, both of these movies highlight an Arab world that is stuck in a primitive and mystical time, which is ripe with both treasure and danger. This distinction makes the region a perfect symbol of otherness — a stark contrast, at least through Western eyes, to the modern, technologically advanced world that is outside the East’s borders.

Nothing symbolizes this distinct otherness more than the veiled woman, as Myra MacDonald highlights in her article “Muslim Women and the Veil.” MacDonald notes that the veil has been a fascination with Western imperialists since their first footsteps on Eastern soil. The veil represented something mysterious, an image of a frail yet sexualized woman who was hidden from the gazes of outsiders (men) and yet, who could see without being seen. If we consider this juxtaposition through Laura Mulvey’s concept of the gaze, the veil restricted the agency of the imperialist powers by limiting their ability to gaze onto and thus control the covered women. Further, because access (visual and other) to Eastern women was off limits to European travelers, unveiling the covered woman became an obsession. MacDonald writes:

The desire to penetrate behind the veil was intensified by the “scopic regime of modernity” that privileged seeing as the primary route to knowledge. It was characterized by a desire to master, control and reshape the body of the subjects by making them visible (9).

As a result, MacDonald notes, Western imperialists took it as their imperative to “rescue” women from the domination of Arab men. Rhetorically speaking, this liberation could only come by uncovering the women themselves, giving them freedom through exposure like their Western sisters. Yet, it is important to note that during the height of imperialist activity in the Middle East, Western woman were similarly denied many political, economic, and social freedoms.

Today, in light of post-feminism, the veil takes on new meaning. Post-feminists argue that female agency is based on a woman’s ability to express herself individually and sexually — power, in effect, is gained through the act of being looked at and admired. The veil, according to this logic, blocks a woman’s freedom to choose her own destiny (and to be a prized consumer) and is therefore represented as a form of oppression. Consider how the United States highlighted its military “success” in Afghanistan in 2002 by showing images of women tearing off their burkas. Documentaries such as the Beauty Academy of Kabul highlight women achieving freedom and power by learning how to become beauticians. And more recently, the rhetoric of rescuing women from subjugation and violence has been used by the governments of France and Belgium to support banning the burka in public spaces.

It has been well documented that sexual inequality and domestic violence are major problems for women in the Middle East, as well as many other parts of the world. However, what is rarely mentioned, as MacDonald points out, are the risks that women take to fight for their own liberties. Many in the West assume that because they are “hidden” Muslim women lack a voice. This, MacDonald says is not accurate. She notes the infamous Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) video, in which a woman in a blue burka is being stoned to death as a stadium of onlookers gaze down upon her. The powerful video has been frequently played to Western audiences as a way to highlight violence against (burka-wearing) women in Afghanistan — a violence that must be abolished through military intervention. Yet, very few media outlets note that the video itself was captured by a women who hid a camera under her burka. The politically defiant and dangerous act of taking the video was made possible because the woman could see without being seen.

Orientalism on Display

Christian Lacroix demonstrates the concept of Orientalism, most likely unintentionally, in his exhibit L’Orient Des Femmes at the Muéee du Quai Branly in Paris. Lacroix opens the exhibit with a statement suggesting that the Orient is just as mysterious as women themselves, who conceal beauty and treasure yet to be discovered (I am paraphrasing). The exhibit highlights traditional clothing from the Near East, a region that stretches from the Sinai Peninsula up through Syria and Jordan and into parts of Iraq and Iran.

L'Orient des femmes vu par Christian Lacroix

Lacroix has chosen a selection of clothing, mostly ceremonial pieces, to represent the women of this region from a period that predates globalization and mass modernization (late 1800s to the 1960s, approximately). The pieces have been created using brilliantly colorful and highly textured fabrics that, as Lacroix notes, mark a lost time when women spent their days doing needle point and creating bright outfits. This, he says, is in contrast to the modern, mostly black outfits, that now dot a landscape which has lost its magic (again, I am paraphrasing).

Just like the imperialist travelers from a century or so before, Lacroix reduces the “women of the East” to attire that hides them from male gaze. The woman are prized for their adornments and their mystery.  The exhibit leaves everything beyond the exterior to the imagination, perhaps as a statement of how he prefers to see the Middle East (and women). A very random video installation at the beginning of the exhibit supports this position — the video contains shots from 1930-era movies in which unveiled Arab women dance and sing, seemingly to seduce (white) male audiences. It seems that for Lacroix, the East’s transition to global modernity has ruined its je ne sais quoi, and this is especially represented through the dress of women.

The Veil as a Symbol of the Future?

As the West watches the revolutions play out in the Middle East, what will become of its imperialist notions? Will the veil continue to represent a primitive “other,” a mysterious, unknown people who still need to be shown for who they really are? Or, as veiled women march alongside men in a fight for democracy and freedom, will they become a symbol of change?

Whatever the answer is, as long as the veil is considered a representation of “otherness,” East-West dialogue will be limited to cultural and religious difference and limited strides will be made to progress in human rights. As MacDonald concludes, what humans need now is an “unveiling of the mind,” an openness in dialogue in both fiction and non-fiction that will create new contexts for understanding (20).

For further consideration:

Orientalism: An Interview with Edward Said:

Rethink Afghanistan: Part 5

For further reading:

Macdonald, Myra. “Muslim Women and the Veil.” Feminist Media Studies 6.1 (2006): 7-23. Print.

Power in Sexuality? Post-feminism and Consumer Culture

February 14, 2011

“I like women who look like women. I hated grunge. No one’s more feminist than me, but you don’t have to look as if you don’t give a – you know. You can be smart, bright, and attractive aesthetically to others — and to yourself.” ~ Catherine Zeta Jones

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the first known use of the word “post-feminist” was in 1983. The site defines the term as:  relating to, occurring in, or being the period following widespread advocacy and acceptance of feminism. We could spend endless blog pages debating if and to what extent feminism as been embraced in modern Western society — from the home and workplace to the halls of academia to MTV. However, the authors below consider specifically how this notion of post-feminism has been adopted in popular culture, in particular advertising, to sell the concept of the newly empowered woman.

Post-feminism: Female Power through Individual Choice

The year is 1990-ish. Women are making great strides in the workforce, are free to choose motherhood or not, and have far greater economic opportunities than women just 50 years earlier. No longer just the ornaments of men, women of the 1990s can have it all. In fact, it seems that feminism for the most part has reached its main goal: equality of opportunity with men.

So, it’s a wonder that, at about the same time, Wonderbra creates a full-size billboard ad in which Eva Herzigova is pictured staring lovingly down at her bountiful cleavage in a manner that seems to entice viewers to do the same. In fact, the print next to the picture reads “Hello Boys.” Is this a throwback to the pre-feminist years?

1990s Wonderbra advertisement

Well, not really.

Rather, this ad, according to Angela McRobbie, identifies with the new notion of post-feminism (sometimes referred to as third-wave feminism), one that separates and contrasts itself with the images of bra-burning, man-hating feminists of earlier years. McRobbie writes:

Indeed it seemed in the very nature of feminism that it gave rise to dis-identification as a kind of requirement for its existence. But it seems now, over a decade later, that this space of ‘distance from feminism’ and those utterances of non-identity with feminism have consolidated into something closer to repudiation rather than ambivalence, and it is this vehemently denunciatory stance which is manifest across the field of popular gender debate. This is the cultural space of post-feminism. (257)

McRobbie suggests that the Wonderbra advertisement actively recognizes feminism by acknowledging, exaggerating, and playing on the sexism inherent in the image. At the same time, the ad calls into question Laura Mulvey’s theory as women as the passive objects of the male gaze. In this example, Herzigova is the object of her own adoring gaze — thus, her power is in seeing and being seen as her individual sexualized self. In this way, McRobbie notes, the ad highlights a larger sentiment: that feminism is to be “taken into account, but only to be shown as no longer necessary” (259).

McRobbie notes that the post-feminist argument is predicated on the notion that the feminist arguments of the 1960s and 70s are too essentialist and restrictive — and therefore not relevant today. Women are individuals, empowered to make their own lifestyle choices that are “dis-embedded” from formal societal and cultural structures (260). In this way, women mold and morph their identities into larger, interwoven narratives and can freely choice to define for themselves what it means to be female, be it wife, mother and/or CEO. However, inclusion in a larger sisterhood is no longer needed — or wanted.

This individualism plays right into modern consumer culture, which feeds on a common belief that we are all unique human beings venturing down lone paths in search of our ultimate destinies. And, of course, there are plenty of products and services to help us on our journey.

Female Power as a Global Commodity

Michelle Lazar builds on McRobbie’s argument noting that “like consumer feminism, popular post-feminism is a commercially strategic appropriation of certain post-feminist currents” (505). In her critical discourse analysis of makeup ads in Singapore, Lazar highlights how advertisers sell aesthetic beauty and sexual power as forms of agency. Even though the study is quite limited by region and sample size, the selected ads suggest that by strategically employing their sexual prowess women can wield significant power and control in their lives — and ultimately over men. Moreover, being beautiful can be a fun, self-empowering practice that demonstrates a woman’s love of self.

Lazar notes that the ads suggest that women must make the individual decision to take on this power. In this way, she adds that popular advertising practices are (a) critical of any definition of women as victims (or as part of a larger solidarity with other women), (b) embrace the notion that personal identities, needs, and desires are fluid, and (c) that these terms are defined by a heterosexual, patriarchal power structure. In essence, the ads both embrace and reject feminism. Lazar writes:

As a site of contestation, ads that deal with aestheticization of women’s physical appearance become a productive space for the imbrication of (post)feminist signifiers with patriarchal codes of femininity to produce a “power femininity,” without apparent contradiction. (506)

Angelina Jolie in Shiseido Advert

Moreover, notes Lazar, the ads represent marketers’ visions of beauty, which are often based on a global, homogenized (mostly Western) standard that is impossible for most women to meet. “Popular (post)feminism is a hybrid media discourse that blends feminist and post-feminist elements with consumer capitalism to produce a de-politicized power femininity as one of its subject effects.” (Lazar, 513)

In this way, Lazar’s notion of a global power femininity turns the tables on McRobbie’s argument that post-feminists reject the need for a common sisterhood. In fact, through consumption, the newly empowered post-feminist joins hands with other women across the world in the quest for commodified beauty.

The Limitations of Power in Beauty

As both McRobbie and Lazar note, the post-feminist approach to individual choice and power has its limitations. More specifically, when “agency” is restricted to physical appearance and superficial consumer choices, women are constrained to boundaries that are defined by outside power structures. Thus, women are powerful insofar as cultural (patriarchal) expectations will allow. For example, a women may be a powerful CEO or activist, but her “femaleness” is defined by her physical appearance and often her meeting the cultural expectations of wife and mother. As Tracey Emin’s piece (below) demonstrates, the choice is of course hers, but the power is found in her “femaleness.”

Tracey Emin - "The Choice is Hers"

In fact, as Lazar highlights, the images of women as powerful, sexualized, dominant individuals is still greatly in contrast to most women’s lived realities (513). Women are still more likely than men to be victims of sexual violence — in fact, according to some U.S. statistics, 1 in 4 American women will experience rape or attempted rape — and women still earn less than men (by some counts 70-80 cents to one US dollar for the same job) in the workforce.

As Jessica Valenti, of Feministing, once said, “It’s self-deceptive to think we’re in a postfeminist world when we never tried a feminist world.”

For further consideration:

“Where Having It All Doesn’t Mean Having Equality,” The New York Times, October 11, 2010.

For further reading:

Lazar, Michelle M. “Discover the Power of Femininity.” Feminist Media Studies 6.4 (2006): 505-17. Print.

McRobbie, Angela. “Post Feminism and Popular Culture.” Feminist Media Studies 4.3 (2004): 255-64. Print.

Gendered Media

February 6, 2011

Why don’t more women play video games?

Is it because games include overly-sexed and physically unattainable images of femininity? Or because many popular games incorporate excessive violence—be it toward aliens, armies … or women? Or is it because young girls and women just aren’t interested in sitting in front of a console for hours on end?

These are the questions posed by the creators of the video posted below (please note: it is worth the full 10 minutes of viewing time, as the narrator offers some great answers to these questions at the end). However, the relationship between media and gender may have less to do with what’s on screen (or in print, or on the airwaves) and more to do with how individuals incorporate different forms of media into their daily habits and activities.

Experiencing gender in media

The “hypodermic needle theory” suggests that mass media have a direct, immediate, and powerful effect on audiences by motivating human behavior. This theory is predicated on the belief that consumers of media (including video games) are passive receivers of information and images, and as a result, the visual representations are taken at face value and incorporated as such into the belief systems of women, men and children. Many feminist scholars have used this description to argue that the media support and encourage a patriarchal hierarchy that reinforces the idea of women as being subservient to men.

Ien Ang, however, questions this argument. Rather, she suggests that “media consumption has has evolved considerably from the early emphasis on ‘unrealistic’ images of women” (1996, 114). Ang posits that women are active participants in media consumption, often using the images on screen as a form of escape or even a symbolic resistance to a dominant discourse. Noting the soap opera viewing habits of working class women, she suggests that it is, in fact, women who define what role media play in their lives and for what purpose:

The assumption of an a priori, monolithic reproduction of sexism and patriarchy has gradually made way for a view in which the media effectivity is seen as more conditional, contigent upon specific—and often contraditory—textual mechanisms and operations, on the one hand, and upon the active and productive part of played by female audiences in constructing textual meanings and pleasures, on the other. The latter trend, especially, has solicited a more optimistic stance towards women’s role as media consumers: they are no longer seen as ‘cultural dupes,’ as passive victims of inexorably sexist media; on the contrary, media consumption can even be considered as empowering …. (114)

Ang notes that gender is often implicitly taken as the category through which we foremost define ourselves. However, she notes, gender is only one role that men and women perform on a daily basis. Other roles may at times take priority. For example, the roles of teacher, boss, doctor or citizen are not necessarily gender specific but may direct our media consumption behavior. In this way, she notes, individuals navigate daily a wide range of social discourses, tailoring their activities to meet (or rebel against) the expectations of defined social constructs. Ang notes, “… it is through the practices of media consumption—and the positionings and identifications they solicit—that gender identities are recursively shaped, while those practices themselves in turn undergo a process of gendering along the way” (122).

Ang refers to this as articulation, or a process through which identity is defined by negotiating relationships between different roles so as to alter one’s identity to meet a specific context.

Gender Articulation in Gaming

In “It’s a Boy Thing,” Helen Thornham highlights how both men and women articulate (to use Ang’s term) gender identities when playing video games. Over a four-year period, Thornham empirically studied the gaming habits of men and women in their 20s. The results of her research demonstrated that women, when playing in groups with men, often took on passive roles, allowing their male counterparts to direct or offer advise on their game playing—even when they were able to compete at the same level. In this way, the women negotiated their success or failure in the game in terms of their relationship(s) to the men in the room. Similarly, men also altered their behaviors in the social “gaming” setting, often downplaying or outright denying their private (or geek) use of video games in an effort to avoid any accusations of personal gratification from the activity. Moreover, both the men and women agreed in interviews that gaming is purely a social activity, even when their anonymous surveys suggested that many actually played solo. Thornham writes:

Changes in household dynamics, material set up of spaces, opinions, relationships … altered the performances of the gamers. In other words, the performances are discursively negotiated and specific to the time and place in which they were performed. (140)

What does this tell us about gaming in relation to the opening question: why don’t more women play video games? In one way, Thornham’s study, although relatively small in sample size, shows that gaming can be viewed as an extension to lived hierarchical gender structures. Thus, one could posit that women avoid gaming — with men — more because they must navigate a discourse that is often already restrictive. For example, women with children may have less time to play games alone to accrue points that could make them more competitive in the gaming world or they may be socially asked to downplay their own skills to “support” the masculinity of their male peers.

Yet, as Thornham and Ang both note, roles of any kind are not static. Rather, they are part of larger discourses that are dynamic and dependent on the contextual elements of any given situation.

Thus, based on the articles discussed here, gaming may become more popular with women as gender stereotypes change in lived realities and as both men and women take on activities outside of the roles that have been predetermined by society. (Although some updates to the avatars could help, as well.)

In fact this is just the sentiment that is echoed by the creators of the video below.

For further reading:

Ang, Ien. “Gender and/in media consumption.” Living room wars: rethinking media audiences for a postmodern world. London: Routledge, 1996. 109-129. Print.

Thornham, Helen. “‘It’s a Boy Thing’: Gaming, Gender, and Geeks.” Feminist Media Studies8.2 (2008): 127-142. Print.

Doing (and Undoing) Gender

January 30, 2011

One is not born a woman, but becomes one. ~ Simone de Beauvoir

Male. Female. Masculine. Feminine. Man. Woman. These words are so essential to our understanding of ourselves and our relations to others that we rarely—if ever—question their definitions. In fact, notes Judith Lorber, “Gender is so much the routine ground of everyday activities that questioning its taken-for-granted assumptions and presuppositions is like thinking about whether the sun will come up” (1994, 13).

But what does it mean to be male or to be female? What attributes do we ascribe to each? Why are some personality traits defined as feminine and some as masculine? And are these traits natural or constructed unconsciously to fit societal expectations?

In the pieces below, both Lorber and Judith Butler explore these topics—and ask their readers to consider if these “codes” of gender can in fact be reinterpreted or broken.

“Night to His Day”: The Social Construction of Gender

In her book Paradoxes of Gender, Lorber argues that gender is not a biological creation. In echoing the sentiments of Simone de Beauvoir, she says that gender is a construct through which individuals identify and society structures itself. According to Lorber, when a child is born a gender role is assigned in accordance with sex and that child grows up thinking, feeling, dressing, sexualizing, working and playing in terms of the accepted behaviors assigned to that gender. For individuals, this means sharing a “sameness” with others who also identify with his or her gender category, and through this repeated “doing” of sameness, society creates and normalizes rules and hierarchies that determine a person’s status in the community, office and home. She quotes West and Zimmerman when she writes:

If we do gender appropriately, we simultaneously sustain, reproduce, and render legitimate the institutional arrangements …. If we fail to do gender appropriately, we as individuals—not the institutional arrangements—may be called to account (for our character, motives, and predispositions)” (1995, 25)

Monty Python’s The Meaning of LifePatient: Is it a boy or a girl?Obstetrician: Now, I think it’s a little early to start imposing roles on it, don’t you?

This means that people who deviate outside of their assigned gender through actions that may not align with the norms associated with the category are called out as suspect. Lorber calls this “gender bending.” Consider the reactions a transgender person* receives when others realize that he or she is not preforming the appropriate gender. Moreover, consider how someone who identifies with neither category (for example, a woman with short hair who wears ‘unisex’ clothing and drives a motorcycle) is discussed and often shunned in many social circles.

Subversive Bodily Acts

In this way, Butler argues in Gender Trouble that gender is, in fact, something that is performative. By this she means that through the imitation and repetition of accepted gendered characteristics, people normalize certain behaviors, giving them a sense of unquestionable naturalness. As such, a person performing these characteristics is assumed to have internalized specific gender qualities (for example, a woman acting mild-mannered and humble versus a man acting competitive), thus eliminating any differences between gender and sex, the performed and innate, or the soul and body. Butler takes a discursive turn from feminists before her by positing that there is in fact no difference between the sexes, and that any perceived difference is, as such, political in nature. Butler writes:

… it is clear that coherence is desired, wished for, idealized, and that this idealization is an effect of corporeal signification. In other words, acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal or core substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principles of identity as a cause….That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. This also suggests that if reality is fabricated as an interior essence, that very interiority is an effect and function of a decidedly political and social discourse ….

Breaking the Codes

As such, both Lorber and Butler contend that gender is a societal creation that is normalized through the repetitive acceptance and use by individuals who adopt and perform the appropriate pre-determined characteristics. Moreover, these characteristics are used to reinforce power structures (such as who can apply for what job and who is responsible for what tasks at home). Yet, if this is the current state of things, how does one subvert or attempt to alter the way society perceives gender? Can an individual be “him” or “her” self outside of traditional gender boundaries? Can humans just be, well, human?

Butler argues that to subvert the accepted gender structure, an individual must take on the attributes of the other gender. In this way, she views transgender people as breaking the gender code, disrupting the normalized organization of people in such a way that points out the illegitimacy of the categories. However, Butler’s argument is short-sighted in that it does not reject the binary attributes of gender and sex (one is either female or male). If a man dresses in drag, is he not, in effect, reinforcing the societally accepted norms of femininity?

In this way, Lorber suggests that merely crossing the gender boundaries does not shake up the power hierarchies at play. In fact, she highlights instances in which men took on female gender characteristics and thus found themselves disadvantaged at work and in the community. Lorber writes:

Paradoxically, then, bending the gender rules and passing between genders does not erode but rather preserves gender boundaries. In societies with only two genders, the gender dichotomy is not disturbed by transvestites, because other feel that a transvestite is only transitorily ambiguous—is ‘really a man or a woman’ underneath.’

Thus, it would be more feasible to argue, based on Lorber’s argument, that to really disrupt societal gender norms, an individual should not identify with (or perform) one gender or another. In using Butler’s argument, this in fact would mean not identifying with one sex or another. By not embracing the codes of gender in any way, society would in fact be forced to see human beings as single entities.

So how do humans break free from the norms presented to them at birth? The question, although now identified through the work of Lorber and Butler, remains open. Moreover, what roles do the media play in constructing these norms? And how does government policy further affect our realities? We will be using this blog to discuss these topics more in depth.

*According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, transgender defines someone who identifies with a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth.

For further reading:

Butler, Judith. “Subversive Bodily Acts.” Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. 163-180. Print.

Lorber, Judith. “‘Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender.” Paradoxes of gender . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. 13-36. Print.