Monthly Archives: September 2013

Feminist Media and Culture

In Feminist Perspectives on the Media, author Liesbet van Zoonen discusses three general trends of feminism: liberal, radical, and socialist – and how the increasingly blurred lines between activism and academic critique are jeopardizing the relevance of feminist media studies.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Liberal feminism attributes “irrational prejudice and stereotypes about the supposedly natural role of women as wives and mothers” (27), to women’s unequal place in society. The solution offered by liberal feminists is that women should enter male-dominated fields and acquire power, and media can support the shift by minimizing, if not eliminating, sexist language and portraying men and women in more non-traditional roles. This, “we can do it all” mentality has resulted in the Superwoman stereotype, which of course, few, if any, women can achieve and sustain.

Radical feminism credits the subordinate position of women to patriarchy, “men’s innately wicked inclination to dominate women” (28). The radical perspective on media is that it will

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Photo courtesy of Flickr

operate to the benefit of patriarchy because mass media is owned and produced by men.  This ideology is problematic as well because hierarchy, regardless of sex or gender, is human nature. “Power differences, difference of opinion and interests appear to exist among women also, and are not a male preserve” (28).

Socialist feminism differentiates from both radical and liberal currents in that it does not only consider gender, but class and economic conditions as well to account for women’s position in society. The overall concern is the way media portrays women and femininity, and how gender roles and stereotypes are perpetuated.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Although there are flaws and contradictions in each feminist theory, they all share an important and fundamental perspective that media are the, “main instruments in conveying respectively stereotypical, patriarchal and hegemonic values about women and femininity. They serve as mechanisms of social control” (31).

Rosalind Gill adds to the discussion her critique on postfeminism, in the article Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.  Gill tells us that a crucial element of postfeminism is the shift from unassuming sexual object, to active participant. “It represents a shift in the way that power operates: from an external, male judging gaze to a self-policing, narcissistic gaze. It can be argued that this represents a higher or deeper form of exploitation than objectification – one in which the objectifying male gaze is internalized to form a new disciplinary regime” (139).

 “The sexually liberated modern woman turns out to resemble – what do you know! – the pneumatic, take-me-now-big-boy f**k-puppet of male fantasy after all.” – Janice Turner

The media targets young girls, baiting them with provocative clothing such as super-short shorts and cropped tops; branding notebooks, backpacks and clothing with the Playboy bunny symbol encourages girls to grow up quickly and socializes them into putting an unrealistic and age-inappropriate value on their bodies and appearance. However adult women are subjected to ‘girlification’ which promotes young girls as the desirable sexual icons. It’s one big mind game, and women are not in a position to win.

Gill also addresses the postfeminist sensibilities of individualism and ‘pleasing oneself’ that has become prominent in Western media culture. She gives the examples of the increase of women choosing to wax off their pubic hair (Brazilian wax) to, “reinstate a prepubescent version of their genitalia” and the surge in young women, even teenagers, getting breast augmentation; all in the name of  using beauty as a tool to make them ‘feel good’ – but are we not right back to the girlification, fuck-puppets and internalized male gaze? “The body is presented simultaneously as women’s source of power and as always unruly, requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodeling (and consumer spending) in order to conform to ever-narrower judgments of female attractiveness. Indeed, surveillance of women’s bodies constitutes perhaps the largest type of media content across al genres and media forms. Women’s bodies are evaluated, scrutinized and dissected by women as well as men, and are always at risk of ‘failing’” (137).

“Scant attention is paid to the pressures that might lead a teenager to decide that major surgery will solve her problems, and even less to the commercial interests that are underpinning this staggering trend” – Rosalind Gill



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Doing It and Doing It Well

Do you do your gender the same way you do your laundry?

A strange question, one might say, and until recently, I’d be likely to agree. Until I came across excerpts from the books, Undoing Gender, by Judith Butler, and Studying Men and Masculinities, by David Buchbinder. Very interesting reads!!

I was immediately intrigued by Butler’s assertion that gender is not something that one has, rather it is something that one does.

Gender is a kind of a doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing… What I call my “own” gender appears perhaps at times as something that I author or, indeed, own. But the terms that make up one’s own gender are, from the start, outside oneself, beyond oneself in a sociality that has no single author… – Judith Butler

This is to say that in essence, from the moment an expecting mother finds out the sex of her bun in the oven, socially constructed expectations set in– choosing a sex-appropriate name, deciding to paint the nursery blue for a boy or pink for a girl, the list goes on. And once the child is born the gender roles continue to form: GI Joe and dump trucks vs. Barbie and toy kitchen sets; even the way we describe sexes – boys are handsome and girls are pretty. Gender-based expectations are imposed upon us and follow us throughout our lives –  in our clothing choices, career choices, mate and life partner choices, interests and hobbies, etc. Each and every day, when we get dressed, the way we sit or stand, our facial expressions and mannerisms, are extensions of our gender performance. Yes, we have the choice to perform, or do, our gender how we choose, as long as we stay within our respective lanes, or as Butler put it, improvisation within a sea of constraint.

boys_girls gender roles

That is why one cannot claim to own their gender. How can you assume total ownership over something that also belongs to millions of other people? It’s impossible! Sadly, gender is not something we own individually, instead it is something that is given to us, a socially constructed box into which we are inserted.

We should note that there is no necessary connection between the morphology of sex (male or female) and the combination of behavior and attitude that we call gender (masculinity or femininity). However, the culture ensures through a number of measures that its members believe in and subscribe to  such a connection. – David Buchbinder

The question is, why must everything and everyone fit into concrete boxes and categories? Simply because it’s more comfortable to easily know how to interact with one another based upon our internalized preconceived notions and assumptions? Probably. We invoke gender roles in the very way we address and interface with one another. Buchbinder defines this as, interpellation, which I simplify as generalize and impose. We sum up others and then address them with our assumption, hence imposing our beliefs and concepts on the other and expecting them to accept the conjecture and respond accordingly.

Advertisements for laundry detergents have traditionally targeted (interpellated) women as the people responsible for the well-being of the domestic household… efficient and competent in the maintenance and smooth running of the house.  Her proper place, therefore, is in the home; this is where she best fulfils her role, even if she is also a worker outside the home. – Buchbinder

Sounds like something straight out of the fifties, if you ask me… So let’s look at a laundry detergent ad from the 50’s.

The “I thought little girls were supposed to be dainty,” comment demonstrates just in fact how early we become socialized into gender roles. The singing, smiling, happy family at the end is exactly the interpellation Buchbinder is referring to, that obviously, buying the best detergent possible to clean her family’s clothes is the ultimate demonstration of the wife and mother’s love, adoration and concern for her family. Their happiness being the ultimate prize and their clean laundry the trophy. Thanks FAB for that real Borax!

I thought to myself, ‘surely this is just an outdated reference’, there couldn’t be anything this drastically sexist in this millennium! So let’s look at a more recent ad.

Now we’ve got the ‘tough moms’, pretty much kicking butt and taking names – while cooking, couponing, and of course doing laundry. Essentially the same social codes, but wrapped in a more badass package. This is somewhat an improvement from the first ad in that it portrays the women in a manner more realistically in line with modern times – no crisp, spic-and-span dresses and definitely no singing. Instead we have more ‘masculine’ women – grilling and digging ditches – but still having the same goal of clean laundry for a happy family. (note: even attributing grilling and digging ditches as masculine activities is interpellation; see it’s almost unavoidable!)

This recent ad was one small step for woman… but a giant leap for womankind would have been a man doing the laundry!

At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world if someone decides to throw all of their laundry into the same wash load instead of conventionally separating into well defined categories. Why can’t gender be the same way? Essentially, we should each feel empowered to ‘do’ gender as we see fit – whether that means frilly white dresses or digging ditches – with the ability to live life independently of socially constructed constraints.

So whether it’s your laundry or your gender – just make sure you do it, and do it well 😉

PS – betcha can’t tell the male from the female…

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 10.38.41 PM Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 10.38.04 PM

…find out here!

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