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The White Life Is The Right Life

As stated in the video above, popular American clothing brand, Abercrombie & Fitch, draws billions of dollars in profit annually, despite the fact that the clothier makes no qualms about its exclusionary branding, marketing, and selling practices. Abercrombie & Fitch has capitalized off of embodying sexism, classism and racism at its finest. Dwight McBride, author of Why I Hate Abercrombie and Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality in America, states, “Abercrombie & Fitch has devised a very clear marketing and advertising strategy that celebrates whiteness – a particularly privileged and leisure-class whiteness – and makes use of it as a “lifestyle” that it commodifies to sell otherwise extremely dull, uninspiring, and ordinary clothing… The danger of such a marketing scheme is that it depends upon the racist thinking of its consumer population in order to thrive” (66).

Powerful words, indeed. Abercrombie CEO, Michael Jeffries, makes absolutely no effort to disguise his elitism and is unapologetically dismissive of any criticism or other backlash. He has been quoted as saying, “we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Our people in the store are an inspiration to the customer. The customer sees the natural Abercrombie style and wants to be like the Brand Representative… Our Brand is natural, classic and current, with an emphasis on style. This is what a Brand Representative must be; this is what a Brand Representative must represent in order to fulfill the conditions of employment.

Excerpts of the Abercrombie Look Book, as quoted in McBride

Exclusivity is not limited to the target consumer, but potential employees as well, as exemplified by the Abercrombie Look Book, their employee manual. Keywords is the handbook include “natural”, “classic” and “American”, of which McBride explains, “such words in the context not only of Abercrombie, but in the context of US culture more broadly, are often understood for the coded ways of delineating the whiteness that they represent. Indeed, most of us carry in our imagination a very specific image that we readily access when such monikers as “natural, classic, American” are used” (McBride 68).

It is true that when one hears “natural, classic, American” that a certain image comes to mind, however that does not constitute the actual image of a classic American. It is largely accepted what that term mean, but that term, nor related image is an accurate reflection of an American, as Americans come in endless varieties.

The creation of an “A&F Look,” which almost invariably functions to produce an exclusively white staff of brand representatives in Abercrombie’s stores, might be understood as an elaborately devised method by the company of forestalling the potential legal exposure of such an exclusionary employment policy. The formal workings of what we might call the “corporate culture” of A&F provide the infrastructure for maintaining and reproducing the discriminatory, virtually all-white A&F look

McBride, 80

It is one matter to blatantly propagate one’s individual ideals, as Jeffries does so infamously. However it is another shocking and sobering reality altogether to realize the potent accuracy of McBride’s words about a marketing scheme depending on the racist thinking of the consumer, and their relation to Jeffries’ irreverence. The fact is, Abercrombie is extremely successful, despite their widely disseminated discriminatory ideologies. Jeffries has no reason to feel bad or show any remorse because it is not his convictions (or lack thereof) that are making him repulsively rich, it is the fact that there are millions of people buying into those beliefs – and buying the clothes.

Ellen DeGeneres spoke about the latest Abercrombie scandal on her talk show, and although intermixed with her usual comedic nature, there was a distinct gravity in her remarks. “Beauty isn’t between a size 0 and a size 8; it is not a number at all. It is not physical… What you look like on the outside is not what makes you cool, at all.”

According to him anyone who’s a plus size isn’t cool enough to shop in Abercrombie & Fitch. You know what I say to that? Oh, Fitch please!

Ellen DeGeneres

Similar to the impractical and precluding ideologies put forth by Abercrombie, the the beauty industry comes under similar scrutiny for its unrealistic standards. Michelle M. Lazar says in, “Discover the Power of Femininity!”, “The beauty industry has long been criticized by some feminists as oppressive upon women for its promulgation of impossible beauty standards” (506). This ad for Dove is a perfect example of the impossible standards. Impossible and simply unreal.

Beyonce in a L’Oreal advert
dailymail.co.uk

freida_white

Freida Pinto in a L’Oreal advert
idiva.com

An ongoing issue in various sectors of the beauty industry is “whitewashing“, a trend in which the skin of women of color appear much lighter in printed ads than in real life. This practice is another perpetuation of the false notion that “white is right”, in lifestyle and standards of beauty.

Lazar was focusing on the relationship between feminism and consumerism, a “global sisterhood”, however in studying this, she had no choice but to acknowledge factors such as class, culture and ethnicity, and their lack of representation in the  majority of beauty advertising. “I shall consider the dimension of female consumer identity and identification afforded by power femininity, which co-opts a modern global sisterhood of “women.” One way in which a globalized consumer sisterhood is construed in the as is, paradoxically, through erasure of difference among women from different geographical regions, cultures and ethnicites… In other words, the white models are not particularized; instead, they stand for the universal modern woman” (514).

When white women are used in ads, even those targeted to or intended to be inclusive of women of color, they are positioned as the ubiquitous, all-encompassing epitome of beauty. When an actual woman of color is used in an ad, like Beyonce and Freida Pinto, she is more often than not altered in her appearance, either digitally or by the use of wigs and other cosmetic aids, to resemble more of that “natural, classic American” that Abercrombie works so relentlessly to maintain as ideal.

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Sisters In Struggle

This week’s reading and discussion raise two critical points, the first being that women cannot and should not be analyzed as one entity, with no regard to key differences such as class, cultural, economics, etc. The second point being, Muslim and other Third World women are not all in need of the White Savior.

The encounter between the Sex And The City women and the Muslim women exemplified the erroneous generalization that not just all Muslim women, but all women are one homogeneous group united by the same reductive assumptions. In Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses, author Chandra Talpade Mohanty explains, “I am referring to the critical assumption that all of us of the same gender, across classes and cultures, are somehow socially constituted as a homogeneous group identified prior to the process of analysis… Thus, for instance, in any given piece of feminist analysis, women are characterized as a singular group on the basis of a shared oppression” (337).

When the Muslim women ripped off their religious wear to reveal the Western ideal of women’s fashion, the ‘spring collection’, it demonstrates the flawed ideology that no matter where we (women) are in the world and what struggles we must overcome, underneath it all, we are all the same. That ‘same’ being the Western ideal, of course. And let us (Westerners, or white people) show you that you are like us – let us liberate you! This is a light, more pop cultural example of what Myra Macdonald referred to in, Muslim Women and the Veil, as the victim narrative. However, I believe that scene also, albeit unintentionally, showed that in actuality, underneath it all Muslim women do not need to be rescued. Yes, some Muslim women may have the same fashion access, interests, etc., as Westerners but choosing to respect their culture/religion does not mean they are being oppressed or need to be ‘saved’.

The image of a veiled Muslim woman seems to be one of the most popular Western ways of representing the ‘problems of Islam…The metaphoric desire to “unveil” alien cultures, by “laying them bare” and bringing them into conformity with the ideological norms of the dominating power has a long discursive history amongst Western colonialists and imperialists… missions to rescue women from the brutality and oppression signified by the veil” (Macdonald 8, 9).

Additionally, I believe the scene illustrated how the West has the potential to embrace the “other” only so far as the benefits will extend, and then abandon the culture as soon as it is no longer of use. For example, the SATC women gladly welcomed the local culture and wore the veils to ‘escape their male oppressors’ after liberating their ‘sisters in struggle’, but any reverence for the garb was disregarded when Carrie exposed her leg to catch the cab. They are no longer sisters in struggle, Carrie must revert back to her Western roots to save herself and the girls.

Although Third World women are not necessarily in need of rescue, they do face adversity when it comes to overcoming socially constructed gender roles within their culture – which is equally true of Western women. Women as a whole do not belong barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, as the saying goes – unless, of course, that is their choice!

Below is an interesting video about Palestenian race car drivers – that happen to be women. They do not fit the stereotype of what most would envision a Middle Eastern woman to be. In fact, one driver, Mouna Ennab, says, “They were telling us ‘you should be at the home, not racing with the boys, you should be at the home, cooking and cleaning’, something like that.”

Paula Slier, the reporter in the story, commented, “In some small way, using the power at their fingertips, these drivers are challenging the way women are seen and treated in this part of the Middle East.”

This quote from Mohanty sums up the discussion nicely –

Instead of analytically demonstrating the production of women as socio-economic political groups within particular local contexts, this move limits the definition of the female subject to gender identity, completely bypassing social class and ethnic identities. What characterizes women as a group is their gender (sociologically not necessarily biologically defined) over and above everything else, indicating a monolithic notion of sexual difference. Because women are thus constituted as a coherent group, sexual difference becomes coterminus with female subordination, and power is automatically defined in binary terms: people who have it (read: men), and people who do not (read: women)… Such simplistic formulations are both reductive and ineffectual in designing strategies to combat oppressions. All they do is reinforce binary divisions between men and women.

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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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