Listen here, beginning at 32:30: Melanie Klein, Pia Guerrero and Hugo Schwyzer on KPFK’s Feminist Magazine.
November 25, 2011
April 15, 2011
Originally posted at Ms. Magazine.
The sweet J. Crew ad I celebrated last week has ignited a “pink scare,” with socially conservative commentators outrageously upset. The ad features a mother– J.Crew’s creative director, Jenna Lyons–and her son delighting in one another’s company on a Saturday afternoon by painting their toenails hot pink (and thereby selling J. Crew’s Essie nail polish). The ad doesn’t make much fanfare of the nail painting and is fairly inconspicuous. As Melissa Wardy, founder of Pigtail Pals- Redfine Girly, comments on Good Morning America‘s coverage of the gendered hoopla:
The camera has to zoom in SO much on the toes to make the news story, you completely lose sight of the delightful moment between loving, doting mother and happy, beautiful son.
In, what Nikita Blue calls, “ominous paranoid ramblings,” Dr. Keith Ablow goes off in a “conspiracy-theorist tangent,” claiming this ad contributes to “psychological sterilization,” erases gender differences and homogenizes males and females by propagandizing them to choose a gender identity that is not the “natural” one they were born with:
Well, how about the fact that encouraging the choosing of gender identity, rather than suggesting our children become comfortable with the ones that they got at birth, can throw our species into real psychological turmoil—not to mention crowding operating rooms with procedures to grotesquely amputate body parts?
Media Research Center’s Erin Brown claims the ad exploits Lyons’ son, Beckett, through the “blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children.” According to Brown, ads like these and irresponsible mothers such as Lyons will create more confused boys, much like the controversial “Princess boy.”
Sexist and homophobic concerns like the ones expressed by Ablow and Brown raise several important points worth exploring. First and foremost, the notion that there is a direct correlation between color, gender and sexual identity is ludicrous. Color codes are recent social inventions, constructs originally inverse. Phyllis Burke’s Gender Shock and Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter trace the sociohistorical origins of pink and blue segregation–gendered coding that wasn’t instilled until the early 20th century. Prior to that, glancing at a babies clothing didn’t reveal any trace of gendered identity: They all wore white gowns. Photographs of my great-grandparents, both born circa 1902, are identical and indistinguishable. Check out this photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1884!
Once color coding got underway in earnest, the colors were reversed. Pink, a color close to red, was equated with strength and masculinity. Light blue was a “natural” sign of femininity and, according to Orenstein’s reasearch, equated with “intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy, and faithfulness.” Given that history, it becomes clear that color codes are arbitrary, socially constructed and have no bearing or impact on one’s “natural” gender or sexual identity. As Dr. Logan Levkoff explains:
Dear Fox, colors don’t have genders. Colors are just colors. Liking certain colors [doesn't] mean you like girls or boys, or want to be either of them, now or in the future.
Secondly, there’s nothing “natural” about gender. Gender is a social construct reflecting cultural dictates within a specific historical context and those gendered prescriptions change as the culture changes. Just as culture is dynamic and fluid, so are gendered expectations. Obviously, Ablow and Brown aren’t familiar with the difference between the biological concept of sex, referring to maleness and femaleness and the continuum between the two, and gender, the socially constructed definitions and expectations of masculinity and femininity. Their critiques of J. Crew’s ad demonstrates rampant essentialism–the idea that one’s biological sex is destiny while ignoring historical and contemporary contradictions to that idea. If having a penis “naturally” led boys and men to embody “masculinity” and a vagina “naturally” equated with all things “feminine,” we’d see much more historical and cultural uniformity.
Third, not only is the idea that the J. Crew ad squelches “naturally” assigned gender identity ridiculous given the difference between biological sex and socially constructed gender, but Ablow’s quote doesn’t address the real culprit in stifling natural and healthy explorations: the color-coded assault by marketers on children’s play. It seems to me that the hyper-segmented pink world of the princess and the blue world of the boy warrior is much more responsible for shaping gender identity than an ad featuring hot-pink toenails on a boy. In that way, J. Crew is a small sign of opening up gendered possibilities–possibilities that represent authentic personal choice.
In Brown’s opinion piece, she goes on to say that mothers such as Lyons or Sarah Manley are setting up their sons for a hard time in the future. There she’s right, and this gets to the crux of the issue. The system of patriarchy values masculinity and devalues femininity. In fact, within patriarchy, masculinity is a fundamental mainstream cultural value. In the Good Morning America segment, Manley rightly points out that if the ad featured a girl playing with trucks in the mud there wouldn’t have been this type of outcry. While girls are awash in a sea of pink, they are more likely to be encouraged and celebrated for exploring and developing “masculine” characteristics, while boys are discouraged and shamed for developing “feminine” characteristics precisely because of masculinity’s cultural capital. What Ablow or Fox don’t acknowledge is that these are simply human characteristics, gendered one way or the other and thereby differently valued. As I wrote on my Feminist Fatale blog last week:
When a 17-month-old boy is beaten to death for being too “girly,” a five-year-old is accused of being gay for choosing to dress up like Daphne from Scooby-Doo for Halloween, a boy who likes pink dresses causes headline news and a high-school football player is kicked off the field for wearing pink cleats during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I think it’s more than obvious that social expectations regarding femininity and masculinity continue to be incredibly rigid, stifling and too often dangerous.
J. Crew’s ad doesn’t depict misguided and dangerous decisions made by J. Crew or parents like Jenna Lyons. The reactions and social outcry against it depict the dangerous world of gender policing within the system of patriarchy.
Close-up of ad via J. Crew
June 6, 2010
May 31, 2010
That’s right, since Spanx released a new line of “shapewear” or “profile-enhancing underwear” for men in February, the “body compressing” tanks, crews and v-necks have become undeniable “retail hit,” as reported in the New York Times. Thanks to Spanx, men can be cool, classic and contained. But Spanx isn’t the only company tapping into men’s growing insecurities about their midsections. According to the New York Times article, Equmen, Sculptees and RiptFusion have also released popular products for men, including a sort of (ssshh) “push-up bra” for men.
While these expensive products are racking up sales, most guys keep this new line of roll squishing undies on the down-low. In fact, online sales outweigh in-store sales. Why all the hush-hush shopping for such these hot new retail products?
Publicly fretting about your midsection isn’t “manly.” That stuff is for girls and women. While rates of muscle dysmorphia, the body image disorder most commonly associated with men, have been discussed for years the truth is that all manner of body obsessions commonly associated with women have come to increasingly impact men. From increasing rates of eating disorders and plastic surgery to increased consumer sales of “manly” diet foods and men’s workout boosters, it is clear that unhealthy body preoccupations are not just for girls and women anymore.
May 5, 2010
Despite our culture’s supposed reverence for mothering, “mother blame,” monster moms and the consequences of “bad mothering” are staple features in our society. We’re a society fixated on the “mommy myth,” the idealization of mothering as an extension of the cultural notion of “true” femininity. This cultural ideal, known as emphasized femininity (the counter to hegemonic masculinity, socially constructed definitions of “real” manhood) includes the assignment of emotional work, the responsibility for maintaining and nurturing relationships and raising “morally sound” children.
Because we continue to relegate women the domestic sphere, the domain assigned to women after the introduction of the public-private split, and assign primary responsibility for the emotional and moral development of their children, mother blaming becomes inevitable. In fact, “bad mothers” or monster mommies have been blamed for: creating homosexual or womanizing men, pedophilia, autism, the glass-ceiling, alcoholism and violence.
Hey, I had my own issues with my mother growing up. But as soon as I had my son, all my mommy issues disappeared. Within hours, I realized how tough it is to be a mother, how much pressure and how many expectations are plopped on moms. I could relate to the frustration, stress, and loss of identity mothers face but feel ashamed to speak about. If we admit that we don’t always enjoy mothering, are exhausted, angry or taxed, we run the risk of being accused of being a bad mother.
But mother-blame doesn’t end with films, the current mom that people seem to love to hate is Kate Gosselin. Feeling the “Kate-hate,” Kate is featured on the cover of last week’s In Touch crying, “I’m not a monster.”
That’s why episode 620, Epiphany, of Desperate Housewives (which aired on April 25, 2010) bothered me so much (besides the fact that the show just sucks on multiple levels). The Fairview strangler’s past is revealed and offered as an explanation for his serial murder ways. So, what’s the explanation offered, the “epiphany?”
His monster mommy.
The episode starts with a young Eddie sitting outside as his parents argue. His father storms out, suitcase in hand, with his mother at his heels sobbing uncontrollably. She begs him to stay. Without one look at his son, he drives off, never to return.
The episode continues by depicting Eddie’s mother as the stereotypical monster mommy. She wants to go out, have drinks, meet men, have some autonomy and independence. Hey, I can understand that. I’m not a single mother, have a partner that is devoted and actively involved in every stage of our son’s development, and I still have moments wherein I fantasize about being a single woman sans baby. I think it’s normal and we should be able to discuss and vent freely without guilt or sanction. While I don’t condone child abuse in the form of emotional neglect or physical violence and love my child, I can relate to the desire of freedom and independence, the frustrations and heartaches that accompany motherhood and parenting, in general
But there is no mention of the complexities of single motherhood, of the enormous responsibilities of providing for and raising a child by yourself, emotionally and financially. Mothering is hard work that is expected and is often devalued. There is no mention of the father that abandoned them without remorse or a glance back at his young son.
Essentialism assumes that all women want to become mothers, know how to mother, enjoy all aspects of mothering and are naturally willing to abandon all concerns for themselves as a sign of good mothering. And, good mothering is a sign of femininity itself. Eddie’s mother is depicted as unnatural, a monster responsible for creating the Fairview strangler.
The final line of the episode is: What makes monsters? Monsters are created by other monsters.
And that right there, reinforces the myths and stereotypes about mothers and skimps on any other explanation that could explain serial murder.
Thanks to UK ally, Quiet Riot Girl, for alerting me to this recent bit of advice offered in the UK lad-mag, The Zoo’s column, Ask Danny!.
Photograph provided by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/observationsandmachinations/4581304972/
First, the lag mag advises the heart-broken young man to get wasted, bang every woman in his path and then break their hearts as a form revenge on his ex and all heart-breaking women out there. As if that wasn’t tasteless and immature enough, this was followed with the option of cutting his ex’s face so “no one will want her.” Charming, Danny Dyer.
This reprehensible and disturbing “advice” was met by a massive and justifiable twitter outcry:
One tweet, from blockbusterbuzz, said: “If this is meant to be a joke, it isn’t remotely funny. If it’s serious, it’s a criminal offence.”
Another, from hannahkaty, said: “To the people who think Danny Dyer is “funny” and “ironic”: Have a read of this?”
Domestic violence charities have also criticised Dyer for his “inexcusable” advice.
Sandra Horley, from Refuge, said: “It is all too easy to dismiss comments like these as a joke, but at Refuge we know that domestic violence takes lives and ruins lives.
“One woman in four experiences domestic violence at some point in her life.
“Two women are killed every week by a current or former partner. And these figures aren’t going down.
“One-in-eight young men believe it is OK to hit their girlfriend if she is nagging.
“Danny Dyer’s irresponsible and tasteless comments do nothing but reinforce these horrific attitudes. Shame on him.”
This was accompanied by swift action (yet another example of activism and advocacy immediately at work via social media outlets). As a result, The Zoo offered an apology, chalking it up to a “production error” and offered to make a donation to Women’s Aide.
Dr. Petra offers a comprehensive analysis that provides most of the answers to the questions asked.
Unfortunately there is a long history of lads’ magazines not taking relationships/sex issues seriously. From Zoo’s previous idea to ‘win your girlfriend some boobs’ through to their inclusion of non qualified advisors on their advice column they have form for sidelining relationships issues while presenting misogyny as ‘fun’. Myself and others have consistently offered to help provide frank sex and relationship advice men want, but men’s magazines remain resistant to this.
Zoo isn’t unique in this regard. When asked to address sexism or incorrect sex information in their pages lad’s magazines traditionally argue it is not their place to do so they are – in their words – about entertainment. They see having to present sex and women in non sexist ways as ‘boring’ or ‘worthy’ and argue their readers don’t want this. When you criticise them they make out you’re boring, ugly, or out of touch – and nowhere near cool enough to get their postmodern approach to sexuality.
Unsurprisingly lad’s magazines have historically approached sex/relationships issues either with complete silence, or with inaccurate advice, or with humour. There are some things, however, that just aren’t up for this treatment. And domestic violence is one of those issues.
As Dr. Petra points out, lad-mags in the UK and the United States don’t exactly have a reputation for offering meaningful, mature and sensitive advice when it comes to emotional and/or sexual relationships with women. Rather, they emphasize hegemonic masculinity‘s socially constructed tenants of hypersexuality, dominance and control. I recently posted a series of images advertising masculinity, many of these images taken from lad mags such as Maxim, Stuff (which has since ceased publication) and FHM.
Lad mags are part of a larger cultural conversation that speaks loudly to boys and men, shaping their framework of reality. Jokes about disposable women, dumping ex’s, banging as many women as possible (followed by rejection) and the threat of violence against women in the name of ownership and jealousy are far from casual jokes and entertainment.
April 16, 2010
I’m still rummaging through my ad archives and feverishly scanning parts of my massive collection. Lets see how advertisers represent masculinity (circa 2004-2005). NOTE: For more on masculinity, see the work of my hero, Jackson Katz.
1. Sexual. So sexually ravenous and energetic that they need protein-infused energy bars to handle all that action.
2. Hey, men are so horny that they try to get it at work. In the second ad sexual harassment becomes a joke.
3. Violent as depicted in this ad featuring brand names Tommy Hilfiger, Diesel and Puma. Note the open pornographic magazine on the floor. Timely in light of Robert Jensen‘s recently posted interview on pornography, masculinity, racism, misogyny and media literacy.
NOTE: Often, violence/aggression and sexuality are interwoven in the construction of masculinity. Search or click on the categories at left: violence, sexuality, aggression, masculinity for related posts.
4. Stoic, unemotional and/or uninterested in relationships. “Disposable, just like your ex.” Stuff Magazine, 2004.
5. The photo below the disposable razor ad is a picture that accompanied an article in FHM titled “How to Dump Your Ex.”
April 6, 2010
Originally posted at Ms. blog.
Cue: High-profile, charismatic man married to high-profile, attractive woman in picture-perfect marriage is outed by a long string of lovers claiming to have affairs (often lasting several years) that include everything from wild sex (often without protection) to pregnancies and abortions.
Skeptical? Yeah, so am I.
Jesse James follows the lead of David Duchovny and Tiger Woods and enters sex rehab to deal “with personal issues” that include a bevy of mistresses and a publicity nightmare. It sounds more like old-fashioned infidelity to me.
Their cries of sex addiction and subsequent decisions to admit themselves into treatment centers is vaguely reminiscent of gay-bashing conservative mega-church pastor Ted Haggard’s decision to enter “gay camp” after his sexual encounters with a variety of male prostitutes were made public. Apparently, it worked. Haggard, his wife says, is once again straight and free from “homosexual compulsions.”
Sex rehab, gay camp–sounds like a convenient excuse to garner sympathy, shirk responsibility and restore one’s former reputation (oh, yeah, and their marriage to their wife).
Obviously I have not treated any of these men, but considering the fact only six percent to eight percent of people in the United Sates qualify as sex addicts it’s hard to believe that these men automatically fall into that category. From where I’m sitting, their sexual exploits are behaviors encouraged in most men. After all, sexuality, sexual virility and having a lot of heterosexual sex with a lot of women (often at the same time) is the cultural measure of a “real man,” and what is referred to as hegemonic masculinity [PDF] in academic circles.
The hyper-sexualized male is a standard fixture in pop culture and our culture in general. Why do you think The Forty Year-Old Virgin was made about a man? It would have never been made about a woman. Women are supposed to be sexy, not sexual, and if a woman is a virgin at forty she’s probably just ugly or fat. If a man is a virgin at forty he must be gay or have a problem. Men are sexual beings, and if they’re not they’re not “real men.” Open any lad mag, like Maxim or FHM, and you’ll get loads of pictures of “hot babes” and articles on how to add notches to your bed post.
Married men aren’t entirely excluded from the sexual playground. It wasn’t historically uncommon for powerful married men to keep several mistresses in addition to their wives. In fact, it was encouraged. These days monogamy is heralded as sacred and normative, but if you’re going to cheat it should be kept on the down low. In fact, there’s plenty of advice and a plethora of gadgets that will help you cheat successfully. Take the iPhone app Tiger Text, which will help you “cover your tracks.” There are scores of websites and books that are willing to offer advice.
Are David Duchovny, Tiger Woods and Jesse James all sex addicts unable to restrain themselves? Possibly, but probably not. All three men share high-profile images, power and a sense of male privilege intersecting with the general expectations of “real men.” Their problem is probably not sex addiction but the fact that they got caught having affairs with “tawdry” women that marred their images in the eyes of the public that supports their lifestyles by consuming the pop culture products associated with their names.
To claim sex addiction is a cheap excuse that invalidates actual sex addicts, assumes the public is foolish enough to buy it and puts wives into the position of being grudge-holders if they don’t forgive their spouses for being “ill.” It also distracts us from having a public dialogue that examines the social construction of highly sexualized images of masculinity in our culture, which lies at the root of most of these cases.
March 31, 2010
Jezebel’s post, Pink Think: The Sexist Toys of Our Youth, is a response to Time’s online piece, Not So Pretty in Pink: Are Girls’ Toys Too Girly?, an article raising questions about the one-dimensional caricatures that girls’ toys offer.
The list of products that pigeonhole girls in the clothes and makeup category goes on and on. Disney sells pink vanity tables for girls as young as 3, for example, and the European retailer Primark stocks a T-shirt in a 2-year-old size that’s emblazoned with the motto “S is for Super, Shopaholic, Soon-to-be-Supermodel.” Even old classics now offer girls’ versions, such as an all-pink Monopoly game in which the houses and hotels have been replaced by boutiques and malls, and a “Designer’s Edition” Scrabble that has letters on the front of the box spelling out fashion. It wasn’t always this way. A couple of decades ago, children’s clothing mostly came in primary colors and princesses were confined to the occasional film or Halloween costume. But as marketing to children has burgeoned into a multibillion-dollar industry, and our consumerist ethos has saddled kids with mountains of stuff, the gender divide has grown wider.
There are serious ramifications to all this marketing, the Moores say. The tidal wave of pink toys and clothes suggests there’s only one way to be a girl — pretty, princessy and fashion-minded. And this segues disturbingly quickly into often sexualized images of tween girls a few years older, says Lyn Mikel Brown, an education professor at Colby College in Maine and co-author of the book Packaging Girlhood. The not-so-subtle pressures of this marketing can damage self-esteem and feed worries about body image and appearance later in life, the sisters say. They also link it to a celebrity-obsessed culture that undermines adult women by glorifying glamour figures like Paris Hilton while neglecting those women engaged in more serious pursuits.
The Jezebel article questions the long-term effects of these toys that promote what Lynn Peril terms “pink think.“
Yet here we are, studiously deployed in the combat of such messages to girls and women. We somehow emerged intact — not immune to internalized sexism, of course, but able to think clearly and beyond it. Was my love of Perfect Wedding a form of Stockholm Syndrome, its effective antidote parents who expected me to be more than a future wife and an internship at Ms.? Or was it just a really, evilly fun game and not much more?
To answer the question posed above, I say no. My students analyze children’s toys and clothing utilizing a critical gendered lens every semester (in fact, I graded this semester’s papers this afternoon). In many ways, toys created and marketed to children today are more sexist and confining than those from my childhood. To say that the writers at a critical and conscious blog emerged unscathed from the messages promoting beauty and domesticity as the sources of happiness for girls and women is not a conclusion that is representative of the mass population. Those Jezebel writers are sassy, smart and conscious. They can sniff out things like misogyny, sexism and sexist stereotypes quickly and easily.
Like the writers at Jezebel, I consider myself conscious and equipped with the ability to detect double-standards, sexist stereotypes and gender expectations. And, like the writers and individuals commenting at Jezebel, I liked my girl toys. I owned over 40 Barbies, the vacation home and the 3-story townhouse with elevator. I had the pink corvette and bags full of clothes and accessories. I loved grooming and dressing my Barbies, getting them ready for parties and dates (and engaging them in naughty behavior with Ken). Given a choice, I would have played with and had my Barbies proudly on display well into my teens. My mother eventually convinced me that it was time to put them away when I got my first boyfriend at 14.
Clearly, I loved Barbie and all the pink paraphernalia associated with Barbie. But I also remember the scale that was perpetually fixed on 110 pounds. 110. The last time I weighed 110 was when I was 5′ 2″ and in 6th grade. But that number, Barbie’s impossible measurements and “perfect” body were stuck in my mind as examples of what a woman should weigh and look like. I am not blaming Barbie and her pink scale as the sole variables that impacted my distorted and negative body image through most of my life. But I do recognize Barbie as one toy and one aspect of gender socialization that is part of a larger cultural onslaught (see here and here) that encourages girls and women to focus on beauty and relationships (the former as a way to nab the latter).
I agree with Irin Carmon’s statement “We somehow emerged intact — not immune to internalized sexism, of course, but able to think clearly and beyond it” only because I spent years deconstructing and decoding the messages reinforcing these gendered themes my entire life. I don’t blame my toys alone and I don’t pretend that these toys didn’t bring me hours of immense satisfaction and fun. But I also don’t discount these toys as agents of gender socialization that helped frame my expectations of my self, my place in the world, my relationships and possibilities. I recognize my ability to transcend these messages and “think clearly and beyond” them thanks to Sociology and Women’s Studies courses and becoming media literate.
CNN reported on the latest [apparently, not the latest: see comment below] atrocious video game that allows the player to rape a woman over and over again while choosing a variety of methods to initiate the assault.
RapeLay, a video game that has gone viral since people, especially women’s rights groups, have reacted in outrage (and rightly so). Rapelay, a video game that, as CNN reports, makes Grand Theft Auto (the game that stirred up a firestorm of criticism upon its release in 2008) appear as harmless and “clean as Pac-man.”
Given the statistics on domestic violence, assault, and rape, it is difficult for me to conceptualize this video game as a “game.” Our media landscape is (and has been) populated with endless streams of images and messages glorifying, eroticizing and diminishing the serious nature of violence against women, an issue that some have called a hidden pandemic and others have labeled an epidemic of global proportions.
Viewing repetitive and stable images decreases our sensitivity to an issue, it normalizes the images and themes contained therein. Violence against women is an issue that we, as a culture, are already desensitized to on many levels. The systematic objectification and dismemberment of women (see Jean Kilbourne‘s film Killing Us Softly 3 and read her book, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel) is rampant in and a staple fixture of our mediated culture, reinforcing images of aggression and violence against women as normative and unremarkable.
“Games” that continue to use images of gratuitous and unapologetic violence as a source of “entertainment” frighten me because the inevitable results are horrifying. We know that dating violence among young people is increasing. We also know that the level of mediation and amount of time young people are exposed to messages constructed by the mass media, including video game makers, is increasing (there are even treatment programs for young people addicted to video games). Taking these variables into consideration and recognizing the correlation between the level of mediation and one’s attitudes, expectations and behaviors creates a dismal picture for girls and women (and this isn’t even taking the construction of gender and the corresponding expectation of violent masculinity and submissive femininity as normative into consideration).
Given that, I think it is safe to say that rape, virtual or real, is never simply a game, at least not for the victims of that violence, virtual or real, and its social, physical and emotional consequences. In the end, we’re all negatively effected by a culture that makes violence against *anyone* a game.