October 8, 2008

Women, consumption, the economy and the environment

This recent post at Jezebel on The Real Housewives of Atlanta entitled “The Real Housewives of Atlanta Represent the Crass Consumerism that is Ruining our Country” inspired me to spend some time talking about the larger role of women and consumption.

The Real Housewives of Atlanta — made up mostly of women who are wives of athletes — are the shallowest, bitchiest, and most materialistic we’ve seen in this Bravo series. All of them act like the girls you see on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 — demanding designer labels, extravagant birthday cakes, and fully loaded Escalades — but perhaps the most disgusting is Shereé, who talks about how much “class” she has, which is a sure sign she doesn’t have any.

If you still have’t seen The Story of Stuff, now is the time.  Annie Leonard brilliantly breaks down “our stuff” and details the story of consumption from extraction to disposal.  Within a fairly short period of time, Leonard connects this system and “our stuff” to advertisement messages we receive via the media and the impact that extraction, consumption and disposal has on our environment…and us.

Sut Jhally has been making these connections for years and his concern has guided his work on the media, advertising and consumption. His article, “Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse” was published in 1990 and is worth the time it takes to read.

20th century advertising is the most powerful and sustained system of propaganda in human history and its cumulative cultural effects, unless quickly checked, will be responsible for destroying the world as we know it. As it achieves this it will be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of non-western peoples and will prevent the peoples of the world from achieving true happiness. Simply stated, our survival as a species is dependent upon minimizing the threat from advertising and the commercial culture that has spawned it. I am stating my claims boldly at the outset so there can be no doubt as to what is at stake in our debates about the media and culture as we enter the new millenium…

…It is not enough of course to only produce the “immense collection of commodities” they must also be sold, so that further investment in production is feasible. Once produced commodities must go through the circuit of distribution, exchange and consumption, so that profit can be returned to the owners of capital and value can be “realized” again in a money form. If the circuit is not completed the system would collapse into stagnation and depression. Capitalism therefore has to ensure the sale of commodities on pain of death. In that sense the problem of capitalism is not mass production (which has been solved) but is instead the problem of consumption. That is why from the early years of this century it is more accurate to use the label “the consumer culture” to describe the western industrial market societies.

So central is consumption to its survival and growth that at the end of the 19th century industrial capitalism invented a unique new institution the advertising industry to ensure that the “immense accumulation of commodities” are converted back into a money form. The function of this new industry would be to recruit the best creative talent of the society and to create a culture in which desire and identity would be fused with commodities to make the dead world of things come alive with human and social possibilities (what Marx would prophetically call the “fetishism of commodities”). And indeed there has never been a propaganda effort to match the effort of advertising in the 20th century. More thought, effort, creativity, time, and attention to detail has gone into the selling of the immense collection of commodities that any other campaign in human history to change public consciousness. One indication of this is simple the amount of money that has been exponentially expended on this effort. Today, in the United States alone, over $175 billion a year is spent to sell us things. This concentration of effort is unprecedented.

With industrialization and the harnessing of machine power, factories were able to mass produce commodities in startling numbers.  As Jhally indicates, mass production REQUIRES mass consumption.  How is that possible in a cultural environment that valued thrift?


Advertising was (and still is) the vehicle that sold images, desires and lifestyles and created shifts in terms of the country’s values.  Rarely, can you identify the product that is being sold to the consumer.  That’s because it is not the product that is being sold.  It is the idea of who you could be, what you’ll feel like or how people will respond to you if you wear that perfume, drink that beer, drive that car.

What does this have to do with women?  Everything, as the Jezebel post indicates.

Women have been at the forefront of the shopping frenzy.  At the end of World War II, women returned to the domestic sphere or were demoted in the industrial jobs they held during mens absence in the war effort.  Upon their return, with renewed economic prosperity and the building of the suburban maze, women were targeted as professional homemakers and shoppers.

While advertising does not discriminate and manufacturers break down markets into specific demographics, shopping is still attributed to women.  Rarely, do I hear men proclaiming an afternoon of shopping as “retail therapy.”  Women have been socialized  to identify shopping as a fundamental female pursuit, hobby or, perhaps, even an art.  Shopping is neither of these things and shopping is not encoded into a woman’s biology.  Interestingly enough, while women are not experiencing an earning parity with men, they are shopping more…and falling into debt.

We can choose where we spend our money and how much of it we spend.  In the same way that women were urged to support capitalism post-WW II by shopping and filling their homes with appliances and furniture, we can begin a new revolution by limiting what we buy and where we buy it.

October 5, 2008

Gender Socialization in the Media from Childhood to Adulthood

Geena Davis has been a long-standing advocate for the analysis of media images and gender socialization.  She founded the See Jane Project in 2004 and the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media (GDIGM).

In 2005, Geena Davis and her institute partnered with the esteemed media analyst, Dr. Stacy Smith at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. Prompted by Davis’ informal observations regarding the portrayals of gender in media directed at children, GDIGM and the research team organized under the direction of Dr. Smith watched over 5oo hours of children’s programming that summer.

Research showed that in 101 top-grossing G-rated movies released between 1990 and 2005, three out of four characters were male. Girls accounted for only 17 percent of the film’s narrators and 17 percent of the characters in crowd scenes. Only seven of the 101 movies were nearly gender-balanced, with a ratio of less than 1.5 males per 1 female character. “Although many people would argue that things seem to be getting better, our data shows that this is not the case,” says the principal investigator, Stacy L. Smith, an associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, where the research was carried out.

What was revealed was not only the disparity of images between male and female characters but the typical gender socialization that continues throughout adulthood.  As media analyst George Gerbner pointed out many years ago, it is not the introduction of one image or message that causes a change in one’s attitude of one’s self or the worl they inhabit that is worth noting.  It is the repetitive and continuous stream of images that consistently reinforce the same values and norms from our earliest years throughout the life course.  This concept is know as cultivation.  Cultivation refers to the stability of these prolific messages versus the change-oriented model.

When one considers the process of cultivation in a media saturated culture, it is the seemingly benign, obvious messages that we don’t consciously take note of that constructs our sense of reality.  In turn, this framework informs and shapes our expectations of who we and others should be and we consider these attitudes and behaviors as normative and natural.

Considering the work of Stacy Smith, Jackson Katz, Byron Hurt, Sut Jhally, Jean Kilbourne and many others that have actively studied gender and the media, it is not surprising that media directed at children hardly differs from media directed at adult men and women.  Cartoons aimed at girls and boys carry the same messages/plots/themes/characters that “chick flicks” and “dick flicks” reinforce in adulthood.

Girls/women are encouraged to focus on beauty and relationships with men,  After all, you must be beautiful to get a guy.  Boys/men are encouraged to be tough, adventurous and independent.  Considering the prolific and ubiquitous nature of the contemporary media, it is no surprise that young girls strive to be beautiful through more and more extreme measures.  They are repeatedly told early on that girls/women must be beautiful in order to be validated in order to be considered worthy of a relationship.  Boys/men are told repeatedly that real boys/men are tough and independent or they are considered weak and effeminate.

Essentialism, the notion that gendered behavior is inherent and “natural,” is not surprising considering a climate that cultivates attitudes, behaviors and expectations of girls/women and boys/men within a structured environment that provides a steady stream of images that constantly reinforce themselves.  The images become unremarkable or un-noteworthy.

In this mediated cultural climate, negative sanctions in the form of derogatory names and physical punishment is also unsurprising.  If gendered characteristics and their expected behaviors are sen as inevitable and natural, punishment for one’s transgression is seen as inevitable.  And, that’s where the danger resides.