Selling Womanhood: Milo's Kitchen

The way that people talk about gender make it sound like it's purely biological and immutable.  Boys and men are aggressive, driven by their biological urges, and competitive; girls and women are passive, reserved, and gentle.  What this idea misses is that gender is a social construction that has changed over time, and is shaped by many different forces.  One of those forces is from billions of dollars in advertising.

Paying attention to the way gender is constructed and sold through the media is in many ways like entering the Matrix.  Once you take the red pill, you realize how gender is constructed and sold as natural, although it would be a mistake to think that it's not real.  It's very real.  Part of the reason why people get gender and sexual orientation so confused are commercials like this one, that sells them as package deals.

In this commercial, Mom (because obviously the person buying groceries/pet food has to be a woman, and all good women are mothers, naturally), talks about how she treats her children right, and that also means giving the best to her dog.  As way of talking about her dog, she tells a story about how her dog loves to play at the park, and has his eye on a Poodle (who is naturally a girl dog) and that she's going to set him up with the Poodle, at his insisting.  Let's step back and think about how stupid this is.

  1. Your dog is almost certainly neutered, and has been since he was a puppy, so he has no sexual interests in the Poodle or any other dog (and the Poodle is almost certain spayed and has no interest either).
  2. Dog's can't talk, only understand the simplest of commands/words, and would have no concept of "calling her."
  3. You've gendered dogs, so that there are "manly" dogs like Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, and "girly" dogs like Poodles and Chihuahuas. Forget that these breeds come in both sexes, we've associated them with human gender norms, so now they become "boy" and "girl" dogs.
  4. Even if both dogs were sexually attracted to one another, you're imposing a human social construction onto the dogs.  Different animals have different mating patterns.  Some are monogamous and pair off for life, others are like ships passing in the night, some have multiple partners, or are serial rapists (ducks), or even eat their partners after mating.
  5. How on earth do you know your dog isn't gay?  Dogs smell each others' butts all the time, and male dogs will hump other male dogs, if you're using human standards, why is it assumed your dog is straight?
  6. Milo's Kitchen is selling dog food with Mom trying to get her dog some action.  Mom's going to call the Poodle's house so they can get together, and since we don't just borrow other people's pets so they can co-habitate in their "relationships," I can only assume that she's trying to get her dog laid, otherwise, why does it even matter that she has to call?!  

Now I understand that people like to treat animals like they're human (especially our pets) because it makes them feel better and more connected.  From a scientific perspective this is just wrong, but not necessarily a bad thing for people to do, especially if it's increasing empathy.  My problem with this commercial, is that while it is supposed to be selling dog food, it's really selling motherhood (and therefore womanhood) and compulsive heterosexuality.  We do the same thing with children.  I can't tell you how annoyed I get when I see parents making comments about how their little son or daughter is "flirting" with other little boys or girls.  Your one-year-old child is not a sexual being, and is not flirting with anyone.  They're just being friendly, and you should let them just be that.

When we put our sons in shirts that say "ladies man" or talk about our dog going on dates with the poodle down the block, what we're really doing is telling people that there is only one appropriate way to be a sexual being, and that they are deviant if they do not comply.  This obviously harms bisexual individuals, gay men, lesbians, and trans individuals but it also harms, in my opinion, straight people as well.  Not every straight person is built for the committed, heterosexual relationship that the media sells.  Maybe someone doesn't ever want to get married, or maybe they really want to be with multiple partners, or maybe they don't want to be in relationships at all.  

If everyone is informed, consenting adults, what is the matter with these other options? Part of the damage we do to non-heterosexual people is default assuming that because of their biological sex (when it is obvious) that their gender and sexual orientation has already been determined .  This "others" them and makes them feel deviant at worst, or marginalized at best, but to a slightly lesser extent, it does all the same kind of damage to heterosexual individuals who don't want the exact bill of goods that society is selling them.   You might think that this would only apply to a small number of people, who are perhaps rather odd, but the truth is we can't know.  This very narrow definition of what relationships are supposed to be are pushed on us relentlessly, from the clothing we wear, to how our parents raised us and talked to us, to the commercials that we watch.  It generally feels more comfortable to conform and be seen as normal, so who knows how many people would make different choices if there weren't so much pressure on us.

Please don't think, however, that I think we should have no norms or standards for relationships.  I believe modeling healthy relationships is extremely important, but I believe that should be done in a way that is accepting, and focuses on respect, consent, and open communication, not judgement, dogma, and conformity.

PhD Quest: Year 2!

Boston College during the Spring/Summer.  View of Gasson Hall behind the "Million Dollar Stairs."

Boston College during the Spring/Summer.  View of Gasson Hall behind the "Million Dollar Stairs."

11 Months ago, I posted a reflection on my first year as a PhD student (here).  Another school year completed, and it's a little jarring both how quickly, and how slowly, time has passed by.  In the past year I've finished the majority of my coursework, passed my Comprehensive Exam, and turned in my Qualifying paper.  When I look back at everything I've completed, I feel like I've made great progress and very proud.  When I look ahead at everything I still have to do to earn a PhD, I feel like I have a long way to go.

My first year in the program, mostly just my first semester, was a large transition. My first semester was about changing my definitions of success and validation, from predominantly external to more internal measures.  Since then, I feel like my growth has been to more slowly think of myself as a researcher, and of research as something I enjoyed and could contribute meaningfully to.  This spring semester I completed my 4th statistics course, and signed up to take a 5th.  I had previously thought of statistics as something I would need, but not something I would actually enjoy and volunteer to do more of.  In moments that make me question my sanity, I've even considered getting a graduate certificate in statistics (or even another masters degree) but then I wake up and think, "No, I'm good!"

The biggest single change I've experienced over the past year has been physical, rather than emotional or intellectual.  After years of struggling with my weight, I was able to get into a more healthy exercise routine and modify my diet, so that I was able to get to a much healthier weight for the first time in 7 years.  It's been an amazing feeling to be able to fit into clothes that you wore in college and to be able to walk up flights of stairs without getting winded anymore.

As I think about my larger experience, I think it's fairly safe to say that this is a lull in the storm, and that bigger changes are on the horizon.  My biggest struggle my first semester was creating a schedule and structure for myself when I had so much freedom.  This fall semester will begin to look like that again as all my classes will be on Wednesday, and the majority of my assistantships (Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant) will be on my own time.  Going into next spring it will be even more challenging, as I will have no classes, and it will all be up to me to work on my dissertation.  This is going to be an exercise in self-discipline.

 

Selling (Wo)Manhood: Swiffer (doing it right)

The way that people talk about gender make it sound like it's purely biological and immutable.  Boys and men are aggressive, driven by their biological urges, and competitive; girls and women are passive, reserved, and gentle.  What this idea misses is that gender is a social construction that has changed over time, and is shaped by many different forces.  One of those forces is from billions of dollars in advertising.

Sometimes advertising does something really great in seemingly small ways.  This commercial for Swiffer, featuring the Rukavinas is pretty swell.  It features a multiracial family, including the Father with one hand, and non-traditional gender roles.  The woman is not cast as the natural home maker, both parents seem to share household chores; nor does she fall into the "sassy/angry" woman of color trope either.  The father is shown as capable, and he's also shown as an active parent.  I really enjoy how this one commercial sends inclusive messages about race, gender, ability, and parenting all in one 30 second commercial.

Selling Womanhood: Veet

The way that people talk about gender make it sound like it's purely biological and immutable.  Boys and men are aggressive, driven by their biological urges, and competitive; girls and women are passive, reserved, and gentle.  What this idea misses is that gender is a social construction that has changed over time, and is shaped by many different forces.  One of those forces is from billions of dollars in advertising.

In this commercial for Veet, a boyfriend wakes up to find that his girlfriend is a burly man because she has not adequately shaved her legs. He is, of course, horrified, because being in bed with another man is obviously one of the worst things that could happen.  Just to be clear that he's not actually gay, the voice is that of a woman, while she appears as a man because of her inadequately shaved legs.  The ad zooms out at the end and we see the girlfriend in her "real" body, very feminine, to again make it clear, he wasn't actually with a man and there was no actual gender bending going on.

This commercial hits the sweet spot of gender policing: it clearly tells women they need to spend money on products to alter their natural bodies to conform, it uses homophobia to sell femininity, and has the added bonus of reinforcing notions of masculinity and heterosexuality, by showing how repulsive being with another man is.  Being a mammal means that you have body hair.  There's nothing inherently natural or feminine about removing body hair.  It's an arbitrary distinction that's been constructed to more clearly separate women from men.