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by Julia

This is a paper I recently wrote for my Sociology of Gender class here at Maryland. Limited to 5 or so pages, I had to cut out a ton of elaborations on some of these concepts, but this topic is something in which I’m super interested (and probably would have written my thesis on, had I not been applying to law school last fall). I thought it was pertinent to the topics on this blog, so yea!  (Also, it’s so much more fun to write papers with links.) I encourage comments/questions!

In the decades since the second wave feminists rallied Washington for equal rights, American women have certainly achieved great bounds in education and professional advancement relative to men. While many in society cite these measures as sufficient for deeming feminism irrelevant and unnecessary in an age of such “equality,” these economic measures of women’s equality are, in fact, continuations of patriarchal controls. The gendered institution of capitalism – which through clever marketing purports to be a liberating product of sexual revolution and empowerment – is just another means of reinforcing female subordination through social, political, and economic means. The increased position of women in the labor force is not a sign of liberation, but rather a reproduction of masculine hegemony under the guise of economic choice. The marketing of particular fashion and beauty products to women “appears to displace traditional modes of patriarchal authority” (McRobbie 2007:718), in that, through their increased earnings and prominence in the work force, women can buy products which supposedly liberate them. Capitalism in general works to subordinate one class of people to another through limited access to means of advancement. Capitalism as a gendered institution allows women to advance only to the point at which they believe they have real choice – in their spending patterns, their job options, their life plans. In reality, capitalism serves to reinforce the patriarchal ownership and control structures of society all within the false discourse of women’s liberation and economic choice.

Gendered institutions are established and advanced through a variety of social regulations. Capitalism is no different from other gendered institutions like religion, education, the media, or families. It is both constructed and regulated by formal laws, cultural practices, and discourses. This paper will focus on the latter two categories as a means of reinforcing capitalism as a gendered institution. As mentioned previously, the wide dissemination of discourses surrounding of women’s liberation and putative equality (through both job opportunities and consumerism) is, paradoxically, a means of securing gender retrenchment (McRobbie 2007). One need only look to the myriad products marketed towards women in a way which pretends to be liberating, but is really reinforcing gender stereotypes surrounding behavior, appearance, and (perhaps most important) proper roles in society.

Philosopher Nina Power writes that in this 21st century interpretation of feminism as consumerism, “the desire for emancipation starts to look like something wholly interchangeable with the desire to simply buy more things” (2009: 27-28). She continues that, “stripped of any political quality [to, perhaps, challenge or overturn the patriarchal economy], feminism becomes about as radical as a diamanté phone cover” (2009: 30). Indeed, many of the products recently marketed to women all carry the mantra of liberation – freedom from under-arm hair (Dove deodorant), menstrual cycles (Seasonale), or even pesky stomach aches (probiotic yogurt)– yet they all serve to reinforce the patriarchal domination over women’s bodies and tendencies through compulsory femininity. [1]

Consumerism for modern women is centered not only around the myth of liberation, but also is deeply intertwined with the sexualization of female consumers. McRobbie discusses the myth in great detail, but the discourse can be summarized as follows: “to secure a post-feminist gender settlement, [women must sign] a new sexual contract” (2007: 721). What McRobbie means by this is that the “supposed liberation of women comes in the form of sexualized products [while] wrapped in discourses of individualism, consumerism, and empowerment[2]” (Evans, Riley, Shankar 2010: 115). The recent trends of young girls with Playboy icons on their school supplies, middle-aged women taking pole-dancing aerobics classes, vajazzling, the compulsion to get Brazilian bikini waxes – all of these appear to be means of self-liberation, and the realization of the goals of second-wave feminism. However, these specific purchases are merely the “choices” which capitalism as a gendered institution designs for women to keep them slightly subordinated, while female consumers believe these purchases are either signs of achieving equality or means of advancing towards it. These sexualized products used by women “employ the signifiers of patriarchal and objectifying practices to produce the signified meaning of liberation, assertiveness, and power” (Evans et al. 2010: 120). These dominant consumerist discourses support the theory of social constructionism. Women’s sexuality is not fixed – it is a site of struggle – but capitalism works as a gendered institution to perpetuate the myth that a certain, hyper-sexualized type of woman is the paradigm to which all other women should aspire.

Since the 1960s and the “sexual revolution,” companies have had to work harder to convince “liberated” and working women that their products are still necessary to women’s advancement and happiness. The cultural practices of buying products are further purported to be individual choices, but they actually align with a very specific narrative of capitalist society. Women are so conditioned “to think that [their] behaviors are individual (a degree is an ‘investment,’ starting a family is a ‘personal choice’), that [they] miss the collective and historical dimensions of [their] current situation” (Power 2009: 34). Capitalism works only when certain groups (workers) are subordinated to other groups (owners). Applying an intersectional analysis, Evans et al. realize that gender discrimination is evident in capitalism, but so is racism and classism (and it has been that way since the industrialized period). Capitalist owners subordinate lower classes through their monetary prowess and alienate workers from each other through manufactured compulsions towards competition amongst themselves. It is also pertinent to recognize the power of the patriarchy in shaping how capitalism works to not only subordinate women but also to alienate them from each other and their collective voice.

In this way, capitalist corporations have created a subtle discourse within society that there is no longer any place for feminism – that women can simply work to buy themselves freedom. This is particularly dangerous because it also supports the narrative that critical thinking about one’s condition is no longer necessary. McRobbie writes that “the attribution of apparently post-feminist freedoms to women most manifest within the cultural realm […] becomes, in fact, the occasion for the undoing of feminism” (2007: 719). What goes often unconsidered in this narrative is that waged work is required for this consumed emancipation. Women have always been laborers – only recently has a percentage of their work been recognized as worthy of pay – but now, this waged labor is even less of a choice because of capitalism’s pressures to consume certain products as well as the lack of sufficient social services to allow women real choices, like parental leave. With the dominant narrative that women’s freedoms are intrinsically tied to products comes the inevitable commodification of women’s bodies.

This dangerous narrative has catastrophic consequences for the subordination of women within the economy: “The particular commodity, with whose bodily form [women] the equivalent form [the product] is thus socially identified, now becomes the money commodity, or serves as money” (Marx 1867: 80). This compulsion to consume products in this particularly “post-feminist” and highly sexualized sense is especially challenging for those with fewer resources. There exists a feeling that one must consume in order to fit the feminine – nay, American – ideal (Hong 2006).  Those who feel that they must work just to consume these products of subordination are experiencing patriarchal capitalism on multiple levels – by purchasing sexualized products, lower-class women are experiencing a false sense of empowerment, but because they are working just to consume, they are essentially becoming the aforementioned Marxist commodities.

Post-feminist consumerism exists in a manner which creates an entire commodity culture (Jameson 1991). In this way, “culture” precludes any possibility for true gender equality – it is so saturated with the importance of capital that individual attributes are intentionally ignored. The myth of individualism and liberation intertwined with the consumption of products reinforces the power of capitalism as a gendered institution – designed by men, it is no wonder that capitalism works tirelessly to continually appease women with fun products so they will not truly question the structure of the economy which continually pays them less for equal work and which allows few choices for women outside of the household. It is difficult to tell what products capitalism will develop next to perpetuate its constructed myth of gender equality. What is certain is that, as long as capitalism exists as a major institution of the patriarchy, it will work tirelessly not only for class stratification, but also gender stratification – these are the processes through which the system survives. Touting the recent advancements of women in education and the work force is not sufficient – until sexist capitalism is no longer consumed and supported by financially successful women, it will continue to construct and reinforce a commodity culture which relies upon the subordination of the class of women.

Bibliography:

Evans, Adrienne, Sarah Riley, and Avi Shankar. 2010. “Technologies of Sexiness: Theorizing Women’s Engagement in the Sexualization of Culture.Feminism Psychology. 20:114-133.

Hong, Grace Kyungwon. 2006. The Rupture of American Capital: Women of Color, Feminism, and the Culture of Immigrant Labor. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. New York: Random House, Inc.

McRobbie, Angela. 2007. “Top Girls? Young Women and the Post-Feminist Social Contract.” Cultural Studies. 21:718-737.

Power, Nina. 2009. One Dimensional Woman. Winchester UK: O Books.


[1] It should also be noted that men also suffer under the gendered institution of capitalism. Nor are they immune to the sexualized consumerism of late. This paper, however, focuses on the group most targeted and damaged by gendered consumerism.

[2] And “often excluding those who are not white, heterosexual, and slim.”

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by Julia

March 4 was The National Day of Action to Defend Education, and at Maryland we took action to create the kind of education we desire. We held a series of workshops in the Art-Sociology building’s atrium on feminism in academia, hip hop and society, sports and education, the prison-industrial complex, and whatever else is in our everyday lives but is little discussed in our classes. I am fortunate enough to be enrolled in several courses this semester which deal with issues of sexism, classism, ableism, racism, and other inequalities which are prevalent in our system today, and I wish to share just a sample of the progressive and intellectually stimulating topics from my 300-level Women’s Studies class on the Sociology of Gender.

Foucault and Purity Balls

On March 4, we discussed the intersection of Michel Foucault and sexuality in society, specifically concerning purity balls. For further information on purity balls, I highly recommend Jessica Valenti’s book, The Purity Myth, as well as these links. These often federally funded events represent the hegemony of several institutions on the bodies and brains of young women, a phenomenon which Foucault links to the definition of the Self solely by one’s sexuality.

“Since Christianity, Western civilization has not stopped saying, ‘To know who you are, know what your sexuality is about.’”

-Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction

“Sexuality as a term did not appear until the beginning of the 19th century. What had been some 300 years earlier just so many disparate urges, inclinations, and activities were delineated as a problematic set of traits and drives that supposedly define a central aspect of human nature…[and]…define us as sexual objects.”

– C.G. Prado, Starting with Foucault: An Introduction to Genealogy

Because the Self is a social and cultural construct, the hegemony of certain institutions in society and their obsession with sexuality led to the definition and eventual policing of our bodies in terms of our sexuality. The Church, specifically, pursued its their goal of disconnecting sex from pleasure starting in the 19th century, and began to define sex as a sin punishable by eternal damnation – allowing religious morality to permeate all forms of privacy, so that people ended up policing their own choices for fear of retribution. Our sexual selves are also managed by the government and medical communities, under the guise of the “public good.”  In short, the advent of this new Self definition represented the institutionalization of sexuality.

Purity balls, then, represent a fairly recent evolution of this institutionalization. As I see it, underlying these ceremonies is a great fear that the expression of women’s sexualities will in some way topple the order of society which, for the past 200 years, has recognized the power of individual expression to the independence of many social groups. Most tragically, this trend of hypersexualization essentializes young women so that they are defined by a single issue – their sexuality. How sad that equal focus is not placed on their education, advancement in male-dominated academic fields, or protection from the patriarchy instead of from themselves.

Young women who express their heterosexual desires – not to mention those women who *gasp* align themselves somewhere else on the sexual spectrum – are forced to suppress their wants by social institutions. At the same time, however, young women are also hypersexualized from a very young age because of this very same trend of defining the Self not by one’s thoughts or actions, but solely by one’s sexual expression.

Foucault challenges us to not only recognize who we are sexually – gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, etc – but also to deconstruct why many of us identify so strongly with our sexual selves in the first place. 200 years ago, few defined themselves by sexual expression, and to claim otherwise is to lay a false metanarrative of sexual expression on history.

Foucault’s strongest attribute in terms of deconstructing sexuality is his ability to question exactly whose ends our identifications serve.

“The central issue…is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex…but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue [is] the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse.*’”

– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

*Foucault defines “discourse” as simply a discussion among people, but as a discussion that “society has with itself: a set of meaning-making practices.” The discursive power of the narrative of purity produces certain types of individuals with repressed sexualities.

The hypersexualized young woman who is forced into purity balls is certainly not serving her own desires or interests, but most likely those of her parents, and religious leaders. This definition of women by their sexuality and “purity” is detrimental to all involved. It hurts young women who learn to measure their worth based on a single issue. It hurts young men who struggle to see their sisters, cousins, friends, and partners for more than their sexual purity. It hurts society because this focus on the sexuality of young women impedes the recognition of so many other facets of a women’s mind. Ultimately, all parties lose out, but none so much as the women who fall prey to the policing of their minds and bodies by a society which strategically subordinates them to maintain dominance.

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