Today gender and sexuality mark a paramount discussion within the political and social scene of the United States. The battle for equality wages as law makers decide whether or not the role of homosexuality is a fair identification or an ancient evil. Molded by the confines of westernized culture, we have inherited the codes of gender provided by the inclination of normative ideas of masculinity and femininity, the prostitution of art, and the performance of gender. While our culture discerns only between two roles of identity in the category of gender, the notion to group these people into two distinguishable categories becomes essential to how we interact with them. When we cannot determine a persons gender, it becomes almost impossible for us to interact and relate with them. Despite the efforts of a progressive society, it is the media and it’s increasingly growing outreach that reiterates the socio-cultural constructs of our culture. Through advertisements and other forms of mainstream media, we are subject to the indoctrination of role playing and reinforced traits that fortify the political and social disposition of men and women. To understand the ways in which our visual culture correlates with larger issues of gender identity and communication we must looks at the mainstream media through a series of ecocentric lenses.
The insight of common cultural themes provides a road map for the breaking down of these confines and the submersion to a freer and more diverse society. The importance of understanding culture phenomenon is that it demonstrates the parallel between identity and power relations. The inclination to surmise the idea that society in its political, social, and economic entirety is directly correlated with work ethic and ingenuity is a blind and uninformed statement. Many people are shafted when it comes to equal opportunity due to the way they express and identify themselves. The inability to turn culture off gets essentially more and more impossible as the camaraderie of a homogenized technology and media spread through the world. While corporate media promotes the repetition of branding, their products are not the only things that get labeled. Popular culture sends limitless messages to it’s people with detailed instruction of where they belong.
To understand gender roles and the concept of gender structuralism and cultural influence on these American normalcies, we must first understand the term gender. Judith Butler, a prime thinker in phenomenology and feminist theory demonstrates the differences of sex and gender and the dictation of the social construct. Butler describes the process of gender identification as one that is learned from experience rather than an innate born quality. While many would trace this back to family life and the nurturing of a person through child development, Butler explains the body as a historical edifice that has been reinforced through the antiquity of westernized culture and rigidly fortified by popular culture.
Butler describes the body as a prime mode of interaction and the confines of culture on the body. She explains how the body, „suffers a certain cultural construction, not only through conventions that sanction and proscribe how one acts one’s body, the „act“ or performance that one’s body is, but also in the tacit conventions that structure the way the body is culturally perceived.“ In this way, Butler not only raises awareness of the body being a cultural construct, but the awareness of an individual and their body. She proceeds to explain that, „Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed. It seems fair to say that certain kinds of acts are usually interpreted as expressive of a gender core or identity, and that these acts either conform, to an expected gender identity or contest that expectation in some way.“ In this sense, the body is undergoing discourse in which it polices itself to fit a certain mold, to be included in culture, and accepted in a category. This mode of gender display, in which we perform the roles expected of us by our surrounding social conventions, displays the falsity in which gender is given at birth. It details the way in which gender is only an active process in which we learn a script to appease our neighbors. Butler explains that the human body becomes our means of communication, in which the way we walk displays our gender, sex, or orientation.
Because our body becomes this text, it becomes essential to have one of the two labels of male or female, for without this, communication becomes increasingly difficult. Because culture has conditioned us to brand each other into categories, it teaches us how to approach and interact with someone based on their sex. When sex becomes unidentifiable, connection between individuals can be lost and relationship, because it is conceptual to which role they fit in cannot be created. Butler describes the danger in this by relating the feminist movement to the category of ‚women‘ in which feminist theory is dependent on the social construct of the female gender. She insists, „that it is impossible to separate a theory of gender from a political philosophy of feminism. In fact, I would agree, and argue that it is primarily political interests which create the social phenomena of gender itself, and that without a radical critique of gender constitution feminist theory fails to take stock of the way in which oppression structures the ontological categories through which gender is conceived.“ Butler’s insight provides evidence for the inconceivable feminist theory, in the sense that without bondage through a false construct, the movement cannot flourish. Her essay then tells of Gayatri Spivak, who comprises saying, „feminists need to rely on an operational essentialism, a false ontology of women as a universal in order to advance a feminist political program.“ In which Butler says, „She knows that the category of ‚women‘ is not fully expressive, that the multiplicity and discontinuity of the referent mocks and rebels against the univocity of the sign, but suggests it could be used for strategic purposes.“
The dangers of these culture constructs are that they are not obvious, but produced subliminally by media. The best of philosophical thought in this area would be through Erving Goffman, and his book „Gender Advertisements“ in which he illustrates this process. Although it is interesting to find to what extent these advertisements conform our thinking, the book more so relates to what mainstream advertisement tells us about ourselves. Like Butler, Goffman argues that there is nothing natural about gender identification; that it is a process in which we take on certain attitudes to portray a role. Goffman explains that while our culture only identifies two sexes of male and female and then uses these terms to create gender, there can potentially be different categories of gender in other cultures. While this is challenged today in western culture by transgender and transexual individuals, they are not always given the opportunity to distinguish themselves as a separate gender. Despite their hardship, they represent the culturally constructed gender roles in our social sphere. These categories, he explains goes on to have characteristics which become equally as rigid as the category itself. Goffman illustrates that males are presented as masculine while females are portrayed as feminine. Goffman’s research goes on to make clear the rigidity of popular culture and how it has been able to maintain these social normalities. Throughout his book, Goffman describes advertisements as commercial realism, or „when advertisers try to present the advertising world in ways which it could be real.“ Unlike Adorno and Horkheimer’s „Culture Industry“, Goffman uses advertisement not to show us how it makes us act or tells us what to buy, but what the apparent normality of mainstream advertisement tells us about ourselves.
Goffman uses the seemingly harmless example of the use of hands in advertisements in which he shows the contrast in their portrayal between sexes. He argues that female hands are shown in a weaker perspective in which their environment controls them, where the male hands are shown controlling the environment around them. For example, in most pop culture advertisement, female hand models are shown holding a shampoo bottle in a weak manner, in which the bottle may be resting in their hands. They constantly cradle and caress an object in a nonassertive way rather than being in control of the object. Males are shown doing the opposite, shown gripping an object with force with a different relationship to the world. The male hands are shown manipulating their environment in an authoritarian way, presenting themselves to the consumer as powerful and masculine. He goes on to argue that when male and female hands are presented in the same picture, the male is often holding the object, while the female hand is not shown grasping, but reaching towards it, or holding onto the male hand. This theory goes on to further argue the concept of self-touching, in which the feminine soft touch is extended to their own body to represent it as a delicate thing. This method is constantly used in advertisement and knows no boundary whether it be the face, shoulder, breasts, etc. Some he explains, like the touching of the neck, represent a powerful symbolic connection with vulnerability. Women are also shown in advertisement in a breathless pose to demonstrate a floaty aspect of femininity in which they are presented as diaphanous, succumbing to the world around them. Many times they are presented holding themselves in a passive way, further indicating weakness and appearing incapacitated.
Although the mainstream media reiterates these concepts, it is important to view counterculture and the self-touching of men in advertisements. Goffman encourages consumers to replace males with females in feminine poses and to monitor our reactions. He explains that if there is a startled reaction to the photos, then it is because social structuralism has convented the idea of femininity exclusively for females and masculinity exclusively for men. In his segment titled ‚The Ritualization of Subordination‘ he further explains that because the body is used as a text that carries indoctrinated meanings, and how female bodies specifically are used to symbolize femininity has a subordinate relationship to how males are presented as masculine. This argument begins with the example that women models are shown much more frequently than men lying down. In this pose, the woman cannot defend herself, but is a docile subject, unprotected from her surroundings. Not only have the women been presented as submissive, but the images have also been sexualized in the sense that it presents them as sexually available. In this sense, commercial realism and pornography become equalized in that they both portray female sexuality with the same characteristics; powerless, submissive, and incapacitated. The phenomenon that Goffman describes is that when female sexuality becomes associated with femininity, then notions of feminine characteristics take the rolls of powerlessness, submissiveness, and incapacitation.
Another pose that Goffman points out is what he calls, ‚the bashful knee bend‘ in which females are shown standing with one leg bent, giving them an ungrounded trait. Also a pose in which females stand and hold their shoe or heel is touched on. He explains that unlike males, females are shown standing perpendicular much less of the time, and in awkward positions, once again redefining the code of femininity being associated with inattentiveness. Like most commercial photography, the one-legged pose also proclaims an image that is sexualized, again reinforcing female sexuality passively. Other common traits of commercial realism show females with their heads awkwardly tilted to the side, rather than upright and proud. An exaggeration of this pose is the tilting back of the head, much like dogs do when submitting themselves to the more aggressive predator. Goffman describes this as symbolizing primitiveness and animalistic sexualization in which the woman has surrendered herself to the will of the male. These defenseless positions not only show femininity as submissive but project subordination through their acceptance and appeasement to maledom. The opposite, Goffman discusses is the male, with the head down and eyes looking straight at the camera. This, he connects with the animalistic qualities of a predator stalking it’s prey.
Because of these inherited characteristics of women, men are shown having a very different approach in advertisements and the variations are best portrayed when both male and female share a picture. While females are defenseless, the males are depicted aware and active, ready to take on the world. They usually stand erect, attentive and seem more aware than females. Many scenes show women laying down, or on their knees while burly males stand over them, paying little attention. When the women are attentive, they look towards the male, usually from below with seductive eyes and the desperation to serve. Goffman explains that even though we sometimes see the reverse of these media normalities, it is rare and results most likely in a shocked reaction. Despite these regularities, certain photography, such as gay pornography, changes these roles in which men take on feminine rolls and the ritualization of subordination is reversed. This presents the actuality that despite the ritualization of these poses, there is nothing natural about them. These poses in commercial photography used to represent the idea of a gender role tell us that they are in no way unique to one sexuality, but are strictly cultural.
The classic inattentiveness of the female goes beyond aforementioned qualities, as described by Goffman, for it touches on a psychological aspect of commercial realism. Females are often shown in an absentminded state, oblivious to threat, and indifferent to action. He describes the advertisements as transforming women into a zombie-like state in which they are half asleep and sometimes truly asleep, passed out, or dead. In these settings, they are sprawled out, again frequently sexualized. The passed out woman depicts that she fainted, another cultural symbol for weakness. When they are awake, they are shown emotional or vulnerable to emotion from the world around them. The biting of the lip produces the feeling of anxiety and nervousness within the female psyche. The women may also hold themselves, showing a fear or uneasiness about their surroundings. In the psychological aspect, when men and women are shown in the same scene, women are buried in the man’s chest, hiding from outside forces. Females are explicitly shown longing for male touch in a lofty state, eager for touch and protection. Again, males have stern monitoring looks, portraying them deep in thought and unaware of the woman that holds onto them. This not only conveys preceding notions of the absentminded female, but clearly imposes the inclination of female dependency for males and foists social roles for males and females through these models.
Perhaps the most striking theories of Goffman describe the modern relationship between women and girls throughout our culture. He expresses this relationship through the concept of infantilization. This phenomenon, he describes as a family construct in which, „Boys have to push their way into manhood and problematic effort is involved while girls merely have to unfold.“ He explains that while boys have to prove themselves men, women and girls are often placed inexplicably in the same category. In family advertisements, the mother and daughter are often shown wearing the same clothing, while father and son roles follow no pattern. In this sense, Goffman says that girls never essentially have to grow up and women are always considered a part of girlhood. Like children, woman are constantly shown in media with their fingers in their mouth and anxious expression. This can clearly be traced back to childhood and the expression of nervousness through a child. Despite this thinking, the pose also has a sexualized dimension in which it presents phallic abduction. The construct here creates a dimension where womanhood and childhood are one in the same, by presenting women acting in childish ways and sexualizing the imagery. Again this is portrayed in some advertisement, in which women are dressed like children or schoolgirls, made to appear like dolls or toys and compliant to the will of their puppeteer.
A consequence to infantilization not only puts women in the roles of girls, but little girls in the roles of women. This explains the fascination with some girls and beauty pageantry and the decorating of them by their mothers. Young girls are increasingly shown taking the poses of adult women in their modeling and lessening the line that separates childhood and adulthood for women. Although Goffman does not touch on infantilization in other media, the growing attraction to a hairless individual in pornography is an increasing normality. While males and females biologically have pubic hair, the pornography industry has produced shaved individuals, emulating immaturity and infantilism. This not only provides an unnatural view of what the sexual being should look like, but portrays an immature presentation of genitalia as more sexualized than the latter. This can lead to the inclination of pedophilia in which men and women may become infatuated with the immature.
While Goffman describes these as renditions of our conventional society and the constructs of male and female gender roles through the presentation of masculinity and femininity, he explains that masculinity can only be described though binary terms, in that the ideal male can only be defined in it’s opposition to the ideal female construct. Masculinity in media can be described as the exact opposite of femininity in the sense that it depicts an emotionally stable, powerful adult. The advertisements constantly show men standing with their hands in their pockets, that presents an easy confidence. Not only does the male figure present a strong individual, but also a comfortable one, in which emotions are never faltering to a low or unstable point. Arms crossed may even produce an unmoving, sometimes intimidating representation of the male. Masculinity is always pinned as independent, as many models show the men staring out at the consumer, instead of the consumer staring at them.
Today, male modeling has taken a much more progressive route. While it is still rare, we are more often seeing male models portrayed in poses that are usually depicted as feminine. Another aspect to this is that males are also under more scrutiny than ever when it comes to their bodies. Abercrombie & Fitch is perhaps the best example to show the progressive approach in which male modeling has taken. Because Abercrombie & Fitch’s male photography is often shown to have aspects of femininity, it often resembles photography in gay fashion to consumers. With the retail’s target being primarily the heterosexual consumer, Abercrombie & Fitch finds that their images provide a difficult problem when trying to reach male customers. The promotion of the idea that paying attention to fashion in a homophobic world must convince heterosexual consumers to disregard normalities and assess heterosexuality in a different way. In order to numb this homophobic notion, advertisers introduce women into scenes, showing relations between men and women and producing a traditional feeling despite it’s unconventional aspects. Another way that Abercrombie & Fitch reinstated a non homoerotic stance, is by ensuring that the male’s body is muscular and in no way representing weakness or any kind of limitedness. In this way, the company focuses on six pack abdominals to represent strength and distance themselves from the impotent ideas of femininity.
Another example in which Goffman’s theories are challenged are through female action hero movies. Films, such as Lara Croft Tomb Raider show women in a new light, in which they are portrayed to have masculine qualities while keeping their female roles. In opposition to their usual victimizing roles, the females portrayed in the films showed super intelligence, strength, and ferociousness. Throughout the film, the women are glorified and their amazing talents swoon the audience. Female athletes also challenge the roles of gender through competition and promoting an active and powerful approach on life. Since Title IX was passed, the number of women and homosexuals in sports has increased dramatically allowing the quality and popularity in female athletics to skyrocket. Yet, female athletes, when presented in magazines and media other than televised sporting events, are often shown disempowering themselves, duplicating postures that emanates passivity or sexualizes them. Perhaps an attempt to secure their femininity, these athletes only lose recognition as they belittle themselves. Athletes like Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams are known almost as much for their modeling careers as their tennis careers. These powerful women encourage the fortification of these social constructs despite their genuine selves.
The most revolting case of this is best shown through the political empowerment of Danica Patrick. Patrick is world famous for her skills as an IndyCar racer and known to be the most successful woman on the history of the IndyCar Series. Despite criticism from male drivers that Patrick ways less than the average male driver, she puts her life on the line and risks high speeds of up to 230 miles per hour, demonstrating imminent courage and precision. But because the IndyCar Series was male dominated and constantly referred to as a masculine sport and environment, Patrick relapsed her social status to conform to society’s confines. In 2009, Patrick became the spokesperson for GoDaddy.com, a do-it-yourself engineering site in which she dressed in tight clothing and wildly sexualized herself for commercials. In what became the most watched Superbowl commercial, Patrick was shown taking a shower while three young men watched her from their computer. To prove that she is a real woman, Patrick frequently portrays herself in submissive poses throughout magazines in order to be normalized in the perspective of culture. In this way, she can reassure herself that she is a woman despite the expense of losing her equality and autonomy.
Today, war wages in the workplace and homes of anyone who has feminine qualities, or challenges the „normalcy“ of traditional culture. Those people are identified today as women, homosexuals, transsexuals, and other gender-variant individuals. Because these social codes have been implanted into the minds of western culture, many are oppressed due to the traditional presentations of femininity and our ignorance in the illusion of gender. Gender equality groups fight to empower women and end the reoccurring aristocracy of culture in our media. This year issues on the rejection of birth control coverage, sparked a mammoth reaction from women and people all over.
When Republican candidate Rick Santorum introduced an attack on birth control and it’s users, who non-coincidentally happened to be women, Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student appeared in court to testify against the injustice. With the threat to end contraception coverage, Fluke saw it her job to speak up for her right to healthcare. She decided to speak for a whole country of women by explaining how contraception was important to her in exclusively non-contraceptive purposes. She also informed them of an unaffordable medical bill if contraception would no longer be insured. But when she appeared at the congressional hearing, she was turned down by Republican Darrell Issa who referred to Ms. Fluke as „unqualified“. Despite being ignored, Fluke also received harsh criticism from conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh in which he reasoned that Fluke’s pursuit of birth control, „makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.“ In this light, Fluke is robbed of her privilege to speak or be heard in the presuppositions that she is weak, submissive, and sexualized. Even with his words of hate and rejection of tolerance, Limbaugh is considered one of the top radio talk show hosts in the United States in that his message reaches millions everyday. Because of past constructs, Limbaugh makes no effort to listen, but judges Fluke on the guidelines that corporate media owners, like himself impose on the presentation of women. In spite of the harsh criticism that Limbaugh received, and the number of endorsements he lost because of his remark, the message he broadcasted accurately identified with the corporate media’s analogous approach to the roles of women and femininity and a clear representation of modern intolerance of women.
While most people would argue that women now have the same rights as men, privileges for variant-gendered people and females are in no way close to equal. The standards that American media promotes is almost impossible to match. Advertisers produce the ideal man or woman through photographs of gorgeous, heterosexual people that reinforce traditional gender roles and characteristics. Because of this social construct, oppression bleeds into the political and economic spectrum of our government, best shown by Sandra Fluke and the loss of the woman’s voice in which Fluke could no longer be heard, or pay her medical fees as a result to her womanhood. Mainstream media reinforces the popular culture that manacles us to the confines of social structuralism by mass production of advertisement. Goffman would argue that the codes of gender are so deep that they may be impossible to break away from. He explains that in a way in which our media culture produces goods, it demonstrates „the same corpus of displays“ that already exists within the culture, the function of which is to communicate something quickly.“
In this way we learn to present ourselves through a performance, like Butler proposes, training our body to be used as a script in which we can immediately connect and communicate. Our visual culture presents a reality in which the presentation of ourselves is prominent in our identifying of who we are along with those around us. Because categories do not identify everyone, some are left out. A transvestite may identify his gender as a man but have female sex traits, but because he can pass based on appearance to fit in a gender category, he succeeds in matching the social expectations and can become that role. In this logic, the arbitrary perspective of gender constructs seem completely moot. The best method to pave the road towards a more tolerant society and further conceptual knowledge, would be to break down the boxes that label a majority of people in an erroneous category that undoubtedly lead to economic and political inequality.
Constructs of feminine independence and autonomy must be promoted to equalize the opportunity of the belittled culture, while masculinity must be shown in a more neutral sense in which domination becomes irrelevant. The social convents we create must promote equality and the power of socialization in order to provide a balanced political atmosphere in which liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be met. By meekly accepting the ideas of the corporate media we act like Maria Sharapova or Danica Patrick and passively give in to the enforcement of misogyny. It is our job to challenge and question the socio-political atmosphere in order to change the normalcies of these convents. If we dispute the world of commercial realism, we can produce taboo novelties that can be molded to be included in an ideal culture of progressivism.