The Olympics may be over, but cultural critique is forever.
Before the start of the Olympic Games in London, there was a bit of a controversy state-side over the uniforms that the U.S. team was going to be wearing to the Opening Ceremonies. Apparently they were made in China. Shocking. The mass media had a field day with this, and politicians weighed in, everyone up in arms about the fact that the uniforms should be made in the United States.
Meanwhile, back in America, this is still a capitalist country that participates in a global marketplace. Of course the uniforms are going to be made in China: it’s cheaper! This made me wonder if, had the uniforms been made in the United States, there would have been a controversy about the expense of outfitting our athletes for the Games. Because you know they would have been pretty darn spendy.
What we have here are coexisting, competing yet related sets of values, ideologies even: the virtue of thrift vs. the virtue of patriotism. At this historical-cultural moment in the United States, the virtue of thrift is tied closely to the recession discourse and the “Jobs” trope people have been hammering for the past year(s). On the other hand, the virtue of patriotism [read: anti-China-ism] mandates that we buy U.S. made goods. This virtue is tied to the Jobs trope and the recession, as well. That hypothetical backlash would have been about excessive spending and anti-American consumer practices that “steal jobs” from hard-working stiffs. So basically, in this climate of competing ideologies, consumers can’t win. They will always be doing something antithetical to mainstream American discourse, which draws upon currently-held beliefs. (Those traitors!) This transcends to the larger scale as well, where Olympic officials can’t win, either. There is no right choice, because either one offends a deep-seated and currently harped-on ideology in America.
So you see, there’s no winning. Or rather, there is a winner, at least rhetorically, and that winner is America. (It’s also the loser, based on my argument, but the discourse will always position itself as drawing attention to how America should be winning. Maybe the real winner is capitalism.) This whole controversy–or rather, both of these controversies, the real and the hypothetical–is wrapped in the always-justifying “virtue” of Nationalism, which is really what the Olympic Games are all about.*
And the coverage of the Games, before, during, and after, is all about drumming up the controversies and human-interest stories that can be squeezed out of the sweaty towels of the competitors and turned into profit. There will always be hand wringing and finger-pointing. Newscasters gotta eat, too. Yay, capitalism!
*Side-note: In grad school during my Transnational Ritual class, I made the mistake of pointing out that the Olympic Games totally mirrors the hegemonic system of nationalism around which the world is currently organized, man. In response, my professor basically called me childish for not just accepting this as the status quo. (He had a hard-on for the Olympics because it was his “field-site,” and he couldn’t really take any analysis of it that he hadn’t thought of himself, especially not a kommie-Gramscian one. …and I may have aided in his dressing-down of me by sporting pig-tails at the time. But this does not alter the fact that he was still an asshole.)
The night of the State of the Union Address, the local news on NBC devoted a couple of minutes to a story that championed the fashion sense of one of the guests of honor, discursively linking the honoree’s taking notice of footwear to the honoree’s gendered identity. Noticing shoes became an index of woman-ness, of femininity. Liking shoes makes a woman. Awesome message, NBC. Just what our already strictly gendered society needs to hear. The entire eye-roll-inducing segment can be found here. Take a gander.
It began innocuously enough. The anchor, Robert Kovacik, began to tell viewers about a couple of local residents who received honorary invitations to the State of the Union Address. But nearly all of the story focused on the white woman talking about Jill Biden’s shoes, with only a cursory mention of the other honoree: a local lawyer named Juan Jose Radin. We learned nothing else about him, not even if he was interviewed. No, the entire story featured Sergeant Ashley Berg and how asking Jill Biden where she got her shoes may have landed her that ticket to the SOTU. This conjecture isn’t corroborated, it’s just that: conjecture. And yet NBC chose to harp on it. So I will harp on their choice of harpitute (shut up, let me have my fun).
Kovacik introduces Sergeant Berg thusly: “Ashley Berg has served two tours of duty in Iraq. A decorated sergeant, who is still [news-pause-for-effect] a woman.” And this line sets the tone, dictates the focus, and frames Berg as both frivolous and doing her gender proud in spite of being an Iraq War veteran. In the context of the binary gender system in which Americans live, this frames her being a sergeant–or in the military at all–as a masculine thing. But she is vindicated–that is, she retains her feminine gender identity–by liking shoes.
Because shoes are being constructed as a metonym of/for female interest, thereby indicating that the person doing the liking is gendered female. Is a real woman. (Thanks, American conflation of gender and sex!) Liking shoes is being linked to the grand category of “things women like,” and is thus gendered feminine in this segment, and arguably much of the time in the American imagination. (I want to say it’s an acting second-order indexical, but I’ll have to check my ling-anth math on that one.) Anyway, the point is that Kovacik, or whoever wrote the segment, is making a big deal out of what would normally be considered a woman-y thing to like because this particular woman’s career is in the military. Part of her identity is being a soldier, which is a traditionally male-gendered pursuit and identity. This constructed juxtaposition is the reason there’s a 2-plus minute story at all.
Let’s be clear: I’m not critiquing the sergeant’s taking note of Jill Biden’s shoes, her liking shoes in general, or anything like that. Liking shoes is not bad. Noticing them in the middle of Iraq does not make Sergeant Berg one thing or another. No, my beef is with NBC’s framing of the story, which they decided was going to be all about this service person’s supposed shoe fetish/fixation. I’m not denying that the sergeant said what she said about shoes or claiming that the news story invented the fact that she genuinely seems to enjoy shoes. She said those things and is proud of having said them, and all that is grand.
My point is that NBC asked her the questions and edited her interview to make the focus on the shoes. They decided the story was going to be about how novel-and-yet-expected it was that a female soldier would still like shoes. That you could put war into a woman, but you can’t take the woman out of a soldier. The story-maker/interviewer, Robert Kovacik, was the one who framed the narrative as simultaneously surprising (look! even women soldiers like shoes!) and predictable (of course the soldier can’t stop thinking about shoes; she’s a woman!)
A little later in the story, Kovacik moves on to when Sergeant Berg visits the White House before the Address, “where Ashley once again notices what some may not.” What she notices is the interior decor of the White House. Once again, the story is choosing to focus on the sergeant’s taking note of fashion–of both sartorial and interior decorating ilk. There is precious little mention of her accomplishments, which is to be expected, if we want to be cynical about it. After all, what’s most important about women in this country is their looks, and by extension, how well they notice the way other things look. That is, it is the female gender that is expected to notice appearances.
And the narrative is constructed so that Sergeant Berg conforms to this role beautifully. There is a cut to Berg’s interview, where she is talking about her experience of visiting the White House. The excerpt Kovacik, his NBC producers chose was: “They had chandeliers that were undescribable [sic]. Um, they have carpets to match the ceiling, which, I think is really cool.” Somehow, her noticing the ostentatious interior decor of the White House proves that she’s a special sort of Sergeant because she’s still a woman: she notices appearances! She likes fancy things! But wouldn’t any other non-rich American notice this? Visitors are supposed to be impressed by the way the White House is decorated. Not according to this news story. No, sir. Only women notice these types of things. All this serves to present Sergeant Berg as a somewhat shallow member of the military and an upstanding example of an American woman.
The interview cuts out most of the context that is unrelated to the fashion angle, harping on the idea that this female “decorated sergeant” and veteran of a war was singled out from her peers to attend the State of the Union Address because she appreciated Jill Biden’s shoes. Toward the end, Kovacik describes Berg as “the smiling sergeant with a sense of style,” allowing American society to breathe a sigh of relief. You see, America, no matter how war-worn and accomplished a woman may be, however far she may appear to deviate from the prescribed gender norms of her society, she remains a bastion of ideal femininity.
Narrative is constructed, and the truth is what you discursively make it. Unfortunately, Kovacik and his producers chose a narrative that relied heavily on (arguably negative) gender stereotypes. So thanks for reinforcing the status quo, NBC. Thanks a lot.
I’d like to haphazardly discuss yet another example of the stealthy pervasiveness of gender stereotypes in U.S. culture. This example is from a nationally (and maybe internationally) televised commercial for Bounty paper towels. Perhaps you’ve seen it of late.
This commercial makes use of what I would call harmful gender tropes to market its product to consumers. Because it was created to be mass-mediated and appeal to as many (female) consumers as possible, one might argue that such commercials have to extend to and re-create certain structures of cultural categories, no matter how stereotypical and harmful these representations may be of culturally created groups of people. Otherwise, they would not be comprehensible to a wide audience. But I argue that such use of stereotypical representations are yet another example of gendered norms being held up as natural, with implications for what roles differentially gendered people are expected to play in our culture.
This commercial in particular offers up women and men as possessed of differentially valued sets of knowledge by virtue of their being women or men. This has to do with how gender intersects with the notion of separate-spheres: the idea that people generally inhabit either the public or private sphere on the basis of their being women or men. (Things are never this neat in real life, of course, and never have been.) However, the intersections of these false dichotomies (men:women :: public:private) is the assumption upon which one of the messages of this commercial rests: that women “know better” than men how to clean up messes because of the particular knowledge they have thanks to their primarily inhabiting the private sphere.
Now for a description of the commercial itself. Please note that the voice-over quote is most likely a paraphrase, as I could only find the commercial online en Espanol. To see for yourselves and to have a better basis to disagree with my analysis, here’s a link to the commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCbSCzvMYxY (The sound is off by a few seconds.) And if you don’t want to watch it, I’m going to describe it, anyway. Lucky you.
Two young girls (sisters?) are baking and dancing in the kitchen as a woman and man (one or both of the girls’ parents) go about their daily lives nearby. Theirs is an open floor-plan, so one can assume that the adults are “supervising” from the adjacent breakfast nook or dining room table. Mom’s at the table working on a laptop computer, Dad’s relocating a small houseplant to an undisclosed location. The houseplant is never heard from again. When Dad’s slightly behind Mother, they both look over to the kitchen and smile at the girls who are having so much fun mixing ingredients with dancing.
Because this is a Bounty commercial, a sudden mis-calculated hip-check delivered by older girl to younger sets off a chain reaction, sending a glass flying. Its contents spill neatly across the counter. (Finally, Bounty thinks. I’ve been off-stage for quite long enough, thank you.) Father bends over to look at the mess as Mother walks behind him. Her voice-over says, “My husband? Thinks this is a three-sheeter.” She pauses and smiles at his somewhat befuddled worry, then continues walking to the roll of paper towels, which the older of the two girls has pulled in anticipation of the clean-up. Older girl, presumably taking a cue from Father’s view of the world, offers about three sheets worth.
Not so fast! Mother stops the spinning in the nick of time and cheerfully reprimands this folly, half-wagging her finger and half-using it to indicate that no, they only need one sheet of paper towel. Because Bounty’s just that awesome. Older girl relinquishes the end of the roll to Mother, who winds it back and deftly rips off just one sheet. Then the requisite test: women’s hands do the side-by-side cleaning of Bounty-vs-notBounty paper towels. Cut to Mother cleaning up the mess the girls made with that one sheet. The two girls are seen in the background, talking and smiling in a corner of the kitchen. (Why aren’t they cleaning up their own mess? But that’s another issue.) Mother smiles at the now-clean counter. Thanks, Bounty.
Cut to the happy ending. Older girl carries a now-finished cake of Dr. Seuss proportions over to where the rest of the family stands, ready with a stack of plates and say-cheese smiles. Everyone basks in the ridiculousness of the cake. They are proud. Then the cake implodes, sinking into itself. Four human heads trace its spatial deflation in familial whimsy. Cut to more paper towel vs. kitchen counter action. Take that, spilled fruit punch! BAM: BOUNTY. (don’t forget to try our napkins!)
So, remember up there when I was talking about separate spheres? I sussed that out from that one-line voice over, but a lot of the images and the attitudes that the mother and father characters visually exude back this up. The mother addresses the audience and expects us to identify with her exasperation over her husband’s misguided counting: “three sheets, he thinks—three! Silly man with his man-knowledge…clearly he knows nothing about cleaning with Bounty—am I right, ladies?!!”
It is the woman who is held up as the correct one in this scenario; the adult who has the privileged knowledge about cleaning and cleaning with Bounty in particular. Her authority comes from the fact that she is the woman, the mother: that she inhabits the female role that is relegated to the private sphere, where the household cleaning is done. The mother’s knowledge is situated here in the home—laptop-work notwithstanding—and gendered female, and because the scenario is taking place in this sphere, her female private-sphere situated knowledge is privileged as authoritative.
The husband’s assessment of the situation and the solution it requires is rejected because he, being a man, is not privy to the privately-situated female knowledge about cleaning kitchen counters with Bounty paper towels. Poor man, how could he know—he may be carrying a houseplant, but his knowledge is still mostly male. His male knowledge comes from the public sphere, where there are no kitchen counters to be cleaned. Without getting into second- and third-order indexicality, just trust me when I say that these gendered associations correlate in all directions.
The commercial uses these gendered associations in order to connect with its audience: ladies, don’t you find it hilarious when men don’t know how to economically dispose of waste? Aren’t you happy to be so wise in the ways of housework? Now get back in that kitchen where you belong. Where you are the master of disaster because you are a woman. This conglomeration of gendered stereotypes is harmful to both women and men: it makes a joke of men attempting to take on more traditionally “female” roles, effectively keeping them from mastering housecleaning tasks because the stereotypes assume that, being male, they do not possess the requisite knowledge to clean house effectively. They are laughed away from the merest hint of an attempt to understand the situation of cleaning up a kitchen counter spill. Men are simply no good at this; everyone knows that. (This is where I could go off on a tirade about 90s 3rd-wave feminism that sadly persists today, whose power comes from reinforcing gendered stereotypes with a favor for femaleness instead of maleness, and taking pot-shots at men and their stereotypical male ways. But I will refrain from delving into this issue. For now.)
Back to the gendered assumptions in the Bounty commercial. I’ve discussed why they are harmful to men. These stereotypes are harmful to women because they assume that by virtue of their gender, they are automatically better-equipped to handle crises of the home variety. This effectively relegates them to the role of home-maker, expecting them to know how to cook and clean, etc. To have the knowledge/expertise to do so efficiently, and with the right branded products.
The overall effect of the proliferation of mass-mediated images and other representations that employ gendered stereotypes is that society as a whole loses by forcing everyone into a binary system of gendered roles and expectations. We are capable of so much more! So much more variation if we only allowed ourselves to be open to them… Woe betide the gendered person who tries to cross these lines separating tasks based on gendered spheres: you will become the butt of a joke in a commercial. Or worse yet, the punch-line to joke numbers 1-26 on a sitcom. In America, we still create images that reinforce these gender stereotypes and mass-mediate them, further entrenching them into the social consciousness. Mother knows best when it comes to kitchen messes, and Father is just a helpless bystander to be pitied for his lack of female/private-sphere knowledge. Am I right, ladies?
One of the more long-term projects I’m working on centers around 1930s print advertisements for cars and masculinity. In the process of researching these topics, I hope to test-drive (see what I did there?) some of the ideas these topics inspire on this blog. Additionally, I may occasionally post about things related to these topics that I come across as I move reluctantly through the contemporary minefield of life. While these posts and the research and stumblings from which they come may never yield the extended investigation that I hope for, these posts (some of them centering on the Post) can still hopefully be enjoyed as arbitrary loci from which to radiate out to broader topics and tangents. Today I offer up one of those random posts:
Way back in April (because this blog is nothing if not behind-the-times), the woeful shadow of what used to be The Saturday Evening Post featured an article about America’s national obsession with the automobile. Its author, William Jeanes, proposed that this vehicle “not only displaced the horse and buggy, but changed us in every way possible” (30). This post will review “VROOM! VROOM!: Celebrating America’s 125-year Love Affair with Cars!” and explore some of the issues and themes it touches on. Especially the subtexty ones, ‘cause that’s just how I roll: somewhat unfairly.
The title* of the article immediately sets up the romantic nature of American’s relationship with cars: it’s a “love affair” between people and machines. And not just the physical objects themselves, but the idea of them and all that they represent. Jeanes’ article offers up a small social history of the automobile in America, if not focusing on the time period when it really became ubiquitous, then holding that era up as the moment when things really got good between us and our vehicles. The images overwhelmingly represent the 1950s—five of the nine Post covers it reprints are from the decade, not to mention a few other images.
Speaking of images, let’s talk a little bit about race. The article offers up several old pictures and previous covers from the Post to illustrate “the impact of the automobile on American culture” and the glamour of life with automobiles (35). And that glamour is white. In fact, all of the images offered up on a platter of nostalgia are of white people. The erasure of all other American peoples is staggering when you think about it, especially since they drove cars, too. But the imagined audience of the front-pages of magazines and car advertisements was hardly ever a marked category of people: it was usually upper-middle-class whites.
All right, all right. Back to what Jeanes thinks he’s doing in this article: giving us a nice narrative of how widespread automobile adoption changed Americans’ everyday lives. He gives the example of mobility: one can simply go farther, faster in a car than by horse—the alternative as far as personal vehicles went. He hyperbolically argues that the car “freed every American from the tyranny of geography and the loneliness of isolation” (30). Good, safe, interesting point in a narrative that is cozy and familiar even if we haven’t specifically heard it before. It just jives with common sense, right? So far so good. (Except maybe the “every American” assertion, as obviously not every people could or can afford to own a car.) Jeanes takes his readers to Europe in the late 1800s to remind them that no, Henry Ford didn’t invent the car, he just made it crap-tastic and mass-produceable by adopting Taylorism. That’s right, he didn’t really invent the assembly line, either. Come back when you’re done crying in your corner of smashed illusions and we’ll go back to dissecting the minutiae of Jeanes’ article, rather than widely held grand-history notions.
Right. So gender. The women in this article don’t have names–they are stand-ins for their sex, held up as a novelty in a world where cars have become inextricably intertwined and associated with (notions of) masculinity and the male sex. The fact that it was a woman who invented windshield wipers is touted as a grand achievement and little-known fact. Well, lookie here, this little lady’s gone and rigged up a device to fit on an automobile. A thing like that! Are we supposed to congratulate the author on being so magnanimous as to include the contributions of non-males in this automobile narrative? When he couldn’t even bother to look up their names? Women in Jeanes’ American automobile narrative are treated as an anomaly: a fluke. When of course, women have always been involved in all things automotive. Not in as high numbers on the development and production end, perhaps, but certainly as consumers and drivers of cars. Not to mention livers in a world with cars, and thinkers about cars and their meanings and everyday practical uses.
From a marketing angle, women were used to sell cars in advertisements almost from the beginning of the rise of print advertisements in the 1920s–and not just as sexy meat to dangle next to the chrome bodies. No, images of women were positioned as savvy consumers making evaluations of the various accoutremonts of this or that model. I should perhaps be fair: Jeanes is, after all, writing for a magazine intended for a mass middle-class audience. It is perfectly natural of him to go for the safer narrative, just throwing in a few details framed as surprises amongst the flat humor and expected mentions of Benz and Ford. All right, that’s enough niceness for now.
Jeanes, positioned as he is in contemporary society, looks back and assumes the same conflation of sex and gender that exists now, as well as the association of men with production and women with consumption. But the interesting thing is that men are also imagined to be the consumers when it comes to cars, rather than the standard woman. In fact, men are perhaps most often imagined as consumers in the context of automobile-buying and car advertisements. This complicates the tired dichotomies of men/women; producer/consumer. What’s with that? Why is it cars that messes up the normative intersection of these two false dichotomies? (Questions I hope to find answers to with further research and conversations with other interested parties.)
Back to the article, Jeanes takes us from Germany back to America, where Ford has just trotted out the Quadricycle. I. Want. One. How awesome is that name? !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ahem. Excuse me. So, we stick with Ford for a bit, get introduced as expected to the Model T, and are fed some statistics about how quickly and completely they dominated the market in the ‘teens and ‘twenties. Then comes a section about automobile manufacturing as a locus of one-ups-manship. Cars became tools for racing and record-setting almost immediately. Jeanes insists this is human nature, and I won’t take the time to quibble because that would just devolve into a one-sided shouting match. Institutions such as the Italian Grand Prix are introduced, and Jeanes continues on his narrative of progress: of course cars got “better.” (Better meaning faster.)
Then the author turns to infrastructure. The automobile, like all mass-adopted transportation innovations, significantly altered the landscape of transportation. More people buying and using cars created a higher demand for surfaces that were easier to drive upon. Hello, system of roads and highways! See ya, railroad tracks. Jeanes touches on some interesting points: that municipal and federal governments as well as corporate interests and wealthy individuals looking to make names for themselves in addition to butt-loads of cash (such as Goodyear and the owner of Packard) would be wise to collaborate on these new systems of roads. This really was a national project: the transformation of America into a culture of car-drivers and riders. Planning began in the late 1930s and the building really got going in the 50s—which fits with the accepted narrative that the 1950s was the golden age of automobiles in America.
As Jeanes moves from infrastructure back to the machines themselves, he touches on gender once again. He notes that before 1911, most cars had to be started by turning a crank, but then the electric starter was introduced, meaning that “now even small women and little boys could operate an automobile” (33). Before, they were physically associated only with men and big, strong women. Perhaps this is one reason why cars have from very early on in their history been tied with men in the American imagination. Then again, “in 1924 alone, women inventors came up with 173 devices for automobiles” (33). So where does this leave the gendering of cars? Obviously there were many female contributions to the machines themselves, not to mention the use of female images to advertise cars. And yet the dominant gendered association has been male. The author falls back on this when he mentions the tailfin trend of the late forties and fifties, calling the invention of these decorative body-additions “a ‘mine are bigger than yours’ styling war” (34). But maybe that is my fault for interpreting that type of contest as primarily male. Shit, I’m as guilty as Jeanes!
Maybe. Jeanes repeatedly says that it is America as a whole (with all it’s component male and female parts) that has had this long-lasting love affair with the car—but his underlying emphasis on the “natural” association between cars and masculinity suggests otherwise. As I mentioned, women in this article are treated as a surprise—why, what are you doing here? In spite of the fact that the majority of images included in the article are female-dominated, Jeanes’ narrative assumes the male as the subject, framing the inclusion of women players as something to take note of. There is no need to set up mens’ parts in the development of cars as something special—it is merely assumed that their involvement would be natural.
It is men who are tied to the history of the car, and women are thrown in as an afterthought, when they are allowed written space at all. Jeanes decides that the Ford Mustang was a boon to men going through a midlife crisis (34). What about women going through a midlife crisis? Do cars not mean as much to them? Are cars a symbol of only male youth and virility? Why is that? When did this association take hold? Jeanes’ article, as it is a short survey of the history of cars in America, can’t be expected to answer this. But it sure does confirm the need to find out, as he relies so heavily on these tropes and assumptions that both overtly and covertly tie men and masculinity to automobiles.
*Jeanes, William “Celebrating America’s 125-Year Love Affair with Cars: How the Automobile—once reviled as a smoke-belching, unreliable creation—not only displaced the horse and buggy, but changed us in every way possible” May/June 2011: 30-35