Tag Archives: gender trouble

Performing Togetherness: Sartorial Coordination at School Dances

In an effort to procrastinate on the promised treatment of that dog book, I’ve decided to take a little time to dissect another youthful phenomenon. Today it’s not cheap-ass broken friendship hearts, however. No, this topic is even more worthy of copious eye-rolling and the activation of gag-reflexes. I’m talking about high school students who go to dances together wearing matching outfits.

I’m almost nauseated thinking back on it now–realizing the implications. The market-place/political economy of securing a date for the dance, and being able to identify them as your date with visual cues. Cultural capital made materially concrete through dress. The (gendered?) performance of mutual ownership…turning “relationships” into a parody of themselves. I am ashamed to have actually participated in such displays. (Although I am rather proud for having once done it by wearing a “mens” shirt. Take that, gendered expectations!)

The tradition of dates wearing similarly colored clothing (or a corsage/boutonniere) to dances all seems to boil down to a social performance of togetherness and mutual ownership. Making visually obvious the fact that these two people came to this dance with one another. It “marks” your date as yours. This performance is so that others recognize these two people as being together–if only for the evening. I wonder at what point this matching is for the couple themselves…the chance to recognize themselves in the other and vice versa via the very obvious medium of clothing (a representation or manifestation of their inner emotional connection, if you will)…and at what point it becomes more about the outward appearance of togetherness. My guess is that this phenomenon is heavily weighted toward the latter. It’s mostly about the public’s perception of two people as a couple. The assumption that two people are receiving recognition of their togetherness is made salient in the very performance of this sartorial togetherness. TOGETHERNESS!!! (must. find. synonym.) Ahem.

One aspect of this phenomenon that bears discussion is the fact that all these school-sanctioned social functions are in an effort to play at adulthood. As one of my more arrogant professors smugly loved “revealing” to us, the Prom is in many ways a practice wedding. But these dances-as-social-spaces encourage couples to perform adulthood to a cartoonish degree. What real adult couples make a conscious, agonizing effort to match their wardrobes at social functions? (Irritating ones.) Sometimes this type of couples-dressing is sanctioned, but it’s all about context. Perhaps the most “allowable” social occasion is that of Halloween, but even then adults who match one another can be a bit much. Especially those who are romantically involved. Okay. We get it. You’re together. Enough already. But if we take high school dances as opportunities for young adults to “practice” being actual adults, it seems odd that they perform imagined adulthood to such a hyperbolic degree. Maybe you have to over-do it before you can do it, do it. (Control yourselves.)

The other adult social context in which sartorial coordination is sanctioned, even encouraged, is the wedding. This is the ultimate ritualized performance of couple-dom in our culture, and wedding parties often don similar colors, if not identical outfits. This, it need not be noted, is a special occasion. As is the school dance (albeit a more frequent one). If school dances are a shadow of the ultimate couple ritual, then matching the colors in one’s outfits makes a certain amount of sense. This is, after all, playing at being recognized as being together: practice for the ritual where you perform your together-forever-ness in front of your sacred social circle.

So the color-coordination teenagers endure can be accounted for quite easily. What I cannot fathom an explanation for is why the matchy-matchy gets so overblown at Sade Hawkins dances in particular. Is there a worry that because the girl asked the boy, it won’t be pheromonically obvious that they are together? (That’s stupid and I would never argue that.) The most I can work out is that it somehow off-sets (or complements) the relative informality of the dance. The fact that the girl is supposed to ask the guy, that the traditional gender roles are reversed, seems to be a mere correlation. Why would a switch of gender hierarchy entail the hyper-matching of clothing? Couples often literally wear the same thing, rather than simply matching color-schemes. At the Sadie Hawkins dance, there’s no mistaking who asked whom. It’s an aggressive sign of mutual ownership, commemorated forever in an embarrassing photo in front of a cheesy, themed backdrop. But exactly why the hyper-matching occurs at the informal Sadie Hawkins dance is a mystery to me. So if anyone wants to venture a theory that helps explain why this happens, I’d love to hear it.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary

Meta-Topic: Animals

Perhaps this should have been posted from the get-go. Come to think of it, there should have been a little series of these “what-to-expect-categorically” posts, in order to orient the focus of this blog. But whatever. It’s happening now.

One of the main topics this blog explores (or will come to explore in more depth as it continues) is that of non-human animals in culture. This is broad, obviously, so it might be good to lay out in general terms what posts under this category might deal with in the future. The theoretical orientations and analytic tendencies will be mainly anthropological, and a little radical in cases where I become un-tethered to scholarly moorings. (Yes, we’re doing nautical metaphors, now. Animals can go on ships, too. Just roll with those waves and sail on.)

People incorporate other animals into their lives to different degrees in various ways. So too, cultures as a whole. This happens on different levels, such as discursive, physical interaction, and broad mental categorizations that can become verbally rationalized when the topic comes up. I hope to have several different series in the future that use non-human animals as their center to explore various culture issues–as well as topics that focus on animal-human relationships specifically. Indeed, there are many avenues to explore, and I just hope these forays into fauna will be as interesting for readers as they are for this writer to think about.

One can explore the tendency to personify or give human qualities to nonhuman animals–especially for use in allegories and literature in general. But this also happens everyday when people talk about animals. Or talk for them.

Another main topic I’d like to explore as this blog continues is the ways in which consumer culture uses various animals to sell things. Closely related is the use of animal imagery or culturally constructed characteristics identified with certain nonhuman animals and how they are used to signify various things. Semiotics for everyone!

Nonhuman animals can be implicated in political discourse, used to embody gender norms, symbolize anything you can think of, and deployed as terms of abuse (thank you, Edmund Leach). They are everywhere and nowhere, and we can even look at issues of agency (see the last post and a particularly good comment from the author of Instruct/Deconstruct). They are differentially valued, thought about, and interacted with based on a complex system of categories enacted daily in cultural practice, and no one animal means the same thing in two situations, for two people, in two cultures. I could go on about this for days, so perhaps I should just end by saying that if you like thinking about animals, stay tuned…

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Filed under Animals, Meta

Heineken attempts to insult women less, fails

The Heineken beer company somewhat recently (let’s say in the last few months, with increased air time during the holidays) began airing a commercial in the U.S. During this commercial, a young man successfully wins the favor of a young woman by ever-so-graciously offering to dance with what appears to be her older female relative. Soon after it aired, a word was changed in the commercial’s voice-over. Both versions begin with the unseen male narrator saying the following [disclaimer: I could not find a clip online, so this probably part-paraphrase]:

This is a jungle…disguised as a wedding. In it, there are two kinds of tigers.

As we hear the narrator’s monotonously baritone, semi-disinterested voice, we see a lively tent filled with people of all ages in fancy dress. There is music and drinking and general revelry, and it seems as though this party has been in full swing for a while. The camera follows a young man as he weaves through the crowd, his eyes on a particular young woman sitting at a round table.

It is the Unseen Narrator’s next utterance (he is the only one we hear throughout) that contains the word-change. As far as I can tell, the images we see on the screen do not change from one version of the commercial to the next. As Unseen Narrator says this next sentence, we see another young man approach the young woman that initial guy has his eye on. He offers her a drink and she dismisses him. Initial guy smiles and heads in for what may appropriately be described as “the kill” in this jungle-wedding universe, under the simultaneous cloaks of night, chivalry, and erected wedding tent. As all this goes before us, Unseen Narrator continues his interpretation of the scene, uttering the sentence under scrutiny:

One, who goes straight for the prey...” (at this point Inferior Tiger is being dismissed by the young woman)

“…and the other, who lets the prey come to him.”

At this point, Tiger #1 (initial guy who has crossed the wilds of the tent to reach his young female target) places two bottles of Heineken (what, you were expecting domestic?!!) on the table and invites her older female relative to dance. Young Virile Woman melts into a surprised and grateful grin, eyes ablaze in admiration. On the way to the dance floor, or possibly while engaged in semi-tandem movement that defies description, Tiger #1 steals a triumphant smile back to/at his prey. And everyone presumably lived happily ever after with Amsterdam-crafted beer (except granny/auntie, who may have eaten it mid- poorly-executed spin).

Allow me a melodramatic eye-roll. Now, I am not the only one who could (and seemingly did) rant about this commercial as it originally appeared. But I’d rather rant about both versions and the change that took place and its implications. The fact that there are two versions, the second quietly replacing the first, points to the complex conceptions that Heineken, its marketing division, its advertising firm, and American viewers have of gender relations, and the politics of negotiating them. What I find to be most interesting about this commercial is that at one point early into its run, the word “prey” was unceremoniously changed to “prize.” Same invisible, disinterested-yet-amused male narrator interpreting the scene for us. Same lovely images. Different word. But, I would argue, very similar meaning, however well it may have placated those who raised the initial fuss. Allow me to deconstruct:

In the second version (single woman=“prize”), we’re not longer just in the jungle. We’re now at a jousting match or something…in the jungle wedding. Young, attractive women are objects and goals rather than targets for mauling and eating. Great. The underlying conception of young, virile, single, conventionally attractive women remains fairly consistent. In the meantime, men are still tigers–active and in pursuit of said Young Virile Woman. In both versions, women are passive sheep over whose eyes wool may be pulled so as to get into their cotton pants. (Apologies for implosion of that half-woven textile metaphor back there.) Women remain goals in an elaborate game during which men are the players, and these men must reach these goals not directly—which would be a far too simple and inferior method, one for the inexperienced losers–but via an elaborate route that panders to the gendered goals’ uncontrollable emotions and affections toward older relatives. Relatives for whom they may feel responsible. With all of this firmly in place, how can Young Virile Woman react with anything but: Oh my stars–you’ve so graciously asked my grandma/great-aunt Norma to dance with no hidden agenda! I may swoon! What a gentleman! You must see in her the awesomeness that I do! Oh, I do! I do! After this dance, let’s ditch her, down these overpriced beers, and go fuck in the coat closet.

To be clear, this is a “reading” of the commercial for tropes and implicit meanings. I have no idea how these were produced, what the intended meanings were, what decisions were made and when, etc. All I know is that two versions were made and aired, and that one word was changed. This indicates that there were complaints to and/or a change of interpretation on the part of the company. I have no insider information, just common cultural background and vocabulary, each of which can be mined and deconstructed for meaning within particular contexts. We all (meaning primarily TV watchers in the U.S.) know the tropes, and it’s my pleasure to unearth all of them and their many sometimes-harmful implications.

Related to the idea that we share certain socio-cultural knowledge is the argument that since this is a commercial, it is designed to appeal to a certain segment of the population–hopefully a wide one–that will buy this product and increase Heineken’s profit margins. Thus, it panders to shared socio-cultural categories. That this commercial is merely reflecting back those very images and tropes and gender roles that the general U.S. population is perceived by Heineken and its marketing partners to identify with, understand and approve of. (For a great dissection of the American advertising industry and its practices, check out Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream. I’ll try to review this fully in a different post.)

These commercials and the one-word difference between them could be upheld as an acceptable version of how the TV-watching public is thought to be comfortable with presentations of courtship, masculinity, and femininity. Women are prey while men are predators, and in the ostensibly more-PC version of hegemonic gender roles, women are prizes while men are winners. The male change of gendered role is much less negative: in the first version men are portrayed as the inverse of prey: the predatory tiger. The category of predator is a negatively charged one in U.S. culture, so changing the Tiger from a predator to a sort of knight/winner is a more positively conceived cultural category that further serves to place the audience on his side. This also implicates the watchers of the commercial in the male gaze, partially erasing it from the viewer’s consciousness.

While the dichotomous gender roles are placed in different guises/categories, both versions of this highly gendered commercial put forth the idea that women don’t want to be approached directly, as equals, as people, as fellow tigers. Rather, they want to be lured under false pretenses. They want to be made to do the work–to walk right into the tiger’s den. They want to be duped like the clueless prey/prizes they are. Thanks, male gaze.

In both versions, the young, conventionally attractive female is the passive object of both tigers’ active intentions. Also in both cases, the older family member woman is used. She is a pawn in this risky game of jungle chess. And yet she is a grateful pawn–delighted at being part of the game/chase at all. She is portrayed as blindly grateful to be the ostensible object of the young tiger’s honorable attentions. Both females are powerless to resist his clever ruse. No, this Tiger #1 fellow is the winner. And both seem happy about it.

Side-gripe: why is Granny/Great-aunt Norma not the prize? That’s ageist! Plus it points back to the whole virile-young-thang category that Young Virile Woman, who is under constant pursuit by the relentless tiger knights, has been thrust in, sans personal agency. (Thanks again, male gaze.) Besides, Granny/Great-aunt Norma’s gonna have a hell of a lot more interesting things to talk about, and many more years to draw on. (Okay, well maybe just in my opinion.) And even though she is but a barely-tolerated stop on the circuitous journey to the prize, Great-aunt Norma is likewise cast in a passive, somewhat dim-witted role here. As a woman, she, too, is unable to see—or perhaps expects or even enjoys—this ridiculously complicated and misogynistic courtship ritual.

This brings me to another point I’d like to go back to: why must there be all this deception? It’s presented as more noble for a young man to approach a young woman via the guise of taking interest in her older relatives than it is to approach her directly. Even as the Unseen Narrator seems to be sharing a secret with the audience via his interpretation of the events that unfold, he does it with a wink: we recognize both the situation and its deconstruction/metaphorization. It’s presented as normal and expected that people play these games; as if that were the Right and Honorable way of going about meeting people you want to bang and courting them.

Now, it is true that we the audience have no idea what Inferior Tiger said to Young Virile Woman. Maybe he was a total cad. But we don’t get that information. All we are shown is how each tiger chose to actively pursue this passive prey/prize. And to tie this in with the above discussion of ageism, why must talking to the relatives of young women you want to bang always be about “getting-in-good” with them and their clan? That inherently cheapens whatever activity you’re doing with said relatives, which with a little reflection on the parts of both Young Virile Woman and Great-Aunt Norma, rather undermines your whole agenda, Tiger. (Not that either woman is allowed the possibility to deconstruct along with the Unseen Narrator and his audience minions, slave to the male gaze beer googles he so cunningly places over their eyes.)

Finally, the second version is arguably worse than the first with regards to its implications, as the “prize,” of course, is sexy fun times with Young Virile Woman. Maybe a relationship, but let’s not kid ourselves. If, like Inferior Tiger who was too forward, Tiger #1 has just noticed her across the crowded tent (in his pants–hey-oh!) then this is no West Side Story. Tiger #1 wants to bang her (all right, so did Romeo/Tony). Maybe that’ll be the first step in getting to know her better as a person, but in the champange-and-Heineken hazed hangover morning, they’ll both probably just shake hands awkwardly and go to their respective homes. Sure, Disinterested Unseen Narrator assures us that Young Virile Woman is ostensibly the “prey/prize,” but are we really going to let a beer-goggled-brewery and its invisible male spokesperson convince us that there is love and first sight? Gag me with a green glass bottle. This is an ad, after all–it’s all a gorgeous, and some might argue delicious, lie.


Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay