Archive for the ‘Feminism Friday’ Category

I’ve been taking a course over the summer in gay and lesbian studies. I’ve recently submitted a couple of article review assignments. I thought since I’m not writing much else these days that I would share them with you here over the next couple days, and see what discussion might be generated. so without further ado, here’s the first one:

The article I chose to review for this assignment was a chapter from Kate Bornstein’s book, Gender Outlaw, entitled “Naming All the Parts” (Bornstein, 1995). I chose this article because I wanted to review something specifically written about transsexuality and how it relates to both gender and sexual orientation. I will first discuss the main themes of the piece in detail, then particular issues that were raised for me, and finally how the essay contributes to discussion of LGBT issues.

The main themes of Bornstein’s essay have to do with the relation of gender to desire and sexuality. Bornstein, a male to female transsexual, sees gender as an entirely socially constructed system of classification: “Gender means class” (Bornstein, 1995: 21). She argues in this piece that gender as a system must be deconstructed and done away with completely (Bornstein, 1995: 21).

Bornstein discusses how gender functions in society, and where it comes from. She begins by discussing gender assignment, which she states is performed at birth in this culture (North American, western, contemporary), generally by medical doctors, “which shows you how emphatically gender has been medicalized” (Bornstein, 1995: 22). She argues that gender assignment in this culture is performed on the basis of whether or not the child in question has a penis: “It [gender assignment] has little or nothing to do with vaginas. It’s all penises or no penises: gender assignment is both phallocentric and genital” (Bornstein, 1995: 22). Bornstein briefly discusses how other cultures assign gender, showing that the way gender is assigned in this culture is not related to anything “natural” or biological, but rather is a social construct (Bornstein, 1995: 22).

Bornstein writes further on the false notion that gender is biologically based: “It’s biological gender that most folks refer to when they say sex. By calling something ‘sex,’ we grant it superiority over all the other types of gender” (Bornstein, 1995: 30). Here, Bornstein argues that biology isn’t necessarily the most important thing when talking about gender, but that by emphasizing biology, we do just that, thereby marginalizing alternative conceptions and experiences of gender. She goes on to write about the problematic ideology of gender as “natural.” Bornstein writes, “Gender is assumed by many to be ‘natural’; that is, someone can feel ‘like a man’ or ‘like a woman’” (Bornstein, 1995: 24). This is not something she experienced, however, or what drove her own transformation from male to female. Bornstein writes, from her own personal perspective, “I’ve no idea what ‘a woman’ feels like. I never did feel like a girl or a woman; rather, it was my unshakable conviction that I was not a boy or a man. It was the absence of a feeling, rather than its presence, that convinced me to change my gender” (Bornstein, 1995: 24). She argues that the belief in the naturalness of gender “is in fact a belief in the supremacy of the body in the determination of identity” (Bornstein, 1995: 30).

Bornstein advocates doing away with the gender system altogether. She does, however, acknowledge that this raises the question, “if gender is classification, can we afford to throw away the very basic right to classify ourselves?” (Bornstein, 1995: 24). Gender is an identity as well as a classification, a way to belong (Bornstein, 1995: 24). This can certainly be oppressive. Bornstein writes, “In this culture, the only two sanctioned gender clubs are ‘men’ and ‘women’. If you don’t belong to one or the other, you’re told in no uncertain terms to sign up fast” (Bornstein, 1995: 34). However, gender is not just something that is thrust upon us – it is also something we can claim for ourselves.

Bornstein next discusses gender roles, claiming that these teach a person how to function so that others perceive him/her as belonging to a specific gender (Bornstein, 1995: 26). She writes, “Gender roles, when followed, send signals of membership in a given gender” (Bornstein, 1995: 26). Directly related to gender roles, which send out signals as to which gender one belongs, is gender attribution, which happens (for the most part automatically) when we look at a person and attribute a gender to them (Bornstein, 1995: 26). This is important because it affects the way we relate to others (Bornstein, 1995: 26). Gender attribution relies on gendered cues, which we are obligated to give in ways that are clear enough to be perceived by others. These cues include physical cues (hair, body, voice, clothes), behavioural cues (manners, decorum, deportment), textual cues (such as personal history, documentation, and names that support the attribution), mythic cues (cultural myths that support gender attribution, such as ‘weaker sex’, ‘emotional female’, ‘strong male’), and power dynamics (ways of communicating, aggressiveness/assertiveness, persistence, ambition) (Bornstein, 1995: 26-29). Bornstein points out, “In this culture, gender attribution, like gender assignment, is phallocentric. That is, one is male until perceived otherwise” (Bornstein, 1995: 26). A study Bornstein cites found that “it would take the presence of roughly four female cues to outweigh the presence of one male cue” (Bornstein, 1995: 26). Bornstein also includes sexual orientation as a gender cue (Bornstein, 1995: 29).

Bornstein tells about her own struggle with learning feminine cues in order to pass as a woman during her process of “becoming” a woman. Successful “passing” meant that others attributed a female gender to Bornstein (Bornstein, 1995: 27). Many such feminine cues can be seen as harmful to women. She writes, “It wasn’t ‘til I began to read feminist literature that I began to question these cues or see them as oppressive” (Bornstein, 1995: 28).

Bornstein discusses the problematic conflation of biological sex and gender in our society (Bornstein, 1995: 31). This conflation leads to another conflation – that of gender with sex (the act). She points out that gender isn’t the only thing that is confused with sex in this culture – “we’re encouraged to equate sex (the act) with money, success, and security; and with the products we’re told will help us” attain these things (Bornstein, 1995: 31). Bornstein asserts that “it’s important to keep gender and sex separated as, respectively, system and function” (Bornstein, 1995: 31).

Bornstein goes on to discuss sexual orientation/preference as a factor in both sex and gender (Bornstein, 1995: 32). She quotes Murray S. Davis as saying that “the gender component of identity is the most important one articulated during sex. Nearly everyone (except for bisexuals, perhaps) regard it as the prime criterion for choosing a sex partner” (Davis, in Bornstein, 1995: 32). Bornstein argues that sexual orientation/preference is solely determined by the gender of one’s partner, and that sexual desire is meant to fit into one of only a short list of models: heterosexual, gay male, lesbian, or bisexual (Bornstein, 1995: 32).

Bornstein discusses variants on these gender-based relationships, such as heterosexual female with gay male, gay male with lesbian female, lesbian female with heterosexual female, gay male with bisexual male , etc. (Bornstein, 1995: 33). These variants each “forms its own clearly recognizable dynamic, and none of these are acknowledged by the dominant cultural binary” of heterosexual/homosexual (Bornstein, 1995: 33). Furthermore, all of these models, and their variants, depend on the gender of both participants. This is problematic because it “results in minimizing, if not completely dismissing, other dynamic models of a relationship which could be more important than gender and are often more telling about the real nature of someone’s desire” (Bornstein, 1995: 33). Some of these other dynamic models include butch/femme, top/bottom, reproductive models, multiple-partner models, monogamous models, and non-monogamous models (Bornstein, 1995: 33-34).

Moreover, Bornstein argues that “there are plenty of instances in which sexual attraction can have absolutely nothing to do with the gender of one’s partner” (Bornstein, 1995: 35). For instance, Bornstein suggests that sexual preference could be based on sex acts rather than on the gender of one’s partner (Bornstein, 1995: 36), because sex acts don’t have to be heterosexual or homosexual (Bornstein, 1995: 37). For example, Bornstein gives a very elaborate code by which participants use coloured handkerchiefs worn on either the left or right side of the body that indicate their preference for particular sex acts, and whether they prefer to play a top or bottom role in such acts (Bornstein, 1995: 37). Here, the gender of the partners is less important than their willingness to participate in particular sex acts in particular ways.

Nevertheless, our culture is one that does conflate sex and gender, and codifies sexual preference along these lines – which results in lumping together very different subcultures into one catch-all category that is binaurally opposed to the dominant sexual culture, heterosexuality (Bornstein, 1995: 37). Bornstein writes,

A dominant culture tends to combine its subcultures into manageable units. As a result, those who practice non-traditional sex are seen by members of the dominant culture (as well as by members of sex and gender subcultures) as a whole with those who don non-traditional gender roles and identities. (Bornstein, 1997: 38)

Bornstein writes that people are still attracted to her, despite not having a clear-cut gender identity (Bornstein, 1995: 38). She goes on to say that this made her feel nervous at first, as she thought, “What kind of pervert… would be attracted to a freak like me?” (Bornstein, 1995: 38) She identified this fear as internalized phobia about her transsexualism; however, she says she still doesn’t know how to respond to a man’s attraction to her (Bornstein is a lesbian) (Bornstein, 1995: 38-39).

Bornstein finishes her essay with a discussion of desire and how it relates to gender. She writes, “Given that most romantic or sexual involvements in this culture are defined by the genders of the partners, the most appropriate identity to have in a romantic relationship would be a gender identity or something that passes for gender identity, like a gender role” (Bornstein, 1995: 39). Even without a gender identity, with something like a gender role, we can still navigate the waters of sexual relationships. Gender is, Bornstein argues, an identity that can be used to manipulate desire (Bornstein, 1995: 40).

Whenever Bornstein advocates the dissolution of gender altogether, the objection is raised that without gender, how can there be desire? (Bornstein, 1995: 38) Bornstein acknowledges that this culture is one that is “obsessed with desire: it drives our economy… No wonder I get panicked reactions from audiences when I suggest we eliminate gender as a system; gender defines our desire, and we don’t know what to do if we don’t have desire” (Bornstein, 1995: 40). She goes on to write, in perhaps the most important insight of the essay, “Perhaps the more importance a culture places on desire, the more conflated become the concepts of sex and gender” (Bornstein, 1995: 40).

However, this conflation is ultimately limiting, says Bornstein. By having these gender identities to rely on in our personal journeys, we are prevented from examining our preferences and identities more fully:

If we buy into categories of sexual orientation based solely on gender – heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual – we’re cheating ourselves of a searching examination of our real sexual preferences. In the same fashion, by subscribing to the categories of gender based solely on the male/female binary, we cheat ourselves of a searching examination of our real gender identity. (Bornstein, 1995: 38)

Bornstein’s essay raises a number of excellent points and issues for me. Firstly, the relationship between gender and sexual desire was intriguing. Certainly, it seems true that the primary criterion for the vast majority of people in choosing a sexual partner is that person’s gender in relation to their own. I appreciated Bornstein’s discussion of other ways to define sexual desire, like by preference for sex acts, as well as her encouragement for us all to examine how desire functions in our sexual lives outside of gender. In light of this idea, it seems right that Bornstein should advocate the dissolution of gender as a system.

However, doing so seems like a dangerous and frightening thing. As Bornstein says, gender is a kind of identity. The right to determine our own identities without punishment is, I think, much more important than eliminating the options available to us for self-definition. It’s the forced nature of gender as a system of classification, the rigidity of that classification once it’s been determined, and the binary of male/female that is problematic. There is nothing wrong with being a “man” or a “woman” – what is wrong is the unequal valuing of those identities and the subsequent oppression of both all the members of one of the binary options and everyone who doesn’t fall into either of the options.

The other major issue raised for me by Bornstein’s article is regarding the nature of desire. I thought a lot about LGBT politics and the fight for equal rights within that community, and the debate about why queer people are queer – is one born queer, or does one choose to be queer? For so long, and still in some circles, the belief is very clear that people are born queer. Saying that you’re born queer is a biologically essentialist argument, but it can carry some weight politically – as a society, we have decided (at least rhetorically) that it isn’t ethical to punish or discriminate against people because of something that they’re born into, that they cannot help. Of course, this kind of discrimination happens all the time against people for things they cannot help: sexism, racism, ableism, to name a few. But rhetorically, we have a notion of human rights that stands most definitely against such discrimination, and it is considered unethical. However, biological essentialism in any form is problematic.

I don’t necessarily believe that we choose our sexual preferences. I think it is far more complex than that, because I am inclined to believe that our sexual identities are socially constructed and it is not without a good deal of self-examination that we can break free of compulsory heterosexuality. But yet, I think a discourse of freedom of choice is a far more tenable position from which to argue for LGBT rights. It is unethical to discriminate against others because of the choices they make (within limits, of course, such as not hurting others and obtaining consent). People make choices all the time that are protected by law. Why should sexual preferences be any different? So what if someone “chooses” to be queer? Why should that “choice” be any less valid than the “choice” to be straight?

In conclusion, I think Bornstein’s writing is very important to discussions of LGBT issues. Hearing from people who experience transsexuality is vitally important to furthering understanding of trans issues, and to furthering political solidarity among gender-marginalized groups. Finally, because her writing is so personal, it encourages us to examine our own gendered experiences. The personal is, indeed, political.


Bornstein, Kate (1995). “Naming All the Parts” in Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York: Vintage Books. 21-40

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by Thinking Girl

As you know, I’ve been getting some anti-feminist trolls around these parts. It’s been going on for some time now. First, it started as challenges to the ideas I presented in posts, mainly from men who believed in some sort of biological essentialism and felt that differences between men and women were enough to justify widespread social oppression against half the population, or from men who believe that men are oppressed by patriarchy and women are in fact privileged by femininity, or from men who are anti-choice and want to force women to continue and complete pregnancies that they do not want.

Then, I wrote about PUAs. and the heavy trolling really began. I can’t even pick out all the examples of men wanting a male perspective to be put forward, because there’s not enough of THAT enshrined in cultural discourse, from men telling women and especially feminists what to do to land a man/end women’s oppression/forget about their troubles, from men demanding to be spoonfed feminist theory, from men who think it’s really women who have the upper hand and don’t believe in women’s oppression, from men who have called me and other feminists stupid for putting forth ideas they just don’t comprehend, and so on and so on. I responded a bit to these general comments here, here, here and here.

Then came the really really bad stuff. It’s nice that the death threats against all feminists have stopped coming.

Now we’re back to the “you’re not really oppressed, you have no idea what oppression really is, you hateful feminist bitch.” And another one from the comment moderation pile that is just waiting for a lancing from me.

My blog buddy Geo wrote to me about these trolls. Geo is one of the nicest friends I’ve met on the internets. He is very compassionate, and very very wise. He is concerned that this is getting to me, and that my energies are being diverted away from A) my work and B) my well-being. I don’t disagree. He’s also concerned that responding to trolls in anger only A) adds fuel to their fire by letting them see that they’ve pissed me off, and B) alienates potential allies. I don’t disagree with that, either. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Geo wrote to me, and here’s what I came up with.

I think the thing with trolls is that they want to get your attention, they want to make you upset, and they want to control you in some way. However, what they don’t realize is that they betray themselves in their comments. They betray just how threatened they are by what is going on with feminist work, how their paranoia plays out in a defense of their privilege and power. These guys are freaked out, scared by the shifting cultural discourse of rights for marginalized peoples. This scares them because they experience the world as basically satisfactory. They don’t really want the social order to change. They want to maintain their power structures that keep them on top, while simultaneously covering them up in libertarian rhetoric.

And so, I think it is a very good thing to expose this weakness, this fundamental weakness in the minds and hearts and ultimately in the power of these guys who troll around feminist sites leaving hateful comments – by the way, you don’t see me doing that with MRA , PUA, white supremacist sites. I also think that this doing this, exposing the weakness and hatefulness might be helpful in showing potential allies how far these people are willing to take things, and just what kind of shit we’re up against. I don’t plan on doing this a lot, but I think it might be helpful and instructive to every now and then publish one of these hateful comments, and point out its weaknesses, to build solidarity with those who are supportive of true equality. So, while I absolutely want to create a safe space here for women, feminists, feminist allies, and myself, I also do want to let folks see exactly what kind of hateful bullshit is being directed at women. By exposing this, I hope to shine a light on just how threatened these misogynists are by what we are doing, and that in itself is a positive thing.

So, in that spirit, here’s the latest bilious venom being thrown my way:

You are an idiot | IP:

You will get to 30, and realize that you “want” children, but no man will have you because of your man hating attitude, you will either have to defraud them by tricking them into getting you pregnant, (which isn’t punished as it should be because of screaming feminists like you) But you’ll claim, it’s “your” baby and it’s “your” right to have one. Or you could take the right road now, denounce the parasitic entity on our society that is feminism, and have a remote possibility of a family. Or you could get some cats.

The crazy old cat lady.

Remember, Men are not the enemy, feminist leaders are. Don’t worry, the Mens movement is getting stronger by the day, thanks to the same freedom which allows you to post this uninformed drivel, allows us to build our network.

One day you will see a million Man march, burning wallets as a symbol of the oppression Men suffer at the hands of ever demanding Women. We will demand Male birth control pills, after all it’s OUR body. We don’t have a choice to NOT become a father, yet Women at any time, even two weeks after birth can choose not to be a Mother. We want that freedom, and we will fight for it.

You keep going on doing what you’ve been doing, adding more heat to the pressure cooker of Mens rights, and when the time is right, BOOM, it will be unleashed with a fury that will make the feminist movement seem insignificant.

Dear idiot,

you’re pretty funny! boy, did that give me a chuckle.

Actually, I’m almost 31, and guess what? that ol’ biological clock STILL hasn’t kicked in. Maybe mine is broken? or maybe it’s just a social construct based on patriarchal power structures the goal of which is to oppress women to assume and enforce the idea that all women want to bear children and exist within the narrow frame of the traditional patriarchal family unit.

If no man will have me because I hate them so much, then how will I successfully trick a man into impregnating me? Ah yes, right, because women are all manipulative lying seductresses and men are ultimately uncontrollable sexual animals under women’s spell and powerless to resist their feminine wiles!

As for men not being the enemy – well, sometimes this is true! I’m happy to report that many many feminist allies are men! Men lend a unique and important voice to feminism, and I’m so glad that so many men are willing to embrace the idea of equality for all, regardless of sex and gender! Hooray for pro-feminist men!

Now, here’s the funny thing: feminist leaders are the enemy! that is hilarious! you’ve got some sense of humor, idiot. Feminist leaders have done so much for women, and continue to do so. And of course, you know this. Feminist leaders are YOUR enemy, certainly, because they have questioned your unearned privilege as a man, they have challenged existing power structures that have allowed for your success and control of society, and they have shown that the arrangement by which you gain your privilege is unfair and unjust. you, as a man, experience the world as a pretty good place, considering that pretty much every social institution caters to you and enshrines your ideas, issues, and concerns in its discourses, places you at the centre of everything, and instills privilege and power over half the human population. Of course any counter-discourse that questions and challenges this social order would be a perceived threat to you! You poor little thing – your power matrix is slipping!

so of course, the only answer is to go on the offensive. No wonder I see you here at my blog. It’s all so predictable. Sad, really. But, also, very good, because I’m sure that predictability will come in quite handy to us raging feminists. 😉

ah yes, building the Men’s Rights network. Guess what? we’re kinda doing the same thing.

oh suffer the menz, the oppression they face at the hands of women! pity! shame! It’s so funny to me that this battle cry is the central tenet of MRAs, considering how ridiculous it is to think that women, the oppressed sex class, actually has enough social power to oppress men right back! There is no such thing as reverse sexism – how could an oppressed class actually have enough social power to create vast wide-reaching social structures to oppress their oppressors? The menz as put-upon and oppressed simply doesn’t work, logically. but I’m sure that’s exactly how it must feel to you, as a threatened patriarch. sorry I don’t have much sympathy for that.

Besides, feminists don’t want to reverse the social order to make it a matriarchy. We just want our rights to be substantive and inalienable and equal and respected.

But, there is one thing you say that really REALLY cracks me up – male birth control! don’t you know how easy it is not to get a woman pregnant? it’s called abstinence, and it goes both ways my friend! Also, there’s this device that has been around for a really long time, perhaps you’ve heard of it – the condom?

Ah, but I jest. no seriously, I would love to see a male birth control pill or implant come onto the market. I think men absolutely should be asking for it! It would take the responsibility off of women to prevent pregnancy and put it on men in a more equal way. But it’s funny, the drug companies have historically focused on women’s birth control because the men who controlled them thought women should be responsible for preventing pregnancy, and that men wouldn’t actually use birth control if it were available to them. And, based on how many men I know who do everything they can to avoid using condoms, I think they might have a point.

But, it’s good to know that what I’m doing here is making a difference. Thanks for letting me know how valuable my work here is in identifying patriarchy as a primary source of gender oppression and ways we can all work to dismantle it and bring about a more just society. I know it must be hard for you and your little friends to accept that women are people too, after so many centuries of treating us like shit on your shoe. But, like I say, something we feminists are doing is working, since we’ve got you scared shitless.

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I figured I should write a bit about what it is that I mean when I use the words woman/women. It seems kind of weird that I should have to do this, and I’m sure I’ll be accused of trying to redefine words again. But, as you may know, I don’t abide by definitions that the dominant oppressor class forces upon me, particularly as it relates to my identity and my politics. There is, as I have pointed out before, power in language. Recognizing that is very important in terms of resistance. Besides, our language is not a dead one – it is very much alive, and undergoing construction and change all the time.

The power structure under which we live is a white heterosexual capitalist male supremacy, and identity is socially constructed under its directives, which assigns hierarchical value to groups that are defined in opposition or binary to one another. Man/woman, white/non-white, hetero/queer, rich/poor, and so on. The purpose/result is to create a stratification of classes within society. Power goes to some more than others.

The terms we use to describe ourselves and others have undergone a homogenization process, an attempt to weed out problematic anomalies and hide them away, silence them, make them disappear. I want you to understand that this is a political move, a power play. Homogenizing people under group identity allows power structures to remain in place. And some people benefit – a lot- from those power structures. So of course those people who benefit from power structures want to maintain them. Not all do, of course, but those with the most power have the most invested in structures that give them power – and the most to lose if they dissolve or change. So when people are identified under the common identity of a group, their differences are often forgotten, silenced, hidden, and ultimately denied. Power relations also exist within groups, along the lines of other group identities, which complicates matters even further. And this, my friends, is the common denominator: what individuals within groups share is not their oppression per se (although some groups will share some commonality of experience of oppression), but that their oppression stems from the same source, the same culture of white hetero capitalist male supremacy. What is shared is a common context of struggle.

So. When I talk about “woman/women”, I’m referring to the socially constructed sex class that experiences sexism (often among other forms of oppression) under the current culture of white hetero capitalist male supremacy.

For the record, this is the approach I take to all group identity.

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So, as I confessed a while back, I work in the beauty industry. More specifically, I am an aesthetician and makeup artist. I perform beauty services such as facials, microdermabrasion, chemical peels, waxing, pedicures, manicures, makeup, and body wraps. I’ve spent most of my 12 years in this career working in a spa environment.

SO, my job is pretty much all about reinforcing patriarchal conceptions of beauty and femininity. Sure, lots of people come to have pedicures because they work on their feet and it feels great to have someone rub your feet, or because they get ingrown toenails that need fixing up, or they have painful cracks in their heels, and lots of people come to have facials and chemical peels to treat acne and sun damage and learn how to care for their skin to avoid such problems. Some people just need to relax, and all these things certainly can feel great and help you de-stress. But for the most part, it’s all about consumerism and femininity – the two seem to go hand in hand, more so than masculinity, it seems.

So, I’ve written before about how feminine beauty practices are inherently meant to be markers of inferiority and submission. I’ve also written about women and ageing, and how the beauty industry (including cosmetic surgery) seems to be causing and playing to a fear in women about ageing. Today, however, I’d like to start a discussion about another facet of the beauty industry – the intersection of gender, class, and race in regards to beauty.

I would just like to say that there was a recent study done in Canada on the gender wage gap, and one of the reasons for the gap seems to be that women are choosing careers that are traditionally female jobs, and that those careers pay poorly in comparison with jobs that are traditionally male jobs. I can certainly tell you, this is a career that it is very difficult to make a decent living doing. It’s pathetic, actually, how little the job pays considering that it is physically very hard on the body (small repetitive movements in the upper body combined with hours of uncomfortable positions and difficulty finding an ergonomic setup = torn discs, limited range of motion and constant aching in the neck/shoulders/back/pectorial muscles, carpal tunnel syndrome, and declining eyesight, to name a few), which of course makes it difficult to work a lot of hours. It is so totally not worth it. AND, I’ve really only met a handful of male aestheticians, none of whom live in my city, and all of whom were treated like a great novelty and were extremely popular for performing services with a higher potential for sales commission earnings. Something about women clients, they seem to look for male approval of their appearance (surprise!), including from their beauty therapists. They’d rather have the opinion of a male than that of a female, in many cases – even a female spa therapist who practices femininity perfectly and has achieved exactly what the client is seeking to achieve. All of the male aestheticians I have met were gay. I don’t know what that means or might indicate, but there it is. Also, the vast majority of clients are women. Male clients comprise only about 15-20% of spa clients in general.

I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I don’t personally know a single Black aesthetician. I did a quick poll of the women I work with, and only two knew of a Black aesthetician, and one doesn’t practice anymore. I know one aesthetician who is Asian. I know one who is Lebanese, and a couple who are Greek. That’s it. I’m sure that in larger cities, there are more aestheticians who are women of colour, but for this demographic, we actually have a fairly large black population. They’re just not going into the beauty industry as a career.

Also, the vast majority of women who come to have services done are white. I’ve had a handful of black clients over the years, and a small number of women from or with ethnic roots in India, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran. I’ve had maybe 2 clients who were Asian, and none who were First Nations.

Of course, spa services are expensive. (very expensive, considering how little those who are providing the service get paid, and how little the products cost to do the service. Believe me, it ain’t much.) So some women are going to be limited by their ability to afford to have spa services done. The beauty industry is very elitist.

So, what does this say? What do you think?

I read lots of blogs by women of colour, and sometimes I see a complaint that white feminist blogs are overly concerned with matters like beauty and femininity. Sorry to contibute more to that trend, but I’d like to know why that is – because it seems to me that that matches up with who is involved in  the beauty industry both in terms of clients and in terms of providers of beauty services. Is it that women of colour have more pressing concerns? Is it that beauty is defined in terms of whiteness? Is it that class and race seem to go hand in hand in this culture?

What do you think?

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Hi all,

So, the final instalment of this 3-post arc has arrived, slightly late of course thanks to my crappy new work schedule at a job that I absolutely can’t wait to quit. 🙂 In any case, I want to thank Shannon immensely for allowing me to use her paper for this series!  If you need to catch up, read part one and part two to get a better sense of what’s going on in Shannon’s paper.

If anyone else would like to guest post here, I’d love to have some different voices here over the summer months. Please contact me if you’re interested!

Processed Foods

Betty’s store of goodwill was truly tested in the years after WWII when factories which had previously turned out military rations shifted their focus to civilians (Shapiro 9). Erika Endrijonas explains the dichotomous choices and conflicting messages women faced.

“Buy processed foods, but cook from scratch; be creative but follow directions precisely; accommodate all family members’ preferences but streamline the food purchase and preparation process; work part-time but be a full-time homemaker; and do it all with little or no training.” (157)

Frozen dinners in aluminum trays, orange juice, fish sticks, and fruits and vegetables proved to be winners, but many less-savory products flopped due to the low prevalence of freezer ownership and, of course, the unappealing nature of deep-fried canned hamburgers. While frozen dinners might have been acceptable on very rare occasions (when Mrs. Consumer was away, for example, but hubby still needed dinner) they were not a staple food in regular use. The popular view of processed foods was so negative that when surveys presented women with nearly identical shopping lists and asked for opinions of the women who prepared those lists, the inclusion of instant coffee resulted in vehement tirades against the character of the woman who dared to purchase a convenience item. (Shapiro 54) The frozen foods industry made good, if unintentional, use of Christine Frederick’s suggestions for selling products to women: “supply her with an instruction booklet…teach her by actual demonstration…[and] give her practical experience.” (183) Christopher Holmes Smith documents how, through enthusiastic advertising and instruction in the use of frozen foods in Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful and other national publications, experts showed women how to effectively use frozen products to reliably produce edible meals, overcoming the quality objection if not social stigma. (192)

            Cooking by hand and from scratch remained popular throughout the 1950s despite the proliferation of processed foods. Advertisers continually emphasized the convenience of new products, but women were more interested in taste than speed, as few women reported feeling pressed for time when preparing meals. (Shapiro 46) An extensive survey of homemakers between 1938 and 1961 revealed that cooking was the chore most enjoyed (or least disliked), followed by caring for children. (Shapiro 45) A much smaller survey of newspapers and women’s magazines from the 1950s showed that cooks commonly used processed foods such as instant potatoes to take shortcuts, but true enthusiasm was reserved for from-scratch recipes. (Shapiro 50) Even the continually increasing employment of women did not result in correspondingly dramatic rises in the use of pre-made foods. (Shapiro 48)

            Why were women unwilling to buy these new, helpful products? Earlier processed goods were inconsistent in quality and their fresh or handmade counterparts tended to taste better, so mistrust of packaged foods could certainly be a factor. Additionally, women who used packaged foods tended to feel guilty or anxious about not doing their wifely duties. Women felt they had a “moral obligation to cook,” and tossing together cans just didn’t qualify as cooking. (Shapiro 52) Given the heavy influence on the power of cooking by prominent authorities of the time, this is not surprising; when women had been repeatedly told that their family’s health and social success depended on the quality of the food they consumed, some distress is fully rational in the face of pre-assembled ingredients. Furthermore, hastily slapping together a meal violated the definition of cooking; in other words, cooking had to involve work, and while cutting corners was acceptable, heavy use of processed foods was cheating. Women struggled to find “the balance between convenience and taste and duty” as the meaning of home cooking shifted. (Endrijonas 159)

            Cake mix in particular was a hard sell. If food was love, cakes and other desserts were sugar-infused, chocolate coated morsels of gooey affection. Two full chapters were devoted to cake recipes and another to frosting in Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, debuted in 1950. (Marks 139) Affectionately known as Big Red, the cookbook also suggests exhausted women make use of convenience foods, including General Mills’ Bisquick Biscuits, and cake mixes. (Marks 147) Betty Crocker cake mixes arrived on the market in 1947 in white, yellow, spice, and Devil’s Food flavors. Cake mix baking proved just a little too easy, and few homemakers wanted to “drop this scientific marvel into a bowl, ad water, mix, and bake.” (Marks 168) As one woman said, “the prospect of serving a cake that took no skill just wasn’t very alluring.” (Shapiro 74) Additionally, women were accustomed to viewing cakes as great creative accomplishments; “the cake was food as sculpture, frosted in living color.” A woman’s baking skills defined “motherly love and womanly competence.” (Endrijonas 160) Cake mixes did not rival the success of pancake mix or Bisquick until a psychologist suggested women might prefer if powdered eggs were left out of the mix so fresh eggs could be added. (Marks 168) Though sales improved, cake mix had still not gained mainstream popularity by the 1950s. Many women may have refrained from using cake mix due to fear of social stigma or harming their family’s health with substandard food. (Marks 170)


By 1948, televisions resided in 1 million American homes, so it was only natural that Betty’s print and radio empire be extended to add a visual element. Adelaide Hawley, who had provided one of Betty’s radio voices, was selected to play Betty on-screen.  (Marks 219) From 1950 to 1958, Betty starred in several cooking shows and was a regular guest on others. By 1958 about 41 million homes had televisions; however, Betty Crocker’s TV personality never caught on. Where Betty’s radio presence served her listeners, Betty’s TV presence preached to them. The figure behind the desk, calmly describing how to make edible food without cooking skills, offered little in the way of entertainment or information. Unlike her radio audience in the 1930s and 1940s, viewers of the 1950s were less desperate for assistance. The prosperity of the 1950s offered emotional challenges for homemakers but questions of identity and happiness were much more difficult to address than Depression-era budgeting or fabricating a sugarless chocolate cake. When she first appeared in public life there was some debate about whether or not Betty was a real woman, but by the 1950s anyone could visit the Betty Crocker kitchens and see that Betty was not a single person; rather, she was composed of “many women who [worked there] under her name.” (Marks 181) Layer after layer of believability was stripped away; as she became “increasingly identified with packaged-food cuisine,” Betty existed solely to sell cake mix and everyone knew it. (Shapiro 195)

Cooking certainly did not fall from favor in the 1960s as evidenced by the rousing success of Julia Child in “The French Chef,” a cooking program which differed from Betty Crocker’s infomercials in every way imaginable. Like the early radio Betty, Child’s “point of view was always that of the woman in the kitchen, desperate to cook and dependent on having good information.” (Shapiro 222) Child also emphasized consistency and practicality, but unlike TV-Betty, “Child promised she could make the cook strong instead of making cooking fast, cheap, and convenient.” (Shapiro 228) She did the cooking herself, enthusiastically, dynamically, and with definite authority. Humorous and capable, Child explained why methods worked. Furthermore, she was a genuine woman representing good food rather than a collage of people representing Gold Medal Flour. Child gave cooks what they wanted rather than a corporate prescription, and the success of her long-running shows should be noted by marketers who wish to earn their customers’ affection.


The Betty Crockers of the past century, each one an attempted duplicate of a fabricated character, are beautiful examples of simulacra. The Betties could be compared to each other but certainly not to the real Betty Crocker as she was a compilation of ideas without a single origin. General Mills home economists tested her recipes, responded to her mail, and signed her name, but they did not claim to be Betty’s body. Perhaps Marjorie Child Husted could make up part of Betty’s body and mind, while the actresses who read Husted’s words to scores of listeners represent a portion of her voice.  Adelaide Hawley, the most memorable on-screen Betty Crocker, has as much right as anyone to represent Betty’s body.

Today the Betty Crocker logo is a signature across a red spoon; a woman has been replaced by a box, a splash of water, an egg or two, and a mixing spoon wielded by even the most inept hands. As the woman left the Betty Crocker image, the humanitarian aspect was removed from General Mills advertising. Historical evidence shows customers appreciate the ability to leave feedback, feeling they have some say in the operations of the modern world’s vast corporate family. Unsurprisingly, Betty Crocker first touched her public by freely sharing relevant information they requested and earned nationwide loyalty by devoting her expertise and corporate resources to making sense of cooking during the Great Depression and WWII.  However, when her readers’, listeners’, and viewers’ needs changed to more individual concerns of finding happiness in unpaid domestic labor or juggling formal employment while feeding their families, Betty spoke up with cheery verses about the ease of using her products.  Despite increasing distribution through the mass media, Betty Crocker betrayed her readers and listeners when she blatantly revealed her purpose to be selling more cake mix in the name of corporate consumerism; by ignoring her public’s concerns, Betty Crocker transformed from a venerable source of kitchen wisdom into a corporate facade, and her audience never forgave her for implying that a woman, complete with love and carefully developed skills, was no longer needed in the kitchen.


Endrijonas, Erika. “Processed Foods from Scratch: Cooking for a Family in the 1950s.” Kitchen Culture in America. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 157-173.

Frederick, Christine. Selling Mrs. Consumer. New York: Business Bourse, 1929.

Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising’s Image of Women. Dir. Sut Jhaly. Prod. Media Education Foundation. Created by Jean Kilbourne. Viewed on GoogleVideo. <http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1993368502337678412&q=killing+us+softly&gt;

Marks, Susan. Finding Betty Crocker. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Parkin, Katherine. Food is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.  Dir. Jane Anderson.  Perf. Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson.  Revolution Erie Productions Ltd, 2005.

Schor, Juliet. “The New Politics of Consumption.” Boston Review Summer 1999. <http://bostonreview.net/BR24.3/schor.html&gt;

Shapiro, Laura. Something from the Oven. New York: Viking, 2004.

Smith, Christopher Holmes. “Freeze Frames: Frozen Foods and Memories of the Postwar American Family.” Kitchen Culture in America. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 175-209.


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Hi all,

you’ll kindly remember back to last week, when I published the first part of Shannon‘s fabulous paper. This is part two. Here, Shannon discusses the marketing phenom that is Betty Crocker.


            In Finding Betty Crocker, Susan Marks explores the history and impact of America’s First Lady of Food. Through print, radio, and television, Betty Crocker shared advice about homemaking and cooking but by the 1950s she had devolved into an advertising gimmick for selling General Mills packaged mixes. Created for the sake of convenience, Betty reached women across the country thanks to the mass media. A rare female authority figure, her no-nonsense tone, solid advice, and empathy for her public made Betty a hit from the beginning. By responding to letters through the mail or over the radio, Betty Crocker delivered relevant information to women saddled with the chore of caring for their families. However, in the early 1950s, Betty’s message shifted from assistance to cheerleading for General Mills. Composed of many minds, bodies, and objectives, Betty’s fractured personality failed to deliver the empathy and relevant information her customers had previously enjoyed despite increases in media technology and the availability of packaged foods.


            Betty Crocker is truly a fabricated entity, though her birthplace is clear enough. The child of Washburn Crosby, a milling company, her name came into being when employees of Washburn Crosby’s Home Service Department needed a consistent signature to use when responding to letters from customers. (Marks 11) Crocker was chosen in honor of a top executive, and Betty was declared to be homey and comforting. As the company expanded, Washburn Crosby’s home economists responded to ever-increasing numbers of letters from women with questions about successful baking. Isolated from their peers and facing new and unfamiliar kitchen gadgets, these women were charged with the almost spiritual duty of keeping their families happy and healthy, and desperately needed advice. (Marks 12)

            Domestic experts were certainly not a novel advertising tactic when Betty Crocker burst onto the scene. Women’s magazines were full of opinions and testimonials, though advertisements and articles were at times indistinguishable as a host of women with matronly names and calming smiles endorsed a variety of products. (Marks 14) In order to stand out, Washburn Crosby executives developed the notion of “kitchen-testing” in hopes of attracting more customers for their Gold Medal Flour, sending out recipe booklets from the Gold Medal Kitchen—signed by Betty Crocker, of course. (Marks 19)

Part of Betty’s notoriety was due to traveling cooking demonstrations and official cooking schools, where educated home economists demonstrated cooking techniques and recipes based on Gold Medal Flour. (Marks 22) In keeping with the notion of the home as the default social unit, before industrialization women learned to cook from their relatives and handed down family recipes. However, these recipes were based on nonstandard measurements, varying pan sizes, and a wide array of ovens, so a biscuit recipe that worked in grandma’s wood-burning oven would have to be modified to get the same results from her granddaughter’s electric oven. As kitchen appliances evolved and became standardized, more and more women were left with boxes of obsolete recipes and the heavy responsibility of feeding their families. Rather than repeatedly testing each recipe to determine the proper proportions and temperatures, women turned to experts outside the home for assistance; however, professional home economists did not have to make do with outdated or dysfunctional appliances, and a tricked-out industrial home was necessary to make full use of their expertise. “Waffle irons, warming pads, cabinet electric ranges, toasters, and even a Grecian urn percolator were on offer to fill every available outlet.” (Marks 27) The prevailing message was that new tools had to be purchased if women wanted to cook well, and a wider array of choices had never before existed. Ironically, in order to produce nourishing food within the home, women were told to search for resources elsewhere.


Due to Betty’s success as a paper personality, her creators decided to take advantage of the growing numbers of radios in American homes and give Betty her own radio show. She started out on a small regional station in Minnesota in 1924, discussing everything from “cooking and ‘female concerns’” as well as “housekeeping and time management to husbands and beaux…and, of course, Gold Medal Flour.” Recipes and cooking techniques were her primary focus, as “the show extolled the virtues of a well-balanced, healthy meal and women’s obligation to serve it.” (Marks 31) One particularly brilliant creation was Betty Crocker’s Cooking School of the Air. Listeners were invited to enroll by mail and take lessons by listening to Betty’s radio shows. During the program’s twenty-seven years, over one million women and men participated officially. (Marks 35)

            Betty certainly did not force women into the kitchen; rather, the prevailing 1920s social climate, stubbornly lauding Victorian gender roles, had already determined what women could properly do. As a rare female authority figure, Betty’s mission was to help women make sense of their duties and skillfully complete their domestic tasks. If industrial life consisted of a network of corporate families, Betty Crocker certainly served as a mother to people in need of guidance, offering advice for dealing with the everywoman’s daily hassles. Betty received letters from male and female listeners about food, family, and the content of her show, and she often responded to common concerns during her programs. (Marks 36) Though her primary purpose was peddling flour, on air Betty sympathized with the demands women faced, offering her services to ameliorate their concerns, and was loved because of it. Her friendly face brought immense amounts of goodwill to Washburn Crosby and, after a handful of smaller companies merged in 1928, General Mills as well.

            As Betty gained popularity, her radio show was expanded from a single channel in Minnesota to twelve regional NBC stations across the country, and a version of Betty’s show could be heard on thirty stations by 1930. (Marks 49) Each show’s script was the same, but Betty was played by a different woman on each of the twelve channels. (Marks 37) Each Radio-Betty was an eerie copy of the other Radio-Betties, who attempted to duplicate a pre-packaged ideal. Marjorie Child Husted, director of the Gold Medal Flour Home Service Department, began crafting Betty’s personality and writing her radio scripts in 1927. (Marks 39) Husted was keenly aware of the potential impact radio could have on women’s lives. One of Betty’s shows addresses the marvelous opportunities provided by the radio.

“Not so many years ago we had to go out visiting with near neighbors, perhaps gossiping over the back fence, or we waited for a club meeting or sewing circle to exchange recipes. But now, though I am miles away, I can talk with you, and radio friends in Massachusetts can exchange ideas with those in California.” (Marks 41)

Home economist Christine Frederick also suggested that radio has been of great assistance to women in doing away with isolation, which “has been the cause of much of women’s restlessness and has done more to retard her progress than any other factor.” (Marks 49) Betty served her public by bringing news and information to women who felt limited within their own homes; through the convenience of instantaneous advice delivered on time, women could depend less on their peers and more on Betty. Again, women in an industrialized society take on the role of consumers, though in this case they consume knowledge distributed widely by an external authority rather than producing information within their own social groups or family units.

            Emerging from Betty’s interaction with her public was “a growing fascination with love in relation to food.” (Marks 42) Women were concerned about finding husband-keeping recipes and feared competition from sneaky ladies with superior cooking skills; paranoia ran so deep that one listener wrote in to ask if her preference for white cake instead of Betty’s “husband-keeping” fudge cake meant her husband would be snagged by a neighbor. (Marks 42) In response to this widespread concern, Husted wrote specific shows pertaining to food and love. Interviews with bachelors and the long-running series “A Word to the Wives” strove illuminate the workings of the male mind and reveal exactly what qualities a man wanted in a woman. (Marks 67) The notion of women’s cooking expressing affection and exerting power over her subjects was firmly fixed in the mind of the public; no wonder advertisers have focused on it for nearly a century.

            Through the medium of radio Betty offered aid and encouragement to many in times of widespread difficulty. During the Great Depression, over 30% of 47 million workers in the American labor force lost their jobs. As incomes fell across the country and budgeting became a monumental concern for families, many wrote to Betty about their woes. She responded, focusing programs on making do by creatively reworking leftovers, eating cheaper meat such as rabbit, and preparing nutritious meals on a low budget. (Marks 56) Rather than using the show as a vehicle for blatant promotion of General Mills products, Husted made sure to provide quality recipes and advice to the millions who suddenly found themselves in trouble so that Betty was seen as a friend first and Gold Medal Flour advocate second. No letter went unanswered, and though Betty’s legions might not have been purchasing General Mills products exclusively, both entities were on the receiving end of a great deal of goodwill.

Similarly, Betty was on hand during World War II to offer support in terms of culinary and emotional advice to millions of women who found themselves working outside the home and trying to cook for the family members who remained in the United States. The WWII era brought a new flush of importance to homemaking and enthusiastically returned affection on a national scale. As President Roosevelt said of American women in 1942, “The eyes of the nation are upon you. In far-flung outposts, in the military isolation camps near home, men at sea, men in tanks, men with guns, men in planes, look to you for strength.” (qtd. in Marks 87) Women found themselves guarding both their homes and the entire nation. Women were charged with keeping the country running in the absence of millions of men, which meant extra work both inside and outside the home; nearly half of all American women were employed at some time during the war. (Marks 93)

As rationing became increasingly restrictive, “ideas for how to feed families at home while conserving rations for troops were in high demand.” (Marks 87) Betty Crocker’s repertoire of recipes was altered again to fit available ingredients, first with a focus on replacing or forgoing sugar and later doing without fats and meats while cooks grew their own vegetables. (Marks 91) As during the Depression, Betty’s bold signature decorated General Mills booklets emphasizing thrift with respect to food and budgeting. The most notable was “Your Share: How to Prepare Appetizing, Healthful Meals with Foods Available Today,” which began with an earnest letter from Betty urging women to ensure they can say, “I worked for freedom today” by getting as much as they could out of available foods. (Marks 93)

As WWII wound down and women were expected to swap their paying jobs for the solitude of their kitchens, this recognition was urgently needed. The glorification of the homemaker escalated in 1944 with the Betty Crocker American Home Legion Program, designed to recognize women’s unpaid work within the home. 700,000 women registered, eager to receive recognition for “simple inglorious tasks” or necessary skills which make up daily life. (Marks 108)

 So, that’s all for this week. Please do join me next week for the final instalment! 

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so, let’s call this a 3-episode arc.

For the next couple of weeks, I’m going to publish sections of a paper that reader Shannon recently sent me, on the subject of domesticity, in response to a post I wrote about women’s unpaid domestic labour. Her paper is VERY interesting, and I think there’s lots there to chat about. So, thanks so much to Shannon, my guest blogger for the next couple of weeks!!! And give Shannon a nice welcome and lots of discussion, please!

Nobody Likes a Blatant Simulacrum: Betty Crocker as a Marketing Technique

A young woman stands tall on the crest of a hill, flanked by two small children desperately clutching her hands. Her simple dress flutters in the chilly breeze as she stares resolutely into the distance, contemplating the dangers and pleasures that lay ahead. Suddenly, a man’s solemn voice shatters the silence of this moving tableau. “Homemaking. A woman’s most rewarding way of life.” Thus begins the 1950 premiere of The Betty Crocker Show. The scene shifts to reveal an impeccably groomed Betty Crocker seated at a desk in a nondescript office. Betty delivers a brief sermon about love, food, and the American way of life before trading her office for a gleaming kitchen, where an assistant whips up a pie crust using a General Mills boxed mix. A dramatization of a letter concerning mince pie and Thanksgiving dinner follows. Laura Shapiro describes this businesslike Betty Crocker as “a career homemaker with no need for a home…as out of place as a doily on a desk.” (193)

For the past ninety years, Betty Crocker has graced General Mills food products with her beaming face or, when portraits became unfashionable, her bold signature. Betty has communicated with the American public through print, radio, and television. Today anyone with internet access can go to BettyCrocker.com and browse a massive recipe archive, watch a video about preparing a particular meal, or contemplate the winners of the Mix It Up with Betty! Cookie Mix Recipe Contest. Betty Crocker’s personality has been projected through virtually every type of popular media on a national level and, if interaction with the public is any measure of worth, her early years were a tremendous success. Her smiling face and charming tone even helped the processed food industry gain an edge in an initially unimpressed market. Though Betty had a genuine impact on women who benefited from her knowledge, she rose out of consumerism and, in her later years, her message shifted from empathy to marketing—rather than assuring women her words would guide them, Betty said she would help them if they purchased her products. Shortly after Betty made the ideological transition from helpful friend to cake mix cheerleader, she fell from favor.


Creating the American Consumer

Christine Frederick, a pioneer in the field of consumer research, emphasized the importance of focusing on efficiency and convenience in spurring the “household revolution” in her 1929 book Selling Mrs. Consumer (Frederick 166). Frederick, an appliance tester for Ladies’ Home Journal, describes the advances made in her own industrialized home. In its most primitive stage in 1911, Frederick did most of the housework by hand, laboriously pumping water, cleaning and filling oil lamps, washing clothes in a labor-intensive machine which required a great deal of attention, and smoothing clothing with a coal heated iron. The second stage of evolution was completed six years later and featured gasoline-burning lamps, a “gas-engine” which pumped water, an oil-burning stove, and a “self-heating alcohol hand iron.” At the time of the publication of Selling Mrs. Consumer, Frederick was pleased to declare that her home had reached the third stage of evolution: electric lights, electric washing machines, a vacuum cleaner for the rugs, and a “power ironer” for pressing linens. (Frederick 168)

By purchasing and installing helpful appliances, Frederick was able to cut down on the exhausting labor and mindless drudgery of domestic chores and earn a bit of leisure time, so naturally she suggested focusing on the perceived benefits of a device would be a more successful marketing tactic than emphasizing mechanical or technical qualities. As a consumer, she found more satisfaction in the results rather than the craftsmanship of her purchases or the process of using such technological marvels. Labor-saving technology, while certainly beneficial in terms of helping women maximize the returns to their domestic efforts, may be seen as a strong expression of consumerist philosophy: liberation through consumption.

In Captains of Consciousness, Stuart Ewen describes how industrialization spurred the expansion of advertising in the 1920s and transformed the role of the individual from producer to consumer. Prior to the economic shift from a primarily agrarian system to an industrial system, the majority of American citizens lived in rural areas at what was essentially a subsistence level. During the late 1800s, when manufacturing began to take off, over 50% of the labor force was employed on a farm of some sort. Small-scale agricultural production was often the pursuit of the entire family; husbands, wives, and children all contributed their energy to the success of the farm. What could not be grown or made at home had to be purchased, and the efforts of every family member were needed to scratch staples and cash crops from the soil. Such a system would naturally be patriarchal as decreed by tradition; however, every family member played a necessary role in making the home a place of independent production where thriftiness was a prized quality. The family, united by necessity, was the default social unit of rural existence. (Ewen 115)

Revolutionary manufacturing technology coupled with increasing urban populations encouraged a drastic change from home production to factory production. By the late 1920s, as much as two thirds of the national income went toward purchasing necessities like fresh and preserved foods, clothing, and furniture. Growing numbers of people left their country lifestyles for the bright lights of the cities, transforming from family members to individuals along the way. (Ewen 116) Rather than sharing the rewards of their labor with relatives, such individuals looked to large companies for both wages and sustenance. In all actuality, familial authority was replaced by a new kind of patriarchal authority: the corporate boss.

What precipitated the ubiquitous shift from producer to consumer? Farm life was certainly difficult and uncertain, and perhaps young people found the rural social climate too oppressive and saw a profitable escape in the glamour of urban life. Changing ideology may have contributed as well; the 1920s were an era of excess and enjoyment, a much more pleasant view than the “make do” attitude necessitated by farming. While the blame for this physical and ideological migration can not rest solely on advertising, increased publicity for products and brands could certainly have been a factor. As the number of manufactured goods increased, a suitably large market for such items had to be created in order for industrial profits to be realized. Rather than marketing solely to upper class citizens, companies decided to try to dip into the pockets of the average laborer. Marketers attempted to sell entire glittering, appliance-laden lifestyles rather than touting the benefits of a particular item, an approach which is prominent today. (Ewen 54)

Competitive consumption, otherwise known as keeping up with the Joneses, has been an American tradition since the 1950s. However, sociology professor Juliet Schor suggests, our neighborhoods have expanded to include not only the house down the street but also vacation homes in Costa Rica and celebrity mansions so that “luxury, rather than mere comfort, [became] a widespread aspiration.” As the focus of wage earners shifts from the home to more remote locations through formal employment and television, an entirely new view of socioeconomic structure was available. As documentary filmmaker Jean Kilbourne suggested in Killing Us Softly 3, “advertising is the foundation of the mass media, the primary purpose of the mass media is to sell products,” and “advertising does sell products.” However, it also promotes “values, it sells images, it sells concepts of love…and perhaps most important, of normalcy.” Due to the media bias toward the very wealthy, the average person’s perception of the economic situation of others became inflated; as the American income distribution became more skewed, an “aspirational gap” developed in which people are unable to earn enough money to purchase the lifestyle they desire. Today ever-increasing bankruptcy rates and credit card debt combined with practically nonexistent savings are obvious results of the social situation. (Schor)

Advertising as a Technology

Broadly defined, technology refers to using scientific knowledge to advance industrial or commercial aims. Advertising could not really be considered technological until the 1920s though advertisements have appeared in magazines and newspapers for hundreds of years. As much of the American population hovered precariously near the subsistence level, possessed little cash, and had limited access to credit, marketing was essentially useless until mechanized production increased output to massive levels and new customers were needed to keep business going. By the 1920s a sizeable proportion of the population worked for wages and manufacturers, swayed by the brand-new advertising industry, began to reach out to consumers in all socioeconomic brackets. (Ewen 32)

Older advertisements touted the technical benefits of a particular product or emphasized its scientific nature, but the early 1900s marked an important shift in advertising. Rather than appealing to logic and urging consumers to choose the best item based on mechanical merit, advertisers began to speak to what they called instincts by highlighting the desire for beauty, leisure, and self-consciousness about social status. The worth of the consumer replaced the worth of the product as the focus of marketing. (Ewen 39) Rather than selling a product, advertisers elected to sell an entire lifestyle by associating their brand with comfort, prosperity, and high social standing. (Ewen 54) Though the delivery of such messages has become increasingly more sophisticated over time, the main thrust of ads has not changed for over one hundred years: you are a sad, inadequate little person and the only way you can become happy and socially accepted is through consumption.

The power of suggestion was well-documented as early as the 1920s. Advising marketers, Christine Frederick writes of Mrs. Consumer, “She most decidedly does not visualize herself as an automaton told what to do by advertising, and of course she is no such thing.” (334) However, even the most wary shopper can be influenced through manipulative suggestions. Floyd Henry Allport, a prominent social psychologist of the early 1900s, suggested consciousness of self is a compilation of our perceptions of how others view us, and our self is “the object of continual and harsh social scrutiny.” (qtd. in Ewen 34) As non-human entities rise in prominence and power and interaction with such personalities increases daily, their view is projected into this conglomerative self-image, suggesting that mass media does indeed have the power to effect our notions of self.

Advertising, then, has been a technology of control since its infancy; however, manipulation rather than brute force is the primary method of mental domination. Within the production system, “raw materials and consumers were both viewed as malleable. They would both have to be shaped by the demands of the production line, pecuniary interests, and the newly emergent managerial tool of capital.” (Ewen 26) Industrialization provided both the means for producing increasingly sophisticated goods and the mindset necessary for consumption of those goods. Factory work at the turn of the century contrasted sharply with the rural or farm-based lifestyle. Rather than producing necessities for an intimate group of family members through menial labor, the typical working-class corporate employee spent their days supervising a machine or performing simple monotonous tasks. While both types of work were physically demanding, the factory worker held the unique role of toiling for a vague corporate authority figure and receiving impersonal wages in return. Advertisements during this time period emphasized the current insignificance of the individual and then suggested a product or five to ameliorate the laborer’s ennui.

Common Themes in Food Advertising

Though the food industry markets a wide variety of products to an increasingly diverse audience, the tactics used over the past century have been remarkably consistent. Fortified granola bars are introduced in 2007 like canned meals in 1957 and heavily branded candies in 1907 by associating women with food. Whether women are depicted shopping, cooking, or serving a hearty meal, the link between food and female servility is a remarkably long-lived cultural tradition despite the dynamic nature of gender roles. In the book Food is Love, Katherine Parkin explores past and present themes in food advertising and suggests that most food advertisements may be grouped under a handful of umbrella categories based on their message to women.

Advertisements have encouraged women to consider the emotional element of cooking since the beginning of the 20th century, portraying affection in particular as closely tied to food. Women are depicted expressing their love by feeding their families, implying that bad cooking or, even more horrifying, not cooking was a sign of apathy and disinterest in the family’s well-being. (Parkin 30) If love makes a home and good food is a prerequisite for love, apathy toward cooking on the part of a wife or mother can apparently crush domestic stability and tranquility like a stale cookie.

Thanks to a host of publications on cooking and caring for children plus an ever-expanding supply of gizmos and gadgets designed to make domestic work easier, continued insistence on women as homemakers and nurturers seems more than a little ludicrous. In an industrialized society men and women are capable of performing the same service or white collar jobs, and as cooking with appliances requires little intuition or physical strength, anyone who is willing to open a book and follow directions can make a satisfactory meal. Even today men and children are portrayed as cooks only in very limited circumstances; apparently all the science of the industrialized kitchen cannot imbue food with that feminine spark of affection required to produce meals which are emotionally and physically satisfactory. The notion of caring through cookery is the root of all food advertising aimed at women.

Additionally, food quality is associated with the health and success of individual women, the nuclear family and, by extension, the United States as a whole. In one edition of her popular radio show, Betty Crocker warned women about the dangers of improperly feeding a husband.

“If you load a man’s stomach with soggy boiled cabbage, greasy friend potatoes…can you wonder that he wants to start a fight, or go out and commit a crime? We should be grateful that he does nothing worse than display a lot of temper.” (Marks 31)

Women, then, were held directly responsible for their husband’s success or failure. In 2005 film The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Julianne Moore’s character visits her priest to talk about her husband’s drinking problem. He scolds her for neglecting her wifely duties and suggests that the best way to combat her husband’s moodiness was to make their home as happy as possible. As the guardian of the purity and peace of the home, she was at fault for allowing her husband to spiral into depression and alcoholism. Husbands, like children, had to be gently reminded to eat their vegetables lest they become grouchy or cruel due to malnutrition or exhaustion; if a woman truly loved her family she would accept this burden and buy whatever brand of vegetable promised to deliver the most energy. All of her woes could be dissipated if she would only buy the right product.

A mother’s cooking was also depicted as a prominent factor in her children’s health, and the discovery of vitamins in the 1920s led to a maniacal focus on the power of proper nutrition in preventing illness. (Parkin 162) Advertisements for Campbell’s Soup featuring the Campbell Kids projected the image of the ideal child: lively, healthy, vigorous, and cherubic. Children were frequently pictured following in their parents’ footsteps. For example, a smiling little girl would help her mother in the kitchen while a husky boy assisted his father in the woodshop, implying that a particular food would help children become well-adjusted adults able to function according to societal expectations. (Parkin 204)

Even in today’s advertisements, men are rarely depicted cooking or serving food, but they often function as authoritative figures that approve or dismiss a woman’s cooking. Though these men did not cook on a regular basis, playing the role of provider rather than nurturer in family life, they were apparently blessed with an innate understanding of good food and were able to judge the quality of a woman’s efforts. (Parkin 129) Scientists, doctors, and chefs began endorsing products in advertisements in the early 1900s, and these invariably male experts were portrayed as qualified through education or experience to tell women what and how to cook. (Parkin 130) Recall the ideological shift from production to consumerism was taking place at the same time; as people continually looked outside the home for employment and sustenance, increased emphasis on external authority figures making domestic suggestions was certainly not coincidental.



Endrijonas, Erika. “Processed Foods from Scratch: Cooking for a Family in the 1950s.” Kitchen Culture in America. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 157-173.

Frederick, Christine. Selling Mrs. Consumer. New York: Business Bourse, 1929.

Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising’s Image of Women. Dir. Sut Jhaly. Prod. Media Education Foundation. Created by Jean Kilbourne. Viewed on GoogleVideo. <http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1993368502337678412&q=killing+us+softly&gt;

Marks, Susan. Finding Betty Crocker. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Parkin, Katherine. Food is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Dir. Jane Anderson. Perf. Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson. Revolution Erie Productions Ltd, 2005.

Schor, Juliet. “The New Politics of Consumption.” Boston Review Summer 1999. <http://bostonreview.net/BR24.3/schor.html&gt;

Shapiro, Laura. Something from the Oven. New York: Viking, 2004.

Smith, Christopher Holmes. “Freeze Frames: Frozen Foods and Memories of the Postwar American Family.” Kitchen Culture in America. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 175-209.

OK, this seems like a good place to end for this week. Discuss at will, SVP!!!


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