Petite, pink and perniciously prejudiced

petite sweetheart cheesecake

Isn’t this pretty? Do you know what it’s called? It’s a Petite Sweetheart Cheesecake (part of Delifrance’s Valentine’s Day promotion this year). It tastes absolutely divine dahling. But that’s not what this post is about.

I had a fascinating conversation with a dear friend last night, in which she tried to explain to me her desire to analytically separate gender from sex, because the conflation of the two leads to labels being placed on people that they have to wear even if they feel uncomfortable with the fit. The example we used to think this through was walking. It seems reasonable to believe that the way a woman is structured – with generally broader hips and narrower shoulders – leads her to walk somewhat differently than a man – with his narrower hips and broader shoulders – does. However taking this example to its logical extent forces you to admit that while these may be average forms, there are undoubtedly men who have broader hips and women who have broader shoulders. Presumably, the way they walk changes accordingly. So far so good. If there is no value judgment attached to any of these parameters, then the matter can rest here. You may not agree with the theory that body structure influences gait, but that is a different issue altogether.

The problem, according to my friend, comes in when one type of walk is labeled ‘feminine’ while another is labeled ‘masculine’. Immediately then, it becomes clear how insisting on a rigid binary framework can lead to trouble. Labels like this are artificial, arbitrary, and culturally intertwined with many other intersecting impositions of behavior and belief. Biological patterns, on the other hand, tend to be more fluid. Within the form labelled ‘feminine’ there is a range of actual configurations of body ratio. Likewise the ‘masculine’. There is indeed a continuum, whereby one segues into the other so smoothly that it is only through great force of purpose that the grid of labels may be imposed. In fact to do so requires a whole culture of contiguous structures that enmesh themselves with the human psyche so irretrievably that most of humanity cannot even recognize the imposition. We call this culture Patriarchy. Woe betide the woman with the narrow hips or the man with broad ones. She is derided for being ‘masculine’ while he is equally ridiculed for being ‘feminine’. Both are seen as insults in the context of their discursive power.

Which brings me back to the confection you see in the photograph. Of course Valentine’s Day is a marketing gimmick. And all the pink targets women as consumer and as commodity. But just think of a boy who approaches the counter. A teenage boy, who is sadly all too conscious of the impressions that his choices convey to a wider public that he has learned makes judgments on those who don’t wear their labels. He just loves the flavor of the confection, and he might even love the violently pink look of it. But the fact that pink is associated with the ‘feminine’ makes him think twice about ordering something he knows will taste like 50 shades of heaven. That he orders it anyway is proof that he is reflecting and trying not to let the labels dictate his choices. But there are so many examples like this, where labels force us into certain choices and away from others. And the use of these labels for marketing adds an extra layer of complexity that further locks us into these uncomfortable positions.

I’ve ruminated on this gender vs. sex issue before on this blog. Interestingly, in that post, I suggested that new forms of communication might be introducing some changes. I’m not so sure about that anymore, but I’ll give it more thought before I write about it. Something along the lines of appropriation of feminine styles by masculine logics of technology and business without appreciation of feminine substance. But even that’s a bit dicey because it contradicts the post-gender way in which my thoughts above seem to be leaning. I’d blame my friend for confusing me, but I’m too grateful to her for giving me something to think about 🙂

Meanwhile if you have anything to contribute to this, I’d love to hear it.

8 thoughts on “Petite, pink and perniciously prejudiced

  1. Well-said and spot on! The tyranny of typology. My rumination is now focusing on, ‘What would a society be like if that layer of distinction were eliminated?’ (would we replace it with something else?) And, ‘What do we accomplish by labeling something feminine or masculine?’
    Perhaps confusion is to mental exercise what hills are to physical exercise…of course many people choose to go around rather than over 🙂 But you clearly choose effort-ful cognition over mental apathy, and for that I am truly thankful.

    1. The future of gender is something that I often come across in media studies, so it’s always interesting to approach it from a different perspective. There is as much work that highlights the potential of cyberspace to transcend gender as there is more critical reflection on the social structures that even cyberspace cannot stay free of. Perspectives like digital non-dualism, augmented reality, technofeminism, and others suggest (not always on purpose) that patriarchy is even more unshakeable than ever. That’s why when you bring a more obviously embodied perspective to it – sports and physical exercise – it opens up all sorts of possibilities for me!

      Also, I feel we need to think about the implications of taking a post-gender perspective in the context of serious gender inequality in many parts of the world. Are there more possibilities for emancipation/equality in a position that bypasses gender altogether, or in one that draws on resources of gender-based collectives? I guess my question is: is it possible to only consider first world situations in conceptualizing the future of gender? Or does always getting mired in the real problems of the developing world prevent the imagination of alternate futures?

  2. Thank you for getting me thinking on this! I like how you approach such a challenging topic with such an appropriate and accessible example. I was schooled to argue that empowerment lies in the hybridity of gender, but I am starting to share your skepticism about such an emancipation of gender online. I find myself citing work on the empowering effects of anonymity on gender performance, and thinking well, even if that were true (which is also debatable), that’s only a part of the story.

    Most of the time I exist in an online world of intense geekery, and unspoken assumed masculinity. There is some discussion of “where are the women geeks”, but that always feels very politically motivated and on the nose to make any real impact. When attending face to face meetups for the first time, I find myself the object of curious scrutiny, a little like in a zoo. Geek girl understands code and can do tricks! *applause* So much for gender liberation. In this instance wider social structures determine who has access to the kind of knowledge necessary in order to become a “geek”, and those structures have always been female-unfriendly. They go so far as to create a mental block – I’m a girl, therefore this must be more difficult for me.

    I admit I used to face the same mental block. Thankfully someone convinced me otherwise by teaching me about where to get information, and letting me experiment with technology.

    If I had the power, I think that’s where I’d start. I saw a presentation the other day on an after school care center that teaches kids to make their own toys with basic engineering, electronics and programming. I was really glad to see lots of girls in the photos. Knowing full well that photos are not always representative of reality, I’m still hopeful that maybe things are slowly evolving.

  3. Thanks for this perspective, Anna. It adds a lot of texture to the emerging picture. I wonder – do you think that having separate organizations for women in technology helps or hinders the attempt to enlarge the space for “geekl girls” like you? Begging pardon for the labeling…

    1. I like that label, and I think you’ll find most girl geeks would too. But I don’t think having separate organizations would help so much as reproduce the idea that we are somehow inferior and therefore need institutionalized assistance. A technologically inclined school for girls comes with an assumption that for whatever reason girls need a different school, and I don’t believe that’s true. I think I would work on integration into existing institutions and I believe SUTD is making some steps in this direction. Their bus and MRT ads feature prominent inventions that have ‘transformed our lives’, emphasizing the role of women and the disabled to highlight that there’s no inherent barrier there.

  4. Hi Mrs V! I must start off by saying how much I admire your blog! I’ve never been the type who comments because of my sub-par writing skills but this post has really intrigued me enough to speak up! It’s just a little of how I feel. Hope you don’t mind!

    As you’ve mentioned, sex differentiates biologically while gender is what the society delineates as masculine or feminine. What about the basic psychological differences between males and females?

    I attended a class named “Understanding Relationships – Love & Sex” and it revolved around teaching us the basic differences in nature/thinking of females and males. Quick examples would be how females are naturally more emotive and have less spatial depth than males. We saw a study/documentary done by BBC investigating how men’s and women’s brains are wired differently, evoking different reactions in similar situations. (Search “Secret of The Sexes” if you’re interested!) So, on the basis of this difference, I wouldn’t say that it’s wrong gender prejudices exist nor feel the need to argue down the gender disparity.

    However, I do also agree that it is possible to transcend these psychological ‘wiring’, albeit with the ‘mental block’ as mentioned by Ms Anna, plus the fact that some of us are just wired differently from others.

    Hence, instead of constantly trying to promote gender equality by just proving that females are just as capable, why not try another approach? Perhaps we could shift the focus to allowing people to understand and acknowledge that despite the difference in male/female nature, it does not represent/dictate that either one cannot embrace the other’s characteristics.

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