by Lucia C. Lykke
In case you missed it, Ellen DeGeneres was recently asked to shill for a new product in the wide world of unnecessarily gendered products: Bic pens “for her.” Ellen pointed out the absurdity of the pens on her television show, using the pens as a point of departure to call out the absurdity of various gender stereotypes such as women using “lady pens” to write recipes to cook for their men. The Amazon product reviews offer similar, entertaining perspectives on the pens. While I appreciate Ellen’s debunking gender stereotypes, the truth is, are ladies-only pens really that far outside the realm of normal? Women are already targeted with pointlessly gender-specific products ranging from socks to shaving cream and razors, even yogurt. Really, pens might be one of the final frontiers in gendered products.
In Ellen’s spoof commercial for Bic for Her, an adolescent girl tells Ellen, “Sometimes I just feel… different.” Ellen responds, “That’s because you’re growing up!” Or maybe it’s just because you’re a woman. This is the heart of Bic for Her: women as different; women as Other. This is nothing new, of course: as Simone DeBeauvoir (1949) wrote, “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.” And so, regular pens are for regular people, who are men; lady pens are the others, who are women. (Regular pens are probably also for Whites, heterosexuals, the middle class, and the other unmarked social categories that operate as normal by default.)
Ladies-only products are nothing new, but the real issue with Bic for Her is that they take gendered marketing a step further by focusing on the biological difference between the sexes. West and Zimmerman (1987) point out that we do this with public bathroom equipment, emphasizing the difference in male and female genitalia in public spaces despite the fact that we all manage to use the same equipment in private homes. While bathroom examples are familiar, Bic for Her applies physical dimorphism to pens. Ellen reads from the package: “They’re designed to fit a woman’s hand,” then asks, “What does that even mean?” It means that Bic is firmly rooting gender differences in biological difference, specifically, the dimorphism of hand shapes, as if there is such a drastic difference between men’s and women’s hands that they would actually require separate writing utensils. This serves to emphasize that men’s social bodies, including their hands, are the measure of the human body, as medicine has long underscored by presenting the human body as male in Grey’s Anatomy (Lorber 1994). Maybe Bic’s marketing department has been watching too many animated movies: in his blog, Philip Cohen points out that in movies such as Tangled, human men’s bodies – including their hands – are grossly bigger than women’s, emphasizing gender through size differences (and perhaps helping to socialize children into seeing exaggerated physical differences as the foundation of gender from a young age).
But we’re just talking about pens, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that gender inequality rests on our belief in hierarchical difference between men and women, reified through its connection to bodies. Bic for Her pens may be equally functional pens compared to “regular” Bics, but by marketing Bic for Her as different pens – ladies’ pens – women are situated, once again, as different, Other, not the default human body. And the fact that Bic would see a market for these pens – and that consumers might agree and buy them – is yet another example of how our belief in gender, rooted in our belief in stark biological differences, permeates everyday experiences.
In closing, I offer an alternate Bic for Her commercial idea. Ellen’s commercial harkens back to a pre-feminist era and the accompanying gender stereotypes. But really, if it’s modern women who are supposed to buy the pens, Bic may want to appeal to a postfeminist sensibility. Picture this: several single ladies wearing designer high heels are having drinks together at a bar, paying for said drinks with their own paychecks. One woman breaks out a Bic for Her to sign her receipt. She tells her friends, “I love that I can choose a pen made just for me. It allows me to express my individual femininity – and feel sexy while writing!” Her friends marvel at how empowered she is. This post is not the place to debate the meanings of postfeminism or “choice” feminism (but see Braithwaite 2002, Hall and Rodriguez 2003, and McRobbie 2008 for insights on this issue). The point is that perhaps in our current cultural climate, the way to resonate with potential consumers is to present this pen as an opportunity to express one’s true feminine self by accentuating one’s small, lady-like hands – if one so chooses, of course.
And of course, Bic leaves me asking one final, important question: does the fact that I’ve been doing just fine for years with pens-for-humans-but-really-for-men mean that I have man hands?
Lucia C. Lykke, University of Maryland — College Park