Gender & Society in the Classroom: Consumption

Organized by: Rilee Buttars, Brigham Young University
Updated by: Erielle Jones, University of Illinois – Chicago

In contemporary society masculinity, femininity, manhood, womanhood, sexuality, and other enactments of ‘doing’ gender are tied to how one presents oneself. Often these performances are influenced by the cultural expectations for what is considered appropriate or ideal in perceived gender identity. Individuals must enter into a negotiation of either compliance to or subversion of such norms. The construction and ‘doing’ of gender is constrained by larger material practices, structures, and discourses, but signifiers and boundaries are increasingly becoming more fluid in a highly commodified modernity. Consumption of various products and services contribute to one’s presentation of self and gender identity. From the clothes, hairstyles, accessories one purchases to the activities one engages in, gender is an ever-present factor. This section is a collection of articles pertaining to this phenomenon and the role consumption plays in identity production and reproduction.

Islam, Asiya. 2022. Plastic Bodies: Women Workers and Emerging Body Rules in Service Work in Urban India.” Gender & Society, 36(3): 422-444
Drawing on the narratives of young lower-middle-class women employed in cafés, call centers, shopping malls, and offices in Delhi, India, in this paper I identify malleability or “plasticity” of the body as an important feature of contemporary service work. As neophyte service professionals, young women mold themselves to the middle-/upper-class milieu of their workplaces through clothes, makeup, and body language. Such body plasticity can be experienced as enabling: Identifying with the image of the “New Indian Woman,” young women enter the bourgeoning service economy. However, they also experience this body plasticity as threatening; bodily changes to meet the requirements of work can, at times, feel inauthentic as well as be read as promiscuous by others. I draw attention to how women appraise plastic bodies as both generative of change and a site of labor discipline, thus offering insights into the relationship among bodies, social inequalities, and contemporary service work.

Braun, Yvonne, and Assitan Sylla Traore. 2015. “Plastic Bags, Pollution, and Identity: Women and the Gendering of Globalization and Environmental Responsibility in Mali.” Gender & Society 29 (6): 863-887.
Research and policy interest in questions of environmental waste is growing, especially plastic bag pollution. Where trash disposal and recycling are not highly regulated, the proliferation of plastic bags has created dramatic social and environmental consequences. In this article, we draw on 30 interviews with women who sell goods in markets in Mali as an entry point into investigating this issue through the interrelated dimensions of identity, gender, globalization, and the environment. We find the choices of women become suspect and blamed for this environmental issue despite their having few socio-political options, while global and local political and economic elites have largely been responsible for implementing a series of policies and programs that have heightened the local effects of globalization while diminishing the services available to deal with the environmental and cultural dimensions of these changes. The issue of plastic bag pollution demonstrates the environmental consequences of development strategies that have emphasized economic growth with seemingly little concern or value for local cultures and environments, let alone the experiences and lives of poor women. 

Rudrappa, Sharmila, and Caitlyn Collins. 2015. “Altruistic Agencies and Compassionate Consumers: Moral Framing of Transnational Surrogacy.” Gender & Society 26 (6): 937-953.
What makes a multimillion-dollar, transnational intimate industry possible when most people see it as exploitative? Using the newly emergent case of commercial surrogacy in India, this article extends the literature on stratified reproduction and intimate industries by examining how surrogacy persists and thrives despite its common portrayal as the “rent-a-womb industry” and “baby factory.” Using interview data with eight infertility specialists, 20 intended parents, and 70 Indian surrogate mothers, as well as blogs and media stories, we demonstrate how market actors justify their pursuits through narrating moral frames of compassion and altruism that are not incidental but systematic to and constitutive of transnational surrogacy. We observed two predominant moral frames: (1) surrogacy liberates and empowers Indian women from patriarchal control; and (2) surrogacy furthers reproductive rights. Within these frames, the market exchange of money for babies is cast as compassion, which allows commissioning clients to sidestep accusations of racism, classism, and sexism. Yet, we reveal that the ability to navigate around these threats relies on racist, classist, and sexist tropes about Third World working-class women. Further, we find that surrogate mothers did not experience significant changes in economic status after surrogacy. 

Fahs, Breanne. 2011. “Dreaded ‘Otherness’: Heteronormative Patrolling in Women’s Body Hair Rebellions.” Gender & Society 25 (4), 451-72.
This article grapples with the concepts choice, agency, power in terms of women’s need to conform or rebel against traditional social scripts about femininity and heterosexuality. The author had 34 college women stop shaving for 10 weeks. This experiment stemmed from the fear that many women have towards any clue they may give to being the “dreaded other”, or angry, hairy, lesbian or even feminist. The women experienced hostility, homophobia, and heterosexism (fear of same-sex intimacy) from others for rejecting traditional norms of femininity. Thus it shows that even the simplest form of ‘rebellion’ received social sanctions or reactionary backlash from others. In terms of choice, the act of choosing to shave or not to shave coincides with other studies dealing with other choices women make concerning their bodily practices and the punishments or rewards they receive because of these choices of conformity or nonconformity. The cosmetic surgery, fashion and beauty industries contribute to the image of what is considered normal for both male and female bodies.

Craig, Maxine Leeds, and Rita Liberti. 2007. “’Cause That’s What Girls Do’: The Making of a Feminized Gym.” Gender & Society 21 (5): 676-699.
While both men and women work out in contemporary gyms, popular conceptions of the gym as a masculine institution continue. The authors examine organizational processes within a chain of women-only gyms to explore whether and how these processes have feminized the historically masculine gym. They examine the physical setting and equipment, the established procedures for customers’ use of machines, and the interactional styles of employees as components of the organization’s structure. They argue that the organization’s use of technology and labor mobilizes customers’ participation in a feminized organizational culture of nonjudgmental and noncompetitive sociability. Organizational processes create a context that fosters gendered interactions and identities among customers. The organizational context calls gendered behavior into play such that the performance is naturalized. The processes outlined may occur in other cases of organizational recoding and suggest ways that transposable gender practices may change the gender coding of an institution yet leave gender hierarchies intact. 

Pugh, Allison. 2005. “Selling Compromise: Toys, Motherhood, and the Cultural Deal.” Gender & Society 19 (6): 729-49.
In today’s society there is constant conflict over what constitutes as good-enough mothering, and Pugh argues that the institution of work leaves women feeling trapped in the world of domesticity, or in other words housework and child care. Often advertisements claim toys as solutions with the power to allow mothers to be “good mothers” without physically having to be there by promising that the child will be nurtured, developed, and stimulated as middle-class child-rearing requires. However, the images in the catalogues often give off the sense of togetherness and companionship. The author calls for a redefinition of the seemingly contradictory roles of mother and career woman in an effort to make space for both. 

Buysse, Jo Ann M., and Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert. 2004. “Constructions of Gender in Sport: An Analysis of Intercollegiate Media Guide Cover Photographs.” Gender & Society 18 (1): 66-81.
Both the media and sports are ways in which gender stereotypes and inequality are upheld (see page 67). This article analyses the portrayal of female athletes in media guide cover photographs for intercollegiate sport. With a focus on university-created media, the authors found that from 1990 to 1997 women athletes continued to be underrepresented on the court or in action and markers of femininity continue to be prominent. Such markers include clothing, makeup, hairstyles and feminine poses. They conclude that this type of media has played a role in the continuation of male superiority and dominance when it comes to athleticism. 

De Casanova, Erynn Masi. 2004. “‘No Ugly Women’: Concepts of Race and Beauty Among Adolescent Women in Ecuador.” Gender & Society 18 (3): 287-308.
In this article, skin color, appearance and class are strongly linked to common conceptions of ideal beauty. This study found that peers are the most significant influence on ideas about appearance and feelings of attractiveness, but the media does play a part in constructing ideal beauty types. The ideal types are more achievable for those that coincide with the desired skin color (i.e. “neither too dark or too light”) or can afford to fix themselves up (see page 305).  This article also considers how idealized Latina bodies are becoming commodified and objectified within global popular culture. 

Massoni, Kelley. 2004. “Modeling Work: Occupational Messages in Seventeen Magazine.” Gender & Society 18 (1): 47-65.
This article explores the role of teen magazines in adolescent girls vision of the world of work and their potential place in it. In the magazines, professional careers in the entertainment industry are perceived as viable options and are given the majority of attention. Other messages include men as holding the power and the primary workers. They found that mainstream women’s magazines have consistently supported traditional gender roles and emphasized the importance of youth, beauty, and (heterosexual) romance with consumption as the means for achieving these goals and ideals (see page 51). 

Kang, Millann. 2003. “The Managed Hand: The Commercialization of Bodies and Emotions in Korean Immigrant–Owned Nail Salons.” Gender & Society 17 (6): 820-39.
This ethnographic study explores the interactions between Korean women-owned salons in New York City. The exchange of manicuring services brings diverse women in contact with each other where the interactions are both emotional and embodied. In today’s society, immigrant women of color have increasingly taken over the housework usually completed by middle to higher-class women. Even reproductive labor has become commodified. With globalization, the practice of enhancing bodily appearance has been transferred from the home into public urban space. Manicures are something a women purchases in a nail salon. This action not only expands the service industry, but brings women of different races and classes in contact with each other that in no other circumstances they would interact. These relations are worked out differently for different people, and larger systems of power and status come into play. 

Emerson, Rana. 2002. “’Where My Girls At?’: Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos.” Gender & Society 16 (1): 115-35.
This article addresses the dearth of literature on Black women performers and the negotiation of sexuality and womanhood in their everyday lives. One relevant finding is that controlling one’s sexuality is expressed in their clothing, jewelry and hairstyles. However, the focus of this article is on the videos emphasis on Black women’s bodies, how they construct a one-dimensional Black womanhood, and “the presence of male sponsors in the videos and a focus on themes of conspicuous consumption and romance further exhibit the types of social constraints faced by young Black women” (see page 121-122). 

Gagne, Patricia, and Deanna McGaughey. 2002. “Designing Women: Cultural Hegemony and the Exercise of Power Among Women Who Have Undergone Elective Mammoplasty.” Gender & Society 16 (6): 814-38.
The authors explore women’s use of cosmetic surgery. They draw from Foucault’s theory on power and Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Foucault argues that women who elect to have cosmetic surgery are just victims of popular notions of ideal beauty and the male gaze. On the other hand, Gramsci asserts that the women are exercising free choice. The authors argue for a synthesis of these two viewpoints in that women achieve greater power and control over their bodies when they embody the ideals of femininity beauty prescribed by society. Cosmetic surgery is a tool to empower women in this sense, but it also in turn reinforces the hegemonic ideals that oppress women. They argue that women are both victims and free agents when it comes to these decisions. Male-imposed standards are recognized and internalized by many women, whether or not they conform or resist these standards of beauty. These standards are further perpetuated as men often control medicine, fashion, media and the workplace. Thus, when women resist such notions, they are likely to risk discrimination merely because they do not fit with dominant culture (see page 835). The overall conclusion is that women are neither victims nor complete free-will agents when it comes to the beauty regime.