Gender & Society in the Classroom: Culture

Organized by: Lucia Lykke, University of Maryland – College Park

Updated by: Jenny Lendrum, Wayne State University

Culture is a broad term, and Gender & Society offers a variety of approaches and discussions on the subject. Gender & Society articles include: Cultural representations of gender, race, and sexuality; cultural norms and expectations; cross-cultural perspectives and non-Western cultures; and cultures/subcultures. This guide contains a selection of articles that deal with culture in each of these ways. Articles are organized in reverse chronological order.

Currier, Danielle M. “Strategic ambiguity protecting emphasized femininity and hegemonic masculinity in the hookup culture.” Gender & Society (2013)

Hooking up is a term commonly used in contemporary American society to refer to sexual activity between two people who are not in a committed romantic relationship. Data show that although many college students are engaging in hookups, there is no consensus on how to define a hookup. The author uses the concept of “strategic ambiguity” to explore the intentionality and usefulness of the vagueness of this term. Specific to hookups, strategic ambiguity is when individuals use the term “hookup” to describe their sexual activities rather than give details about their sexual activities as an impression management strategy to protect their sexual and social identities. Analyzing data gathered through interviews with heterosexual students at a mid-sized public university in the South, this article addresses the normative character and the myriad definitions of hookups; addresses the underlying heterosexist bias in the definitions of hookups; and analyzes how the ambiguity of the term “hookup” serves women and men in different ways and both reinforces and challenges the current gender order, allowing men to conform to and preserve components of hegemonic masculinity and women to conform to and preserve components of emphasized femininity.

Stokes, Allyson. 2015. The Glass Runway How Gender and Sexuality Shape the Spotlight in Fashion Design. Gender & Society, 29(2): pp. 219-243.

Fashion design is a feminized occupation, but there is a widespread perception that gay male designers are advantaged in receiving awards, publicity, and praise. This article develops the notion of a “glass runway” to explain this inequality. First, using design canons and lists of award recipients, I show that men, especially gay men, receive more consecration than women. Second, I show how men and women are consecrated differently by analyzing the content of 157 entries in Voguepedia’s design canon and 96 fashion media articles. Attributions of value and legitimacy construct a gendered image of the ideal fashion designer through discourses of art and culture that reinforce essentialist ideas about gender difference. Because cultural value is ambiguous, processes of valorization are shaped by gender essentialism, pushing male cultural producers down the glass runway and into the spotlight of fame, consecration, and legitimation. Finally, the case of fashion design offers insights into how intersecting inequalities can shape the glass runway. Gay designers experience both valorization and discrimination from intersections of gender and sexuality.

Balogun, Oluwakemi M. 2012. Cultural and Cosmopolitan Idealized Femininity and Embodied Nationalism in Nigerian Beauty Pageants. Gender & Society, 26, (3): pp. 357-381.

This article uses a comparative-case research design of two different national beauty pageants in Nigeria to ask how and why gendered nationalisms are constructed for different audiences and aims. Both contests claim to represent “true Nigerian womanhood” yet craft separate models of idealized femininity and present different nationalist agendas. I argue that these differences stem from two distinct representations of gendered national identities. The first pageant, “Queen Nigeria,” whose winners do not compete outside of Nigeria, brands itself as a Nigerian-based pageant, centered on a cultural-nationalist ideal, which is focused on revitalizing and appreciating Nigerian culture to unify the nation. In contrast, the second contest, “The Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria,” utilizes “international standards” to select and send contestants to Miss World and Miss Universe, the top pageants in the world, and promotes a cosmopolitan-nationalist ideal, which remains concentrated on propelling and integrating Nigeria into the international arena.

Milkie, Melissa A. 2002. Contested images of femininity: An analysis of cultural gatekeepers’ struggles with the “real girl” critique. Gender & Society 16(6): 839-859.

Milkie interviews editors at two national girls’ magazines to discover how these cultural gatekeepers respond to critiques that the magazines present inauthentic images of girls. Media sources tend to narrowly define femininity and female beauty, and both the producers and the consumers of media struggle with and contest these representations. Milkie seeks to understand how the people with the power to create culture – magazine editors – negotiate representations of femininity and female beauty. Milkie finds that girls’ magazine editors agree with their readers criticisms of how girls are presented in the magazines, but claim that it is beyond their control to change the images due to the influence of the art world, the influence of advertisers, or the influence of the culture at large. Simultaneously, however, editors delegitimize girls’ critiques of magazine images, claiming that girls are not properly interpreting the images.

Emerson, Rana A. 2002. “Where my girls at?”: Negotiating Black womanhood in music videos. Gender & Society 16(1): 115-135.

Emerson analyzes the representations of Black women in rap and hip-hop music videos, buliding on previous research that focused either on misogynistic representations of Black women in music culture, or on women’s agency as performers.  Emerson uses 56 music videos featuring Black women performers (as lead singers, rappers, or guest performers — background dancers and singers were not included), played on TV in 1998. Emerson found several themes in the videos’ representations of Black women: The videos emphasized Black women’s bodies; Black women are presented as one-dimensional being, youthful “eye candy” for men; Black women in videos were presented under the guidance of a male artist or sponsor.  Despite these oppressive themes, Emerson also found evidence of Black women’s resistance and agency in the videos. Black women positively identified with Black culture and aesthetics, asserted autonomy and independence, and expressed partnership or collaboration with other Blacks. Emerson concludes with a discussion on the ambivalent and contradictory nature of Black women’s relationship to Black popular culture.

Yodanis, Carrie. 2005. Divorce culture and marital gender equality: A cross-national study.  Gender & Society 19(5): 644-659.

Yodanis explores the relationship between marital equality and divorce culture.  In a divorce culture, marriage is seen as optional and conditional, with divorce a viable option if the marriage doesn’t work out. Yodanis compares data across 22 countries from the International Social Survey Programme.  The U.S. was found to have the strongest divorce culture. Yodanis concludes that strong divorce culture is related to greater gender equality in marriages.  This relationship is more salient when divorce culture is considered at a national level, rather than an individual level.  Yodanis argues that the study indicates the complexity of growing divorce culture, in which aspects of divorce culture, such as more progressive gender ideology, may be positive.

Richards, Patricia. 2007. Bravas, permitidas, obsoletas: Mapuche women in the Chilean print media. Gender & Society 21(4): 553-578.

Richards analyzes media representations of Mapuche women in Chilean print media from 1997 to 2003 in order to see how racialized and gendered nationalist assumptions are perpetuated in media sources.  The Mapuche are an indigenous group that is engaged in struggles for land and cultural preservation in southern Chile.  Richards uncovered three archetypal portrayals of Mapuche women in the media sources. First, mujeres bravas, or fierce women, who fight for Mapuche rights and simultaneously evokes awe and reprimands from media sources. Richards argues that bravas serve to differentiate Mapuche women from “normal” Chilean women. Second, mujeres permitidas are represented in a positive light by media sources and reflect an international trend of acceptance of multiculturalism. Third, mujeres obsoletas, older Mapuche women, represent the cultural assumption that Mapuche culture is doomed to disappear.

Ridgeway, Cecilia.  2009. Framed before we know it: How gender shapes social relations. Gender & Society 23(2): 145-160.

Ridgeway presents a theoretical argument for recognizing gender as a primary cultural frame that shapes social relations.  Gender operates as a primary frame in that it provides necessary shared cultural knowledge that allows us to categorize ourselves and others and act accordingly.  These cultural beliefs about gender are institutionalized in media, law and policy, and organizational practices, and shape individual behaviors and judgment.  Ridgeway provides two examples of how gender acts as a background frame.  First, she discusses small high-tech firms, comparing the experiences of women scientists in life science firms vs. engineering/physical science firms, finding that women in life science firms with flexible structures are less disadvantaged because life sciences are not as strongly gender-typed as engineering/physical sciences, and because women are able to perform better in organizations without rigid hierarchical structures.  Second, Ridgeway draws on research that shows that men and women in more affluent societies that place value on self-expression tend to rely on cultural beliefs about gender when choosing occupations.  For example, more affluent societies have greater disparity between boys’ and girls’ expressed affinity for math. 

Hill, Shirley A. 2009. Cultural images and the health of African American women. Gender & Society 23(5): 747-767.

Hills’ essay examines cultural constructions of Black womanhood that focus on strength, motherhood, and big bodies.  Hill argues that while these images arose as a means of distinguishing the experiences of Black women from cultural constructions of white femininity, the images simply invert derogatory images of Black women: for example, the “Mammy” becomes a focus on motherhood that may foster teen pregnancies.  Further, Hill argues that these cultural images are based on the experiences of the poorest and least powerful Black women and have negative consequences for Black women’s health and well-being, mandating that Black women enact their “strength” to survive in situations of great hardship and exploitation and that Black female beauty include acceptance of obesity.

Hamilton, Laura, and Armstrong, Elizabeth A. 2009. Gendered sexuality in young adulthood: Double binds and flawed options. Gender & Society 23(5): 589-616.

Hamilton and Armstrong follow a group of college women through their heterosexual dating experiences in order to examine the U.S. college culture and the role of “hooking up” (casual sexual encounters).  Hamilton and Armstrong focus on the ways in which gender and class structure college women’s sexuality.  Hamilton and Armstrong find that although women would prefer to be in relations, the “hook up” has come to dominate college culture and is preferred by college men.  The women in the study found themselves subjected to a sexual double standard and felt the need to employ strategies to keep themselves safe from sexually aggressive men at parties.  Middle-class college women found that their personal expectations and the college sexual culture meshed; however, lower or working class college women found the college sexual culture to be foreign and alienating.

Cairns, Kate, Johnston, Josee, and Baumann, Shyonn. 2010. Caring about food: Doing gender in the foodie kitchen. Gender & Society 24(5): 591-615.

This study examines how men and women “do gender” in Western “foodie” culture, in which people are passionate about eating and learning about “good food.”   While food is more traditionally considered part of the female domain, foodie culture seems to appeal to both men and women. The researchers interview 30 foodies across the U.S., finding that foodies consider food culture to be central to their identities. The researchers find instances of both gender reproduction and gender resistance in foodie culture.  For example, in participating in foodie culture, women found it difficult to balance their own pleasure in food consumption and knowledge with the cultural expectation of performing care work for others, while men found the discourse of foodie culture to be more compatible with cultural expectations for men. 

McCabe, Janice, Fairchild, Emily, Grauerholz, Liz, Pescosolido, Bernice A., and Tope, Daniel. 2011. Gender in twentieth century children’s books: Patterns of disparity in titles and central characters. Gender & Society 25(2): 197-226.

This study examines the cultural representation of male and female characters in children’s books. The authors track the prevalence of male and female title characters and central characters in over 5,000 children’s books from the twentieth century.  The authors find that male characters are represented in titles almost twice as often as female characters and are 1.6 times more likely to be central characters, pointing to symbolic annihilation of women and girls in children’s literature. The authors also draw a connection between representation of women and girls in children’s books and social change throughout the twentieth century, noting that female characters were least represented in the time period between the first and second wave of the women’s movement, 1930’s to the 1960’s.