“good” and “bad” women: gender performance in the context of class stratification

Credit: Furqan Jawed

By Sidra Kamran

Feminists have long critiqued the false binary of “good woman” vs. “bad woman” but these caricatures still survive in some circles. But some women are increasingly rejecting this good/bad dichotomy and developing new types of femininities which combine characteristics of both “good” and “bad” womanhood. For example, the  #girlboss identity fuses characteristics of conventional femininity with the traditionally masculine traits of aggressiveness and authority. However, who creates these new meanings for femininity and are they available to all?

My research explores how these caricatures of “good woman” and “bad woman” play out in the lives of Pakistani working-class women workers. In Pakistan, the locally idealized form of femininity is that of respectable femininity, meaning women who are domestic, modest, religious, docile, and follow middle-class norms of behavior. In contrast, stigmatized femininity is associated with women who spend time in the public sphere, interact with men who are not relatives, are overly sexual or aggressive, and follow working-class norms of behavior and speech.

During ethnographic fieldwork in a women-only marketplace in Karachi, Meena Bazaar, I noticed that women engaged in a wide range of contradictory gender behaviors.  On the one hand, women beauty and retail workers regularly shouted, cursed, acted in a hypersexualized feminine way, and fought with customers and co-workers alike. They seemed to embody stereotypes of “bad women.” On the other hand, workers also constantly attempted to signal respectability, invoked the idea of their own “izzat” (translated as honor/respect/moral reputation), and sometimes were modest, religious, and upheld middle-class norms. Initially, it appeared that some women beauty and retail workers presented themselves as “good” respectable women whereas others willfully performed “bad” womanhood. On closer examination, however, I realized that it was not that some women were invested in being “good” and others in being “bad”, but rather, the same women were continuously fluctuating between both forms of femininity.

What explains this cacophony of femininities in Meena Bazaar?  I argue that women performed these different forms of femininity in attempts to accrue economic benefits such as wages and profits at the same time as respectability and social status. While adopting the “bad women” type of femininity usually decreases women’s reputation, in the context of Meena Bazaar, it also enabled access to economic benefits. For example, managers required their workers to be aggressive, loud, and domineering so that workers could effectively recruit customers amidst the tough competition in the bazaar. However, women did not earn sufficient economic benefits in these low-wage jobs and remained marked as low status both inside and outside the workplace. Thus, they also attempted to approximate more respectable femininity, for example, by adopting both religious and docile attitudes, in an effort to gain status by proving their morality. Since women workers in Meena Bazaar, mostly working-class, were unable to secure sufficient economic benefits or moral respectability to secure “good women” status, they relied on using both kinds of femininity as a survival strategy.

Professional middle-class women and feminists who are rejecting prevalent gender norms are often celebrated as the “new women” of South Asia. Working-class beauty and retail workers in Meena Bazaar were also defying gender norms. They were working outside their homes in low-status jobs and performing “bad” womanhood by abandoning traditionally feminine ways of behaving in docile and restrained ways. However, unlike middle-class and elite women in high status jobs, women in Meena Bazaar did not consciously reject, fuse, or re-define the dichotomy of “good” and” bad” women to herald a new type of womanhood. Rarely did workers in Meena Bazaar brazenly self-identify with “bad” womanhood, even as they performed it by discarding traditional femininity and rejecting the inequalities between traditional masculinity and femininity. Rather, they clung to the opposites of “good” and “bad” woman as they tried to identify as “good” and used these stereotypes to disparage other workers.

Intentionally subversive gender performances are a key tactic of feminist movements in Pakistan and elsewhere, and highlight the poverty of respectability politics. However, my research suggests that such tactics must also be accompanied by other strategies for societal change. Class inequality forces working-class women to use the caricatures of “good” and “bad” womanhood to leverage their status. Working-class women who otherwise defy prevailing gender norms continue to aspire toward respectable femininity, even when this kind of femininity is ultimately used to stigmatize them. My research shows why working-class women continue to vacillate between these opposites of “good” and “bad” womanhood and are invested in maintaining this dichotomy, rather than challenging it. Ultimately, this “good woman” vs. “bad woman” binary allows them to gain status in a class-stratified society. In the absence of efforts to address this class inequality, gender stereotypes are unlikely to be upended, as women will continue to use whatever kind of femininity, they need to in order to increase their chances of a better life.

Sidra Kamran (@sidrakn) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the New School for Social Research, where she has also completed a graduate certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her dissertation examines the flourishing yet stigmatized occupations of beauty and retail work in Pakistan and her other research analyses how TikTok is enabling the unprecedented entry of women and sexual minorities into Pakistan’s digital public sphere. You can read more about her research here.

Local Gender Norms Across the United States

Image: Kara Muse via Pexels

Chicago is the city of big shoulders, New Orleans is known for its laid back vibes of the Big Easy, and Nashville for its southern charm and country music. Places throughout the United States have unique cultural reputations that are not only marketed for tourism, but are a source of pride for local residents. Alongside these popular cultural features, however, places are often associated with a set of gender norms. New York is popularly portrayed as a place of women’s independence in sitcoms such as Ally McBeal and Sex and the City. The Motor City of Detroit is home to men’s adoration of muscle and manufacturing (Home Improvement). Southern depictions of “southern belles” and “cowboys” are rather explicit gender norms associated with cities such as Dallas (conveyed in the soap opera named after the city).

We wanted to learn more about whether gender norms varied across cities in the U.S. and if so, and what this means for gender equality. Although we often revel and delight at places’ unique cultural flair, does this local culture also contain  elements that convey different expectations for women and men? Our analysis and results are published in a recent Gender & Society article. We highlight our key findings below.

MAPPING LOCAL GENDER NORMS ACROSS THE U.S.

We measured local gender norms by focusing on the way they’re reflected in personal attitudes about gender (e.g. beliefs that women are better caregivers than men and beliefs about women’s suitability for politics) as well as revealed preferences behavior (e.g. age of mothers’ first birth and the segregation of college majors). Focusing on differences in these indicators across commuting zones, we found that cities and their surrounding areas (commuting zones)  fall into four general categories of gender norms:

  • Liberal-egalitarian areas have norms that convey values of gender equality. In these locations, women and men are expected to contribute equally to caregiving and are viewed as having similar skills and leadership qualities. Places with these norms include Burlington, VT, Honolulu, HI, San Francisco, CA, and Washington, DC.
  • Egalitarian-essentialist places have local norms that support women’s labor force participation and leadership, but where people hold  gender essentialist beliefs that women and men are inherently suited for different types of work. Areas with egalitarian-essentialist norms include Charlotte, NC, Milwaukee, WI, and Orlando, FL.
  • Traditional-breadwinner norms exist in places where people hold  beliefs that the ideal family is one where men work and women tend the home. In these areas, women and men are not viewed as essentially different, but instead expected to hold different responsibilities. Places with these norms include Knoxville, TN and Tulsa, OK.
  • Traditional-essentialist locations are places where people believe in the essential difference between women and men with norms that women should focus primarily on family responsibilities. Places with these norms include Little Rock, AR, Charleston, WV, and Midland, TX.

By identifying four types of place based gender norms, we identify gendered aspects of local culture.  But where do these gender norms come from? How are they sustained?

WHAT SUSTAINS LOCAL GENDER NORMS?

In a time where internet, social media, and remote work make geographical location less consequential than ever, we found it is surprising to observe such variation in gender norms. To understand how these differences emerge, we studied  two possible contributing factors.

First, we wondered whether some places have certain gender norms because of the type of people who tend to live there. For example, since highly educated individuals tend to be more supportive of gender equality, it is possible that some places have egalitarian norms because more residents have a college degree. But we also wondered about a second possibility, whether the experience of living in an area with certain gender norms influences individuals’ attitudes and behaviors.

We found greater evidence that people are influenced by the gender norms where they reside rather than their personal characteristics, particularly if they live a city with traditional-breadwinner or traditional-essentialist norms. In those traditional places, even residents with a college degree, who tend to show more support for gender equality, were much more likely to oppose women’s leadership and feel that men should be earners and women caregivers than college graduates who lived in more egalitarian environments. Residing in a place with traditional norms appears to cause those who would otherwise support gender equality to, instead, endorse more conventional beliefs about women’s leadership and the gendered division of labor.

LOCAL GENDER NORMS AND PROGRESS TOWARD GENDER EQUALITY

When we travel across the U.S., we encounter diverse gender norms. In Burlington, VT women and men are expected to contribute equally in families and at work, but things are very different in Little Rock, AR where women are expected to focus primarily on families with little support for their careers.

Our research indicates that local gender norms can play a powerful role in shaping individuals’ beliefs and orientations toward gender equality. By raising awareness of the role of local norms, we can be more intentional about changing them in ways that advance gender equality more broadly.

William J. Scarborough is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Texas. His research examines the cultural and economic determinants of gender and race inequality across the U.S. His recent work appears in Social Science Research and Gender, Work & Organization. He is also co-editor of the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.

Ray Sin is a Behavioral Scientist at Early Warning Services. His research focuses on financial decision-making, and more recently, on how money can be sent easier, safer, and faster to friends, family and trusted contacts. His recent work appears in Gender & Society and Journal of Financial Planning.