Monday, November 29, 2010

Flea Market Icons: Not So Subtle Gender Messages

Dear George,

I’ve always liked flea markets. It probably goes back to childhood obsessions – collecting bottle caps, marbles, baseball cards, what have you. Going to an outdoor flea market on a sunny Sunday morning is pure bliss. You never know what you’ll find, prices are low, and it’s pleasing to roam around with other like-minded treasure-hunters.

Aside from practical things like frying pans or ping pong paddles, I’m usually drawn to kitschy decorative objects in the form of figurines, miniature statues, salt and pepper shakers, and the like. While enjoyable in their own right, these products also offer a revealing picture of life in our society. One thing that always strikes me is how gendered objects in our culture are. There are endless representations of human beings, and virtually 100% of these are immediately classifiable as female or male, usually in an exaggerated, stereotypic form. As decorative objects to be displayed in one’s home, they offer clues to our society’s values about what women and men are supposed to be like.

Lately I’ve been gathering photos of what I’ll call “women and men of the flea market”. While I label these flea market images, in fact they also come from antique malls and thrift shops. Thinking about gender stereotypes in our culture, here are a few illustrative “flea market women”:

The first thing that strikes one’s eye is the physical attractiveness of all of these representations. They have pretty faces and shapely bodies, high cheekbones and appealing smiles. Most are in static poses, functioning primarily as decorative entities. Basically, they seem to instruct us that what is to be desired about women is physical beauty and sex appeal. Depictions of flea market men, in contrast, seem to have quite different implications, as illustrated by the following objects:

Compared to statuettes of women, men are portrayed in a broader array of roles, e.g., as cowboys, warriors, sea captains, pirates. These are not mundane everyday roles, but rather those involving danger, adventure, and physical prowess. Though the male figures are good-looking enough, sex appeal seems less salient than themes of dominance, aggression, and independence. In essence, these representations reaffirm stereotypes about masculinity in our culture. Compared to the more static female objects, the male figures are doers – more agentic, more instrumental, poised to act upon the world.

So one might sum up by saying that these gendered commodities are thoroughly stereotypic and serve to reinforce gender conceptions and values that are deeply rooted in our society as a whole. This picture gets more complicated though when we look at a third subset of gendered artifacts, i.e., those depicting cross-sex couples. Here are a few examples:

Something curious happens. Portrayals of both sexes have become relatively desexualized. While the woman’s dress may reveal her figure, she is less clearly depicted as a sexual object. Likewise, aspects of power and aggression are less obvious for males (though males are almost always taller than females). These are not cowboys or pirates and wenches. Instead the two sexes are typically depicted in relatively similar terms, conveying impressions of greater equality and harmony. Sometimes these are images suggesting traditional roots in earlier times, e.g., the 18th century or ancient Rome. Many convey a sense of romantic involvement. While one rarely encounters a depiction of a solo woman or man as elderly, couples are often presented as aged, with an implication of their commitment to one another “till death do us part.”. Rather than sexy women and adventurous men, these portrayals of couples connote values of equality and communality, and sex takes a back-stage to closeness and long-term commitment.

So what might we make of all this? First and foremost, flea market women and men seem to tell us about social expectations for the sexes in our culture. Basically we’re given a message that there are two mutually exclusive, virtually opposite sub-categories of human beings on earth. The ideal feature of women is their physical and sexual attractiveness. They are objects of beauty and desire. Men, in contrast, are dominant, instrumental, and agentic. These themes are only salient, however, when women and men are considered separately and unattached. When they are viewed together in pairs, e.g., in romantic relationships or marriage, these polarized features are de-emphasized, and we’re shown a picture of greater uniformity between the sexes. Perhaps this reflects our culture’s view of marriage, or perhaps an effort to avoid blatant discrimination when direct comparison is possible. Whatever one’s take on this, flea market women and men are definitely objects of interest.



G-Mail Comments

-JML (11-30): Nice Dad. You can take the social scientist out of the retired man, but you can never take the retired man out of the social scientist. Isn't that the old expression? Thanks for a nice week. ~ J

-Linda C (11-29): i think i like the woman and the horse in the first section, and the men and all the masculine jobs they have just reek of sexual power, the woman and horse i like because i viewed it as a way for her to get out of the century she was in. all in all they are great, did you buy any? how are the twins? love linda

--Jennifer M (11-29-10): is this this kernel of your next academic paper? i feel the discipline pulling at you! :-)

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