Friday, September 25, 2009

Gender sells.

I use Yahoo! as my homepage, personal email server, and RSS reader (through MyYahoo!), so I view the main page every day--usually several times a day. I'm not the only one--as of May 2009, it was the second-most visited web page in the world.

I love the convenience having everything in one place, but lately I've been thinking about pulling up stakes. Why? Because earlier this year, the web company introduced a new subdomain specifically aimed at women--Yahoo! Shine--and began to incorporate feature stories from the new site into its home page's newsfeed.

One look at Shine's navigation bar tells you what it's all about. Managing your life. Fashion and beauty. Healthy living. Parenting. Love and sex. Food. Astrology. These are the things Yahoo! supposes women are interested in. Of course there's no mention of politics, current events, or science on this page. Nor is there any content relating to issues of genuine concern to women specifically, such as domestic violence, rape, birth control, or the wage gap. Instead, we have articles like "Can being single trigger an anxiety disorder?" "Is it ever okay to go braless?" "How to give a great hand massage" and "What men want: women who dress up when they're out." "Healthy living" is about weight loss and dieting, and "love and sex" is about how to find, please, and keep a man--or how to survive being without one without becoming a mess of neurosis and depression! The dating articles focus on stereotypical male and female roles, discussing why men have so much trouble communicating and what women are doing wrong in their relationships. (Being too emotional or "high maintenance"--because there's nothing worse than a woman who makes too many demands--is a commonly emphasized mistake, naturally.)

As noted by the L'Atelier article on Shine's debut linked above, this website is advertiser-driven, not informational. Like most advertising aimed at women, its very design is to promote gender-based anxiety and insecurity towards the goal of getting women to buy products that will supposedly make them thinner, prettier, more attractive to men, and better at "managing their lives." The underlying message is that none of us are quite good enough as we are or worthwhile at all without male attention. This incredibly sexist, heterosexist, superficial pablum is funneled into my consciousness every day through Yahoo's "news" page--and as offensive as it is to my feminist sensibilities, as completely alien as it is to my priorities and interests, I sometimes find myself pulled into its toxic world.

That pull is something we've touched on repeatedly in our feminist legal theory class. Some of us have expressed frustration and anger at times approaching despair at how difficult it is to escape the traditional sex roles that we have internalized. All one has to do is look at this website--or the women's magazines by the grocery store checkout stand, the portrayals of fictional women in movies and television, and the commercials that show mothers cleaning up after children and husband to produce a shining, spotless home--to witness the reason why those roles are so etched upon our sense of ourselves as women, even as we consciously try to buck them. These messages about femaleness and femininity are reinforced everywhere. Pretty is powerful. Skinny is healthy. Marriage is happiness. Motherhood is fulfillment. You have to live under the proverbial rock to avoid them.

Men don't escape their own version of this indoctrination, either. To make an example of Yahoo! once again, links to "Men's Health Magazine," a media outlet devoted to traditional and stereotypical masculinity, also appear on the website's front page from time to time (although the company has not seen fit to make a site just for men, another instance of the "men as default" theory of gender.) Here we have articles on "The Shortcut to Her Bedroom," "Your Plan for More Sex," "Nine Ways to Protect Your Manhood," and "Best Tasting Guy Food," reinforcing the ideas that masculinity is sex-focused and sex-hungry, that coercive sexual techniques are socially acceptable, that "manhood" is always being threatened, and that there is such a thing as "guy food" as opposed to "girl food." As with the very idea that "men's health" and "women's health" are such very different things, this last seems to me a particularly ridiculous concept, as if men and women are two entirely different species. Must everything be gendered? Isn't this all a transparent ruse to persuade heterosexual couples to buy two of everything--his-and-hers lunch meat, pink and blue painkillers--with an eye to making twice the revenue?

It's interesting to me that so much of this messaging is perpetuated by advertising, chiefly by the incredibly lucrative diet and cosmetic industries. In this day and age, women have the financial agency and power of contract once denied us by the law of Blackstone--and yet that power is still exploited and subverted by the spirit of Blackstone. In today's consumerist world, sexism sells. Traditional gender roles are used to fuel the market for products that none of us really need, and which may actually be poisoning us. I'm left wondering whether a less consumerist culture would be a less gendered one. Likewise, would a less gendered culture produce a different kind of economy? Is this glut of gendered marketing just a reflection of a culture of oppression or a central culprit in its perpetuation? Is there a real economic advantage inherent in enforcing strict gender roles, or is it possible to conceive of a working capitalist model that does not depend so heavily upon damage to its participants' self-esteem and personhood? And how do we fight these pervasive gender stereotypes when powerful media providers such as Yahoo! have such a significant financial interest in maintaining the status quo?


Eve said...
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Eve said...

You raise a lot of difficult questions. One of the easiest ones is, "And how do we fight these pervasive gender stereotypes when powerful media providers such as Yahoo! have such a significant financial interest in maintaining the status quo?" I believe that the only way to fight the industry is to stop investing in it.

Many queer and feminist activists argue that boycotting products is classist: only those with enough money to withhold from businesses can have a significant impact. However, sometimes movements do require economic power. It is problematic to allow this to be our only source of power, but it can be effective.

Here are a couple of solutions I would propose:

1. Change your homepage. If you don't want to see these messages, stop looking at them.

2. Tell others to change their homepage.

3. Speak to the grocery store managers where you shop and ask if they can start holding more feminist magazines. Every grocery store has different magazines which they believe their customers will purchase. If enough people ask, they may provide more variety.

I recognize that all of these solutions assume that you are part of a higher socio-economic class. Therefore they are not necessarily the best, and certainly not the only solutions, but grassroots movements take time and require as many solutions as possible.

Erin S. said...

Fortunately, I mostly shop at the Davis Co-op, where no horrible magazines are to be found (yay hippie calendars on the way to the checkstand!), and I don't watch TV (except on DVD). Unfortunately, that doesn't change that the messages are out there--I'm less concerned with their effect on me than on society at large. But I agree, it's probably time for me to break ties with Yahoo! The only thing that's prevented me so far is laziness and force of habit, since I've been using the site as an email server, default search engine, and news provider for years. Google is better anyway. I just think Yahoo! provides a great example of how pervasive and insidious these messages are.

anonymous said...

I found an interesting website for men a few days ago called "The Art of Manliness". I was fascinated. The webpage was full of pleasing old fashioned pictures of gentlemen types, and the article titles were interesting, thoughtful, and covered a wide range of interests. A few that caught my eye: "How to Cross the Ocean on a Freighter Ship"; "The Perfect Dopp Kit"; "Loss, Grief, and Manliness: What Eery Man Should Know about Losing a Loved One"; and my personal favorite "How to be a Hobo". So, there I was enjoying a website designed for men and I thought, maybe there's a female counterpart to this page?

Several wasted hours later I realized that a vast majority of women's websites are just as Erin suggests - full of trivial how-to nonsense: lose weight, pluck eyebrows, find a man, buy the perfect wedding dress. I will admit to reading some of this nonsense from time to time, but I'd like to find a website that rivals The Art of Manliness for charm, irreverence, and general content. Until then, I'll be reading "A Treatise on the Mustache" and "The Gentleman's Guide to Umbrellas".

Anon5 said...

Your discussion of "guy food" really resonated with me. I remember several Carl's Jr. commercials on the radio and TV that made fun of vegetarianism. I used to mock the commercials when they came on because their message essentially was "You don't eat big juicy hamburgers? Then you're a pussy."

I think that gender inequality existed before the creation of the mass media system, but now the advertisers and the media are part of the feedback loop that play a central role in perpetuating stereotypes. As another commenter suggested, boycotting their products is probably the best tool we have to fight it, but in a capitalist system such as ours, the manufacture of "wants" and the focus on consumer culture will probably continue to dominate.

If working people actually owned the companies that employed them, the marketplace might be more democratic, and we could exert more control over the messages that are sent to consumers. This will probably not happen in America for quite a long time, if ever, but I guess I can dream.