One important area where Women and Gender Studies has done a lot of critical work:
cultural representation. By this I mean an investigation of the ways in which gendered
identities are constituted through systems of representation.
Why is representation an important issue in Women and Gender Studies? Lots of
reasons, but just name two related issues:
(1) Representations are everywhere, in advertisements, texts, movies, art, videos,
music, forming an integral part of the culture in which they are produced,
circulated and received/consumed.
(2) By becoming aware of the political and cultural stakes of representation (how
they work, who controls them), we can become more attuned to how gendered
identities are produced around us, can begin to think critically about the
relationships between the portrayal of individuals and groups and our perception
of our own as well as other individual and collective identities. If we return to
Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement, ‘Woman is not born, she is made,’ in
which gender is not some inherent quality that adheres to sexed bodies in a
naturally binary (male/female) system, then how might we think of systems of
representation as participating in the construction, the making of this binarised
understanding of our worlds as consisting of women and men?
Reading representations, then, is an important critical skill – just as we have to learn to
read texts to figure out the story being told, the investment in narrating it in a particular
way, so too we have to learn to become critical about what we see, to become skilled in
ways of seeing (you all much better than me on this one).
What I want to do in the first half of tonight’s lecture is to frame the readings by touching
on and illustrating some concepts that will be returned to in the film that we will be
looking at in the second half of class.
Let us begin by thinking broadly about this term REPRESENTATION (ASK CLASS
what it means)
1 (1) Standing in for /substitution (political representation), where a person or small
numbers of people stand in for population at large (eg. elections in a
representative democracy would be the situation with which we are most familiar)
(2) Portraying (in an AESTHETIC OR PHILOSOPHICAL sense): For our purpose,
we are going to focus on this definition. One way of thinking about this definition
is that it implies that there is an original out there, beyond representation, a
faithful copy. But there is another way to approach this. When we think of
communication, we think of a language, and the obvious assumption is that it is
either written or spoken. It can also be visual or aural. But for this to work, for
that language to create and fix a particular meaning so it seems inevitable or
natural, we must in a sense share the same way of interpreting the signs of a
language. A few things follow from this observation:
(1) That meanings are the product of society’s social, cultural, linguistic conventions
(2) That making or producing meaning them depends on the practice of interpretation
(3) That not all ideas are equally valid.. So we are into questions of some
interpretations being taken more seriously than others, given the status of truth or
having more status than others.
Meanings, then, have a history (and they can shift eg. gay, wicked, queer). This is one of
the important points that is made in your reading this week by Rosalind Coward in the
text, which is about the bombardment in contemporary Western culture of images of ideal
female bodies, which are largely pre-adolescent bodies, with accompaniments of
immaturity and dependency, powerlessness. In fact this was not always the case, and at
one point the ideal was a large hipped and graceful female. So the ideal body type
changes, gets smaller, takes up less and less space. One article in the text that was not
assigned (on the grotesque moderne, if you are interested in reading it) looks at this in
relation to advertising images from the 1920s and 1930, that shifted to an emphasis on no
body fat and elongated limbs for women.
2 Let us look at this in a bit more detail through a discussion of perhaps the most
ubiquitous representation of beauty that has girls as its direct target audience:
First made in 1959, this year Barbie becomes a 54 year old teenager. 11 ½ inch fashion
doll, invented by Ruth Handler (with husband Elliott, founded Mattel). Plastic mold
designed by Jack Ryan, aerospace engineer, known for his work in designing war
machinery, specifically Hawk and Sparrow missiles. The context for Barbie: end of war,
post-war economic boom, women back into home, expectations marriage and
motherhood. powerpoint Barbie is seen as American, interestingly she is literally made
and sold worldwide. Powerpoint. Called by one scholar the most accessible, “the
ultimate piece of mass art.”
ASK CLASS: What values, what cultural ideas of womanhood does Barbie embody?
(1) Figure: angular, long legs, tiny hips, full breasts, luxuriant hair, tall, able-bodied,
permanently arched feet to accommodate stiletto heels. Historically, melds two
ideals, long lean form, and curvaceous full bosomed body.
(2) Painted on makeup – incorporates makeup as part of body
(3) Put her next to Ken, she becomes heterosexual
In fact, Barbie represents an impossible cultural ideal. It is estimated that Barbie’s at 5’
9”, Barbie’s measurements would be 36"-18"-33”, and she wouldn’t have enough body
fat to menstruate regularly.
So, if Barbie is the ideal, and if the ideal is impossible to achieve, then one dominant
lesson we might say that contemporary culture teaches us is that women’s bodies are
permanently imperfect, always in need of improvement. It also asks us to consider the
relationship of the beauty industry – cosmetics, plastic surgery, diet to name a few – to
these beauty ideals, and the inequalities that accompany them. In other words, this
industry – a source of huge profit in the global economy – relies for its success and
profitability on selling an impossible ideal of perfection.
Here we are moving beyond questions of representational power, to also consider
consumption practices, how people make use of or purchase goods and services – eg.
sociologists may look at how consumption fulfils needs for individual distinction and
3 social identity, anthropologists see consumption as the active engagement of people with
goods and cultural values. Many of those now studying consumption pay attention to the
ways in which it is not a passive activity, but involves people actively engaging with the
market, and as an important space in which meanings and identities are constructed.
Let us turn briefly to mass media and advertising as key elements in the production of our
consumer society. In simple economic terms, the power of the advertising industry is
immense. It sustains mass media, and mass media in turn delivers huge audiences to the
advertisers (REFERENCE SUPERBOWL, roughly $4 million for a 30 second
advertisement). A few points to note here:
• Goods do not have inherent values in themselves, they are invested with them
through advertisements. They appear to possess or embody values – happiness,
sexiness, freedom that can be transmitted to the consumer through the act of
purchase and consumption. So advertisers do not just sell us a product, they sell
us ideas in order to sell us products. Ads subtly play on our lack – of the right
shape, the right colour, the right age – to entice us to buy goods that will take
away our wrinkles, firm our stomachs, bleach our skin colour, ‘fix’ our eyelids.