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GNDS 125 Study Guide - Final Guide: Conspicuous Consumption, Omen, Polyamory

Gender Studies
Course Code
GNDS 125
Melissa Houghtaling
Study Guide

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Unit 1: Feminism and Popular Culture
Popular Culture:
As Milestone and Meyer (2012:2) suggest, establishing a precise definition of popular culture can be tricky.
We can start with the idea that popular culture has to do with the lived culture, cultural practices, and
cultural texts that people engage in or with. Broadly speaking, cultural texts convey cultural norms, values,
and beliefs and include any aspect of culture whose intent is to signify or produce meanings. These texts are
comprised of not only written or spoken words (language) but also images and symbolic practices. Cultural
texts include films, television programs, music, radio, sports, lifestyle and entertainment magazines, social
media, advertising, and journalism/broadcast news, to name just a few.
What exactly we mean by "popular" in "popular culture" is also a tricky point. On the one hand, popular
can suggest that a text is well-liked or practiced by many people, or that an icon or media product is well-
known in a given culture or around the world. Arguably, however, some "popular" cultural texts and icons
are well-known but not necessarily well-liked, thus eliciting an alternative notion of "popular" in this case.
One might think of, for instance, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly or, in light of recent allegations, Bill Cosby.
Popular culture is largely produced through media that is, means of mass communication such as
newspapers, magazines, radio, film, and television. When we talk about mass media, we are specifically
referring to information that is communicated one-way from media industries to audiences. We use the
term the media to refer to the group of news anchors, reporters, journalists, and institutions who constitute
the communications industry and profession. New media, on the other hand, refer to more recent online
technologies and social media that are interactive and contain user-generated content. Because new media
is interactive, information is generated and transmitted in several different directions, blurring the line
between the "producer" and "consumer" of popular culture and media content. This idea is known as
produsage, which will be explored further in Units 2 and 4. Examples of new media include things like
Facebook, Twitter, blogs, online newspapers, online video games, internet radio, or Wikipedia.
Production refers to those processes involved in creating and making cultural texts. This can include
anything from musical albums to news broadcasts to slam poetry.
Representation refers to the actual content of popular culture and the ways that individuals, groups,
institutions, issues, and events are portrayed therein. In Unit 3, we explore processes of representation and
consider how and to what extent different social groups and identities are portrayed in popular culture. As
we critically analyze the meanings and messages behind these depictions, you will gain insight on how ideas
about gender and race are constructed and inequalities are reproduced in popular culture.
Sex and Gender:
Sex and gender are terms that are often confused or conflated. How many times have you been asked your
on a form and the possible answers were Male and Female? While the two are inextricably linked,
they do refer to different aspects of human identity. Sex refers to the socially constructed categories that
divide bodies into “female” and “male,” based on culturally accepted biological attributes such as
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chromosome, genitals, reproductive organs, and hormones. Gender, on the other hand, refers to the socially
constructed categories that divide bodies into “women” and “men” (Ferber, Holcomb and Wentling 2013).
Outdated theories like essentialism and biological determinism describe sex and gender as natural and
immutable, where one’s sex is supposed to determine one’s gender [male à masculine/man; female à
feminine/woman]. In this course we take a social constructionist approach and reject the idea that sex and
gender are biological givens, instead, recognizing the complex interplay between biology and socialization
(Ferber, Holcomb and Wentling 2013). As we will explore throughout this course, gender is learned through
(popular) culture and socialization, and it is constituted or ‘made real’ through our interactions with each
other in particular contexts. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir (1948), existential philosopher and
feminist, “One is not born but rather becomes a woman.” Moreover, what we understand and perceive to
be female or male, or feminine or masculine, is contingent and, indeed, changes over time and place or
It is also important to recognize the different aspects of gender. For instance, a person’s gender
has to do with one’s outward expression or manifestation of gender, such as how one dresses, speaks, cuts
their hair, acts/mannerisms, and so on. A person’s gender
is more about a personal sense of feeling
masculine, feminine, both or neither and identifying as a man, woman, gender-queer/variant or another
identity outside of the gender binary. Many times when we hear the terms “man” and “woman” in
mainstream media, it is often in reference to
men or women, that is, those who experience a
congruence between their biological sex and assigned gender (cis- = on the same side as) for example, a
person born biologically male and identifies as a man, or a person born biologically female and identifies as
a woman.
, on the other hand, is an umbrella term referring to those whose gender identity
differs from their assigned gender at birth and thus seek to move away from or change that gender (trans-
= to cross over). Some trans-identified people choose to alter aspects of their body so that it aligns more
closely with their gender identity, however, this is a personal choice that depends on a number of factors,
for instance, one’s personal preference, financial status, or access to health care services
Race is another socially constructed category that groups people together based on physical features such as
skin tone, facial structure, and hair texture, as well as on social, cultural, and economic characteristics
(Ferber, Holcomb and Wentling 2013). Race, like sex and gender, is a social construct that is constituted and
given meaning through our social interactions and relations with each other and within a particular
historical context. Biologically, we might talk about different skin pigmentations or facial features, but there
is no scientific basis for racial categories. To be sure, there is just as much variation
racial categories
as there is between them. All human beings are about 99% genetically similar; those differences we do
observe in hair
, facial
make up a very small fraction of what all
constitutes humans: hair, skin, eyes, internal organs, a complex biochemistry, and so on.
Feminism and Feminist Theory:
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Simply put, feminism is the belief in equal rights for women and men and a political movement for change.
Feminists recognize that gender oppression and marginalization exist in our society but find it unacceptable
and unjust. As such, feminism aims to fight inequitable gender relations of power that are maintained
through patriarchy, the overarching system of male dominance that oppresses and exploits women.
Patriarchy works in the interests of men and essentially legitimizing male domination in a given society
(Milestone and Meyer 2012:10). Feminists work towards challenging inequitable power relations and the
status quo upheld by patriarchal systems and, more recently, contend that all persons regardless of gender,
race, class, sexuality, ability, or nationality should be valued and treated fairly.
It is beyond the scope of this course to explore the different kinds of feminisms that have developed over
the last 100+ years, but it is important to note that there is no single unifying “feminism” or “feminist theory.
Feminist theory is a way to understand and explain the nature of gender inequality. We use feminist theory
to examine both women’s and men’s social roles and expectations, experiences, interests, and politics in
various contexts. Feminist theory is a
critical theory
that emerged in connection with the women’s and civil
rights movements identifying a particular dimension of domination in modern society gender relations.
Critical theories like feminist theory, along with anti-racist and post-colonial theories, seek to explore
relations between the privileged and oppressed in an effort to decrease oppression and domination and
increase freedom and equality. They provide us with tools to challenge unjust power relations and
investigate how various forms of power
create and reinforce privilege and oppression in society.
Feminist theories do more than analyze and explain gender relations; they also ask critical questions about
these relations. Applying a feminist analysis to popular culture does not mean we simply reject all things
produced by or representing men; rather, our aim is to examine how and where patriarchy operates within
processes of production, consumption, and representation, and to identify patterns of male domination. It
also entails challenging the taken-for-granted assumptions made about women and marginalized groups in
these processes.
Power, Privilege and Oppression:
Throughout any society, we can see how some groups and individuals are marginalized or oppressed while
others are privileged or dominant. Oppression refers to the prolonged unjust treatment and control of
individuals or groups. This occurs as a result of the ways a society is socially structured such that a person’s
roles, responsibilities, and social value are dependent on the social group(s) to which that person belongs.
In this course we consider how systems of social oppression operate and affect both group and individual
experiences with/in pop culture. Systems of social oppression such as racism, patriarchy, heterosexism,
capitalism, and colonialism are interconnected systems of power that maintain privilege for different
groups. Social divisions such as those based on race or class are created as hierarchies. As much as we would
like to think that we are all “different but equal”, the reality is that where there is difference, there are likely
hierarchies and privilege (and oppression and discrimination).
Privilege is the special right or advantage that is granted or available to a person or group based on their
social status membership (to a particular gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, religion, etc.). Social
privileges are
advantages that are systematically created and reinforced through social norms,
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