Thursday, August 7, 2008

It's Not "Fluff"!

The reality TV show What Not to Wear promises transformation.  A candidate is nominated, usually by friends and family, and then this person (most commonly a woman) receives $5,000 to spend on an entire new wardrobe that abides by the rules of fashion experts, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly.  Participants are ridiculed for their "bad" fashion choices and are "taught" by London and Kelly what an appropriately dressed woman should look like.  The obvious issue here is gender identities and presupposed assumptions about femininity.  The not-so-obvious issue is one discussed in Laurie Ouellette and James Hay's book, Better Living Through Reality TV.  With a strong leaning on philosopher Michel Foucault's Neo-Liberalism, the authors argue against the common misconception that reality TV is simply superficial entertainment, or "fluff".  Rather, Ouellette and Hay place TV in an "analytic of government;"  the government's agenda for perpetuating ideas of "free" market and self-government is present in many reality TV shows, What Not to Wear being one of them (P 12).  The authors rationalize that power is powerful because it is something unidentifiable with unclear boundaries.  A boundary that is crossed, and that is unclear to many, is the one of reality television. 

Liberalism, today, expects individuals to be self-governing and self-managing. Self-management is a "prerequisite for personal and professional success" (Ouellette & Hay P 100).  The lesson to be gained here is if you are unsuccessful at managing yourself (mainly, your appearance), how will you uphold in the work place?  If a person cannot succeed at 'looking good', how will this person make the company look?  Self-management is a reflection of self-respect and a person's sense of self-worth.  Lacking in these areas display incompetence, supposedly.  I relate it to being forced to play a game you never really agreed to play. This power is a "power" because if you refuse to play (by the rules), the only person who loses is you.  The society in which we live is well-versed in what is marketable and what is not. What Not to Wear encourages women to make themselves marketable. The concept is to learn how to sell yourself and present yourself in a desirable way. The political rationality underlying What Not to Wear is in sync with the changes in society, especially in the work place (Ouellette & Hay, P 99). A major, long-running theme on the show is that it does matter how people perceive you, and if you look better, you will be perceived in a more positive light.

Another way that the reality show is an "analytic of government" is its method of punishment-and-reward.  At the beginning of the show, the participant is humiliated by London and Kelly in front of their friends and family.  They are forced to watch "secret footage" of themselves looking frumpy and ungroomed, and are made fun of for their clothing, shoes, etc.  Participants then model their most "unfashionable" outfits in an unforgiving 360 degree mirror, while the fashion experts point out all that is wrong (which is everything).  This touch of public humiliation forces the desire to want to change and learn exactly how to self-manage. Ouellette and Hay state that the humiliation is all in the name of fun, which "takes the edge off the disciplinary dimensions of the program" (P 110).  I disagree and have to say that it is uncomfortable to watch a grown woman, an innocent victim essentially, be ridiculed by people she barely knows and then attempt to defend herself.  A person should not have to offer an explanation for clothing choice and then be broken down by fashion experts (this, I realize, works to the show's advantage, as I am already drawn in by this person's confusion/hurt and I am curious to see what will happen to her in the end). This is the participant's punishment. Then comes the reward. At the end of the show, the participant models her new clothing, along with a new haircut and makeup application, and she is praised and congratulated for her success at improving her appearance.  She is then sent off to meet her friends and family who cannot believe the "improvement" they see before their eyes and how What Not to Wear is a miracle-worker. This is a great reward for women: external confirmation. Punishment-and-reward, as well as external confirmation, are concepts tangled up in political agendas and are very commonplace in society as it is. Reality TV just serves it on a different plate. 
One episode in particular caught my attention (I admit to having watched the show numerous times).  Melissa "mojo" Buzzell, a 23 year-old fitness trainer and heart attack survivor, was nominated by her friends and family in order to steer her away from the workout clothes she wore everyday and everywhere.  Having survived two heart attacks by age 19, she became a spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red Campaign. A good portion of the episode focused on finding her red clothing "appropriate" for AHA meetings, as she would be representing the Association. Melissa was wide-eyed, "young and eager to learn" as the fashion experts noted.  She fit the mold so perfectly.  She was absolutely ready for the rules that would guide her transformation and she was a good student who listened to her "teachers".  She was ready to be perceived differently.  By the end of it all, she was; her new clothes and polished hair fit the role of an AHA spokesperson much better than her previous workout clothes. As Better Living predicts, Melissa was "presented with a set of 'customized' rules to guide her in a lifelong pursuit of self-fashioning after the TV cameras moved on" (P 99). Does this send the message that one cannot be a competent ambassador unless properly dressed? Maybe.  What it does make clear is that the hidden powers that be (powers that instruct you to be self-governing, self-managing, and self-sustaining) hold that appearances matter, and if you want to be a part of something or represent something (such as a large company or foundation, like the AHA), you have to fit. To help demonstrate the ties between What Not to Wear and the implications of Neo-Liberalism, Better Living explains that a participant is molded into a "consuming subject who is 'free' to advance [her] private interests within the marketplace" as long as she acts within accordance of the governing rules set forth (P 114). This sounds very familiar to the $5,000 shopping spree guided by a set of fashion rules.

Moreover, Melissa's appearance on the show was part of a promotion to raise awareness about heart disease, especially for women.  By having Melissa on the show, viewers learned about the AHA's campaign. The 'wow' factor was that the disease can affect women (and men) of all ages.  While doing some light research, I found a number of newspaper articles and blogs that put the spotlight on Melissa's appearance on What Not to Wear and went on to discuss heart disease and the AHA.  This all links back (albeit, in an unobvious way) to Ouellette and Hay's thesis: reality TV is not superficial entertainment or "fluff".  Ties to politics and Neo-Liberalism are utilized by the great access and appeal reality TV has to the public. 

With the help of What Not to Wear, women become "entrepreneurial surveyors" of themselves and learn how to manage their appearance (Ouelette & Hay P 112). Makeover TV shows such as this go beyond gender boundaries; the fashion rules do stem from preconceived assumptions of gender, but What Not to Wear works towards polishing a woman's look and instilling the message that she should maintain this "self-management" in order to gain opportunities, especially in the work place.  Furthermore, reality TV shows like What Not to Wear should be regarded as an important power-player in society. If ideas such as "appearance does make a difference" or "dress for the job you want" are so commonplace and acceptable in society already, then TV shows that dictate the rules of these ideas should not be considered "fluff". 

Works Cited

Ouellette, Laurie & Hay, James. Better Living Through Reality TV. Blackwell Publishing: 2008.
Image from:

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How To Be Better

"Does this make me look fat?" "Is she prettier than me?"  Men hate these questions, or so they say.  They claim to hardly even notice our fat parts and that, of course, we will always be beautiful in their eyes.  Women should be confident, they declare!  We should be.  Yet, these questions are more or less inevitable.  The media, women's magazines in particular, have major impacts on women's self-evaluations of themselves.  We are told to be confident (because confidence is sexy) but also to wear this, lose all of that, and pluck/nip/tuck those.  The media sends the conflicting message that women ought to be sexy, seductive, and mysterious like men want us to be, but also just as successful, athletic and independent as men are supposed to be.  Women should exude the "traditional female" mystique of sexiness and coyness, but at the same time, incorporate a "modern" powerful ideal that can rival any man's sense of masculinity.  Both the "traditional" and "modern" responsbilities given to women convey that the underlying message is still the same: improvement.  Women should become "more" of whatever it is we are or could be, and in every sense, just be better.
It is almost an unstated (atleast not outright) duty of women to be sexy and beautiful.  In The Cult of Thinness, Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber states, "Most women feel their bodies fail the beauty test, and the American health and beauty industry benefits enormously from continually nurturing feminine insecurities.  If women are busy trying to control their bodies through dieting, excessive exercise, and self-improvement, they are distracted from other important aspects of selfhood that might challenge the status quo" (p 63).  True, this seems like a big conspiracy theory set up to make women fail, but it sounds familiar.  If women were not locked into "self-improvement" mode, we would have more time to learn, grow, and be happy.  Magazines depict perfection and convince women to attempt unattainable standards; a cycle of reaching and failing is essentially put into motion once teendom begins and magazines are suddenly appealing.  It is only the industry that benefits here.    
The contradictory "traditional" and "modern" expectations of women would seem confusing to anyone.  In her article, The More You Subtract, The More You Add: Cutting Girls Down to Size, Jean Kilbourne argues, "At the same time there is relentless pressure on women to be small, there is also pressure on us to succeed, to achieve, to 'have it all.'  We can be successful as long as we stay 'feminine'... One of the many double binds tormenting young women today is the need to be sophisticated and accomplished, yet also delicate and childlike" (p 263).  Bien sur.  If women were to actually achieve this impossible feat, we would be walking around in business suits with an innocent and demure expression.  There is little hope for trying to make sense of the contradictions.  So, the next time you come across a glossy magazine that claims to offer the best sex tips, new beauty tricks, and 101 ways to be a "better you," turn up your nose, flip your hair and walk away.  Confidence is key.

Works Cited
Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy. The Cult of Thinness. Oxford University Press. 2007.
Kilbourne, Jean. The More You Subtract, The More You Add: Cutting Girls Down to Size. Simon & Schuster. 1999.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Toy Story

Children are major consumers. Even at a young age they seem to agree with the American standard of "the bigger, the better" and "more stuff will make me happy". There is no need to search far for proof of this. The Toys 'R Us song is very straightforward:
"I don't want to grow up/
I'm a Toys 'R Us kid/
There's a MILLION toys at Toys 'R Us that I can play with!/
MORE bikes, MORE trains, MORE video games/
It's the BIGGEST toy store there is!"
Consumerism is not the only issue at play here (pun intended); because toys and gadgets are introduced at such an early age, they shape and define children's perceptions and identities, specifically gender identities. In Chapter 4 of Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, titled "Learning Difference: Families, Schools, and Socialization," David M. Newman states, "As part of the process of finding meaning in their social worlds, children actively construct gender... they are like 'gender detectives'..." (p 113). For this case study, I will focus on those toys marketed towards young boys, ages 5-7. In great contrast to those toys marketed towards girls, which tended to be centered on domesticity and dress-up, power, aggression, energy, and toughness are the qualities I found most emphasized in boys' toys. These qualities help boys learn what is expected of them, in terms of "normal" boy behavior; by preschool, and certainly by grade school, boys understand that they have to exemplify masculinity and, above all, "maleness".

Jack is a 5 year-old, white, middle-class boy, who lives in a small neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. I had a general idea of the gift I wanted to buy for Jack before I committed myself to online shopping. First, it would be preferable if the gift were something Jack still found appealing in another 3 years or so (in other words, the goal was to stay away from "baby-ish" toys that he would hate by the time he turned 7). Secondly, it would be preferable if the gift were something he could enjoy with others but also by himself, as well. Here are a few of my findings, along with an attempt to tease out implications of gender identities.

In fourth place, found on the Black & Decker Jr. Kid's Power Workshop Workbench and Tools ($130). The word "power" is in the name, and although that is indicative enough, one can analyze this further. As stated on the website, one of the product features is that "it provides little workers with hours of 'constructive' entertainment." It comes equipped with a hammer, screwdriver, bolts, and the like. The Power Workshop can manufacture a whole slew of future handymen and Mr. Fix-Its. Boys are labeled as "workers" (it would be rare to doubt that men "work" as oppose to staying at home) and they have fun by being "constructive" as they build and break to their liking. It would be hard to find anything more "male" than tools.

In third place, found on the NFL Team Kid's Recliner ($139.99). Available in over a dozen different team logos, the product description encourages boys to "sit down, relax, and watch the game" in their "fun, kid-size throne for little lovers of the gridiron." Why not have their "little wife" bring them a beer while they are at it? That last part was not included in the product description (it may as well, though). The Team Recliner may not be the most action-packed toy for young boys, but it definitely helps form a specific gender identity. After a hard day of being "constructive", boys can take a load off and enjoy watching sports on television because it is assumed that boys like sports. In his article Boyhood, Organized Sports, and the Construction of Masculinities, Michael A. Messner suggests that for boys "it became 'natural' to equate masculinity with competetion, physical strength, and skills," which are all elements associated with organized sports (p 128). I would venture to guess that this "kid-size throne" would be placed next to the life-size throne of one of the boy's parents, presumably his father. On the topic of boys and their relationship to their fathers, Messner explains, "the fact that introductions to organized sports are often made by fathers who might otherwise be absent or emotionally distant adds a powerful emotional charge..." (p 125). Thus, emotional fulfillment surprisingly coincides, simultaneously, with "maleness".

In second place, found on the Power Wheels Kawasaki KFX Ninja Ultimate Terrain Traction ($189.99). According to the product description, it has the "ultimate terrain traction" and "ruts, wet grass, gravel, and mud are no match." It has "sporty styling" and "kids can experience the excitement of real ATV riding." I was pleased to see that the description generalized itself by using the word "kids" rather than "boys". Nevertheless, the description is overflowing with the sentiment of action, energy, and the love of the great outdoors. The picture next to the description shows a young boy astride the vehicle. Even the notion of competition surfaces as the description states that the Kawasaki will not "get stuck where the others do"- the other neighborhoods boys riding around in their less-than-stellar vehicles? The "sporty styling" is important because boys are "supposed" to like sports. The Kawasaki helps create a very specific masculine identity of power, action, and competitiveness.
In first place, found on the Redneck Life Board Game ($19.99). This is a package deal for a Gender Studies and Pop Culture analysis. It includes gender identities, sexism, stereotypes, and class structures all rolled into one. The product description states that players complete school at the age of 18, because supposedly "rednecks" do not attend college. Next, there is a choice of 11 careers, such as Monster Truck Announcer and Mullet Salon Operator. The "monster truck" and "mullet" are obvious jabs at the stereotype of "rednecks", although the "salon operator" is a tricky area as it is not considered very "masculine" to run a hair salon. For this, I compromised and assumed "operator" could in fact be very "male (as it implies "manager") whereas "hair stylist" would not be. Players journey through Blue Collar Americana, because we can assume that "rednecks" are all working class citizens; teeth are lost through accidents and brawls and the player with the most teeth at the end of the game wins. Players can earn extra money by winning a belching contest ("male") but can lose money if they have to bail their mother out of jail (sexism). I was skeptical as to how such a game could be recommended for 5 year olds and found that the manufacturer's recommended age is 12 and up. However, recommends this game for age 5 and up. Interestingly, this board game was given a 5 out of 5 star review on

This analysis shows the importance of the role that toys place in forming the idea of gender identities in young children. This idea is one that is socially constructed to begin with and will continue to be socially constructed as the child grows into adulthood. Even though I was surprised by some of the very gender-oriented toys I found in my online shopping experiment, there is still hope when it comes to gender-neutral toys. I settled on an outdoor waterslide for Jack.

Messner, Michael A. Boyhood, Organized Sports, and the Construction of Masculinities
Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality

Friday, July 18, 2008

Family Guy Fun

Family Guy is an animated sitcom that offers a satirical portrait of middle-class life.  It pokes fun at society as we know it and most find it easy to laugh at the fast-paced jokes aimed at American culture.  Overflowing with hegemonic ideologies, here are a few of interest from the episode "Don't Make Me Over".

The Ideal Girl (white, blond, and skinny of course):
Meg questions her attractiveness and, therefore, her self-worth when she is rejected by the high school “rebel”. Lucky for Meg, her mother quickly intervenes and offers to take Meg shopping for new clothing to make her feel better. Her mother, Lois suggests a number of baby tees with the glittery labels “little slut”, “porn star”, and “sperm dumpster” stamped on the front. Although this particular shopping excursion turned out to be unsuccessful, Meg eventually gets a break. “Asian correspondent” Tricia Takanawa claims that the makeover magicians at the mall can turn you into “someone of value to society.” Meg is saved! Her hair becomes longer and blonder, her lips redder, and she proudly bares her midriff. She is, as Dr. Diddy would put it, “hot, white, jailbait ass” that America loves. She gains recognition from her “rebel” sweetheart and the cherry on top is that the “popular” girls now accept her, too. This is a challenge to hegemonic ideologies; no one wants to admit that they live in a society that values half-naked underage girls, but it is almost undeniable. I was even a little upset to admit that I have seen those labeled tees before (somewhere).

Sexuality, A Few Cases:
Peter and the rest of his band decide that their mismatched stage outfits make them look like a bunch of “queers” and maybe they should have matching outfits instead. The reference to queers could have a couple of different implications: either that homosexuals dress weird, or the word “queer” is used as a synonym for “stupid”. It is easy to see examples of this in day-to-day conversation: “You have to study tonight? That’s gay” or “Ew, you like Jeff? He’s such a fag!” The use of these words is so commonplace that many don’t even take notice. Of course, the scene with the gay inmates confirms a few stereotypes as well. They are depicted as tough and violent but with an emotional streak, with a one track mind focused on sex (from either of the sexes). Meg received full attention from the prisoners (one states that he wants to “strangle her all night”) as did her brother, Chris.
A final instance of homosexuality jokes occurred in the mall, when Stewie runs naked and screams, “Help! I’ve just escaped from Kevin Spacey’s basement!” This small joke hit two with one: Spacey’s sexuality and the media’s obsession with Spacey’s sexuality.

The Black Music Producer and White Guy in Denial:
Dr. Diddy, a cross between Dr. Dre and Puff Daddy, is a black music producer, complete with the appropriate baggy clothing and bling. Despite his claims that he is not a racist, Brian involuntarily barks at Dr. Diddy and just can’t seem to control it; Dr. Diddy is apathetic towards Brian. This epitomizes a prevalent attitude in society- a person can declare and even truly believe that they are not racist but will act in certain ways (i.e locking the car door specifically in dangerous/poor areas) that are contradictory. These actions are sometimes automatic and expected because racism is so deeply fixed in our society.

Social Stratification:
Ironically, Meg’s Asian pedicurist is “Miss Swan,” a character from MadTV. On the surface, this scene is funny because Meg is so rich and beautiful that she gets to take her pedicurist along on her tour bus and hey, what do you know, it happens to be Miss Swan. However, this is a clear stereotype of the “Asian manicurist/pedicurist”, and even the stereotypical attitude was depicted correctly: simple, smiling, quiet until asked a question, in which case a short response is given. The subtlety of this stereotype still challenges hegemonic ideologies, considering it is all too familiar to those privileged enough to pay for their manicures.

Family Guy. “Don’t Make Me Over.”
Season 4, Volume Three, Disc One, DVD. 6/5/05
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation: Beverly Hills, CA. 2005.