The history of consumerism has been shaped by gender inequality. During the colonial period, when families produced most of what they consumed, a gender division of labor prevailed in which men supplied the raw materials (e.g., wheat, flax, animals) and women transformed them into commodities for consumption (e.g., bread, cloth, meals). During industrialization, the period characterized by historians as bringing about the ‘‘separation of spheres,’’ productive activity moved outside the household and eventually became seen as an appropriately masculine endeavor. Consumption became privatized, a range of activities under the purview of women consigned to the domestic arena. Although the separation of spheres was more cultural ideal than historical practice for many marginalized social groups (African Americans, the poor, immigrants), the association of women with consumption, and men with production, prevails today and shapes research and theory on consumerism.
Four major themes characterize research on gender and consumption. The first theme analyzes women’s consumer practices as an extension of their primary domestic responsibilities. Sometimes referred to in the literature as ‘‘housework’’ or more recently ‘‘carework,’’ this consumer activity centers on shopping as a means to acquire the goods to sustain members of a household (e.g., to cook meals, clean the house, organize family get-togethers and other social events, and care for children and elderly parents). Marjorie DeVault’s book, Feeding the Family (1991), was one of the first to carefully document the extensive effort involved in women’s consumer activity on behalf of their families. Feminists argue that this work lacks pay and social recognition, yet it is essential for sustaining the quality of family life.
As many women have joined the paid labor force in the past decades, women’s involvement in consumption has changed and in many ways increased. A current thread of research focuses on employed women who subcontract services to perform the domestic labor still expected of them as wives and mothers. Thus, we have witnessed the rise of domestic cleaning services, the proliferation of fast food restaurants, and the increase in private childcare centers. These industries cater to women forced to juggle the demands of paid work and family care. Referred to by Arlie Hochschild (2003) as the ‘‘commercialization of intimate life,’’ these service industries are replacing the work that in previous generations women performed in their private homes without pay. The work involved in subcontracting and managing domestic labor is still mostly done by women, a vestige of the separate spheres ideology that remains deeply embedded in current gender arrangements. The subcontracted work is also performed mostly by women, typically by non-white and immigrant workers.
A second major theme in the literature on gender and consumption examines how the advertising industry has shaped cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity. Advertisers exploited the cult of domesticity in the first half of the twentieth century by encouraging women to associate the purchase of certain household products with being a good wife and mother. Although this trend continues through the twenty first century, the focus of advertising has become more personal, centered on how commodities can enable the individual to achieve prevailing gender ideals. In other words, consumption of certain products is presented as central to femininity and masculinity.
Feminist scholars first picked up on this trend in the 1970s. Early critiques emphasized the ideological content of advertisements directed to women that seemed to undermine self-esteem while simultaneously promising relief through the purchase of their products. These products were not limited to beauty and fashion accessories, but included a full range of goods, from kitchen appliances to cars to food products, all promising to transform the body and the self to achieve ideal femininity. Early feminist studies of advertising urged resistance through consumer refusal. Thus, when Ms. Magazine debuted in 1972, it was free of advertisements, reflecting the feminist critique of the industry’s deleterious impact on women’s self-image, and its central role in perpetuating stereotypical roles for women.
In the mid twentieth century, advertisements also began targeting men with the promise that products could enhance their masculinity. Although early ads were less focused on appearance than those targeting women, they suggested that heterosexual attractiveness could be enhanced with the purchase of expensive cars, stereo equipment, and vacations. Playboy magazine, which debuted in the late 1950s, is often credited with establishing the link between masculinity and consumerism, and thus challenging the conventional association of shopping with women (Ehrenreich, Hearts of Men, 1983). Unlike the feminist movement, political opposition from men’s groups did not materialize, except from the health community, which challenged ads that equated the consumption of especially unhealthy commodities, such as alcohol and cigarettes, to expressions of masculinity.
Gender scholars have developed increasingly sophisticated understandings of how advertisements shape social ideals of masculinity and femininity. Jean Kilbourne produced an influential series of videos on gender advertisements (Killing Us Softly) which have been shown to generations of students in college classes all over the country. These videos demonstrate that ads on television and in magazines represent an exceptionally narrow range of acceptable appearance standards for men and women. Wealth, whiteness, and heterosexuality are taken for granted in most advertisements, suggesting that men and women who are poor, non-white, or GLBT have little chance to achieve social approval. Philosopher Susan Bordo (1993) draws on theories of post modernism to understand the allure of advertisements that promote unrealistic weight loss and body sculpting regimens. Women are drawn to these images, however damaging and irrational, because of an internalized sense of inadequacy promoted by a sexist culture that devalues femininity. Although her scholarship recognizes the problematic depiction of both men and women, the emphasis remains on how women are especially dehumanized by their portrayal by the advertising industry and vulnerable to its messages.
Analysis of both conformity and resistance represents a third main theme in the gender and consumption scholarship. In what she calls the fashion beauty complex, feminist scholar Sandra Bartky (1990) suggests that production, marketing, retail, and information companies work together to regulate feminine identity. Thus, pressure to conform to gender ideals goes beyond just advertisements. Department stores, for example, are spatially segregated by gender, clearly defining for customers which items should be purchased for men and for women. Genres in novels, television, and film have been gendered such that romantic stories (or so called ‘‘chick flicks’’) are pitched to women while action plots are geared toward a primarily male audience.
According to Bartky, lifestyle magazines targeting teen and adult women play a critical role in the fashion beauty complex. Teen magazines claim a significant readership among teenage girls, and these publications prime their audience to continue consuming fashion and life style magazines well into adulthood. Young women are highly invested in popular culture, and research demonstrates that their peer groups tend to encourage conformity to the feminine ideal that pervades these texts. The financial success of the beauty industry suggests that women do in fact support the fashion beauty complex. Cosmetics, dieting, and cosmetic surgery bring in billions of dollars a year, and the majority of these consumers are women. Because conformity is such big business, the industry has little impetus to diversify or alter its constructions of femininity in any way.
Despite this evidence of conformity in women’s consumerism, the more micro level question of meaning must also be considered. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall argues that dominant cultural messages may be accepted, negotiated, or even subverted. Feminist scholars, for instance, have noted that shopping represents a relatively safe and socially acceptable way for girls and women to participate in the public sphere, an experience they may find liberating. Ethnographies and interview projects have shown that women often read magazines and romance novels or watch soap operas for personal pleasure, and as a means of escape from mundane domestic responsibilities. Many take pleasure in critiquing these media, which are often considered predictable and even ridiculous in content.
An ongoing debate within feminism questions whether or not women’s conformity to beauty ideals can be considered resistant. Some argue that women can use their appearance as a form of bodily capital, in a Bourdieuian sense, to exploit male weakness and gain access to resources. Others point out that such practice fails to challenge dominant expectations of idealized femininity, doing little to improve conditions for women in general. Considering the high rates of eating disorders and the dangers of cosmetic surgery, this strategy may even be harmful to women.
Sociologist Lynn Chancer emphasizes that in everyday life, oppression and resistance often occur together. In order to resolve this debate, feminists must challenge the institutional and cultural oppression of women without placing restrictions on or passing judgment about individual women’s actions.
The fourth major theme of the gender and consumption literature considers the interactive dimensions of race and class. Consumer practices vary widely depending on social location. The economic realities of social class and cultural beliefs about race and gender place restrictions on what and how people consume. Education and occupation determine the amount of disposable income one possesses. Poor neighborhoods attract fewer businesses, thereby limiting the purchasing options of these areas’ residents. Customers are treated differently based on employees’ perceptions about one’s race and/or class status.
The intersection of race, class, and gender results in a social hierarchy that privileges some while putting others at a disadvantage. The predominantly white upper class exhibits what Thorstein Veblen calls ‘‘conspicuous consumption,’’ which is to say they purchase goods and services that overtly demonstrate their wealth and social status. In buying expensive and/or rare items, they set themselves apart from those without access to such luxuries. In this way, their consumer patterns help create and maintain class divisions.
Racial/ethnic minorities and the working class experience consumption quite differently. African American women, for example, have historically been relegated to lower socioeconomic status, in which consumption revolves around the provision of daily necessities. In the early twentieth century when beliefs about black inferiority prevailed, investing in beauty products such as hair straighteners and skin lightening creams represented a form of resistance. These items allowed black women to more closely adhere to the dominant feminine ideal, thereby undermining negative stereo types. These black women viewed conformity as a way to make themselves and their race more respectable to dominant society. The investment in the cosmetics industry also resulted in a significant entrepreneurial opportunity for black women, who began producing and selling products specifically for African American consumers.
Race, class, and gender shape how different groups read and interpret cultural texts as well. African American teenage girls tend to read teen magazines with a more critical eye than their white counterparts. These girls are less likely to identify with dominant beauty standards embodied by the exceptionally thin white women who are the typical models in advertisements. As a result, they read around much of the con tent focused on appearance, looking instead for articles they think will give them insight into their lived experiences. Life chances associated with social class guide the consumption of cultural texts in a similar way. Privileged groups of girls are highly invested in conforming to idealized femininity, particularly in terms of appearance and behavior. In contrast, working class racial/ethnic minority girls take interest in content addressing dating, marriage, and mother hood. Due to limited educational and career opportunities, these girls anticipate becoming wives and/or mothers earlier in life than the middle and upper class girls. In short, these cases suggest that social location plays a significant role in determining which products, images, and messages women find relevant to their lives. Intersecting forms of privilege and oppression create different needs and interests, which translate into different consumer practices.
Topics for future research on gender and consumption include: (1) analyses of how new shopping media, such as the Internet, promote and/or undermine conventional gender ideals and practices; (2) the gender socialization of ever younger girls and boys through targeted advertisements on television; (3) the gendered features of anti-consumerist social movements; and (4) the impact of niche marketing on cultural constructions of gender, including marketing to members of GLBT communities.
- Bartky, (1990) Femininity and Domination. Routledge, New York.
- Benson, P. (1986) Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890 1940. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
- Bordo, (1993) Unbearable Weight. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Craig, L. (2002). Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Currie, H. (1999) Girl Talk: Adolescent Magazines and Their Readers. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
- de Grazia, and Furlough, E. (Eds.) (1996) The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Hochschild, (2003) The Commercialization of Intimate Life: Notes from Home and Work. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Scanlon, (Ed.) (2000) The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader. New York University Press, New York.
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