Discussant Comments Gender Issues: Gender As a Cultural Construct

Janeen Arnold Costa, University of Utah
It has been my task to summarize, critique and generally comment upon the first two papers of this session, "An Investigation of the Influence of Gender on the Hedonic Responses Created by Listening to Music" by Kathleen T. Lacher and "Babes in Toyland: Learning an Ideology of Gender" by Greta Eleen Pennell. My initial response to these papers and the presentations is that, while both efforts are in the right direction and contribute to our knowledge of gender and consumer behavior, each is a case of not quite the right amount of information and analysis. By that specifically I mean that Lacher's analysis simply does too little; while, on the other hand, Pennell attempts to accomplish too much. When we are dealing with gender, which is a rich and complex aspect of society, it is important to explicate and analyze fully.
[ to cite ]:
Janeen Arnold Costa (1994) ,"Discussant Comments Gender Issues: Gender As a Cultural Construct", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 372-373.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 372-373

DISCUSSANT COMMENTS

GENDER ISSUES: GENDER AS A CULTURAL CONSTRUCT

Janeen Arnold Costa, University of Utah

It has been my task to summarize, critique and generally comment upon the first two papers of this session, "An Investigation of the Influence of Gender on the Hedonic Responses Created by Listening to Music" by Kathleen T. Lacher and "Babes in Toyland: Learning an Ideology of Gender" by Greta Eleen Pennell. My initial response to these papers and the presentations is that, while both efforts are in the right direction and contribute to our knowledge of gender and consumer behavior, each is a case of not quite the right amount of information and analysis. By that specifically I mean that Lacher's analysis simply does too little; while, on the other hand, Pennell attempts to accomplish too much. When we are dealing with gender, which is a rich and complex aspect of society, it is important to explicate and analyze fully.

Gender is a cultural construct of elaborate dimensions. All societies take the basic morphological distinction between male and female and extend this differentiation into full-blown gender dichotomies with associated assumptions, stereotypes, and societal expectations. Individual psychology and aspects of personality, social roles involving work, play, the home, and other activities and interactions, responsibilities in production and reproduction, expectations of behavior, even dress and manner of speech, all become gender-typed in the construction of gender roles. As with other aspects of culture, the various dimensions of gender are interrelated, woven into the fabric of society, affecting and affected by virtually all other aspects of human behavior and interaction. Furthermore, this complex set of interrelated features varies significantly in form from one society to the next. To reiterate, then, gender is culturally based, elaborate, and integrated with all other aspects of society.

What this means in terms of Lacher's paper is quite simple: experiments simply may not capture well the sophistication and complexity of gender constructions. Lacher is careful to indicate this study is "exploratory," which is something we must note. However, it is incumbent upon Lacher to push the analysis as much as possible, to do more than is done in the current version of this paper. For example, Lacher indicates we must differentiate between the effects of biology and culture in terms of response and behavior. The extant literature on this topic is vast (cf Ardener 1978, Friedl 1978, Hastrup 1978, Sanday 1981). The analysis would have been well-informed by a perusal of this literature. We would have been able at least to begin sorting the effects of nature versus nurture in the phenomenon under study.

In finding that, essentially, men are more amused and analytical, while women are more sensorial in their hedonic responses to music, the ground is laid for further interesting exploration. Yet, I again suggest that Lacher could push the analysis more at this point. The conclusion is simple; in fact, it is too simple. Given that the experiment yields these findings, I suggest an exploration of why and how this is the case is appropriate now, based again on extant literature and studies. Simply put, there is ample evidence to suggest that, in American society, men are seen both as more capable of and more dedicated to "having fun," as well as more analytical and technical than women (Costa and Pavia 1992, 1993; Cowan 1979; Miller 1983; Pavia and Costa 1993). Similarly, American female gender roles include characterizations and manifest behaviors of women as sensorially connected with their social and physical environments (Bellah et al. 1985; Epstein 1988; Harris 1981; Kitzinger 1985). Lacher could draw on this existing research and findings, thereby contextualizing in an appropriate fashion. People learn gender-appropriate behaviors and responses; relating her findings to what is already known about gender expectations in American society would be fruitful.

Pennell's paper errs in the opposite direction. Gender biases are pervasive and intricately interwoven; still, without de-emphasizing the importance of any particular aspect, we must begin to sort through the biases. In attempting to analyze the infantization and objectification of women, the masculine supremacy effect, and the issue of fantasy versus reality, all within the same paper, we are again reminded of the pervasiveness of the gender dichotomy in American society. We begin, perhaps, to experience the hopelessness of attempting to change gender biases. But what also occurs in attempting to cover these three very important themes within the same necessarily short paper is that each can be treated only superficially. In reality, entire books could be written on each theme. I suggest then, that Pennell consider subsuming one theme under another, or focus on a single theme or on the interrelation of the themes.

Let us consider how such an analysis might work. Is it not possibly the case that the masculine supremacy aspect of gender dichotomization in American society subsumes the other two themes? Males are thought to be, stereotypically and traditionally, superior to females in American society (de Beauvoir 1960; Epstein 1988; Oakley 1972, 1981). Part of that hierarchy is manifest through the infantization of women, and through the objectification of women, both of which are discussed by Pennell. Thus, the male supremacy issue and the infantization/objectification issue are interrelated and could be fruitfully analyzed as such. Furthermore, in the United States, activities in the public sphere traditionally are more valued than those in the private sphere; they are claimed to be more valuable because they generate income and result in increased visibility and "success" for the social unit in question. The public sphere is historically associated with men rather than women (Friedl 1978; Harris 1981; Mitterauer and Sieder 1982). This leads to the simplistic assertion that men work (outside the home) and women don't work (except inside the home, which isn't as valued). It is only a slight step from there to the association of men with reality and women with fantasy. Males are superior, work outside the home, engage in valued activities, deal with reality; females are subordinated in each and all of these ways (Oakley 1972, 1981). So, again, the male supremacy effect can be said to account for this aspect of Pennell's analysis. It is important to remember that my analysis here is hypothetical, however. Given the interrelated nature of gender in society, I would suggest that the superordination or subordination of each of Pennell's themes to one another might be possible. The result of such an endeavor would be richer description and analysis, as well as a more coherent argument.

I have a few final comments about the Pennell paper which are unrelated to my previous discussion. First, I would like to compliment Pennell on the clear explanation of semiotics and hermeneutics; the analysis is useful. However, within the hermeneutic circle, it is necessary to interpret and reinterpret on the basis of what might be called "negative cases." That is, when something within the data does not seem to fit the interpretation, we must return to the interpretation and expand it, reconfigure it, or figure out some way by which we may account for the "negative case" or apparent anomaly in the data. In the data and analysis presented by Pennell, certain such anomalies come to mind, which in turn call for a broader analysis. For example, it is suggested that male children are provided with toys which encourage them to engage in play which is reality-based. Conversely, according to Pennell, female children are asked to use toys which encourage them to engage in fantasy. If we then consider the mutant human action figures, the attempts to play at space travel or at knighthood on the part of boys, how can we expand our analysis to account for these activities which appear to be fantasy-based? A return to the hermeneutic circle might result in an expanded interpretation which looks at each of the activities which is fantasy-based for boys. My initial observation is that these activities are again based in the public sphere and are concerned with physical strength. If further analysis bears out this observation, the "negative cases" can be found to be not really negative cases at all. Instead, they provide further support for the assessment of consumer behavior in toys as related to gender socialization and the male supremacy effect.

In addition, are we not ourselves buying into the gender hierarchy when we suggest that the toys which simulate the kitchen or the sewing machine are fantasy, rather than reality-based (see also Rheingold and Cook 1975, Walum 1977)? Pennell makes an important point that these types of toys for girls are marketed as "easy to do." I would suggest that, in fact, the case points to the male supremacy effect once again. In reality, sewing, cleaning the kitchen and cooking are all difficult, time-consuming tasks. Under the male supremacy assumption, females have to be taught slowly and carefully how to do these things. Thus, names for these toys which include words such as "easy" and "simple" are not talking about the tasks themselves but about the need to make such tasks easy for slow-to-learn females. The male supremacy effect is again affirmed.

Another important point is that socialization into these gender roles is so pervasive that the situation may, indeed, be nearly hopeless in terms of any real change from a critical perspective. Even when parents have reached a point of political consciousness where they attempt to avoid gender-typed toys, it is often the children themselves who demand such toys. A child is gender socialized through marketing, through peers, through adults; and the pressure to conform is immense, if unconscious. A boy may not only desire blue and red toys, but may also refuse to play withCor even ownCpink and purple toys. A boy who sees a toy advertised with only girls at play in the ad may refuse to play with that toy merely on the basis of the ad itself. The opposite case, that of girls' refusing to play with boys' toys, is less likely to occur. After all, if it is more desirable to be in the superior position, to be male, then acting like a male through playing with male toys is simply more acceptable than a boy playing with girls' toys.

Well, it is quite clear that much remains to be studied in this sub-area of our discipline. Merely suggesting that men and women, boys and girls, do things differently, behave differently in terms of consumption, is not enough. It is time to stop accepting such a finding as importantCthe field of gender and consumer behavior has progressed to the point that the response to such a simplistic finding should be, "of course." The questions, the issues for analysis, then becomeCwhy, how, and in what way? Let us work to inform ourselves more about this complex phenomenon, avoiding both oversimplification and superficial treatment of an important and intricate aspect of behavior which deserves full recognition and study.

REFERENCES

Ardener, Shirley, editor (1978), Defining Females: The Nature of Women in Society, New York: Halsted Press.

Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton (1985), Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, New York: Harper & Row.

Costa, Janeen Arnold and Teresa M. Pavia (1992), "What It All Adds Up To: Culture and Alpha-Numeric Brand Names," Diversity in Consumer Behavior, Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XIX, John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, eds., Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research, 39-45.

Costa, Janeen Arnold (1993), "Alpha-Numeric Brand Names and Gender Stereotypes," Research in Consumer Behavior, Vol. 6., Janeen Arnold Costa and Russell W. Belk, editors, Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, Inc., forthcoming.

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz (1979), "From Virginia Dare to Virginia Slims: Women and Technology in American Life," Technology and Culture, 20 (January), 51-63.

de Beauvoir, Simone (1960), The Second Sex, London: Four Square Books.

Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs (1988), Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender, and the Social Order, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Friedl, Ernestine (1978), "Society and Sex Roles," Human Nature, (April).

Harris, Marvin (1981), "Why Women Left Home," America Now, New York: Simon & Schuster, 76-97.

Hastrup, Kirsten (1978), "The Semantics of Biology: Virginity," Defining Females: The Nature of Women in Society, Shirley Ardener, ed., New York: Halsted Press, 49-65.

Kitzinger, Sheila (1980), Women as Mothers, New York: Vintage Books.

Miller, Jon D. (1983), The American People and Science Policy: The Role of Public Attitudes in the Policy Process, New York: Pergamon Press.

Mitterauer, Michael and Reinhard Sieder (1982), The European Family, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Oakley, Ann (1972), Sex, Gender and Society, London: Temple Smith.

Oakley, Ann (1981) Subject Women, New York: Pantheon Books.

Pavia, Teresa M. and Janeen Arnold Costa (1993), "The Winning Number: Consumer Perceptions of Alpha-Numeric Brand Names," Journal of Marketing, 57 (3), 85-98.

Rheingold, H.L. and Cook K.V. (1975), "The Content of Boys' and Girls' Rooms as an Index of Parents Behavior," Child Development, 46 (2), 459-463.

Sanday, Peggy (1981), Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Walum, C.R. (1977), The Dynamics of Sex and Gender: A Sociological Perspective, Chicago: Rand McNally.

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