Sociology of gender

1) Feminisms: histories and values
1) Feminisms: histories and values

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It is important to understand that feminism is not a monolithic concept or movement, and that it has taken
on different forms for different cultures and parts of the world. This week we will be focusing on the
formation of and ideas making up Western feminism—particularly its incarnations in the US.

The history of US feminism can be broken up into several periods or “waves.” The first wave grew out of
the women’s suffrage movement of the 1920s, which eventually won women citizens the right to vote. The
second wave of the 60s and 70s was dominated by LIBERAL FEMINISM, a set of discourses that
emphasize social prejudices and stereotypes about “natural” male and female gender roles. Its defining
tenet is that women are essentially the same as men but are not treated equally in society. The word
“liberal” comes from liberalism as a political stance—one which stresses equality and freedom based in
democratically organized societies. Liberal feminism can be characterized by several common beliefs and
platforms:

● Women are encouraged assume non-traditional social roles and occupations, i.e. to take on
traditionally masculine positions of power. More women in positions of power can counteract
long-held patriarchal beliefs that women’s proper place should be in the home mothering and
caretaking.

● Mainstream cultural discourses—especially mass media—reflect dominant patriarchal gender
ideologies and act as socialization agents that influence our opinions and self-perceptions. It
plays a determining role in our notions of what is appropriate and normal regarding gender.

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Its proposed solutions focus on achieving equality with men:

● Women should obtain more positions of power and enter male-dominated occupational fields. As
more women acquire power that has historically been concentrated in the hands of men,
eventually media will reflect these social changes.

● Cultural and media discourses can contribute to social change by representing women in
non-traditional gender roles and positions of power.

● Consumer pressure should be placed on producers and products representing sexist materials.

Some drawbacks and consequences of the liberal feminist approach include:

● New stereotype is emerging of the “Superwoman” in mainstream media culture.
● Tends to stress women’s role reversals (i.e. women should take on more masculine positions of

power) while male role reversals are rarely advocated.
● Neglects socioeconomic structures and power relations in favor of women entering into

traditionally male-dominated fields.

There are two other strains of feminism that have been less dominant in the US: radical and socialist.
RADICAL FEMINISM is characterized by the fundamental belief that women are essentially different from
men and are not treated equally in our patriarchal culture. Some of its major tenets include:

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● In patriarchal societies, men dominate and oppress women—a situation that emerged
from men’s innate dispositions toward violence and genetic tendency to dominate
women due to their greater strength.

● Women are fundamentally different, more peaceful, and virtuous, and should aim to build
feminist utopias without men.

● Most prominent media and cultural institutions are controlled by men who necessarily
further patriarchal dominant interests.

● Its proposed solutions include women producing their own culture with different values
and distinctly feminine perspectives. Working conditions should be collaborative,
non-hierarchical collectives that are not profit-driven.

SOCIALIST FEMINISM, unlike either radical or liberal feminism, believes that gender is not the primary
determinant of women’s subordinate position. Instead, women’s relative powerlessness can be attributed
to other socioeconomic factors such as modern capitalism and nuclear family structures. Its main tenets
include:

● Capitalist societies are dependent on women’s unpaid domestic labor, which maintains the paid
male workforce.

● Capitalist economies should be fundamentally restructured, with special emphasis on the
disadvantages of traditional gender ideologies as well as analysis of material and economic
conditions.

● Mainstream culture and media are tools for perpetuating patriarchal and capitalist ideologies.
● Its proposed solutions involve reforming sexist cultural representations and producing feminist

media, but with the added component of structural changes in work and labor.

There are, of course, problems with all three types of feminism, including:

● Dichotomous conceptions of gender: that gender is either male/female.
● Instrumental view of culture and media: that mainstream culture influences a passive audience

that is easily manipulated to accept dominant interests.
● Claims to realism and more realistic representations of women: women are not a homogeneous

group and are fragmented by multiple differences.

2) Postfeminism and “sexy” bodies
2) Postfeminism and “sexy” bodies

Since the 80s, there have been debates over what to call the incarnations of contemporary
feminism—third wave, backlash, or postfeminism. In “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a
Sensibility,” Rosalind Gill opts to regard the dominant cultural sensibility as “postfeminist.” She argues that
postfeminism is a philosophical position internal to feminism that names contemporary transformations in

both feminism and media culture. A postfeminist sensibility, according to Gill, characterizes many media
representations of gender today. The major features of this sensibility are:

● Femininity as a bodily property and a resurgence in ideas of natural sexual difference
● Shift from female objectification to subjectification
● Self-surveillance and discipline

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● Focus on individualism, choice, and empowerment
● Increased sexualization of culture
● Emphasis on consumerism

In regards to the emphasis on femininity as a bodily property, Gill notes a growing cultural preoccupation
with the ideal feminine body—especially the “sexy” body as a woman’s key source of identity. Cultural
pressures for women to cultivate a sexy body are evidenced by the extraordinary degree of self-scrutiny
and the intensification of stringent standards of attractiveness that are not the same for men (on female
celebrities’ bodies is one prominent example of this).

Cultural emphases on women’s sexy bodies has to do with the increasing sexualization of culture in the
past thirty years. While it is true that women’s bodies have been sexually objectified at least since the
mid-nineteenth century in the Western world, some critics say that it has grown in intensity and become
more pervasive in recent years—so much so that we can label ours a “striptease culture” in which scantily
clad female bodies are frequently eroticized, and to a lesser extent, male bodies as well.

4) Sexual subjectification
4) Sexual subjectification

Rosalind Gill says that one of the key shifts from older to more contemporary media has to do with a
change in the representation of women as active, desiring sexual subjects (a key feature of a postfeminist
sensibility) versus older media representations of women as passive sexual objects for heterosexual men.
These sexually liberated and confident women choose to objectify themselves (e.g. dressing “sexy”) since
they actively want to attract men and be looked at as sexually desirable. This kind of sexual
“subjectification” is linked with female empowerment and individual choice—being sexy is what women
want for themselves. What this position also does is to foreclose the space for feminist critique, since
objecting to the sexualization of women nowadays is to be risk charges of conservatism and prudishness.

Gill argues, however, that to critique is not to be prudish, since the contemporary sexual subjectification of
women is deeply flawed. She says that this sexually liberated woman may now also be subject to a
deeper kind of exploitation than the male gaze, for she has internalized a kind of “self-policing” gaze that
tailors her sexuality to dominant male standards of what makes a sexy woman. This marks a shift in how
power works—it operates less from an external heterosexual male gaze than from the internalization of
heteronormative standards of attractiveness.

As Gill puts it: “Girls and women are invited to become a particular kind of self, and are endowed with
agency on condition that it is used to construct oneself as a subject closely resembling the heterosexual
male fantasy found in pornography” (138). In mainstream media, when a woman does not meet this
heterosexual male fantasy, she is excluded from sexual subjectification: only certain kinds of women get
to be desiring sexual subjects, and they are usually heterosexual, white, and slender.

QUESTIONS –
1

DISCUSSION PROMPT 1: Feminisms – histories and values
COLLAPSE

(Please note: this prompt is not associated with an assigned reading, but read the entire prompt before
responding.)

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It is important to understand that feminism is not a monolithic concept or movement, and that it has taken
on different forms for different cultures and parts of the world. This week we will be focusing on the
formation of and ideas making up Western feminism—particularly its incarnations in the US.
The history of US feminism can be broken up into several periods or “waves.” The first wave grew out of
the women’s suffrage movement of the 1920s, which eventually won women citizens the right to vote. The
second wave of the 60s and 70s was dominated by LIBERAL FEMINISM, a set of discourses that
emphasize social prejudices and stereotypes about “natural” male and female gender roles. Its defining
tenet is that women are essentially the same as men but are not treated equally in society. The word
“liberal” comes from liberalism as a political stance—one which stresses equality and freedom based in
democratically organized societies. Liberal feminism can be characterized by several common beliefs and
platforms:
● Women are encouraged assume non-traditional social roles and occupations, i.e. to take on
traditionally masculine positions of power. More women in positions of power can counteract
long-held patriarchal beliefs that women’s proper place should be in the home mothering and
caretaking.
● Mainstream cultural discourses—especially mass media—reflect dominant patriarchal gender
ideologies and act as socialization agents that influence our opinions and self-perceptions. It
plays a determining role in our notions of what is appropriate and normal regarding gender.
Its proposed solutions focus on achieving equality with men:
● Women should obtain more positions of power and enter male-dominated occupational fields. As
more women acquire power that has historically been concentrated in the hands of men,
eventually media will reflect these social changes.
● Cultural and media discourses can contribute to social change by representing women in
non-traditional gender roles and positions of power.
● Consumer pressure should be placed on producers and products representing sexist materials.
Some drawbacks and consequences of the liberal feminist approach include:

● Tends to stress women’s role reversals (i.e. women should take on more masculine positions of
power) while male role reversals are rarely advocated.

● Neglects socioeconomic structures and power relations in favor of women entering into
traditionally male-dominated fields.

There are two other strains of feminism that have been less dominant in the US: radical and socialist.
RADICAL FEMINISM is characterized by the fundamental belief that women are essentially different from
men and are not treated equally in our patriarchal culture. Some of its major tenets include:

● In patriarchal societies, men dominate and oppress women—a situation that emerged from men’s
innate dispositions toward violence and genetic tendency to dominate women due to their greater
strength.

● Women are fundamentally different, more peaceful, and virtuous, and should aim to build feminist
utopias without men.

● Most prominent media and cultural institutions are controlled by men who necessarily further
patriarchal dominant interests.

● Its proposed solutions include women producing their own culture with different values and
distinctly feminine perspectives. Working conditions should be collaborative, non-hierarchical
collectives that are not profit-driven.

SOCIALIST FEMINISM, unlike either radical or liberal feminism, believes that gender is not the primary
determinant of women’s subordinate position. Instead, women’s relative powerlessness can be attributed
to other socioeconomic factors such as modern capitalism and nuclear family structures. Its main tenets
include:
● Capitalist societies are dependent on women’s unpaid domestic labor, which maintains the paid
male workforce.
● Capitalist economies should be fundamentally restructured, with special emphasis on the
disadvantages of traditional gender ideologies as well as analysis of material and economic
conditions.
● Mainstream culture and media are tools for perpetuating patriarchal and capitalist ideologies.
● Its proposed solutions involve reforming sexist cultural representations and producing feminist
media, but with the added component of structural changes in work and labor.
There are, of course, problems with all three types of feminism, including:
● Dichotomous conceptions of gender: that gender is either male/female.
● Instrumental view of culture and media: that mainstream culture influences a passive audience
that is easily manipulated to accept dominant interests.
● Claims to realism and more realistic representations of women: women are not a homogeneous
group and are fragmented by multiple differences.

What type of feminism (liberal, radical, or socialist) are you most in agreement with and why? Does the
above description of the three strains of feminism enhance your understanding of what feminism means?
How does your new understanding of feminism compare to your previous understanding?

2-

DISCUSSION PROMPT 2: “Postfeminist media culture” – Rosalind Gill”
COLLAPSE

Since the 1980s, there have been debates over what to call the incarnations of contemporary
feminism—third wave, backlash, or postfeminism. In “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a
Sensibility,” Rosalind Gill opts to regard the dominant cultural sensibility as “postfeminist.” She argues that
postfeminism is a philosophical position internal to feminism that names contemporary transformations in

https://umb.umassonline.net/webapps/discussionboard/do/message?action=list_messages&course_id=_46663_1&nav=discussion_board&conf_id=_72572_1&forum_id=_164713_1&message_id=_2049414_1#

both feminism and media culture. A postfeminist sensibility, according to Gill, characterizes many media
representations of gender today. The major features of this sensibility are:

● Femininity as a bodily property and a resurgence in ideas of natural sexual difference
● Shift from female objectification to subjectification
● Self-surveillance and discipline
● Focus on individualism, choice, and empowerment
● Increased sexualization of culture
● Emphasis on consumerism

In regards to the emphasis on femininity as a bodily property, Gill notes a growing cultural preoccupation
with the ideal feminine body—especially the “sexy” body as a woman’s key source of identity. Cultural
pressures for women to cultivate a sexy body are evidenced by the extraordinary degree of self-scrutiny
and the intensification of stringent standards of attractiveness that are not the same for men (on female
celebrities’ bodies is one prominent example of this).
Cultural emphases on women’s sexy bodies has to do with the increasing sexualization of culture in the
past thirty years. While it is true that women’s bodies have been sexually objectified at least since the
mid-nineteenth century in the Western world, some critics say that it has grown in intensity and become
more pervasive in recent years—so much so that we can label ours a “striptease culture” in which scantily
clad female bodies are frequently eroticized, and to a lesser extent, male bodies as well.

Do you agree with Rosalind Gill that much of our contemporary media culture is characterized by an
emphasis on femininity as a bodily property? Do you think that women are subject to more cultural
pressures to have a “sexy” body than men? What do you make of cultural standards of the “sexy”
body—do they conform to a narrow vision of attractiveness or do you think there is room for diverse body
types?

3- n “Facebook Feminism” (available in our Readings tab), Susan Faludi criticizes the “lean in” feminism
promoted by Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. (For a summation
of the key ideas in Sandberg’s book, watch her TED Talk: “Why we have too few women leaders.”)
Sandberg’s book identifies “internal” barriers, such as low confidence and the fear of being unlikeable, as
the most significant obstacles to women’s success at work. One of her key points is that if only more
women could “lean in,” i.e. get past their internal barriers, then they can change the numbers at the top of
businesses, politics, and other traditionally male-dominated fields. According to Sandberg, all women can
make the necessary adjustments to themselves in order to successfully climb the ladder to success in any
profession. All women can overcome their reluctance to reach for better opportunities and raises, and
should embrace accelerating job demands by working even harder. And when more women are at the
top, they can then use their power to raise other women up.
Faludi, on the other hand, sees “lean in” feminism as short-sighted and individualistic. Sandberg’s book
does not have much to say about women who don’t have professional careers, those who work in the
lowest paid service and retail sectors, many of whom have little to no paid maternity leave, little schedule
flexibility and few vacation days, and are still paid a fraction of what their male coworkers are for doing the
same job. These are women who are struggling to make ends meet on a day-to-day basis, and Sandberg
has little to say to them about how to change their plights. The problems that these women face on the
job can potentially be solved through fighting external barriers like discrimination, sexism, and bad public
policies regarding support for working mothers and their families. But Sandberg believes that public

discourse disproportionately concentrates on the need for social and policy reforms, and that instead, her
book wants to focus on the internal psychological barriers keeping women from achieving their vision of
success.

Faludi argues that lean in feminism only works for relatively privileged women who are in careers with
prospects of growth. She recounts how an early instance of feminism (the women’s mill unions in Lowell,
Massachusetts) was so effective at changing the harsh working conditions because the women mill
workers organized collectively to improve conditions at the mills for all female workers. This was evidence
of the collective power of women coming together to fight for a better workplace—which is where
contemporary feminism should draw its lessons for building a more just and equal world—and not from
the individualistic focus of lean-in feminism.

Do you agree with Sheryl Sandberg’s or Susan Faludi’s ideas about feminism and why?

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