Feminist Waves and the Rule of Gender Performativity

Orlagh Turner - Writer

Feminism - one word with so many opinions. Many embrace the word whilst others reject it. But no matter whether you support or don’t support this movement, it is still around attempting to combat the social oppression women face on a daily basis. Nevertheless, this asks the question, why is feminism such a controversy in society? Is it because of the intrinsic patriarchal views that are we are brainwashed into believing from a young age, that tell us feminism is a bad thing? And in even more depth, how does feminism tie in with gender and gender performativity? These are the questions that should be asked and ones that will be attempted to be answered.

Having already gone through the first and second waves of feminism that conquered political and domestic stigmas against women, the third wave is a bit more complicated. There is confusion as to whether we are still in the third wave or even what it consists/ed of, which is why this movement of feminism is so ambiguous and arguably not as successful as the other two. Because socially, people are oppressed from a range of things not just gender, such as race, sexuality and class, it is difficult to pinpoint how exactly to combat this oppression concerning females, whether it is just their gender or whether their oppression has stemmed from other social stigmas. Third wave feminism fights for the social rights of women, combatting the treatment of women, or rather mistreatment of them in social situations. However socially it is more difficult to police the mistreatment of women because it can be so subtle, when compared to something more obvious like the right to vote.

Everyday Patriarchy

This subtlety can stem from something as simple as judging others based on their social views and values. Lindsay Wilson argues that it is the gendered assumptions of how a female should dress or carry herself that constitutes to social inequality and hierarchy between the sexes. She provides an account on the different meanings of wearing a short skirt, arguing that ‘if wearing a short skirt equals a sexually available women, then making very aggressive sexual advances on public transportation makes sense, particularly if the person making those advances also assumes that the person is heterosexual and female. However, if a person who looked less “female” wore a short skirt in public the response would range from odd glances to transphobic violence. The two individuals in question were performing the same behaviour- wearing a short skirt on public transit- but the response is completely different because of explicit social assumptions - skirts should only be worn by women, women should have certain physical characteristics[.]’ These social presumptions of how a woman must dress and act is the exact reason why women want an equality between the sexes, it is so that they are no longer preyed upon, objectified and judged based on their exterior appearance. As Lindsay further explains that ‘social hierarchy cannot and does not exist without being embodied in meanings and expressed in communications’, which is exactly what you are witnessing in this example.


Zimmerman and West also back Lindsay in believing that there is an intrinsic hierarchy between the sexes because it is reflected in speech. These two linguists conducted a study that showed women are a subordinate group whose difference in style of speech results from male supremacy and also possibly an effect of patriarchy. This is a theory that proved that in mixed-sex conversations men are more likely to interrupt than women. Zimmerman and West founded evidence in 31 segments of conversation, reporting that in 11 conversations between men and women, men used 46 interruptions, but women only two. This evidence concluded that, since men interrupt more often, then they are dominating or attempting to do so. So even in our conversations, men are the ones that dominate.

The Effect of Advertising

This could be down to the incredibly influential and manipulative work of child advertising. From a young age people are being brainwashed into believing in this idea of gender performity- how they should act based on their gender. Pink is for girls, blue is for boys, dolls are for girls, cars are for boys. This black and white system or should I say pink and blue, is not only whimsical, but also flimsy. I say whimsical because originally pink in the 1920s was a colour for boys not for girls, which has since been changed. Marketing has always been successful in placing people into boxes to target them in the easiest fashion; for children this is so dangerous because they are so impressionable. Theo Van Leeuwen even argued that marketing uses colours to target children especially because they avidly seek out/ want things that represent their gender. Therefore, this is very problematic in the feminist debate because if we are subjected to gendered products and we as young people avidly search for things that represent our gender, then this begs the question, will we ever find an equality? That yes it is okay for boys to play will dolls and yes it is alright for girls to like the colour blue without them being pinned down as ‘effeminate’ or tom boy-ish? I don’t know whether this would be manageable. Especially with adult advertisers being shot down when they try to encourage more traditionally ‘feminine’ characteristics to men to encourage a more caring and loving outlook on other people.

The famous 2019 Gillette advert ‘We believe: the best man can be’, which promoted the eradication of the well-known excuse ‘boys will be boys’ and instead asked men to replace this excuse with action to stop demeaning behaviour occurring whenever they can, either through breaking a fight or standing up to someone who is being derogatory to another. Many people praised this advert saying is was one of a kind and exactly what we need in a society that is toxically masculine, however they also got many responses of people flushing their Gillette razors down the toilet in an outburst of rage. The mixed responses showing that not everyone is onboard with a change in attitude, is exactly the reason why it is so difficult to encompass equal treatment towards women. If men are not prepared to stand up for another person, then there is little hope that they will change their attitudes towards the treatment of women.

Concluding Remarks

So to wrap things up, gender has an intrinsic link to the equality of the sexes, especially due to this idea of gender performativity- how people should act and dress based on their gender. These gendered views that are pumped into us through marketing and advertising from an impressionable age are part of the reasoning why the social equality for women has taken so long and is still an ongoing battle. The social conditioning we are subjected to has ensured that equality between the sexes will take a long time because trying to introduce new social rules into society is difficult, because there is no solid rule book as to how to act, it is implied through the media in marketing and advertising in our consumerist world. Therefore, it won’t be until marketers start to change their attitudes like Gillette without being afraid of backlash, will we begin to see change.



Sources:
https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1416&context=gsurc
https://www.gla.ac.uk/0t4/crcees/files/summerschool/readings/WestZimmerman_1987_DoingGender.pdf
https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/aca7/c8ffa23c38b05faede391273a4130fc28b4a.pdf
Photo Credit - Tim Mossholder - https://unsplash.com/photos/UcUROHSJfRA

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