Feb. 21st, 2012 11:39 am
liv: A woman with a long plait drinks a cup of tea (teapot)
[personal profile] liv
[ profile] j4 linked to a really fascinating essay about twee marketing a few weeks ago, and I've been meaning to talk about it. It's sort of a response to the rather brilliant piece of viral / social marketing by Sainsbury's when they renamed their tiger bread to giraffe bread in response to an adorable letter from a 4-year-old. Of course, stories about cute precocious children are guaranteed retweeting and FB fodder, but the essay starts delving into the implications and draws together a whole bunch of stuff I'd been peripherally aware of into a coherent opinion piece.

It's basically a music history blog, so it talks more about the influence of Belle & Sebastian on the indie music scene than I really care about, but there's some very good stuff in there. On the one hand, people are readily manipulated by cute / wacky / innocent marketing (obviously there's some discussion about the actual Innocentâ„¢ brand, but they're not the main culprits here). There's an important point that "innocent is the new natural"; that kind of branding is making implicit claims about honesty and purity that don't really reflect reality. But there's the broader issue of the subtle social pressure towards a particular kind of aesthetic and presentation.

For one thing it's connected to the ongoing moral panic about sexualization of childhood. I'd been kind of thinking about that as a politically correct way of expressing class prejudice. Nice (middle-class) people have special clothes for children, which are often rather retro or even conservative, but those people dress children as miniature adults, perhaps including make-up and revealing or sexy clothes. But it's not just that, the whole thing is heavily gendered and racialized as well. Nice, respectable girls look demure and modest; nasty, trashy ones are openly sexual. And it's not acceptable for women to start expressing their sexuality as they grow up, either, because as soon as you do that, you're not innocent any more, you're not sweet, you're not worthy of protection or even respect. I'm actually more bothered by adult women who dress like (a certain nostalgic view of) little girls, than actual little girls and teenagers who like to dress up in crop-tops and low-rise jeans and high heels and sexy slogans.

And people who are not white and middle-class and young and thin just don't get the option to be respectable, if respectable means innocent and childlike. The music blog points out that it's really quite hard to imagine a black equivalent of Belle & Sebastian. If innocence is associated with pureness and honesty, then anyone (especially female) who stands up for themselves, who applies analytical thought to their experiences and to society, who faces reality as it really is, not a cute, airbrushed, prettified version, is automatically flagged as dishonest and nasty and low in social status. It's not just sexuality which is being repressed here, it's any kind of critical or even assertive stance.

I think this is also connected to a talk I went to at the university about trans people in medical history, presented by a law professor, Alex Sharpe. I was quite surprised by how much of it I'd already picked up here and there from general reading. One thing I did learn was that before there was von Kraft-Ebbing, there was Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a sexologist and law reformer who actually identified personally as a "woman trapped in a man's body", and regarded trans identity as being part of the spectrum of normal human variation in sexuality, rather than a disease.

But anyway, the main part of the discussion was about Harry Benjamin and the idea of "transsexualism" as a medical condition which could in some cases by treated by sex reassignment. One thing that Prof Sharpe pointed out was that Benjamin's criteria for who counted as a genuine trans woman had effects on cis women as well, because he presented a definition of feminine gender identity which then had the backing of the medical establishment. And this definition was white and middle-class, just as most doctors were in the 50s, but it was also extremely conservative and gender essentialist, being part of the 50s backlash against women's liberation. So basically, any woman who stood up to doctors rather than meekly and demurely accepting their authority was not a real woman; obviously a real problem for trans women who had to (and still do, to an extent) jump through lots of hoops to prove their gender, but also a problem for women in general: if you question authority or behave assertively, you're not a real woman. We seem to have got past the concept that if you wear trousers or are attracted to women you're not a real woman, but that feminine subservience hasn't really gone away and is still seen as scientific fact rather than just a product of cultural norms.

Another point that Prof Sharpe raised was the simultaneous desexualization of trans women, with making the whole issue of gender identity about sex and sexuality. The insistence on a narrative where trans women, to be allowed access to medical support with their transition, were supposed never to have experienced any pleasure from their genitals, and to have discovered they were gender variant at a very young age. A very young age, the age when children are a symbol of the supposed "purity" of not having a fully fledged sexuality yet. This is not unconnected to the ongoing imbroglios about several otherwise quite progressive regimes insisting that trans women have to be sterilized in order to have their gender legally recognized. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the popular media makes trans issues all about sex and titillation and there's all that stuff with chasers and fetishists etc etc. And sex is kind of nasty, not respectable, so if you're agitating for trans rights you're somehow being inappropriately sexual in public, so you're not going to be taken seriously or respected.

If the ideal is to be "innocent," and that implies definitely not at all sexual, then to be sexual makes you not-ideal, a lower status person, a target. And if being sexual makes you not-ideal, then being adult, associated with sexuality, makes you not-ideal and not pure and not trustworthy too. And being an adult can be defined as anything that doesn't conform both to the norms associated with high status people, and anything that in any way challenges the establishment or anyone in authority.

I'm not arguing that giraffe bread causes sexism, obviously. I'm just having a bit of a click moment where several things fall into place, and I think there's an underlying theme that's worth highlighting!
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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