Livin the American Dream

We spent last week examining the relationship between women and consumerism. The two articles we read explored the types of products that have an influence over the female psyche and why there are gendered spheres of influence in our consumer society.

The first article we discussed was Janice Radway’s “The Act of Reading the Romance: Escape and Instruction”. Radway explored the phenomenal popularity of romance novels among American women and the power dynamics this creates. Radway discovered that “the connection between romance reading and my informants’ understanding of their roles as wives and mothers” was integral to understanding how women consume products.

Women who read these books live vicariously through the characters whose lives are nothing like theirs.  They feel a sense of escapism when they read about women who have men lusting after them – a relief from their lives dedicated to serving others. Nancy Chodorow’s observations about social structure also come into play here. Women traditionally “reproduce” others, in both a biological and symbolic sense. Not only do they bear children, but they spend their lives supporting others, specifically, their husbands and families. As any mother knows, it is a job that is not as appreciated as it should be. This is why women seek emotional support from other sources, such as books. This, in turn, creates a complex paradox for women: they often feel guilty about reading romance novels in order to seek some sort of satisfaction. This could be why women rarely discuss books like this with eachother. Men seem to be threatened by their wives’ becoming absorbed in romance novels. It takes away from time husbands and wives could be spending together in the evening doing other activities, such as watching TV (or…other things, ehem). Men don’t understand the fulfillment women get out of reading romance novels because it is harder for them to become totally engrossed in books or television, although, if Radway saw my guy friends playing Halo 3, I’m sure she’d change her mind.

This whole concept of women “escaping” and becoming empowered through the act of reading romance novels sadly just reinforces gender stereotypes. Although women feel empowered by reading these books, they still aren’t questioning the status quo. This reminds me of Fiske’s article about shopping malls. Women feel empowered by shopping, yet they are still perpetuating stereoytpes about themselves. They are pumping money into an ultimately patriarchal system. Things that fall within the “women’s sphere” that women seek validation from are shopping and lusty romantic fantasies. Great. Maybe it’s not as bad as I think. Maybe women really do just read books such as these to relax from their hectic lives. I can’t expect a busy mother to kick back at the end of the day with a copy of War and Peace. It’s also nice to read about lust and love when it ends up happily, as it often does in these Harlequin novels.

On Friday we discussed Ann DuCille’s article, “Toy Theory: Black Barbie and the Deep Play of Difference”. There is a deep link between consumerism and multiculturalism. We buy products from other countries in order to feel like we are partaking in another culture. The article examined Barbie in terms on two levels: the feminine stereotype Barbie perpetuates as well as the racial undertones that Barbie’s multiculturally diverse friends convey.

On one hand, Barbie gives girls a great message that they can be whatever they want to be. Barbie has been an astronaut, a teacher, a lawyer, a soldier, a doctor, and countless other occupations. She is also a pretty empowered woman, with her own house, her own car, and a boyfriend that she can do with or without. On the other hand, Barbie dolls give girls a skewed image of what real “femininity” is.

Take a look at Beach Fun Barbie here. Crap, is that what I should look like when I go to the beach? Also, please note the heart “tattoo” on Barbie’s midriff. Actually, it’s impossible for me to look like that, because apparently, if Barbie was a real woman with the same proportions as the doll, she wouldn’t have enough body fat to menstruate regularly. Whew. Radway points out that Barbie originated as a sexy doll that was only sold to men. Creepy. What are little girls supposed to think being “feminine” means when their Barbies are sold with lacy lingerie sets? There have been feminists who take this view of the doll’s influence on young girls.

You can also examine Barbie through a racial lens. There has been a lot of tension with introducing African American and other “ethnic” Barbies to the market. At first, African American Barbie, Shani, looked exactly like white Barbie, except with darker plastic skin. In order to make her appear more “black”, Mattel plumped up Shani’s lips and curved her back to make her behind higher. This also was not received very well. It’s a little odd that we associate race with skin color, a few differences in facial features, and clothing. Black Barbie doesn’t even have authentic African American hair! Poor Barbie. What should Mattel be doing in order to remain racially sensitive? Well, not what they did in this article I read, that’s for sure. Now, I did find this on The Consumerist website, but the facts seem to be true. Mattel released two versions of their “Barbie Forever” doll, a Caucasian version and an African American version. Both dolls come with a pet dog. Weirdly enough, the African American Barbie’s dog is darker than the Caucasian Barbie’s dog. Also, the dog’s name is Tanner. Too far, Mattel, too far. I don’t know if this was intended to make a racist commentary, but it is rather strange to think about…

DuCille also referenced the Clark study conducted in the 1940s. The study concluded that when given a choice between a white and a black doll, 70% of the African American children studied chose the white doll. This gives us an idea about how racially acute children are and also how influential the toys they play with can be.

These two articles gave us a good look at how gender and race are manipulated in the consumer market. Different products are marketed towards certain demographic groups. What we buy says a lot about how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world around us.


4 Responses to “What Women Want”

  1. Fioricet. on August 3rd, 2011 7:56 pm



  2. MooreJessica19 on November 18th, 2011 8:19 pm

    Don’t have a lot of money to buy a house? Don’t worry, because it is real to take the business loans to work out all the problems. So take a bank loan to buy all you want.

  3. Asia M on December 21st, 2011 10:36 am

    “This whole concept of women “escaping” and becoming empowered through the act of reading romance novels sadly just reinforces gender stereotypes.”

    But the fact that people keep talking trash of women’s fiction just because it’s written and read by women does not reinforce gender stereotypes? I also happen to think that romance novels DO question the status quo. If you don’t, you either have a very distorted view of reality, or of romance novels (or both). I only *wish* all women were as free, well-treated, respected, happy and fulfilled as they are in romance novels!

    Of course, reading a romance novel is not the most subversive act ever, it is not direct action… But since when have women had to be revolutionary with every breath they take? Being a woman in our societies is enough of an every day struggle as it is. Why do we put ourselves down instead of underlining and celebrating that fact? As a leftist activist, feminist, and academic, I am extremely displeased by the stereotype that is being repeated ad nauseam about “these women who read romance novels to escape”. Struggle and activism has always required escape, secrecy, and self-organisation. And FYI, women DO exchange and discuss A LOT about romance. Among themselves. No need for men and haters to join a discussion they would inevitably hijack to their profit.

    Also, love and lust don’t traditionally fall into the “women’s sphere”. That’s one of the misconceptions I am most surprised to keep hearing; women’s traditional relation to love and lust is only as *objects* thereof. But it’s always been up to men to define what love and lust were, how they were supposed to work and be expressed. At last we get the woman’s say! At last we get women who are agents of their own love and lust experiences! That is a very new and subversive thing.

  4. When we defend romance reading as escapism, the critics win on February 5th, 2013 8:11 am

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