Friday, July 11, 2014

Stereotypes in print (1986)

From the May 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Women's role is no longer to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Simpler, more effective birth control has meant that women are freed from the risks and hardships of frequent childbirth. Nevertheless most continue to play a role that is subservient to men, both at home and at work. The female sexual stereotype persists in defining women as the weaker sex - gentle, caring, emotional and unassertive. Traditionally women are admired for being pretty, caring and retiring. The traditional role of men, in contrast, is the authority figure in the family, responsible for providing food and shelter. Men are supposed to be physically strong, aggressive, unhampered by gentleness and emotion.

Biological differences are real enough - women are built to bear children, men to father children and these biological differences dominate relations between the sexes, confining women and men within sexual stereotypes. Women and men respond to their environment and to their biological role in life; therefore many women today "enjoy" a dual role as homemaker and worker resulting in them having to try to balance the responsibilities of work and home, fitting work in around shopping, cooking and cleaning.

In what little time is left over from these activities women may choose to relax by reading some of the bewildering array of homemaking magazines available to them but for which there is no equivalent for men. Men's magazines consist of periodicals on hobbies, sport and women as sex objects. Nothing on running a home, how to make the housekeeping go further, how to get a cleaner wash or how to make up to look attractive to the opposite sex. In magazines designed for the male interest women appear only as decoration, reinforcing their subservient position in society at large. Media images portray women simultaneously as sex objects, as independent (but still sexually attractive), as career women, as doting mothers obsessed with food and clean laundry.

The format of women's magazines can be explained by the fact that each is competing for sales, therefore each must appeal to the broadest section of the female population by including something for everyone. What does a typical women's weekly contain? A mixture of articles on homemaking, health, fashion, competitions, special features and possibly politics interspersed with a lot of advertisements and a horoscope column.

Competitions include an opportunity to "Win A Man" from a computer dating agency by listing his personal attributes in order of importance. Should he be tall, handsome, professional, educated? Another offers a prize of a cleaning person for six months if "you can tell us in no more than 35 witty words  . . . " For those women who have already found the man of their dreams and want to hold onto him a little longer there is a chance to win a set of pots and pans by answering four simple questions.

Lavishly illustrated recipe pages inform women that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach but in case they're too liberal with the cholestorol, the insurance companies reassure women that for a small payment they won't be left penniless in widowhood. "Romance" features highly - recipes for romance, romantic lighting for the home - but one can't be overweight and attractive to the opposite sex so articles on health include numerous fad diets and exercises to keep bums and other bumps in shape.

Fashion articles demonstrate how to dress and make up to look "sexy" and there is a proliferation of homemaking articles guaranteed to make readers perfect wives. Scattered throughout the magazines are adverts for food - some of them ambiguous - "What are you giving your old man tonight?" Not, not a dose of sexual subservience, but a packet of frozen hamburgers. For those who can't manage the housekeeping. there are plenty of ads for mail order catalogues, all of them offering a wide selection of goods to be paid for on the Never-Never.

Tampon manufacturers battle to sell their products using all sorts of technical diagrams and jargon - but disguise the possibility of toxic shock syndrome in very small print. 

The "Politics" column (if there is one) will most likely deal with some of the less attractive aspects of being female in capitalist society - for example one column bemoans the lack of screening facilities for early detection of breast and cervical cancer although, apart from criticising government underfunding of these health services, there is little political comment.

The ideas put across in these magazines occupy women's minds with trivia but at the same time subtly reinforce the dominant values of capitalist society, of privacy, family and home. Even those magazines which claim to appeal to the "liberated" woman concede only that she has an equal place in the job market - liberated in so far as she may not depend on a man to dole out the housekeeping. She is free to go out and obtain it for herself by selling her mental and physical energies to an employer for a wage or salary.

True liberation from traditional roles will only come through a partnership of men and women united in their desire for socialism. How might socialism change women's position? For a start, they will be on an equal footing with men. Neither will be obliged to sell their labour power to a capitalist class in order to survive. In addition women will be freed from their role in life. HUman beings will share all the tasks necessary to run society equally and in partnership with one another and we won't need glossy magazines to tell us how to do it.
Cathy Gillespie

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