Consumer Products and Gender Performance

Brief Description: Suitable for classes in gender studies, marketing, mass communication, sociology, rhetoric, and English studies, this assignment asks students to research a particular product that is sold as "for men" or "for women" as a means of answering the question, "What might we learn about the way consumer products work if we consider gender as an act, a performance, a set of codes and costumes, rather than a core aspect of essential identity?"

Contributed by Rosemary Powers, Eastern Oregon University
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What might we learn about the way consumer products work if we consider gender as an act, a performance, a set of codes and costumes, rather than a core aspect of essential identity?

Purpose of this project: To explore the role of advertising and consumer products in promoting normative gender identities, to reflect on your own participation in this process, and to imagine possibilities for resistance and change.

Key words: gender performance, consumerism, normative gender identity, hegemonic masculinity, emphasized femininity, dominant and oppositional reading, cultural text.

Directions: For this individual project, you will collect data on your own experience, research the history and marketing of a chosen product (using on-line library databases, the Internet, and advertising presented in the mass media), and analyze the product using ideas about gender and consumerism presented in our course.

Part I: Research

A. Consumer diary: For the next two days, keep a diary of the products you purchase or use. Take special note of products that would generally be defined as for women or for men. This diary is for your own use, so be as uninhibited as possible in your account. For this assignment, consumer products include big items such as cars and small items such as pens. We will be choosing consumer products from these diaries for further research.


B. Research on the product: Using the Internet, course readings, on-line library data-bases, magazines, television commercials, and any other sources, trace the origin (history) of the product. Find out how it has been marketed and to whom. Collect sample advertisements or video-tape TV commercials to use in your analysis.


Part II: Analysis

Use the following questions to guide your description and analysis.

A. What is the product? (Discuss its history, either specifically, or the history of products like it).

B. Who makes this product? (What did you learn about the business or corporation that produces this cultural object? Where is it made? Who are the workers who actually put it together?

C. How is the product marketed? (Describe what you have discovered about how, where and to whom the product is advertised. Consider attaching samples of ads as an appendix to your completed paper. If you have collected TV commercials, remember to note which programs were airing at the time).

D. In what ways does the product promote or signify normative gender identity?  ( defined as hegemonic masculinity or emphasized femininity). In other words, is there a dominant reading of this text that works to sell appropriate masculinity or femininity? How do you know? Give examples--e.g. pastel-colored and curved razors for women and straight steel razors for men promote the idea of women as soft and men as hard).

E. Does/might this product promote or signify something other than a normative gender identity? What might be an oppositional reading of this cultural text? If you have a difficult time imagining such an interpretation, reflect on why this might be so.

The editor thanks Nancy Knowles of the Eastern Oregon University English Department for help in securing permission to post this assignment.