Friday, June 19, 2009

Some Marxist-Feminist Theorizing: Consumerism, Patriarchy, and The "Target Market"

In the Marxist-Feminist dialogue I've only been introduced to in the past year or so of my life, one of the chief questions to be answered is "What is the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy?"

Scholars have taken many approaches to this question, usually ending up talking about the division of labor. Sex difference and inequality had to be enforced so women would raise a work force for us and not ask for any pay. And her children would be good workers, because she did "woman" right and taught them right. In other words, so that they would provide the domestic labor necessary to continue the cycle of labor in the public sphere (see Angela Davis). The capitalist needed domestic servants so they created good man and good woman by promoting the bourgeois morality.

This is an answer which has always made sense to me, but I've never seen it as a complete explanation of patriarchy as we see it today, since it doesn't even begin to capture capitalism as we know it today. So many women work outside the home now, for instance, and capitalism relies on that public labor. And in my life, patriarchy has been less about telling me where to work (or not to work), than about telling me what to buy.

Anyone who has taken a marketing class, or worked in marketing, or watched Mad Men (I've done all three) has heard the phrase: Who is your target market? The identification of your market is more than just an identification of a demographic. It's what tells you how to sell your product. If your target market is boys between 12 and 18, you're going to make this edgy, you'll use black and green colors, and you'll play some rock music in the background, and you'll portray the use of your product as an act of rebellion. Yeah, those boys will eat that up. But where did all this knowledge about which group likes what comes from? I argue that advertising itself created it. Sure. certain demographics may have leaned certain ways to begin with, but adveritising made them lean harder in the old categories and made them start to lean in categories of difference that never existed before.

Advertisements are my daily lesson in how to be a woman. Most feminists have known that advertisements are a significant medium for gendering and outright sexism, and criticism of representation is incredibly easy to find on feminist blogs and in feminist books today (see Sarah Haskins' "Target Women," which is really the best of the best of this criticism).

The theory behind this type of criticism is that advertisements take lazy routes and rely on offensive stereotypes to sell their products and boycotts and letter writing can show the companies in question that is not a successful way to sell. What I haven't heard, however, is the argument that not only does consumer culture rely on sexist stereotypes to reproduce itself, but that in fact, it creates the illusions of gender and sex difference so that it can create its own target markets. If it weren't for collective identity, marketers wouldn't know what to do. Marketing isn't a reliance on old stereotypes, but the creation of target markets.

I also contend that this is probably a fairly new phenomenon. In the 1800s, people knew they needed textiles and knew they needed any number of other products that could be produced en masse because of the industrial revolution. Marketing was as simple as making the product known, having a good price, and making that product easily accessible. In fact, this held true for the most part up until the 20th century. Technology and competition within that beautiful "free market" made products that were less obviously necessary or not at all necessary. Marketing became an effort to convince someone that he/she, in particular, needed this product.

Think of how many types of woman were created in advertisements. Even if you look at the division of labor that Davis and other radical feminists point at as the link between capitalism and patriarchy, you see what advertising has done to that. Being a good mother and housewife is a hell of a lot more complicated than it was in the 1800s. It involves owning all the best housekeeping tools, all the Baby Einstein tapes, all the most nutritious food for your family, it involves object after object that is supposed to save you time so you can dedicate more time to being a perfect caregiver. But the real change is that it's not just domestic woman who has been developed by adveritising. This goes far beyond the division of labor. She's a sexual woman. She needs clothes. She needs to groom herself regularly. She needs makeup and razors and exfoliants.

I could make a similar argument for all the modern men that have been created by advertising (the guy who needs his man cave, the guy who just wants to drink beer and not listen, the guy who would rather eat a cheeseburger from Carl's Jr. than take his wife out somewhere nice). The collective identity formation through advertising occurs on both sides, but of course, the different collective identities being shaped by advertising leave men with more power than women.

Then it's that reliance on the shame on not doing woman right that originated in the division of labor that makes these proposed identities stick. Someone said that's what woman does. Everyone saw it. I must do it now. And I'll need money to do it. And I'll need to spend money to do it.

On the flip side, this consumer culture means gender guilt becomes class guilt. I'm not only poor but I can't do woman right. Or, because I'm poor, I can't do woman right.

The bottom line here is that the late capitalist system of consumerism has created the need for more complex and detailed gender differences than a simple division of labor requires. And marketing is the actual creation of those differences. It's not only promoting stereotypes, but creating new binaries that never existed before. Advertising, that need for one person to sell another person something so that person can survive, divides us not just into domestic servants and public-sphere workers, to men and women, but into so many other things we didn't even know we could be. We're fit women or we're unfit women. We're yogurt eating women or we're not yogurt eating women. We're coutour or we're not coutour. We're Jackies or we're Marilyns. These aren't naturally occuring categories and they aren't categories that were created by a mere division of labor. They're categories created by the needs of a modern capitalism, and our success in aspiring to the right category has a direct impact on our amount of power in the capitalist system.

I'll take this argument to its next step and talk about what this realization means for resistance in the next few days...


NiceFeminist said...

This is a really amazing post. I've been trying to find a way to effectively explain the correlation between capitalism and patriarchy and have struggled. If you don't mind, I am going to link to it on my "resources for newbies" blogroll, and I'm definitely bookmarking the site.

Daisy Deadhead said...

Excellent post. I also like what Herbert Marcuse said about "creating needs"--once you create these niche market, you can sell them what they "need"--which you then define for them.

As a retail wage-slave, I am also somewhat amazed at a certain phenomenon in white suburban America, snob appeal. When I earnestly try to impart information (I sell alt-medicine/supplements), I am greatly appreciated by old-school southern folks, but by contrast, the new Ballardian-suburbanite is more convinced if you act like a particular product is TOO PRECIOUS for them: too pure, too odd, too "genuine" ... this is whole secret behind sudden fads like Acai-berry juice. (Besides Oprah's magic selling ability, that is)

I discovered this gestalt (for lack of a better word) quite by accident years ago, when I was actually warning somebody away from something (that I considered ineffectual) when I suddenly realized it just made him want it more. (works equally well on men and women; the crucial factor here is CLASS, the people bored with the 'same old same old' and want something "new" and along with it, "real")...

The hunger for authenticity. Now, people have to market that too. That Megatrends guy (forget his name) talked about "high tech vs high touch" (the more high tech we get, the more we crave quilts and hardwood floors) and I think there is an element of that at work, but it is also a loss of identity, which is why I call it Ballardian. The suburbanites don't know who they are anymore and look to products as identity. That's why my foreign an old-school-southern customers don't seem to be buying for these reasons and don't share this psychological motivation.

Just babbling, sorry... but I never think to write this stuff on my own blog! :P