One for normal people and another one for women

The Ms. Blog offers a collection of reader-submitted photos of products marketed to people and also to women.

Not to men and to women, but to people — normal, legitimate, regular people, and to women — abnormal, subordinate, irregular not-quite people.

I’ve borrowed one example here, two children’s books presented as unequal companions. One book is for “kids” and the other is for “girls.”

This sends a message, sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle, that half of the world is somehow abnormal.

I’ll confess that I don’t always notice when marketers do this. That’s one of the privileges of privilege. Not only do you get to be told constantly that you’re normal and normative, but you learn to be oblivious to being told this. It’s much harder not to notice when you’re constantly hearing the opposite — that you’re ab-normal or sub-normal and less or other than what normal people ought to be.

This is a dude.

Consider, for example, the generic avatar/icon that Disqus provides for commenters who don’t upload their own.

I’d been scrolling past that for months, not noticing anything other than the generic placeholder it was intended to be by the guys who set this up at Disqus.

I didn’t really see what I was looking at — didn’t notice that it’s not so generic at all — until Jam pointed it out to me in an email:

Disqus’ … little default avatar thingy is pretty distinctly male there. [It’s] another little example of “men are human, women are women” kind of thinking … that men are default humans, so especially on the Internet you’re male until proven female.

That phrase “pointed it out” is illustrative of the looking-without-seeing that occurs when our blinders keep us, first of all, from seeing our blinders. That underscores the Doctor’s good advice from the other day (“Because it will change your life“) about the necessity of making it a habit to look again “Exactly where you don’t want to look, where you never want to look.” That’s not a habit most of us can manage on our own, which points again to the necessity of talking to one another and especially to others who bring different perspectives. We all need someone else who can tell us, “Look behind you.”

Jam also linked to Lisa Wade’s collection of default avatars at Sociological Images, which is really interesting and shows that the default-white-dude iconography isn’t just a Disqus phenomenon. For much more on the subject, scroll down to the bottom of Wade’s post for links to other articles on “how certain kinds of people get imagined as just people, while others get imagined as certain kinds of people.” See, for example, Wade’s “The Neutral and the Marked: A Primer for Your Kids.”

That terminology again helps to illustrate the un-seen un-seens of privilege and epistemic closure.* It’s easy not to notice when you’re being told you’re neutral. It’s harder not to notice when you’re being told you’re marked — marked as different, other, abnormal.

The Punning Pundit recently discussed another graphic digital example of this neutral/marked problem in video game design:

One of the great features of Science Fiction (and fantasy) is that it enlarges contemporary mores, memories, and memes to the point where they are more easily viewable. When Bioware, for instance, set out to create non-human species they certainly didn’t think about the fact that they’d be creating a perfect example of women being the “second sex”. The fact that this was done both explicitly – and unintentionally – says volumes about the way contemporary society has failed to understand what feminism means.

The link there goes to this Border House post by rho on “Designing non-human females.” Rho quotes from one video game designer:

They’re all males in the game. We usually try to avoid the females because what do you do with a female Turian? Do you give her breasts? What do you do? Do you put lipstick on her?

And responds:

What I personally take from this is the message that these artists pretty much think of women as being nothing but breasts and lipstick with no other identifying features, that they have very little idea how nature works (hint: birds don’t have breasts), and that they decided that making female characters was hard, so they’d give up.

It’s a fascinating discussion, but I’m not much of a gamer, so let me bring this back closer to home here.

Getting Disqus to evolve may prove hard, but let’s not give up trying. Lisa Wade’s collection of default avatars includes numerous examples that don’t try to be anthropomorphic at all. I’m thinking that’s a smarter, fairer and more inclusive approach than the white-guy silhouette Disqus now uses as its “neutral” icon. Is that the best idea, or should we recommend another approach?

I’m asking because I think the first step is to clarify specifically just what it is we want to ask Disqus to do to fix this. The second step, of course, is to deluge them with firm-but-polite emails urging them to make that fix.

Will that work? I don’t know. But as I read somewhere, “Just how big can a little blog dream?”

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Re-reading that paragraph, it seems too dry and abstract to get at what I’m trying to say there. Think again of that phrase “Look behind you.” Now think of all the times you’ve shouted that at the screen while watching a horror movie. That is what the problem of “privilege and epistemic closure” is like. To be blindered by privilege and thus blindered to privilege is to be in unwitting peril — like Jamie Lee Curtis not knowing that Michael Myers is standing right behind her. It’s not that kind of physical peril, but the moral and cognitive danger is just as real.

Or, in simpler terms, to live blindered by privilege is to be more evil and more stupid than one could otherwise be.

The moral and cognitive damage that privilege can do to the privileged is, of course, a second-tier problem. The priority concern should be the multi-layered, multi-pronged damage that privilege does to everyone else. But both concerns are interconnected.

 

"Red Son superman thought himself English in seconds, iirc."

White evangelical logic: A child-molester is ..."
"Her name, for those who want to look it up, was Aisha bint Abu Bakr."

White evangelical logic: A child-molester is ..."
"Honestly, I kind of sympathise with the concept of resistance to change. If nothing else, ..."

White evangelical logic: A child-molester is ..."
"Yeah, but I'd add that if someone does make the mistake of responding to him, ..."

White evangelical logic: A child-molester is ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Anonymous

    I’m currently playing a Sith warrior, but since I took off the shock collar first chance I got I suppose I won’t be able to see that option for myself.

    I do have a question.  In a game in which people have the option of betraying friends, committing torture, murdering people in cold blood and intentionally and personally causing the deaths of thousands of innocents, why is forcing someone to watch you make out with a rival the act that puts the game beyond the pale?  This is not meant as a dismissive question either, since I wouldn’t have my character do that last one either.  (All the rest of that list of evil is stuff I did do playing as an Imperial Agent.)

  • Anonymous

    In a game in which people have the option of betraying friends,
    committing torture, murdering people in cold blood and intentionally and
    personally causing the deaths of thousands of innocents, why is forcing
    someone to watch you make out with a rival the act that puts the game
    beyond the pale?

    Disclaimer: I have not played a Sith Warrior.  Madhabmatics will hopefully address this as well.

    I am assuming that in the scene in which the Sith forces Vette to watch, we get the fade to black that I, at least, assume means sex is had.  (I certainly assumed that when my agent seduced a woman for information the cut to black after suggestive comments and kissing meant they went off to a room and did the horizontal mambo.)  That’s a bit different than simply making out with someone in front of someone else.  Also, it’s not that you make out with someone in front of a rival for your affections – you’re forcing your slave to watch you *whatever happens in fade to black*.

    The scene is also part of a larger story which apparently involves one’s Sith keeping the npc a slave (you can release them) and torturing them with their slave collar.  Which, apparently, does not mean you can’t have a romance with them.

    A + B = WTF was Bioware thinking.

    (Though this discussion has put a different complexion on a conversation my agent’s companion had with him before she was his companion.  It was darkly flirty, but I’m now vaguely disturbed by her dark flirting including hoping she wouldn’t have to put a slave collar on him.  I took it as a comment on the fact that he seemed like trouble at the time, but what I now know about the Sith Warrior/Vette stuff suggests… er… other interpretations. Perhaps the sexual violence – or threat there of – is not limited to one gender in the game.)

  • Anonymous

    In a game in which people have the option of betraying friends,
    committing torture, murdering people in cold blood and intentionally and
    personally causing the deaths of thousands of innocents, why is forcing
    someone to watch you make out with a rival the act that puts the game
    beyond the pale?

    Disclaimer: I have not played a Sith Warrior.  Madhabmatics will hopefully address this as well.

    I am assuming that in the scene in which the Sith forces Vette to watch, we get the fade to black that I, at least, assume means sex is had.  (I certainly assumed that when my agent seduced a woman for information the cut to black after suggestive comments and kissing meant they went off to a room and did the horizontal mambo.)  That’s a bit different than simply making out with someone in front of someone else.  Also, it’s not that you make out with someone in front of a rival for your affections – you’re forcing your slave to watch you *whatever happens in fade to black*.

    The scene is also part of a larger story which apparently involves one’s Sith keeping the npc a slave (you can release them) and torturing them with their slave collar.  Which, apparently, does not mean you can’t have a romance with them.

    A + B = WTF was Bioware thinking.

    (Though this discussion has put a different complexion on a conversation my agent’s companion had with him before she was his companion.  It was darkly flirty, but I’m now vaguely disturbed by her dark flirting including hoping she wouldn’t have to put a slave collar on him.  I took it as a comment on the fact that he seemed like trouble at the time, but what I now know about the Sith Warrior/Vette stuff suggests… er… other interpretations. Perhaps the sexual violence – or threat there of – is not limited to one gender in the game.)

  • Madhabmatics

    Depizan’s got it covered pretty well, but I will say that a lot of those other things are problematic too, but they are less problematic than sexual issues because society frowns on most people outside of politics doing the former things, but issues of consent are hazy for anyone who has sex (a lot of people!)

    I mean, I can easily point to (I think it was) Justice Alito’s use of the television show “24” to support “enhanced interrogation techniques” as proof that showing torture as entertainment can have a real effect on society. But, to it’s credit, I think TOR handles the issue of torture alright enough (At least on the Sith Warrior, where it’s clear that torture doesn’t work. What does work are ancient artifacts plundered from a sith tomb.)

  • Anonymous

    Because we live in what has been referred to as “rape culture.”  In rape culture, there is the myth that women never actually want to have sex, so consent is meaningless.  In rape culture, a woman who accuses a man of rape is assumed by default to be lying until she can prove otherwise.  In rape culture, women cannot commit rape because their sex organs don’t stick out (rape in many countries, including the US, is legally defined as the unwanted penetration of another person).

    The fact that you, as a male character, are forcing a female character to participate in a sex act (voyeurism) against her will, and suffer no repercussions, is why it’s too controversial even for an obviously evil character.

  • Anonymous

    Because we live in what has been referred to as “rape culture.”  In rape culture, there is the myth that women never actually want to have sex, so consent is meaningless.  In rape culture, a woman who accuses a man of rape is assumed by default to be lying until she can prove otherwise.  In rape culture, women cannot commit rape because their sex organs don’t stick out (rape in many countries, including the US, is legally defined as the unwanted penetration of another person).

    The fact that you, as a male character, are forcing a female character to participate in a sex act (voyeurism) against her will, and suffer no repercussions, is why it’s too controversial even for an obviously evil character.

  • Anonymous

    Oh good, I broke disqus.  *facepalm*

  • Anonymous

    I’ve yet to try TOR yet, even though Mass Effect 1 converted me to a BioWare fan. I’m partly afraid of timesink implications, and it also sounds like it’s way more fun with someone running through it with you, but I don’t know anyone who’d really be interested.

    I think we can all agree that Tony Perkins getting all hot under the collar over a Star Wars game is pretty funny, at least.

    Touching on the car buying thing a few people have noted: when I bought my car I invited my dad along with me, just for general guidance. It was all I could do to make salesmen talk to me, and it drove me nuts. I was the one buying the car, I had the loan, my dad was just around because car-shopping is fun, but the salesmen constantly made the pitch to him. Complaining to my friend about this, he said his mom walked out mid-sale because the salesman refused to talk to her, talking only to her husband (salesmen used instead of salesperson quite deliberately. Seriously, they’re all guys, what’s with that?). I was pretty tempted to do that myself, but the dealership had the exact model I wanted and there was none other anywhere close.

  • Anonymous

    Fear of a time sink is an extremely good reason to not want to play the game.  If you’re still interested I’d hazard that there are a number of people here who’d be more than happy to play through with you.

  • P J Evans

     I had a female friend along when I bought my car. We got a female salesperson. (I got the car the way I wanted it, stock, and a color I could live with.)
    One dealer I visited had a salesman who kept trying to sell me a car that was larger than the one I said I wanted to look at. (I won’t be going back to that place any time soon.)

  • Aurora

    I’m not playing TOR because I don’t have the time, but, female here,  and I’m vaguely amused that everyone here assumes that the whole slave thing is just a male fantasy.  
    Women.  More diverse then you think. 

  • Anonymous

    Oh believe me.  while I agree wholeheartedly with the criticism of including the whole slave-forced-voyeurism thing in there, I had a hard time, er, thinking objectively. >.> And it’s not because I would want to be the Sith in that situation, either.

  • Anonymous

    Oh believe me.  while I agree wholeheartedly with the criticism of including the whole slave-forced-voyeurism thing in there, I had a hard time, er, thinking objectively. >.> And it’s not because I would want to be the Sith in that situation, either.

  • Becky

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.  I always find it disconcerting to see my words coming out of a man’s mouth, but I don’t have the time/energy/desire to change my stupid default icon. I have complained to disqus, but I am but a mere plankton in the vast ocean of the internet.  Hopefully more complaints from people who actually administer blogs with the Disqus commenting system will fix things.

    For the record, other services that do have gender-neutral default icons include Flickr, Twitter, and WordPress.  Flickr has an emoticon, Twitter an egg, and WordPress has several options including geometric designs.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    Disqus could easily just use each site’s favicon ( http://www.patheos.com/favicon.ico

    Pratchett and Tolkien both had dwarfs where women and men are indistinguishable. There’s a short Discworld fanfic out there where, after dwarf women start dressing in more “feminine” styles, human women decide that if dwarf women can choose to wear skirts or trousers, they can too. And then the idea spreads…

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    This has nothing to do with what I’m reading right now (which is all this stuff about a video game that I know nothing about), but I have to say that I love Tigress from Kung Fu Panda.  Why? Because she’s a tiger (and tigers are cool), she stands up for herself, and the animators didn’t feel it was necessary to give her boobs.

    Also, WRT the now-defunct thread on t-shirts, the underside of my right upper arm is really sensitive, and “men’s” t-shirts are the only ones I can find that don’t irritate it.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    This has nothing to do with what I’m reading right now (which is all this stuff about a video game that I know nothing about), but I have to say that I love Tigress from Kung Fu Panda.  Why? Because she’s a tiger (and tigers are cool), she stands up for herself, and the animators didn’t feel it was necessary to give her boobs.

    Also, WRT the now-defunct thread on t-shirts, the underside of my right upper arm is really sensitive, and “men’s” t-shirts are the only ones I can find that don’t irritate it.

  • http://twitter.com/BillHiers Bill Hiers

    About those children’s books and products marketed specifically to women/girls separate from males/”other people,” could not one also argue the opposite of what this blog asserts here? That instead of women being singled out because they’re abnormal in some way, they have their own classification because they’re considered more important in some way, and thus suggest women are themselves privileged to have their own category? It’s just interesting to assume one extreme without entertaining that another, opposite one could be true.

    Just playing devil’s advocate here.

  • Anonymous

    One could argue that, of course, but one would be proving oneself laughably ignorant of the concept of ‘male privilege’ by so doing. You’re not laughably ignorant, are you, Bill?

  • http://twitter.com/BillHiers Bill Hiers

    I’m unsure what to make of this. I was merely suggesting looking at it from another angle. But apparently, that makes me ignorant. I resent your implication.

  • JenL

    The problem with looking at it from another angle is that the angle you propose is one I might try to “sell” to my daughter if she asked me why there are regular Lego bricks and then there are girl Lego bricks – but based on my experiences in my life, I don’t think there’s any chance that the “girl” versions of pretty much anything are meant to designate girls as better or superior or special. 

    At *best*, it means that a company has realized that they haven’t successfully marketed to girls – and rather than figure out why (whether it’s a marketing problem, or a design problem, or what), they figure that they can paint “it” (whatever it is) pink, slap a “for girls” label on it, and … hey, easy profit!  (If it were that easy, girls would already have been buying it.)  But then when the new “pink” line doesn’t sell, they don’t take another look at whether there was some other issue, they just decide that girls won’t buy their product, and consider girls’ needs even less in future.

    If the product in question was Lego bricks – well, it’s not the end of the world.  But if the product was a bike, or roller skates, and the result is that girls get the message that being athletic is for boys – that’s a dangerous message. 

    It’s a real problem, it affects real people – and “well, let’s think about other reasons this might happen” just lets certain people keep denying that it’s real.  Which delays (or worse prevents) it from being acknowledged and addressed. 

  • FangsFirst

    If the product in question was Lego bricks – well, it’s not the end of
    the world.  But if the product was a bike, or roller skates, and the
    result is that girls get the message that being athletic is for boys –
    that’s a dangerous message.

    One of the weirdly strong memories I have of childhood is actually going on a bustrip (or maybe a birthday party–the surroundings, obviously, not so strong) to a roller rink, and a bunch of us had learned/decided that there did not have to be “boy” and “girl” colours, at about 8 or 10 years of age. A guy said he wanted pink skates and we were like, “yeah, okay. No reason a girl can’t wear black, either!”
    Yeah, for whatever reason, black was a “boy colour” in our minds–or rather, was supposed to be one and we were rejecting that.

  • http://twitter.com/BillHiers Bill Hiers

    I’m unsure what to make of this. I was merely suggesting looking at it from another angle. But apparently, that makes me ignorant. I resent your implication.

  • http://twitter.com/BillHiers Bill Hiers

    I’m unsure what to make of this. I was merely suggesting looking at it from another angle. But apparently, that makes me ignorant. I resent your implication.

  • Anonymous

    One could argue that, of course, but one would be proving oneself laughably ignorant of the concept of ‘male privilege’ by so doing. You’re not laughably ignorant, are you, Bill?

  • Anonymous

    One could argue that, of course, but one would be proving oneself laughably ignorant of the concept of ‘male privilege’ by so doing. You’re not laughably ignorant, are you, Bill?

  • Anonymous

    One could argue that, of course, but one would be proving oneself laughably ignorant of the concept of ‘male privilege’ by so doing.

  • Anonymous

    One could argue that, of course, but one would be proving oneself laughably ignorant of the concept of ‘male privilege’ by so doing.

  • Anonymous

    One could argue that, of course, but one would be proving oneself laughably ignorant of the concept of ‘male privilege’ by so doing.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    If the girl-targeted books were showing girls doing things that girls traditionally didn’t do[1], then one could argue that they were promoting equality – but most emphatically not “more important in some way” because that’s a dog-whistle for “put on a pedestal and not allowed to do anything non-girly”.

    [1]Still looking for a techy YA girl protagonist written anytime after 1957.

  • http://twitter.com/BillHiers Bill Hiers

    Understood. And I never suggested girls shouldn’t be allowed to do anything non-girly. As a boy I played with dolls so I’m against gender stereotypes.

  • http://twitter.com/BillHiers Bill Hiers

    Understood. And I never suggested girls shouldn’t be allowed to do anything non-girly. As a boy I played with dolls so I’m against gender stereotypes.

  • http://twitter.com/BillHiers Bill Hiers

    Understood. And I never suggested girls shouldn’t be allowed to do anything non-girly. As a boy I played with dolls so I’m against gender stereotypes.

  • Ally

    What’s your definition of “techy” because it didn’t take me that long to scare up a half dozen titles with girl mechanics as protagonists.  

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    Science, engineering, math, mechanics – please do list them, because they need publicity. The paranormal romances are getting all the press, and I’d like teenage girls to have the same “omg, a story that says it’s OK to be an engineer and *not* change for a boy?!” reaction I did when I was 12 – to a 20 year old story, when all the *contemporary* stories were romances with makeovers. It was depressing.

    Also I get my avatar because I logged in with OpenID, and if anyone needs a mechanic in the Silicon Valley area who won’t condescend, I’ve got one. 

  • kittehonmylap

    The Young Wizards books (by Diane Duane) have a secondary protagonist (a couple of the books are written largely from her perspective) who’s a computer hacker and really good at math. First one was published in 1985, most recent one came out a couple years ago. There are now 10 in the series, I believe. 

  • Anonymous

    I need to go back and finish that series–it was very well-written, and dealt with a lot of issues that teens and pre-teens tend to worry a lot about.  For example, it emphasizes, over and over, that it is OK to have a friend of the opposite sex without sex or romance getting involved.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    They’re all available as an e-book bundle here: http://ebooksdirect.dianeduane.com/

    and you can get a discount; see here: 
    https://plus.google.com/101086882349363163093/posts/Mvzkc3ubjac
    which will also help them out since their bank account got wiped out by card-skimmers.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Now, see, authors? Making electronic copies of old books available for anyone to read at a decent price? THIS is how you combat piracy.

    *gets off soapbox, goes to see if he can view the books in PDF or if he needs an ereader*

    EDIT: epub or mobi, and I don’t actually use handheld ereaders. *Looks for a program to view these things*

  • Ally

    Well, the recently released Cinder has Cinderella as a mechanic (and cyborg!)

    The Beetle and Me: A Love Story by Karen Romano Young where the romance is between a girl and a car.  Dream Racer by Jacqueline Guer.  

    Green Glass Sea is about an 11 year old inventor and is set in Los Alamos around the time of the creation of the nuclear bomb.

    The Freak Observer where a girl uses her love of physics to deal with her PTSD.  

    I also found a couple of series that sounded amusing The Specialists where kids who would be criminal masterminds are recruited to fight crime.  Some of the books focus on a female computer hacker.  There’s also a series about spies that are undercover as cheerleaders.  The main character in that one is also a hacker.  

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    If the girl-targeted books were showing girls doing things that girls traditionally didn’t do[1], then one could argue that they were promoting equality – but most emphatically not “more important in some way” because that’s a dog-whistle for “put on a pedestal and not allowed to do anything non-girly”.

    [1]Still looking for a techy YA girl protagonist written anytime after 1957.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    If the girl-targeted books were showing girls doing things that girls traditionally didn’t do[1], then one could argue that they were promoting equality – but most emphatically not “more important in some way” because that’s a dog-whistle for “put on a pedestal and not allowed to do anything non-girly”.

    [1]Still looking for a techy YA girl protagonist written anytime after 1957.

  • http://twitter.com/BillHiers Bill Hiers

    About those children’s books and products marketed specifically to women/girls separate from males/”other people,” could not one also argue the opposite of what this blog asserts here? That instead of women being singled out because they’re abnormal in some way, they have their own classification because they’re considered more important in some way, and thus suggest women are themselves privileged to have their own category? It’s just interesting to assume one extreme without entertaining that another, opposite one could be true.

    Just playing devil’s advocate here.

  • http://twitter.com/BillHiers Bill Hiers

    About those children’s books and products marketed specifically to women/girls separate from males/”other people,” could not one also argue the opposite of what this blog asserts here? That instead of women being singled out because they’re abnormal in some way, they have their own classification because they’re considered more important in some way, and thus suggest women are themselves privileged to have their own category? It’s just interesting to assume one extreme without entertaining that another, opposite one could be true.

    Just playing devil’s advocate here.

  • Anonymous

    One of my friends promised last night that if I ever have a son, she will buy him a nice, pink dump truck.

    The_L1985: no, I have an avatar, and this Disqus account has never been near my facebook, ever.

  • Anonymous

    One of my friends promised last night that if I ever have a son, she will buy him a nice, pink dump truck.

    The_L1985: no, I have an avatar, and this Disqus account has never been near my facebook, ever.

  • Anonymous

    One of my friends promised last night that if I ever have a son, she will buy him a nice, pink dump truck.

    The_L1985: no, I have an avatar, and this Disqus account has never been near my facebook, ever.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Actually it’s probably wise to register with Disqus anyway. We had a rash of anons who would sgn in on the old Slacktivist Typepad site and appear to be like regulars. So I, among others, registered on Typepad and got properly uniquely identified so nobody could cause that kind of confusion again.