Codes of Gender

Two days ago I showed my students the study of Professor Sut Jhally on the Codes of Gender; based on the story of Erving Goffman’s analysis of advertising. What Professor Jhally does is to apply these codes (as expressed by Goffman) to our contemporary commercial landscape. As most readers of this site are in some way or another associated with the field of Visual Communication; this would be an interesting study for you to familiarise yourself with.

The crux of the study is how Gender is a social construct to which we all seem to have latched on to; a which has long been woven into our inner tapestry and shapes:

  • the way in which we present ourselves to the world,
  • the way in which we move in the world, and
  • the way in which we read others in the world.

Some may argue that this is an ingrained system: the way we view masculinity and femininity; but looking at a hospital nursery would not provide an answer for how can you view an infant as being inherently masculine or inherently feminine. If this knowledge is not a standard issue [as it were] at what point in our lives do we learn these behavioural traits?

Very early on in their lives toddler girls will be reprimanded by their mothers, “girls don’t sit like that!” and promptly ordered to close their legs; and young boys will be coaxed into eating by statements such as, “finish your food so you can be big and strong”.

Subliminal though it may seem, but these messages we absorb into our consciousness and soon learn that in order to function in a world that needs clearly defined characteristics of masculinity and femininity, we need to tow the Codes of Gender line or else will not be accepted into mainstream society.

In our own lives, we see the codification of Gender present in how young women present themselves to society. You need not look beyond your own Facebook friends to see the young women that represent themselves through a nearly-nude image, or with fingers in the mouth, eyes lowered peering from fluttering eyelashes.

Eavesdropping on the conversations of young men will reveal that while they may have great respect for a woman with intellect and opinion, they would much prefer she “look womanly” while doing it. How many times have we read how our female politicians need to consult with image-consultants? One look at Hellen Zille’s Before and After shots prove to us that in order for her public to pay her message some attention, she needed to bow to the prescripts of aesthetic pressure.

I am certain you have a few people in mind who do not conform to societal pressure [a few]; and I do not doubt that those women often hear comments such as, “do you ever wear heels?” or “I’d really like to see you in a dress”. These comments from romantic partners and even colleagues [really, where is the place for sex-appeal in the working environment?].

I am not sure to what degree a few stand-outs might affect a societal change; but one does hope that we might begin to take that leap…

Writer: Tebogo Serobatse