Elevate Difference

The Codes of Gender: Identity and Performance in Pop Culture

The main theme of The Codes of Gender is “commercial realism.” As explained by the narrator of this film, Sut Jhally, Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, a code of gender has to be understood as a shorthand language, a set of rules and behaviors. This is how Jhally analyzes the ways in which both women and men are portrayed in advertisements and on the covers of glossy magazines.

The film is based on the works of the Canadian social anthropologist Erving Goffman, who was born in Alberta in 1922. His greatest contribution to social theory and to gender representation was the analysis of visual communication between spectators, the subjects of their attention and how attitudes about gender are shaped by culture and society.

The film starts with an explanation of the difference between biological sex identity and constructed gender identity, which leads to the process of contrasting these identities in magazine advertising for commercial films. Gender expressions on magazine covers are skillfully manipulated to reflect the identity of women and men– not as they are, but how they should be, according to a societal norm. The women in the advertisements are posed in awkward positions. They lie down with their heads tilted off balance, stand on one leg, or kneel to suggest powerlessness, submission and dependence. Women become sexualized and accepting of their helplessness, embodying both men’s desire and subordination to them. In contrast, men are portrayed as active. Their poses suggest power, strength, and control.

As an example, Professor Jhally uses a clip from the Seinfield TV series that shows the lead character dating an attractive woman with hands that are big, rough, and strong, like the ‘normal’ hands of a man. Jerry Seinfield is put off by the image and loses interest in the woman.

A second example is Danica Patrick, an American auto racing driver, who is also an athlete and therefore does not fit with the stereotypical image of ‘natural’ femininity. But Patrick is portrayed on the magazine covers in the same way as other women. She lies down, ready to be gazed at–weak and submissive. Paul Marciano, founder of Guess, is portrayed as selecting images of passive women for Guess advertisements, as if he was making a statement that ‘women should know their place.’

Another striking feature of the visual images is the association of women with childhood. As though they never left this part of their lives behind, in commercials women are frequently portrayed as childlike, with fingers in their mouths. Women's posture with men is that of father and daughter: constantly hiding behind men, snuggling with men for protection, or resting their heads on men’s arms in sweet and helpless positions. Men, on the contrary, are shown in straight posture, muscular and strong, and project a hyper-masculine image of ‘accepted normality’.

The Codes of Gender will be of interest to all who question the visual images of what is deemed natural and normal. The film is well-made and presented, and it serves as a fitting tribute to Goffman (who died in Philadelphia in 1982). His work was underestimated when he was alive, but his contributions to ‘the codes of gender’ are as equally valid today as they were thirty years ago.

Written by: Anna Hamling, May 16th 2010

I recall reading - I think in an old sociology class - that gender (and race) are often presented in 'shorthand,' which equates to gross stereotypes, since writers and producers don't feel they have the time to sketch complex characters and must rely on the 'white hat/black hat' model. :(