Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cultural Paradox: Consumerism vs. the "Perfect" Bod

Contemporary American society has become enthralled with the idea of the "perfect" body. Norms for women dictate a slender, yet toned, ideal body; however, this ideal (along with so many others) is unnatural, and typically unattainable. The "slender amazon" approach to body perfection has been effectively marketed so that a majority of American women find themselves trying to meet standards which are set up not by consumers themselves, but by large corporations trying to make money. This fitness mind-game leaves room for a cultural paradox, which grows more widespread everyday, and can be defined in its simplest terms as the clash between food consumption and thin ideals.

American markets for food have been geared toward easy accessibility, low prices, and quick meals. However, as a social endeavor, food consumption is advertised similar to many other markets, namely as a way to achieve happiness and satisfaction. As Professor Sut Jhally expresses in his article Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture, "Thus advertising promotes images of what the audience conceives as 'the good life'... The marketplace cannot directly offer the real thing, but it can offer vision of it connected with the purchase of products" (Dines and Humez 251). So in this respect, fast food corporations attempt to reach out to its consumers by displaying images of popular celebrities such as Paris Hilton or Britney Spears chowing down on the latest burger or gulping down their soda of choice (as seen above). Food advertisement has become a major issue of debate in recent days, mostly because of the nations growing health concerns and the fear that Americans have consistently failed to critically examine that which they consume. Yet, the discrepancies between what we are told to eat and what we are shown through images about the "perfect" body are far grander in comparison to recent concerns about healthy lifestyles.

The "perfect bod" is described to women in America not through some secret manual, but by the images and visual ideology that surround us in our day to day lives. We watch stick thin models and toned celebrities parade around in magazines and on television, only to be followed by reality shows, which, in some miraculous way, find all the "real" skinny women to keep up the illusion that this body ideal is attainable. In a shocking turn of events, these images are succeeded by commercials of skinny models eating their "product of choice." The commercials' promise of celebrity status and slender body because of a product is far fetched at best, and just plain deceitful at worst. When real people eat fast food consistently, they gain weight. However, thanks to capitalism, we have an increasingly wide range of products and procedures to aid us in getting thin again. Professor and sociologist Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber explains in her book,
The Cult of Thinness, "Along with cheap and increasingly abundant food, we have a range of products (largely food- and drug- based) that promise we can lose weight quickly" (24). Products such as the ones described by Hesse-Biber can be seen in the collage under the section entitled "Buy&Fix." Often times, large corporations that own multiple companies are raking in wide profits because they can sell both the food and the weight solution. The vicious cycle of food consumption along with advertisements, thin ideology, and the selling of "solution" based weight products define and exacerbate the cultural paradox illustrated above.

Works Cited

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy. The Cult of Thinness. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Jhally, Sut. "Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture." 1999. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003. 249-257.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Consumerism and the Female Youth

Contemporary American society is plastered with powerful images that effect everyday consumers. These abundant images often influence and manipulate people in unseen ways, and typically through hegemonic ideologies. However, recent research has shed light on one area of image based consumer influence, namely how young girls are taught normative gender roles and racial stereotypes through toys. In addition to learning ‘appropriate’ gender rules, today’s popular toys (such as board games and computer games) socialize girls to be consumers. Deciding to test this gender-consumption theory, I asked a nine-year-old girl to make a wish list of three different toys, which I analyze below:

Toy #1: Webkinz stuffed animal with accompanying online game

Webkinz was number one on the girl’s wish list for toys. These beanie baby animals come with an online code, which you use to access the game, if you can call it a game. It is more like an online virtual home for your “pet” (a.k.a. your beanie baby animal). First, you have to adopt your pet and choose its name and, more importantly, its gender as depicted on the right( Choosing a female gender has specific implications within the virtual world itself, like being brought to a virtual mall with pink background, which conveys the image-based message that girls like pink.

Probably the most inventive yet destructive aspect of this application is the "W Shop" where a player can go to spend fake money on virtual items like clothes, furniture, decorations and electronics. In addition there is a category entitled "Sale Items", teaching even the youngest players how to consume more for less. This type of virtual consuming undoubtedly impacts how young girls envision shopping. As previously stated, under a girl pet, the virtual shop appears in a background of pink, and items such as the "Funky Girl Glasses" below come with the description: "These heart shaped glasses will make your Webkinz Pet look like the coolest gal in town!" ( If virtual consuming is not your cup of tea, don't worry! You can actually buy virtual items for real money at the e-store. Here you'll find products such as "Designer In-ground Pool" and "High End Fridge" which can be bought for $8 and $5 respectively. The labels of these products suggest a superiority or high quality difference, which needless to say, does not exist in a virtual world. This type of product glorification is actually not that different from what consumers will find in the real world according to Professor and scholar Juliet Schor, author of The New Politics of Consumption: Why Americans Want So Much More Than They Need. In her article, Schor stressed the social context of consumption or "the ways in which our sense of social standing and belonging comes from what we consume." (Dines and Humez 185) Using her theory of social class based consumption, and applying it to the Webkinz e-store products, it is clear to see how children learn normalized class rules that state when you consume expensive products, you become a better person and are superior to those around you. Hence, children consumers learn early on to desire high-end, designer products.

Toy #2: American Girl "Just Like Me" Doll

Number two on the wish list was a personalized American Girl doll. These dolls are very popular because you can not only buy a doll that has your skin tone and hair color, but you can also purchase matching outfits for both girl and doll. Accessories included, this doll sells for about $115 making it accessible to only those with a surplus income. While the high price has been a consistent complaint against the American Girl company, I decided to analyze the ways in which the American Girl dolls portrayed different racial identities. The first thing I noticed while browsing the "Just Like Me" doll collection were the discrepancies in descriptions between black and white dolls. Above are pictures of a black and white doll located on the American Girl online store ( The physical description for the black doll reads, "Dark skin, textured black hair, brown eyes"; where as the physical description for the white doll stated, "Light skin, curly honey-blond hair, hazel eyes".

The differences in description leave the consumer with the impression that honey-blond hair is preferrable to textured black hair. This undoubtedly exemplifies hegemonic racial ideology intertwined with child consumerism. In his book Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, sociologist David Newman discusses the impact of race as a social construct. He noted, "We invent these [racial] categories and they become socially significant to the extent that they're used to organize experiences, to form social relations, to evaluate others, and to determine social rankings and access to important resources." (Newman 42) So although the company advocates the racial diversity in its products, hegemonic favoritism still comes into play. Wording such as this has a more subliminal effect on young girls who do not typically spot hegemonic ideologies. By covertly conveying superiority in the description, the American Girl company has perpetuated the hegemonic racial ideology that white hair is preferable to black hair.

Toy #3: High School Musical Blind Date Board Game

The ultimate convergence of pop culture and child consumerism can be seen in the recent mega-hit movies and television shows directed toward young audiences. High School Musical was one such box office hit. As a result of the movie's success, toys and other products geared for children flooded the market. One of the most recent additions to the toy line is the High School Musical Blind Date Board Game as depicted below ( The Toys R Us website captioned the product as follows:

Gabriella, Sharpay, Taylor, and Kelsi must hurry up and get ready,
their Mystery Dates will be meeting them shortly!
But which date will they find waiting by their lockers?
Will it be Troy who's ready to go karaoke singing,
or Chad who's ready to go to a basketball game,
or will it be Ryan who's ready for salsa dancing,
or will it be Zeke who's ready to go roller skating?
And who will be dressed in the right clothes and ready to go?

In analyzing this product description and the product itself, I found numerous ways of how young girls might be convinced that their societal value is secondary to that of boys. Firstly, the scenario is set such that the girl characters are all waiting to see which boy will be choosing them for a date. This implies that a girl needs to meet standards such that the boys find them attractive and superior to other girls who they are competing against. The idea of competition between both the girl characters and the girls who will actually play the board game is ironically symbollic of our society, where girls are consistently told through various forms of media that you must always be more beautiful than other girls if you want a decent boy to date you. Its this competition setting which leads to the third example of devaluing girls in relation to boys, namely the idea that girls must primp and care for themselves properly if they hope to "land a good one". The description questions, "who will be dressed in the right clothes"? Implying that there is a wrong set of clothes to wear on a blind date and that a girl must choose carefully to avoid these wrong clothes. It is worth noting that all of these points were identified by feminist author Naomi Wolf in her article The Beauty Myth where she discussed beauty as an unattainable social construction which keeps women suppressed in society (Wolf 120-121). Wolf stated that according to societal and gender norms, "Women must want to embody [beauty] and men must want to possess women who embody [beauty]." (Wolf 121)

A second analysis of this game and its effect on girls relates to the presented images on the game box and how it is played. Below is a photo of the box cover and game layout ( While the girls are supposedly the players in this game, it is the boy characters from the movie who are emphasized. They are bigger in relation to the girls, they appear more active and are located higher up on the box suggesting superiority or dominance over the girl characters. In addition, the girls are separated and depicted in three spheres where as the boys are overlapping each other and displayed closer together, implying that the girls are less powerful as a group and more divided (or divisive, depending on how you wish to interpret it). Now examining the game board itself, the girls are the actual pieces which move around portraits of the boys who are centralized and stationary on the board. This conveys the idea that the boys are central and subjects while the girls are peripheral and objects in relation to the boys. Once again, the boys are located closer together while the girls' "home positions" are on each corner placing them as far away from each other and as divided as possible. These images are open for interpretation, but it is hard to dismiss the social clues that are inferred from the game itself: girls competing with other girls for boys, girls as less important than boys, and boys as the only focus of girls.

Overall, my analysis of a young girls top three wish list toys revealed hegemonic racial and gender ideology as well as ideas of what a consumer should be. The toys themselves portrayed varying degrees of gender normativity and what it meant to be a girl in today's society. It is unfortunate that such a relationship exists between gender and consumption, and the destructive impact it often has on female youths. However, it is perhaps even more unfortunate that these relationships go unquestioned and unnoticed in society, by both adults and children alike. To combat the dominant racial, class, and gender ideology with relationship to consumerism one must critically examine and question what society deems normal, both in the media and the market; even if it means refraining from buying our kids the popular toys.
Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
Schor, Juliet. "The New Politics of Consumption: Why Americans Want So Much More Than They Need." 1999. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003. 183-195.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. New York: HarpersCollins, 1992 and 2002.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Family Guy Analysis

The episode of Family Guy entitled "Don't Make Me Over" provides many examples of hegemonic identity stereotypes influenced by pop culture. Below are a list of the top 5 hegemonic/counter-hegemonic ideologies I derived from this single episode:

The counter-hegemonic ideology of handicapped people:
The wheelchair bound character of Joe Swanson was a vast relief to the typical stereotypes of handicapped people not being able to do anything by themselves. In this respect, the episode put out an image of a handi-capable person which deviates highly from other ideas portrayed by the media. However, in the same respect, the show provided comedy at the expense of Joe when (during the 80's montage) Glen Quagmire accidentally hammers a nail into Joe's paralyzed leg and Joe feels nothing... implying that paralyzed people don't feel pain. Left is a screen shot from the episode featuring the Joe and Glen hammer scene.

The hegemonic ideology of extremely violent and sex-crazed prisoners: One of the most entertaining scenes from the show was the failed performance of the guy band at prison. The first stereotypical reaction of the prisoners was to riot and kick Peter's butt; then the newly made-over Meg took the stage and all the prisoners oggled at her. And why wouldn't they?!? After all, prisoners have no women amongst them so they obviously must be sex-driven violent criminals waiting to take advantage of a young teenage girl. As one of the inmates remarked, "I could just strangle her all night..." In my opinion, this scene portrayed one of the least recognized stereotypes that pop culture heavily influences. Prisoners are so often depicted this way, that it becomes routine and natural to think of them this way.

The hegemonic ideology of gay effeminate men: This episode, as well as most popular television programs, depicted the stereotype of effeminate gay men. The show really went out of its way to poke fun at gay lifestyle, from lisp ridden cows sucking on Popsicles, to prison inmates interested in fellow prisoners and Chris (the teenage son). As if this were not enough to convey gay=bad, there was also the demoralizing rock band scene where the men donned rockstar outfits and then proclaimed that they should've coordinated their outfits because now they just looked like 'queers'. Below is a picture of the end credits scene in which various jabs at homosexual men were made (all instances are lableled).

Hegemonic ideology of the looks obsessed mom pressuring her daughter to be pretty and hip, while spending all of her own time keeping up her looks: Lois (mom) and Meg (daughter) interacted with each other exactly as expected. When Meg came home crying that she was ugly, her mom took her shopping for the latest hip fashions... shirts that read "Sperm Dumpster", "Little Slut" and "Porn Star". Of course, Lois eventually came around to the idea that attention like this would be exploitative of Meg, but she still encouraged her daughter to change according to society's whims. The sad part is that this seemed to come natural to Lois... one scene towards the end of the show had Meg complaining that "it's too much work being beautiful" and Lois replies "Well, not for me, but it's good to have you back." This scene clearly reinforced the idea that housewives have one duty, namely to look beautiful all the time.

Hegemonic ideology of the frightening & dangerous black man and the overly defensive white man: Probably one of the most obvious and redundant ideologies conveyed in this episode was the frightening and dangerous black man stereotype. The dog, Brian, portrayed the ideal white man who was simultaneously afraid of the black music label manager and overly defensive of his racist ideas. Every time the black manager would come near, Brian would bark at him, and then persistently apologize for his actions claiming that he could not help them. Brian even felt the need to defend himself to the family during a recording session, after having another barking episode, he asked "You guys know I don't have a problem with black people right?" Obviously, this episode tried to poke fun at the "I'm not a racist, but..." people; yet at the same time managed to perpetuate the hegemonic stereotype of threatening black men. Left is one scene featuring Brian the dog barking needlessly at the black manager.

Family Guy. “Don’t Make Me Over.”

Season 4, Volume Three, Disc One, DVD. 6/5/05

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation: Beverly Hills, CA. 2005.