Monday, July 24, 2006

More on Gender

More on Gender

I wanted to share a few more observations on gender from the observation exercise I did with my class. While at the mall, I was sitting at the food court so that the students could find me if they had a question or concern. During this time I did my own observations.

I watched a woman who must have been in her 50s or 60s walk past three or four times. She had a tight white tube-top, a tight white skirt and white five-inch heels. Her hair was long, bleached, and frayed from the excessive damage of the multiple treatments. The most striking feature, however, was her skin. It was a mix between a bright copper and a dirt brown and was excessively leathery. It was this way all over her body, which there was mostly visible (see the clothing description above). Of course her face was made up with a bright and grotesque combination of flamboyant makeup.

I was not the only one who noticed her. The young adolescent girls at the table next to me watched her with amazement as she strutted by, whispering comments to each other. The college-aged guys behind me took a break from devouring their fast-food lunch to look in disbelief.

The question that ran through my mind was just, why?

The image of this woman was still fresh in my head when on the way back to campus I was presented with an alternative image. My students and I were waiting for the bus when an old woman who was no more than 4'8" walked up to one the students. She must have been in her 70s and was dressed all in black, including a head scarf. She also wore a large religious object as a pendant. She looked a lot like this woman:

It bears mentioning that it was a hot summer day and we were standing in the sun. The student was startled by the question and realized that she did not understand the woman. The woman was speaking Portuguese and wanted to know if someone could let her know when the bus to Fox Point was arriving (Fox Point is the Portuguese neighborhood in Providence, RI). I stepped in and in my rudimentary Portuguese let the woman know that I would inform her since we were going in that direction as well.

I found these two extremes amazing and fascinating: the extent that society and our communities dictate how women (and men, but that is a discussion for a different time) should present themselves. I asked myself which of the two women was more "liberated". I guess the broader point is that these two women with radically gender norms can co-exist in the same social system. They can choose how to present themselves.

Or can they?

I began to wonder about this as the class discussion on gender evolved in my class. Being a class of adolescent girls, it became very clear how much pressure they were under to look, act, and even think in particular ways. Which brings me to my final observation...

Now you may think that anthropologist should be more or less imune to culture shock, especially in their own culture. The experience we had recently in New Jersey proved that this is not the case.

The motel we stayed at was on what would be called a freeway, but it has strip malls, stores, and restaurants right off the side of them. Getting off and back on the "freeway" is ticky if you want to stop along the way. Moreover, if you want to go to something on the other side, you need to drive to the next overpass, go over and double back. This is a pain if you don't know the area and you either go to far or turn back too early (which as you may have guessed I happened to do more than once). But I digress.

The point is we were at this motel and getting anywhere was quite an endeavor that required some skillful driving, quick acceleration, and a good attention span. When it came time for dinner, we did not have the energy to engage in the driving trek (mind you this was when it was also bruttally hot in the area). The one eatery that was next to the hotel was:

Neither Sara or I had ever been to one and we were not quite convinced that we wanted to give our patronage to such a place. But given our lack of energy and the seductive aromas of fried food we went for it.

And we experience culture shock. We felt out of place and somewhat stunned. I was not sure where to look, for if my gaze fell upon one of the servers feelings of guilt and ... ickiness... fell upon me. Even though we were still in the same country, these were cultural circles that we do not frequent. It seemed odd to see families there with their children. The cognitive disonance was just deafening.

With time, the shock wore off yet I never felt at ease. I did begin to observe more and note the extreme gender posturing that was taking place. Males began to pose more, presenting their hypermasculinity. There were groups of women that at first I could not understand why they were there, but the pheromones that were flying clued me in. The most amusing observation involved two males in their thirties who were probably regulars. They were sitting at a high table with bar stools and some of the servers would stop by and chat/flirt with them as they came and went. While the servers were standing there, I could clearly see one of the males eyes. They bounced up and down, from looking at her face to looking at her...well, you know the name of the place. When the server would be talking to the other male, the eyes would remain in the down position for a longer period of time.

The question again was why. Why would any woman want to work in such a place? Yet the attention, the validation, and probably the tips all make convincing reasons, especially when I think about the insecurities and pressures I have seen in so many of may female students.

Do we live in a society were women are or can be liberated and equals? Yes and no would be my answer. Of course, I am a male and my perspective is colored by my gender and the construction of my personal gender identity (which is again a topic for another time - but very screwed up in itself. Can you say machismo and reactionism?).

I am not sure why I wanted to write about this. The Hooters story is funny, but it also seems to fit into broader observations I have made more recently. It probably doesn't matter that much to anyone else.

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