GENDER CODES AND THE PLAY OF IRONY
In his book Gender Advertisements, Erving Goffman shows us the “look” of women in modem American advertising. Through his five hundred or so photos of women and men in advertisements, he shows us women pictured like children on or near the floor, or in whining or begging postures. He shows us women in clowning or pouting poses and men not in such poses.
He shows us how, like children, female models hold a man’s hand from behind. Goffman points out how women models show more emotion than male models (“flood out,” as he puts it), expressing emotion since they are not expected to be in charge of anything. He shows how women are depicted listening intently to men talk, or how women look at men who point authoritatively to some distant object. He shows a female model, winsome and wideeyed, revealing a bashful knee-bend, choreographed with a strong, protective male. In the details of such looks and scenes, Goffman shows us latent rules for how to “look feminine.” And these rules suggest to him an analogy: man is to woman as parent is to child. Men and women are implicitly unequal in the apparently natural way that parents and children are unequal. Goffman suggests that this simple, apparently nonideological “look” is a sly way o; reaffirming patriarchy. So Gender Advertisements concerns what a gender display displays, and how a display reaffirms what it reaffirms. In his articulation of these points, Goffman is our most observant observer.
In what he shows us, we can note several points. First, as Goffman talks about them, the models portrayed in Gender do not seem to
consider and decide how to pose; they know intuitively. The woman in the little-girl-bashful-knee-bend pose in Gender thus differs from
Goffman’s description of Preedy at the beach, a self-conscious fictional character in The Presentation of Self in Everyday. Ihe female model seems
to know what to do; she does not seem to consciously choose. On the other hand, Preedy, a vacationing Englishman on a summer beach in Spain, is a conscious and strategic actor. As Goffman describes:
By devious handlings he gave any who wanted to look a chance to see the title of his book—a Spanish translation of Homer, classic, thus but not daring, cos-
mopolitan too—and then gathered together his beach-wrap and bag into a neat and resistant pile (Methodical and Sensible Preedy), rose slowly to stretch at ease his huge frame (Big Cat Preedy) and tossed aside his sandals (Carefree Preedy after all).1
The image of the bashful-knee-bend model differs from the image of the actor in Gofffnan’s other writings too. There Goffman offers us a world of unbudgeable rules, silly but necessary. Indeed, he seems to take the rules’ point of view while, mockingly it seems, offering us an actor who works tirelessly at getting around these rules. Curiously, in his analysis of gender Goffman did not use all of “Goffman.” Many of his conceptual tools remained in his tool kit So we might start by applying the Goffman-on-eventhing-else to the topic of gender as seen in advice books. For some of these books presume an actor like Preedy at the beach.
Both the bashful-knee-bend model and Preedy are examples drawn from white, or whitish, middle-class American life, and the question we need to ask is the degree to which examples drawn from other racial or ethnic groups and other social classes point to important variations on the same psychosocial theme or to different themes. In posing as they pose, Goffman’s models seem to follow one body of tacit social rules about gender, not two or three, or some mix. He assumes the cultural hegemony of a certain version of patriarchy, and he takes it as his task to reveal this code to us through his analysis of display. His choice of topic—ads—makes it hard to discuss real people’s doubt about, conflict over, or estrangement from a code.
Though Gender Advertisements was published in 1976, it seems to reflect the social quietude of an earlier era. But as women move into paid work in both the Western and non-Westem worlds, the main story is not ritual affirmation and cultural reproduction, but rather one of cultural diversity, upheaval, and challenge. The question becomes: How do women choose from among many competing codes?2 In this respect women of any class partake of the minority experience of handling multiple codes. For the mainstream code is not made up for them.
In Gender Advertisements Goffman confines himself to describing rules that
apply to the actor’s outer appearance and sets aside the task of describing rules that apply to inner feeling. Though many illustrations in his other works reflect feeling rules, as I call them, perhaps because Goffman resisted the idea of a feelingful self, the concept of feeling rules remained undertheorized.3 But if we do presume a self with an interior life, we are led to explore gender codes that regulate the emotional bottom of that life fully as much as the interactional surface.
Finally, although Goffman was often drawn to study the strain between strong rules and fragile selves, he doesn’t look for that strain here, though
we may do so by following his own tracks. Drawing ideas from Goffman’s other works, then, and from Ann Swidler, in this essay I look at popular advice books for women as Goffman looked at ads.4
But with one difference. As 1 see it, women do not intuitively fall into this or that way o: being, like the models in Gender. When faced
with new challenges, often their “old" intuition doesn’t wrork. And so they wrork on their old intuition to try and create a new. I l ey aren’t
exactly Preedys acting before an imagined audience, though surely Preedy describes part of the story. They are cultural artists at work, (’hey draw from expressions oi the cultural premises at hand—gender codes. They switch, mix, and “balance” codes, trying semiconsciously to seem just so feminine” in one aspect of self in order to seem "just so masculine" in another. In doing this, they do not remain forever detached from their work, (.ike real artists, they bring their more essential selves with them, or try to. Here I depart from Goffman and move toward Freud. Does a code fit the essential self? Or doesn’t it? Life is all about trying them out and finding out how a given aspect of a code feels. Irony is the tone we strike when we can’t hang on and can’t let go.
American advice books for women seem to draw from one of two archetypal codes-—traditional and egalitarian—though other codes abound. I’ll describe each, then show how advice books invite women to draw elements from each, mixing and balancing codes in order to put together a f eminine identity. These advice books do not portray how real women act feminine; they are users’ manuals.
Traditional books draw’ on the late eighteenth-century parlor life of the American urban upper class and fit with, even as they express, the economic dependence ot women on men. (It is this code that is visually reflected in Gender Advertisements.) The traditional code provides the social guidelines for the establishment of male superiority. It exaggerates differences in the appearance of men and women and establishes asymmetrical rules of interaction; women should listen more attentively, defer to the judgment and authority of men, and in general enhance the self-esteem of men more than men do for women. The traditional code prescribes asymmetrical rules of deference and makes it proper for women to have less power than men. What power they do have, they also attain not through a position in die larger social order but through personal relations, especially within the family.
The second code is egalitarian, linked to women’s movement into paid work and the cultural ideals of the feminist movement. It extends to women many social rules of the male work culture. It provides the social guidelines for establishing equality between the sexes and calls for rules of equal deference. Women are expected to listen and enhance the status of men as much as they expect to be listened to and complimented by them. According to
this second code, differences are deemphasized and women have equal power. The egalitarian code has at least two versions, one basing equality on old-time male terms and one basing it on old-time female terms. Perhaps most modem egalitarian codes now combine these two kinds of terms.
A rough sketch of the two codes is shown in chart 1. I’ve drawn most illustrations of the traditional code from Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman and illustrations of the modem code from Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (which, while not an advice book, offers a lot of advice). To illustrate a mixing of these codes to create a modified traditional code of its own, I draw from Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All.
A code simply tells us what (look, interactional style) goes with what (kind of emotion management). Over time, relations between the parts, the character, the salience, the tightness and looseness of each part can change. So what feels to us like a coherent, agreed-upon gender code at one place and time can slowly shift, like parts in a slow-motion kaleidoscope, and form another basis for coherence. In order for a code to change, the circumstances holding it in place must change, and while globalization is currently bringing about changes we can hardly envision today, for the moment, in the West, these Western archetypes cohere. To adapt ourselves to new circumstances, what we often do with codes, as Ann Swidler rightly suggests, is mix them.