The design and arrangement of material culture within a given environment aids in modifying one’s sense of space and time. In turn, space and time may convey an intersection of identity politics – such as race, gender, sexuality, ability and class. For example, Angel Kwolek-Folland describes the rise of scientific management in offices and factories in “The Gendered Environment of the Corporate Workplace, 1880-1930” in The Material Culture of Gender: The Gender of Material Culture, edited by Katharine Martinez and Kenneth L. Ames. In the interest of reinforcing a sense of “hierarchy” (or, a classification of those above and below) and “efficiency” (or, what is considered a productive use of time), the layout of “fixtures … desks, chairs, cabinets, and water coolers” were altered to modify behavior and “facilitate particular interactions” (161). As such, the subjective value with which bodies and labor are imbued – the influence of capitalism on lived experience – is evinced in material culture.
"Call Her Savage, 1932" GIPHY. Accessed February 17, 2019. https://giphy.com/gifs/4JXRVBMI1emY7WQzDb.
As discussed in last week’s post, I’m interested in the gendering and sexing of material culture. However, beyond twentieth- and twenty-first-century marketing and commodification, how has this process worked? How can the shape, movement and utility embodied by an object itself suggest gender and sexuality?
As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich illustrates in “Furniture as Social History: Gender, Property, and Memory in the Decorative Arts” in American Furniture (edited by Luke Beckerdite and William N. Hosley) – “to a twentieth-century eye, the graceful curves of a cabriole chair leg might appear ‘feminine,’ a massive chest with stubby bracket feet, ‘masculine.’ In the colonial world, the gender attributions were probably reversed. In both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a well-formed leg was one of the defining attributes of an upper-class male” (47). In other words, because constructs of gender and sexuality are fluid, subject to change, and vary throughout time and place, material culture (much like other primary sources) cannot be read through a presentist lens – or a Eurocentric one, for that matter. The elements of a single item – its materials, composition, production and consumption – can be and have been gendered and sexed in a variety contexts.
Consider how everyday items are arbitrarily assigned human-like traits, often socially or culturally constructed. Consider the gendering and sexing of material culture – how an object can be thought of as masculine or feminine, beautiful or sexy – be it food, clothing, or tools. As illustrated by the hyperlinked examples, this process often happens through marketing. After all, sex sells.
In turn, many items associated with domestic chores – such as groceries, kitchen appliances, washing or cleaning supplies – are often advertised to women but, historically, have undercut that appeal to their “consumer base” with sexist messages. Of course, this incongruity begs the question – who is producing, buying, and using these products? Are they the same demographic groups – have they been and will they continue to be? Separate from the people depicted alongside or in association with items of material culture, how are objects themselves endowed with identity politics?