Now You Too Can Avoid Pain… Just Like Men, but Smoother!

The amazing Julia Serano has contributed a post to Feministing about this Philips ad for an epilator:

All of her points are great, and you should go over to Feministing and read them, and then follow the link from her fourth point to her essay on media depictions of trans women. Personally, I shave my legs about twice a year, and mostly so I don’t have to be aware of disgusted stares from random assholes. So I’m especially glad that Serano pointed out how myopic this portrayal of trans-feminine spectrum folks as hyper-feminine propagators of sexist stereotypes and beauty rituals is. (If you really want more examples of that, just click on the Youtube link and look at all the sex-objectastic “related videos.”)

I want to add one meta-point of my own. Serano says:

Memo to Phillips: The “Like all men he’s not great with pain” line isn’t funny. Making fun of men is just as sexist as making fun of women.

Besides the question of whether “sexism” is only misogynist by definition, I also don’t think that’s all of what’s going on here. It’s not just a joke at men’s expense… or rather, there’s a lot more to the myth that women can inherently handle more pain than men. If you turn this idea over a few times, it’s not that much different than saying “pain is a woman’s lot in life.” Of course, that has a lot to do with childbirth as well as other kinds of less biologically rooted, more socially inscribed “women’s pain.” But when you invoke that idea inside an advertisement for a device that rips your hairs out of their roots, it also adds up to “you must suffer for beauty.”

My first thoughts when I got to the end of the commercial was that Philips is trying to hawk a combination of beauty and painlessness to their customers: the beauty of this drag performer, along with the lack of pain that is the prerogative of men — a prerogative that’s been transformed into gentle “you can’t handle real pain” mockery. I mean, when was the last time you heard of a guy (other than an easily goaded men’s rights wingnut) actually getting bothered by this joke? Anyway, that’s why it’s so important that the subject of this ad be a man — and fair enough, he does identify himself that way. He has several things that Philips thinks their customers desire: glamour, beauty, rail-thinness, attention, smooth legs, and no obligation to pain.

Also… the hardest part of looking like a woman is hair removal!? I think he must have meant “the hardest part of trying to conform to standards of femininity.” Paired with footage of him strolling down the street, I initially assumed he must mean “the hardest part of being seen as a woman in public,” so my jaw dropped. Not the sexual harassment? The creepy stalker guys who won’t leave you alone or try to touch you on the subway? The patronizing comments from guys who think they can talk down to you? Well, I guess none of that sells epilators, huh. Neither does the fact that I’d guess any facial hair he deals with is probably ten times more difficult to deal with than body hair.



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20 Responses to Now You Too Can Avoid Pain… Just Like Men, but Smoother!

  1. Jessica says:

    Thanks for the link, Holly! We’re always thrilled when Julia contributes something; she’s a total rock star.

  2. Torri says:

    I had a look at the handling pain article, only thing I want to nit pick is “It takes a lower temperature for a women to tell you that this feels painful” there’s a big difference between knowing something is painful as opposed to that pain being too much to bear as the opening lines described. I’d say a man would be more likely to hold off on saying something is painful because of macho socializations. But like I said it’s a nit pick.
    But I am familiar with with the myth (who isn’t) since I was little and my mother explaining the ice cube pain test where you squeeze an ice cube in your hand until you can’t take it anymore. Personally I’m more inclined to bring pain tolerance down to a personal level rather then by gender.

  3. Holly says:

    I think that’s the difference between pain threshold and pain tolerance, but it’s not really clear from that article (I couldn’t find a better one at my fingertips). In any case, as usual with science reporting it seems like the headline exaggerates only to be undercut by an explanation 3/4 of the way through that the pain tolerance difference amounts to about 1-1.5 degrees centigrade on average, which tells you next to nothing about any given individual.

  4. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    Well, in general my response to the endemic sexism of TV advertising is to just bail. About the only thing on TV that is not better covered in text form or available commercial-free after a few months is sports, and even THAT is not worth it.

    Perhaps its just me, but I see drag as being very different from trans. Not that there are not a heck of a lot of issues associated both with drag as performance and the association of drag queens with transfolk. It’s just that most of the drag queens I’ve met clearly identify at the end of the day as men engaged in a specific form of cultural performance.

    But to that end, I think Serano’s insight about the all or nothing dichotomy imposed on transgender people also applies to cisgender (for lack of a better word) as well. There is a limited respect for people who can do drag very well as performance, as long as they revert back to a full red-blooded masculinity when stepping off the stage.

    So yeah, on the one hand, it’s cool that a drag queen is getting used in advertising. On the other hand, it doesn’t do much for those of us who are targeted as queer, and have no desire to do performance or pass.

  5. Astraea says:

    I’m not very educated about all the issues involved, but I had similar mixed reactions to the commercial. In the end I guess it felt like as fantastic as it is that someone other than a straight, cissexual woman is being represented in a way that isn’t humiliating or a joke, it’s still basically reaffirming the two boxes that we’re forced into.

  6. Terra says:

    This isn’t a myopic portrayal of transwomen because its not a portrayal of someone who is either trans or identifies as a woman.

    It is a rather accurate portrayal of drag queens.

    The feeling that an accurate portrayal of one culture is necessarily tearing down ones own culture is incorrect in my opinion.

  7. laura says:

    Transgender is a umbrella term. It is anyone who crosses gender lines (I personally include the rest of the queer community in that, but I -might- have an agenda). Transsexual is specifically someone who ID’s as ‘the gender opposite’ the sex they were born (a problematic definition in itself).

    That said.

    Its fucking awesome that they show someone is other-gendered. Despite that, which, I reiterate, is -fucking-awesome- –it plays into the gender dichotomy. And it totally plays into all of the stereotypes of what it means to be trans–that if you’re biologically male and you dress like woman that you’re a) not really a woman and b) feminine (and by implication, gay). Plenty of transwomen are butch. Plenty of drag queens are straight. Whether or not it ‘accurately portrays’ (all) drag queens is incidental to the fact that it reinforces the idea that no trans-people are truly the gender that they are ID’ing as, and at the end kind of gives you that ‘well at least he knows he’s a boy’ feeling.

    Furthermore, it implies that to be a ‘real woman’ you must be feminine. Because although -he’s*- obviously not going to make it (as set up in the commerical) the closest he can come to is by doing all these sterotypically feminine things. Do I know from the article that he wants to be a woman? No (granted its a 30 second commercial) but it feeds into those cultural assumptions and the cultural confusion about what it means to be a transgendered person.

    I feel like I’m reiterating what Julia said, and not really expanding on it. *sigh*

    *I am assuming that this person ID’s as male and uses he because that’s the language that the person used.

  8. Holly says:

    Yeah, there are a couple points to be made there, I think. Laura already made one — that most people watching this commercial aren’t necessarily going to understand the distinction between gender expression and gender identity, between someone who’s performing a gendered role on stage (and apparently all sorts of other places, at least in the clips) and someone who lives their entire life being perceived as a particular gender. “Trans” is an umbrella term not just for political convenience — it’s also an umbrella perception.

    The second point is that there actually isn’t such a hard and fast line between “drag queens” and “trans women,” no matter how much some people try to insist there is. I know plenty of trans women who have or still do perform in drag contexts — just look at Calpernia Addams, possibly one of the most well-known trans women around at the moment. The tragic story of her boyfriend’s murder started when they met at a club where she was doing drag. There are lines, but they’re blurry lines. People cross back and forth, especially people who are on the margins to begin with. What do we know about the person in the commercial? He apparently identifies as a man, and does stage performance that plays around with gender. It’s hard to say what that means for the rest of his life — how people on the street or other people in his life see him, treat him, etc. All of this stuff is slippery and doesn’t fit well into neat boxes — and so it probably always will be, because a lot of human beings simply can’t be crammed into the ideals of a gendered hierarchy.

  9. Terra says:

    Whether or not it ‘accurately portrays’ (all) drag queens is incidental to the fact that it reinforces the idea that no trans-people are truly the gender that they are ID’ing as,

    I’d disagree. To me it just portrays a drag queen and says nothing at all about trans women.

    The boy in question was very specific that he enjoyed emulating feminity and that he ided as a boy. I think he does a good job of drawing a very clear distinction between himself and transwomen.

    And thats actually an important issue as people who think the line is blurry can often push feminine men towards surgery and horomones and push trans women away from those things. Both of which tend to have pretty bad consequences.

  10. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    laura: Transgender is a umbrella term. It is anyone who crosses gender lines (I personally include the rest of the queer community in that, but I -might- have an agenda). Transsexual is specifically someone who ID’s as ‘the gender opposite’ the sex they were born (a problematic definition in itself).

    The inclusive definition bothers me because from my point of view, I’m not “crossing,” or moving, or trying to violate boundaries. Instead, what I find is that all of a sudden, someone will draw a line around me for reasons that strike me as utterly arbitrary and rather silly. From my point of view, I’m male, and a man, and all of my existence, behavior, and “spirituality” (now there is a problematic term) must therefore be masculinity. It’s not a problem until I end up in someone else’s game of Calvingenderball and they call foul or try to appropriate my experience in ways that make me uncomfortable.

    And a part of me is deeply baffled as to how a definition that includes all of human existence is all that useful.

    Holly: Yeah, there are a couple points to be made there, I think. Laura already made one — that most people watching this commercial aren’t necessarily going to understand the distinction between gender expression and gender identity, between someone who’s performing a gendered role on stage (and apparently all sorts of other places, at least in the clips) and someone who lives their entire life being perceived as a particular gender. “Trans” is an umbrella term not just for political convenience — it’s also an umbrella perception.

    A big question is, why should their perceptions be the driving force behind our discourse and political identities? I mean, on the one hand we share a common cause in that those arbitrary gender rules are used to justify all kinds of political, economic and physical violence against us. But on the other hand, I think my experience of gendered oppression is radically different from that of a person whose gender expression AND gender identity is considered “wrong” by gender bigots.

    I also know some people who identified as transgendered and genderqueer and used drag as a safe space. But for others, it was just a hobby that gave them a certain level of status in the gay men’s community. And that ability to just walk away from it, when it became too much work and expense for the satisfaction, or moving to a new job, or because an SO wasn’t into that scene, strikes me as a very powerful kind of privilege.

  11. Holly says:

    I mean, on the one hand we share a common cause in that those arbitrary gender rules are used to justify all kinds of political, economic and physical violence against us. But on the other hand, I think my experience of gendered oppression is radically different from that of a person whose gender expression AND gender identity is considered “wrong” by gender bigots.

    Actually, I think you summed it all up right there. Your first sentence is the answer to the question, why do these perceptions matter, why do we need to take them into account when organizing politically? Your second sentence is the reason that an “umbrella” is not the be-all and end-all of defining who people are or what they do. That kind of umbrella would be just as coercive as the system of gender rules.

    I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. It’s not like it’s EITHER “we all are grouped under this umbrella” OR “we have radically different experiences. It’s both. People with very different experiences can all still have (vastly different) experiences of being coerced by oppressive and mandatory rules about gender. And that doesn’t include all of humanity or even most of it — the vast majority of people have to live within a gendered system, but don’t necessarily feel like it goes hugely against the grain for them personally. (And I think it’s necessary at this point to distinguish traditional sexism, or misogyny that leads to lack of power for women, from oppositional sexism, or strict differentiation of roles.)

    Similarly, just because the lines are always going to be blurry between various “flavors” of trans people, that doesn’t mean anyone should be pushing people across those lines in one direction or the other. That’s just another form of gender coercion, even if it’s on a small scale. Again — different issues, a blurry line is not the same thing as the hand pushing someone across it, and a really solid line doesn’t prevent people from being coerced either. If anything, quite the contrary.

  12. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    I’m not saying that those common perceptions don’t matter. What I’m saying is that it’s not wise to dismiss the fact that many drag queens identify as gay men 24/7. And their ability to take the drag off in the dressing room and pack it home with them in a bag is a significant privilege, as is their ability to use drag performance as a vehicle for misogyny.

  13. Holly says:

    Absolutely, and those folks do experience gender coercion in a vastly different way — maybe not at all, maybe in other ways (a lot of drag queens who live as men are still very femme) and maybe in ways they can easily evade. I think that fits well under the idea that yes, people have very different experiences and experience the same oppression in vastly different ways. I mean, a wealthy white heiress in Los Angeles can still experience misogyny, even if it’s in an enormously, radically different way than a young orphaned girl in Lagos. Some people have access to a lot more privilege than others, and some kinds of privilege let us get away from, evade, or ignore other persecutions. Sometimes it’s even directly related, as in the nature of your gender performance and how temporary it is.

    But it’s hard to generalize about what a particular type of stage performer (drag queens) experiences in the rest of their life — just being a drag queen doesn’t tell us whether they are harassed or discriminated against for not being masculine enough elsewhere, or even whether they present as male in the rest of their lives. Like I already said, there are also many drag queens who identify as women 24/7 and can’t just “pack their gender in a bag.” Just the term “drag queen” doesn’t really tell us anything about that, and for instance, the performer in the commercial is shown in all sorts of offstage contexts (walking down the street, on the beach, exercising) presenting in a way that most people would interpret as female. Even though he identifies as male. The lines can’t be drawn neatly. And who knows, maybe that was all just done for the purposes of shooting the commercial and most of the time he does “pack his femininity up and go home” but regardless, he’s certainly androgynous enough to be vulnerable in many situations (which maybe he can avoid through other uses of privilege) to harassment, discrimination, violence.

    But yeah, I agree completely that it’s much easier for some people in the “trans” umbrella to get away from transphobia and gender coercion. That doesn’t mean they’re still not vulnerable to it at times, or that we should exclude them somehow from who we’re talking about when we talk about gender coercion and transphobia.

  14. CBrachyrhynchos says:

    You know, I think we are close enough to a consensus, and just are disagreeing over nuance.

    My feeling though is that there is a cultural space for elite drag performers (which is what seems to be portrayed in this commercial) that doesn’t necessarily translate to acceptance of “feminine” men.

  15. Holly says:

    Definitely agree on that one.

  16. amandaw says:

    There is just something that bothers me about public representations of pain. I don’t know if it’s another case of “it’s not you, it’s me” but it always rubs me the wrong way when pain is used to sell — a product, an ideology, whatever. I’ve been meaning to dig through my thoughts on the “pain is weakness leaving the body” cliche that’s on a USMF poster I walk by every day on my way to work, which comes down to the same essential objection. But I haven’t been able to really clearly find the words for it yet.

  17. ineffabelle says:

    “the hardest part of looking like a woman is hair removal!?”

    Well, I think that was supposed to translate as “the hardest part of passing is hair removal”, which would be kind of true if you were talking about facial hair. No one I know is going to epilate their face though.

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