Gendering Comfort

This advertisement for the Chevy Silverado truck isn’t anything particularly new, I’m afraid. It’s supposedly super masculine men like (Hall of Fame football player) Howie Long policing other men’s masculinity and shaming them when they don’t live up to the arbitrary gender ideals. In short, *yawn*.

But for some reason the ad stuck with me, and I don’t think it’s for the reason that Sociological Images states — that the “you’re not masculine enough” discourse is so understood that it didn’t even have to be explicitly spoken, only implied. I think that for the most part, that’s how it generally tends to go anyway.

No, what stuck with me is that they aren’t policing gender based on product color, sexual prowess, grooming (though it comes up), or even fussiness. They are policing masculinity based on comfort.

Surely it’s not the first or the last time this will happen, but it strikes me as particularly absurd. It also strikes me that they’re trying to feminize comfort in order to mock femininity as a means of bolstering their later (implied) claim that something like fuel economy is masculine. After all, being a manly man is traditionally all about using up the largest amount of resources that you personally can, making fuel economy generally seen as “feminine,” and we need to leave those manly man with something to hold onto in order to sell them a car.

But still.  How can not wanting your hands to freeze off — and I live in Western NY, and we know all about freezing here — be a gendered desire? What does it say about us when a concept so frankly gender neutral as comfort is so strongly and negatively feminized?

And how particularly strange when just yesterday I was discussing with some friends on Twitter the phenomenon of expecting Michelle Obama to freeze her ass off for the sake of femininity.

In other words, comfort isn’t only gendered, sad though it may be, it’s gendered according to situation. Depending on that situation, women are often seen to not deserve it if they’re real women; and men are seen to not need or want it if they’re real men.


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43 comments for “Gendering Comfort

  1. roymacIII
    January 21, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    That is one weird commercial. That whole interaction was just… bizarre. It’s such an odd thing to compare–“Would you rather have a heated steering wheel or fuel economy?”
    Well, both, really.

    And I have to say, I’d be super uncomfortable with a person I didn’t know–who I’d just accidentally bumped with my car–leaning inside my window and asking me about my heated steering wheel and my fingernails.

    And before I’d finished reading your post, I was just thinking how odd it is given the tremendously uncomfortable clothing that we frequently seem to expect women to wear in the pursuit of beauty.

    Now I wish my car had a heated steering wheel. *sigh*

  2. leah
    January 21, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    “In other words, comfort isn’t only gendered, sad though it may be, it’s gendered according to situation. Depending on that situation, women are often seen to not deserve it if they’re real women; and men are seen to not need or want it if they’re real men.”

    MmmHmmm. Microminiskirts and platform heels come to mind (and that second one aside from just being uncomfortable, is unhealthy. I talked to a woman this weekend who has had 5 knee surgeries before age 40 because of all the high heels she wore when she was younger).

  3. Kristen (The J one)
    January 21, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    What does it say about us when a concept so frankly gender neutral as comfort is so strongly and negatively feminized?

    I tend to think of it in the reverse. How horrid is it that pain is considered masculine. How horrid to grow up in a society where being hurt in and of itself makes you a man.

    I mean a lot of women are harmed physically by the patriarchial norms…from high heeled shoes to domestic violence to rape culture.

    But for men…being in pain whether in football or boxing or whatever and “sucking it up” is like a right of passage.

    Creeps me out.

  4. William
    January 21, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Watching that commercial and thinking about the commentary Cara provided I began to wonder if perhaps comfort was only being gendered for the sake of expediency. What I mean by that is that it seems gender norms aren’t the core issue here, but rather the hammer that is being used to enforce another social expectation. The thing that got me is that when we see gender being policed, we tend to see mutually exclusive lines being drawn (that which is not masculine is feminine, that which is not feminine is masculine) but in these cases the pursuit of comfort is implied to be a violation of both gender norms. It would seem to me that there is a deeper social demand that we sacrifice comfort and gender policing is the just way in which we justify it’s enforcement.

  5. William
    January 21, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    I tend to think of it in the reverse. How horrid is it that pain is considered masculine. How horrid to grow up in a society where being hurt in and of itself makes you a man.

    I don’t really think its the pain that is seen to make you a man. The pain is just a by-product, a means of testing something else. Instead the ability to endure pain is treated as evidence that you have the qualities you’re supposed to have to be “a man:” strength, endurance, willpower, and the more general ability to dominate others which is implied by being indomitable. In this way men “prove” their manhood by putting the traits associated with it on display, and the most socially acceptable ways of doing this are enduring pain and engaging in sanctioned (generally painful) competition. The pain is only important so long as it serves as proof of dominance.

    For women it seems that the endurance of pain is also valued, but the gender roles expected of women change the meaning of that endurance. Instead of being an exercise in dominance the endurance of pain becomes proof of submission and devotion. We see that ideal in high heels, bikini waxing, the male pursuit of virginity (and thus the female “responsibility” to remain “pure”), and the refrains of Tammy Wynette songs. Again, it is not the pain that is important, but rather what it symbolizes.

    Whats really horrid, to me at least, is that we live in a society in which people of both genders have been essentially tricked into brutally policing themselves, punishing themselves (and one another) for dissent without ever even realizing why.

  6. cy
    January 21, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    I can’t stand these commercials. Another one in that series that stands out is this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGI8IRXRqpo

    Interesting use of the prefix “man” by Chevy suggesting the step is feminine and requires the prefix for men to use it (like a man-purse). But of course what man would want to a step so insufficiently masculine that it requires the prefix?

    Seems like an incredibly transparent move by Chevy. The step looks pretty damn handy.

  7. Kristen (The J one)
    January 21, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    William,

    Eh…I tend to disagree. I think pain is a far more important part of male socialization than it is of female socialization. But then I’ve spent a great deal of my life around men that have this pain/control dynamic seemingly burned into their psyche, so I’m open to being wrong about that.

    But it’s not really an important point in the grand scheme of things. Gender policing is bad regardless.

  8. umami
    January 21, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Eh…I tend to disagree. I think pain is a far more important part of male socialization than it is of female socialization.

    Bikini waxes. I’m just saying. I think the difference is more how men and women are expected to respond to the pain– women are expected to pretend it doesn’t exist, and is insignificant (and I wonder if this is part of the social taboo on talking about menstruation), whereas men are expected more to pretend they’re pretending it doesn’t exist, but they are allowed to boast about the pain indirectly by talking about the pain-causing manly things they did that got them hurt.

  9. Kristen (The J one)
    January 21, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Umani,

    I’ve never gotten a bikini wax. No one has ever asked me to get a bikini wax. No one has specifically told me that my femininity was conditioned on getting a bikini wax. But I have seen a man snap his ACL and refuse to go to the doctor (ahem…stupid husband). I’ve also seen a group of men (marines in this instance) run in rough terrain until they puke just to see who was more of a “man.” I’ve seen boys punch each other in the stomach just to determine who could take it without doubling over. Like I said…I may just have a different perspective based on my life experience.

  10. January 21, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    One of CNN’s correspondents covering the Youth Ball last night noted that a lot of the guys had been waiting outside for hours without coats. He attributed it to their being “manly”; I attributed it to their being young adults who might not own coats appropriate for such a formal affair.

  11. yesbut
    January 21, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    I think they were also trying to touch on the old “frivolous” vs “serious” gendered divide, where what women like is frivolous and what’s frivolous is feminine, and men like/do/are the stuff that really matters. Like get sort of decent mileage out of their totally impractical cars, apparently. And set up totally false choices for consumers….

  12. William
    January 21, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    Eh…I tend to disagree. I think pain is a far more important part of male socialization than it is of female socialization

    Oh, I certainly agree that the whole pain game is a much bigger part male socialization than female socialization, my point was just that it is present in both and that there might be something to be learned from looking at what social purposes enduring pain serves and how gender effects those purposes. For me it comes down to expressions of dominance (as you pointed out) in men and submission in women, which are two sides of the same coin.

    I’m personally fascinated by social pressures and human motivations, and I’m a huge theory geek, so my natural inclination in discussions like this is to try to figure out what different phenomena mean. Just my two cents.

  13. Kristen (The J one)
    January 21, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    my point was just that it is present in both and that there might be something to be learned from looking at what social purposes enduring pain serves and how gender effects those purposes.

    True enough. Socialization is weird. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just all grow up into our natural inclinations (assuming a lack of harm to non-consenting others)? I’d wear nothing but pjs. :) *sigh*

  14. January 21, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Dude, Howie is totally hitting on that guy. And/or simultaneously emasculating him. :Brain explodes.:

  15. Sophist FCD
    January 21, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    An additional layer of stupidity is that the difference in gas mileage is pretty trivial. But hey, at least you’re hands won’t be warm, right?

  16. William
    January 21, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    Dude, Howie is totally hitting on that guy. And/or simultaneously emasculating him. :Brain explodes.:

    No, you see, Howie has to emasculate him because if the guy he’s attracted to isn’t really a guy then then the buttsex he’s craving doesn’t make him teh gay.

  17. timothynakayama
    January 21, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Instead the ability to endure pain is treated as evidence that you have the qualities you’re supposed to have to be “a man:” strength, endurance, willpower, and the more general ability to dominate others which is implied by being indomitable.

    I agree with you there. Even when I was a kid and had a wound in my mouth that required sewing up with stitches WITHOUT any sort of local anaesthesia, the nurses kept on telling me “Come on, be a good boy. Boys don’t cry.”.

    So yes, I agree with you that the ability to endure pain and hardship is the quality desired, rather than seeking pain for itself.

  18. Angela
    January 21, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    Sorry Cara, but Michelle Obama chose to freeze her ass off. No one made her and husband get out of that warm limo and walk.

  19. January 21, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Yeah, the narratives around pain are fundamentally different. For women, the real point is to be “feminine” and “beautiful,” and unfortunately “beauty requires pain.” But it’s supposed to be worth it, and perhaps in part made worth it because it’s difficult. However, the beauty industry is more than happy to sell products that offer “less pain” as part of the package — just look at how hair removal stuff is sold or advertised. Pain is not integral.

    For guys, on the other hand, pain has to be part of the “manly experience” in order to prove that it can be surmounted, ignored, endured. Awesome.

    Honestly, I’d rather deal with the beauty myth stuff. It’s a little easier for me to ignore, at least personally, because it’s about your surface — the dude stuff is about whether you are “worthy.” Because frankly, being able to deal with and get past pain (particularly emotional pain) can actually be an admirable quality — and it’s one that women are assumed to have automatically by virtue of having wombs, right. The pressure to prove it all the time through acts of stupidity, hyper-competitiveness to prove domination, and unflappable stoic facial expressions is what is really annoying.

  20. January 22, 2009 at 12:30 am

    Only one thing that comes to mind when i see dodge/gm/ford commercials: Who are you kidding?

  21. timothynakayama
    January 22, 2009 at 12:42 am

    Because frankly, being able to deal with and get past pain (particularly emotional pain) can actually be an admirable quality — and it’s one that women are assumed to have automatically by virtue of having wombs, right.

    Is this true? Pain-threshold is difficult to measure because there are lots of different kinds of pain.

    And I don’t think women that are assumed to be able to deal with and get past all sorts of pain.

    Take for example the common experience of a boss scolding his/her employee in front of everyone. If women feel like crying at such an encounter, it’s understandable and expected. But imagine if a man cried in such an encounter…he’d be thought of as soft and weak. People would expect him to take it on the chin and “man-up”. And thus , this is one example of society expecting men to deal with and get past pain as soon as possible (this also applies to grief).

  22. January 22, 2009 at 12:47 am

    Remember: When the Dodge Ram Truck salesman asks you about the optional add-ons, just say no to the rustproofing, the polyurethane cab liner, and the driver’s seat anal electrocution feature.

  23. missdk
    January 22, 2009 at 2:03 am

    This is a really interesting discussion, and the comments are very insightful, but I’m stuck on something here: a heated steering wheel??? God, that could have saved me so many mornings in Michigan.

    On a serious note, something about Howie Long that sticks with me through this commercial is the point that he retired as a young man from a very masculine sport, football, because his body is basically broken. He hurts from head to toe just tying his shoes. It’s ironic that this is about the masculinity of lack of comfort when his masculine sport broke his body.

  24. Nia
    January 22, 2009 at 2:33 am

    Masculinity is defined according to what features a society considers positive. Fuel economy is perfectly masculine if you think of men as “good providers” and women as “wasteful, decorative, pampered ladies”; that’s an image I’ve found a lot.

    Timothy, women are expected to deal with a lot of pain and humiliation on a daily basis. You mix up pain tolerance with the public expression of pain.

  25. Thlayli
    January 22, 2009 at 5:02 am

    Kissing Suzy Kolber, which is not exactly the most PC corner of the tubes, didn’t care for those ads*, either.

    ***

    I read somewhere that Mrs. Obama’s clothes had pashmina linings. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s what I heard.

    * — yes, there’s more than one.

  26. January 22, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Sorry Cara, but Michelle Obama chose to freeze her ass off. No one made her and husband get out of that warm limo and walk.

    Yes, she did choose to get out of the car. But she was also expected to — which is why I used the word “expected” rather than “forced.”

    But what I was actually talking about was the outfit itself, not the walk. Because I’m sure that she was also cold during the inauguration itself. She could have worn a real coat that buttoned up, with a scarf and such. But if she had, very few would have cared that she was warm — they could have cared that she OMG ruined the outfit! And I think that women make choices like this regularly in order to look good, without even really thinking about it, because looking good is just what you’re expected to do.

  27. AndersH
    January 22, 2009 at 10:49 am

    As a European who likes American Football (obviously I was dropped on my head a lot as a child), the commercials attached to it are a real treat, in a dark Anders in Wonderland-fashion. It’s just incredibly bizarre with the truck and food commercials. And here I thought that the I am Man Burger King commercials were an aberration.

  28. Kristen (The J one)
    January 22, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Cara,

    It’s kinda of funny that you mentioned the coat issue. My husband and I were talking to his cousin (who now lives in Chicago) about the fact that as a local boy, Obama was probably freezing his ass off while Michelle looked comfortable even though she didn’t even button her coat. The cousin’s opinion was that the reason she didn’t have on warmer gear was that it wasn’t that cold. He says that people walk around like that all the time in Chicago when its in the high 20s and the sun is shining. Sounds preposterous to me (coming from Hawaii) but I suppose its possible.

  29. January 22, 2009 at 11:04 am

    I’m dubious, Kristen. Again, I live in the Rochester/Buffalo area. I don’t know how cold it gets in Chicago compared with how cold it gets here, but we’re pretty well known for our shitty, really snowy, freezing ass weather.

    And no, we don’t walk around like that unless the sun is shining and it’s at least 40 degrees. ;)

  30. January 22, 2009 at 11:48 am

    He says that people walk around like that all the time in Chicago when its in the high 20s and the sun is shining. Sounds preposterous to me (coming from Hawaii) but I suppose its possible.

    This is true, believe it or not. I lived in Chicago for six years and was amazed to see Chicagoans out jogging in shorts during the winter. The shorts always came out along with the sun, no matter how cold it was.

    However, like Cara, I now live in the Rochester/Buffalo area, and people (quite sensibly) keep their trousers on throughout the winter!

  31. Kristen (The J one)
    January 22, 2009 at 11:54 am

    However, like Cara, I now live in the Rochester/Buffalo area, and people (quite sensibly) keep their trousers on throughout the winter!

    IMO, people should keep their trousers and multiple layers of clothing on until it’s at least 60 degrees…but then I wore a jacket in Hawaii on “chilly” nights.

    *sigh* I hate winter. I swear I’m going to by one of those sun lamps one of these days….

  32. January 22, 2009 at 11:56 am

    (Aside at Miriam: any chance you’re going to the Rochester Roe event tonight?)

  33. cbrachyrhynchos
    January 22, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    It’s stuff like this that makes me feel uncomfortably gendered. It’s not that I have a manicure or a heated steering wheel, but the whole exchange just hits a bit too close to experiences of being gender-checked, with of course the associated implications regarding sexuality and class status that go with it.

  34. cbrachyrhynchos
    January 22, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    And another WTF? 21MPG Highway is supposed to pat yourself on the back for being so frugal about buying a V6/V8 beast that is little more than a status symbol for most people?

  35. William
    January 22, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    He says that people walk around like that all the time in Chicago when its in the high 20s and the sun is shining. Sounds preposterous to me (coming from Hawaii) but I suppose its possible.

    As a life-long Chicagoan, I’ve definitely had the same experience. When I left the house this morning it was in the mid 20s and I actually debated going back inside to ditch the hat and gloves and grab a lighter jacket. Thats mostly because we just had two weeks in the low single digits and cold, even really cold, just doesn’t feel cold when you compare it to what you were dealing with before.

  36. January 22, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Hello :) I got to your blog via another and I just had to comment on this posting.

    As usual the ‘macho man’ has shot himself in the foot because I don’t know about the other ladies commenting here but I LOVE to see a man with nice hands.

    Male manicures are sexy…oh yes. :)

    And actually the more I think of it, Mr Manicure probably gets more girls because his car is nice and *warm* haha.

  37. Bagelsan
    January 22, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    I’ve seen boys punch each other in the stomach just to determine who could take it without doubling over.

    I still see this difference in “girl” behaviors and “boy” behaviors as detrimental in a huge way (maybe even mostly) to women and girls. Girls aren’t expected to have any experience with physical confrontation, so a heavily female-socialized woman is going to be clueless about what to do in a fight or when physically threatened. I grew up very physically sheltered, and was never hit even by friends or in a joking manner, so being hit would be completely baffling. I would likely spend a good minute being like “seriously? I just got hit? What the hell? That totally hurt more than I thought it would…” instead of focusing on the circumstances and possibly protecting myself. Having some experience fighting or getting hit, even in a playful or foolish way, would help reduce the initial shock, I believe.

    A microcosm of this is my interaction with a friend in college, who grew up as “one of the boys” to a greater extent. The first time she play-punched me in the shoulder I was like “Ow!” and didn’t move, but just gave her the most astonished look. Now that I’ve adjusted to her more physical approach I play-punch her back without any mental distress, and I have no problem realizing that no, it didn’t actually hurt, I was just startled and acting properly girlish. :p

    (Obviously, this is not to be taken as “hit little girls, it’s good for ’em!)

  38. cbrachyrhynchos
    January 22, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    I still see this difference in “girl” behaviors and “boy” behaviors as detrimental in a huge way (maybe even mostly) to women and girls.

    There certainly are contexts in which it’s possible to engage in friendly competitive physical violence built around mutual respect. We usually call them “sports.”

    My experience though wasn’t that it was friendly at all. It was bullying, battery, and abuse, with a thin veneer of “just joking” slapped on the side as if that ever made it better.

  39. The Amazing Kim
    January 23, 2009 at 4:29 am

    Dude, Howie is totally hitting on that guy. And/or simultaneously emasculating him.

    So just like heterosexual flirting, then.

    It was bullying, battery, and abuse, with a thin veneer of “just joking” slapped on the side as if that ever made it better.

    Sounds like “sports” to me…

  40. The Amazing Kim
    January 23, 2009 at 4:30 am

    There should be a [/snark] tag there…

  41. Meghan
    January 23, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    I got the sense, having played rugby for 8-9 years, that enduring pain was a point of pride. Almost to be enjoyed for the status it gave you as a better (non-wussy) individual. It was worse for the guys, but there was some spillover onto the women’s culture, because you kinda felt coerced to “keep up” with the guys, to be respected as athletes/rugby animals. Drink as much, take as much pain, be just as raunchy, and more acceptance to be casual about sex. I grew up with three brothers so the play-fighting, comparing-bruises social experience came easy. I still accept the bruises I get play-fighting or getting hurt being physically risky much easier then any clothing restrictions or pain from beauty rituals.

    I mean I can show-off any bruises or scars as “life experience” but nobody wants to see deformed feet from a life time of high heels in respect for a life lived to the fullest. At least I’ve never heard of it…

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