This post will attempt to break down important points found in the feminist readings done this week with an emphasis on Frigga Haug’s ON THE NECESSITY OF CONCEIVING THE UTOPIAN IN A FEMINIST FASHION. The focus is on feminism as a kind of utopia and how gender, not sex, can be problematic.

While it is trite to begin a response with a Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, it is necessary to open with a universal understanding that feminism is, by definition, “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” and it is certainly an (achievable) utopian belief. Feminism, when intersectional, is the most just way a society can act as a whole. In a world of anti-discrimination, gender is unrelated to potential success. Intellect, charisma, morals, and skills are valued in a feminist utopia and gender bias is nonexistent.

During her 2013 UN Speech, Malala Yousafzai said, “I raise up my voice-not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back,” which means if girls do not get provided the same rights as men, humanity will never reach its full utopian potential. Morally, holding back half the human race is wrong (actually, I prefer the word Evil). However, it is also economically damaging. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report from September 2015, a “scenario in which women play an identical role in labor markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025,” meaning that even from a capitalist point of view, the gender inequality at work is bad business. 

For these reasons Haug believes gender needs to be abolished. I agree with Haug because sex (which is purely biological) is not the same as gender. You are born with your sex, you are assigned a gender. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) provides a public mandate of 112 pages that clearly illustrates the difference between sex and gender. To summarize, gender characteristics are taught and vary culture to culture whereas sex is the biology (although even that can be adjusted). The preference of the male gender is damaging psychologically and emotionally for boys and girls alike. Gender bias can lead to violence, abuse, and general disrespect. 

A deep root of gender bias lays in what experiences and desires are considered strictly female or strictly male. Additionally, the way women are portrayed versus the way men are portrayed plays a role in our behavior. There are preconceived notions that need deconstruction. For instance, femininity is considered submissive and weak, but that does not mean the female gender is weak—It is how the media has taught us to think, and the desire to have a distinct line between masculine vs. feminine remains strong, and it starts young.

While change is incredibly slow, it is still considered “a problem” for a young boy to prefer dolls and the color pink. It is “inappropriate” for little girls to run outside and get dirty playing sports. Toys directed towards girl are often about becoming moms, while the toy market for boys is career based—or violent.

I am excited to see the shift (though subtle) in children’s clothing and entertainment. It is refreshing to see toy companies and large department stores transitioning to a genderless selection. Let’s discuss Target. Target has removed gendered signage in the toy aisle and the children’s clothing section. Target also has developed a new brand called Pillowfort. Pillowfort is a gender neutral brand that is being praised for providing a variety of bedroom accessories that are “universal.”

A smaller scale company, the spunky upstart GoldieBlox, has quickly taken over the toy aisles, creating gadgets that normally are associated with maleness but with the girly aesthetic of Barbie—it is still clearly gendered for girls, but is a step in the right direction. The toys are feminine in color and design—something still often considered “bad”—but when paired with the engineering education goals and the empowering puzzles/challenges, it successfully combats the norm.

Even Barbie has revamped itself. For the first time in almost 60 years Mattel has reinvented the doll, giving her more realistic sizes and a wider variety of ethnicities. The changes have been criticized for remaining too idealized, but it is revolutionary for the company, and a radical shift in the toy world…but maybe not radical enough. Soon after this positive news, rival company, Hasbro proved sexism to be alive and well. Hasbro recently released a Star Wars monopoly game without the main character, Rey…who happens to be a woman. Star Wars: The Force Awakens Director J.J. Abrams even publicly called Hasbro’s decision to leave out the female protagonist, “preposterous and wrong.” Perhaps Hasbro assumed only boys would be interested in the Star Wars universe.

In the informational comedy show Adam Ruins Everything, Adam explains how the gender bias of toys—specifically in video games though it applies to most all toys—worsened in the 90s and began targeting boys. Game consoles were for men and women until Nintendo decided to sell its consoles in the toy aisle, instead of the electronics section, where they were forced to pick gender. Pink or blue, girl or boy. When they picked the boy aisle, it therefore meant girls were not apart of that virtual world. The success in video game sales was assumed to be related to its gendered marketing. It is one of many toy related marketing decisions that furthered sexism. The 90s set us back, so the changes being made now are absolutely crucial.

Talking about all the ways the toy market has done right and wrong is important because children are sponges. They will absorb everything they see and hear. As they say in coding, “garbage in, garbage out.” The media consumed by the youth directly affects the way they view gender. The media has a responsibility to educate appropriately. Societal pressures and social stigmas and stereotypes may start with toys, but it doesn’t stop after that.

“Men must take part in attaining this different goal…This would be just the beginning of a humane society” and one that benefits both sexes (Haug). For instance, in a feminist utopia, a father fighting for custody of his children would have a fair chance of winning in court. A woman who commits a crime would have the same jail time as a man of the same crime. A woman with the same job as a man would be paid the same. 

A current initiative attempting to implement the changes Haug calls for is the He For She campaign. Many well respected members of the entertainment industry are stepping forward to pledge their support of feminism. The campaign is a part of the United Nation’s initiative to have gender equality. With the help of Emma Watson the brand has gone viral. The purpose of this particular initiative is to get men to support feminism, and to provide a feminist education to the public. Hollywood heavy hitters Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, and Lin Manuel Miranda are examples of men supporting He For She.

Even though there is a celebrity scene in He For She, the campaign is not about equality in the movie making business alone, but rather focuses on a broad range of global issues. Health, work, identity, and violence are examples. The website provides resources for everyone to use for educational purposes. The point is being proactive. I highly recommend browsing the site.

While there are women and men working towards Haug’s feminist utopia, it certainly feels like a far off dream at times. Personally, I find myself frustrated with the sexism prevalent at RISD. For a school predominantly female, I had not anticipated sexism (and race) to be such an issue. Coming from an all girls private school education is the reason I was aware of feminism from a young age. That education is also the reason I was naive enough to think sexism would be far less common at the college level. In my four years at RISD I have never had an organized class discussion about feminism, so this upcoming class meeting is exciting for me.

As a female student, I often hear “Now Is Better,” as in women should be happy to live in the 21st century because being a woman is better than it used to be. I can now vote! I can go to school! I don’t need to be forced into an arranged marriage, or have children at age 16! However, I see this sort of talk as a form of silencing. “Now is better” implies women should stop their feminist agenda, and to demand more progress would be greedy.

Not to mention, I am privileged as a white woman growing up in America. Women of color are discriminated against even more than white women. Not every woman in the world gets an education, or the right to vote. Basic human rights are ignored. 

Of course there are peers who say this with good intentions, but it ultimately is counterproductive to the growth of a feminist utopia. Haug’s feminist utopia is intended for the world, not only a privileged select few. That would defeat the purpose. Now is better, but it needs to keep getting better. 

Outside Cited Bibliography 

“Gender Equality: Gender Equality in Education (Edition 2015).” OECD Social and Welfare Statistics (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 8 Apr. 2016.
“Here Are All the New Barbies–Curvy, Petite and Tall.” Time. Time, 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.
Levin, Gary. “J.J. Abrams on Rey’s Monopoly Controversy, ‘Star Wars’ Success.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, 9 Jan. 2016. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.
“Malala Yousafzai Quotes.” Malala Yousafzai Quotes (Author of I Am Malala). N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.
Strauss, Elissa. “Target Takes Another Step Toward Gender Neutrality with Its New “Pillowfort” Line.” Weblog post. Slate. N.p., 9 Feb. 2016. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.
TruTVnetwork. “Adam Ruins Everything – Why People Think Video Games Are Just for Boys.” YouTube. YouTube, 30 Nov. 2015. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.
Woetzel, Jonathan Woetzel, Anu Madgavkar, Kweilin Ellingrud, Eric Labaye, Sandrine Devillard, Eric Kutcher, James Manyika, Richard Dobbs, and Mekala Krishnan. “How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth.” McKinsey & Company. McKinsey & Company, Sept. 2015. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.

Sex ≠ Gender

3 thoughts on “Sex ≠ Gender

  1. While the abolition of gender is certainly a utopian idea, I don’t think it’s at all plausible when to “abolish” gender is thought of as being to aspire towards a totally neutral space. Laboria Cuboniks puts the productive alternative to this well in her Xenofeminist Manifesto, saying, “’Gender abolitionism’ is shorthand for the ambition to construct a society where traits currently assembled under the rubric of gender, no longer furnish a grid for the asymmetric operation of power.” Historically, there have always been differences established between groups of people. This isn’t to say that I promote the disparity that stems from social division. It’s just a fact, and one that needs to be worked with rather than against. While these differences certainly polarize, they are also occasion for the creation of solidarity within groups. Solidarity can result in an attitude of exclusivity, but in the context of marginalized groups, I think that this can sometimes be helpful to understand. The female and queer experiences are vastly different than the male experience, and are, in pretty much all cases, unable to be fully comprehended by cisgender men. This is not a bad thing if it’s paired with a responsible attitude on the part of men (or any privileged group, for that matter – this is useful when applied to issues of race, class, and sexuality as well). Part of being a useful agent of social change is to understand the limits of your understanding. This involves accepting and celebrating difference – knowing who you are, as well as what the limits of your comprehension and involvement are. I haven’t gotten around to looking at what any of the “He For She” campaigners have to say yet, but I’m interested in seeing whether or not they address this idea.

    It goes pretty much without saying that gender should never limit opportunity, and disparities in job availability, pay, and division of labor at home need to be actively dismantled. This is not merely a question of women occupying male roles, or a sort of “switch” in socioeconomic positioning. It requires restructuring of both sexes’ ways of life – Hayden’s HOMES housing project being a solid small-scale example. This sort of shift doesn’t happen everywhere, for everyone, at once. It does, however, provide an arena for experimentation and conversation about the trajectory of gendered life. The un- and anti-gendering of toys is a relatively similar concept in that it attempts to create a highly imaginative equal-opportunity zone by neutralizing childhood play. But your statement that GoldieBlox toys being “feminine in color and design [is] something still often considered ‘bad’” is something I’m drawn to question – the unqualified “badness” of feminine-looking things, that is. To shoot for total neutrality is to erase historical and experiential difference, as well as make the willing, celebratory consumption of girly objects something to be ashamed of. This comes back around to the idea of embracing difference in favor of erasing it. Subversion of “masculine” or “feminine” toys by switching colors around is, as you say, a pretty logical first step in the right direction, but what I think should really be aspired to is multiplicity in marketing: advertising and design that is appropriately inclusive and exclusive.


    • Maybe I was unclear, but I personally do not believe “girly” is something to be ashamed of, or removed. However, it is something to keep in mind when considering design. I think it is interesting that marketing teams believe in order to have girls engage with STEAM products the toys almost always have to be pink or traditionally feminine. Personally, I like the Pillowfort product line I mentioned because it provides a wide variety of styles and patterns–both masculine and feminine, but has no label that designates it for boys or girls. Pillowfort is leaving the choice to the children. Hopefully I clarified myself!


  2. In the last few sentences of your post you mention how “Haug’s feminist utopia is intended for the world, not only a privileged select few” but you also acknowledge how “Women of color are discriminated against even more than white women.” I am particularly interested in how the feminist movement here in the United States might be viewed as another’s utopia. I say this because The United States has always been a symbol of the American Dream and in many ways it was seen as the dream, the “utopia” for both genders. Although this mentality is not at all accurate, for me it is incredible how utopia is seen in such a spectrum and in order to arrive at a true equal level, it seems like many other groups of women will have to play a game of catch up with the United States.

    However, what is incredibly saddening is the fact that for many women in different cultures, the current status of gender equality (or apparent gender equality) in the United States is enough for these women to feel more than content. I say this as I think about how in the US, there is an ongoing discussion about abortion and the standpoint of people of power, especially women in power, of their views on abortion. But in countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua there are virtually no exceptions allowed for the termination of pregnancy: not for rape, incest, malformed fetus or danger to the woman’s life. The US creates the proper landscape to at least have a discussion, whereas in these other countries women have absolutely no physical power over the bodies or verbal. Although I do not say this with the intention of being misunderstood that I believe that women in the US should be content with the status of gender equality. Your writing however, made me think of this notion of considering the current status of US women as a utopia for other women in the world.

    As I read Haug’s work, I remembered the words of a Mexican Feminist who helped me understand the power of the word “feminism” at a time where I must admit, I was not comfortable with my personal association to it. “I tell other women: don’t be a afraid of the feminist label, which tends to be criminalized in our society. The feminist label means we want to build a new world; so don’t be afraid of that word. If we don’t name ourselves, we don’t exist.” – Marla Arce Pimienta


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