Ah jeez. Marketing. Marketing is really the last bastion of socially acceptable "men do this/women do this" '90s hack-comedy. It's all about reducing people to groups and then playing tricks on those groups in order to get those groups to spend money. Ironing out the quirks and idiosyncrasies of personhood is the entire point—which might make sense from a profitability standpoint, but gives me hives from a social responsibility standpoint. So it's no wonder that I'm deeply irritated by articles in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal today, detailing a new wave of insight into gender-based shopping behaviors. Men, you see, go shopping like this! But women go shopping like this. Oh, you men! And women! Always doin' stuff. Because of genitals. Sigh.
Jen Doll at the Atlantic breaks it down:
Not that shopping's not important, not that men and women are not in some ways categorically different, and not that shopping might, in fact, generally be better for some men, or some women, if it were positioned a little differently. But people are people and not just genders, and while one woman may shop one way, another might not shop at all, or might send her husband out to pick out a new outfit for her because, actually, he loves browsing through racks or whatever. Codifying the way people shop based on gender seems in some ways to woefully miss the point.
Sure, making categorical gender-based statements about something as benign (and traditionally gendered) as shopping is not viciously sexist in itself, but it contributes, however subtly, to a mindset and a system that encourages vicious sexism. The more distinctions we draw between genders the further away we get from thinking of all people as people. Which isn't great for anyone, but is particularly harmful to women. Men get to be men and people. Women are just women. As usual.
The research asserts the following:
Men hate to browse, women like "suggestions." According to the research, "women are most affected by personal interactions with sales associates, while men are affected by pragmatic factors, like the availability of products and parking spaces." Women are "risk-averse" and want interactive experiences-to touch fabrics, see pieces staged with bags or in full outfits, look at lots of color. Men just want to pick up their product and go, and don't want to have to ask for help.
And also some ridiculous shit:
"Among the unexpected things they have discovered is that guys like chairs, which create the impression that it is fine for them to hang out in a store, even if they are not shopping."
You guys. EVERYBODY LIKES CHAIRS.
You know what? I'm sure this research is true. But you know what's a self-fulfilling prophecy? Everything. If you tell women enough times that they love shopping, then they love shopping. We live in a culture that values physical aesthetics among women more than anything else—so is it any wonder that women (in general) are invested in browsing for clothes? And when shopping is so aggressively feminized, is it any wonder that straight men (in general) are invested in making it as quick and transactional as possible? When we treat cultural differences like they're biological, all it does is perpetuate those cultural differences.
But beyond that, the number of exceptions within each gender, when it comes to something as broad as shopping, render generalizations almost meaningless. Shopping is functional. I need the stuff that I need and I buy the stuff that I need when I need it, and everyone has individual preferences about shopping style. My boyfriend doesn't hate browsing for clothes because of his junk; he hates it because he's like 9 feet tall and nothing fits him. On the other hand, he'll browse TVs and recording equipment and effects pedals and imported salt until his brain bleeds. I tolerate clothes shopping because society (not my vagina!) tells me it's my job to be as attractive as possible, and also because clothes are fun. But a saleswoman bringing unbidden slacks to my dressing room might as well be hacking an ebola clot in my mouth. So to say something as broad and obtuse as "Women like to be helped, while men like to help themselves," is just applying gender stereotypes to a genderless function for no reason. It's gratuitous. It's NOT HELPFUL.
I understand that the main objective of a business is to make money. And if strategies like this help businesses make money, because we buy into them, that's on us—I can't begrudge companies for taking advantage of that. But wouldn't it be nice if they didn't have to? If we, as a society, spent a little less time buying into gender stereotypes and a little more time dismantling them?
I don't personally care if companies are playing sneaky psychological games in order to trick me into buying their products. That's what advertising is, and maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. I live my life with the assumption that that's happening all around me all the time. But wouldn't it be nice if a company deliberately chose not to perpetuate and profit from stupid self-fulfilling sexist shit? If they marketed to people based on actually significant criteria (like, I don't know, taste?) instead of the completely arbitrary geography of their crotches?
We ought to question things that companies tell us about "our gender." That's a big part of what feminism is, to me at least—the freedom to participate in cultural stereotypes without being defined by them. I want to go shopping because I like shopping; not because women like shopping. The only things I actually do because of my vagina are buy tampons and constantly fight off marauding bears. The rest is bullshit.
Image via AISPIX by Image Source/Shutterstock.