Southern Identity For Sale at the Mall

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Check out this mannequin in the window of Dixie Heritage, a shop in a Sanford, Florida mall. Draped in fragments of the Confederate battle flag, she performs her “Dixie Heritage” a for passers-by, linking female sexuality, southern womanhood, and southern identity.

Dixie Heritage continues a long tradition of marketing regional identity, packaging southernness in objects and icons. For more, see the great essay collection Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumer Culture in the American South (Ed. Anthony Stanonis, U of Georgia Press, 2008)

Though everything in this shop window epitomizes the creation of regional identity through consumerism, I find the mannequin particularly interesting. She may be the latest in a long line of women performing southernness for audiences.

If you’ve ever seen the infamous yet classic D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation (1915),* you may remember how the little sister of the Southern Cameron family, Flora, decorates her worn dress with cotton to welcome her older brother home to their South Carolina town after the Civil War. Because her family lost their wealth during the war, the cotton is all she can manage for adornment, so it represents her pride, the family’s lost wealth, and the defiance that would characterize Lost Cause ideology. In that scene, Flora embodies the linkage between white womanhood and the South that had been a major element of antebellum white southern identity and that continued to define post-Reconstruction depictions of the white South.

Flora was pure and chaste, as the white upper-class Southern belle of her era (and the many later iterations of her) was supposed to be.

This mannequin embodies an updated version of that image, one that makes room for working-class womanhood, for a self-defined “redneck” womanhood,*** and for sexuality. The mannequin doesn’t pretend to modesty. She celebrates her own body in a modern way that some might claim as feminist (and others might see as exploitative). Her association with camo and a reclaimed “redneck” identity (see photo below) demonstrates she is not of the wealthy belle class.

There’s something to celebrate in the broadening of idealized southern womanhood beyond the upper class, to be sure. And there’s something great about a version of ideal womanhood that challenges the very idea of an ideal; these women can be tough, gun-toting, beer-drinking, race-car driving just as a man could.

But on the other hand, having woman stand in for region is no more progressive than it ever was. Possibly this mannequin has traded one set of stereotypes for another.

I’ve used the word “embody” a lot here for a reason. The mannequin-woman trades on her body and her sexuality; her womanhood IS her body, and that reductionism has never been positive for women. Of course, she’s also a marketing tool; her clothes and her image are for sale and the allure of her bikini-d mannequin body intends to draw customers into the store. There, they can purchase southern identity made tangible in belt buckles, towels, clothing and other paraphernalia, available in shades of camo, laced through with the red, white, and blue of the rebel flag.

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* Birth of a Nation is the film about the Civil War and Reconstruction infamous for its racist portrayals of African Americans played by whites in blackface, its twisted portrayal of history, and its celebration of the KKK; classic for its pioneering film techniques)

**Flora also ends up jumping to her death, running away from Gus, a biracial man who was running after her asking her to marry him. The presumption in the film was that Gus was going to rape her, and thus she had to jump to her death to save herself. Flora’s brother and his KKK buddies lynch Gus in revenge. The whole sequence justifies the violent actions of the KKK in the Reconstruction era and previews the violence the second Klan would exert on black men following its founding in 1915. The film helped sustain the myth of “black man as rapist,” one of the most damaging stereotypes of the post-Civil War era, used to justify lynchings of innocent black men at the hands of white mobs.

***Thanks, Gretchen Wilson; the lyrics to “Redneck Woman” (2004) pretty much sum up the image.

 

Man Candles! Finally. Really.

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Glimpsed in a mall shop window: this display promoting “man candles.” Man candles! What are those? Clearly, an accessory for the “man cave.”

Courtesy of Yankee Candle, this poster—and the store display—provide quite an education in the gender of candles.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that candles have gender (a quality traditionally reserved for humans, who, as living beings, actually enact conventions of masculinity and femininity, something inanimate objects would find hard to do); certainly, candle stores have strategically, if often implicitly, appealed to female consumers. Now Yankee Candle makes explicit its gendering of this inanimate object.

If these items are “man candles,” then all the other candles in the store must be “woman candles.”) Yankee Candle promises “this year’s must have gift for Dad,” with an air of solving a longstanding problem: Finally, the half of the population left out of mass candle buying has products for them.

Of course, the “man candles” herein conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity in ways almost too easy to bother analyzing: hunting, outdoorsiness, big machinery, alcohol, and, well, just SMELL.

This promotion made me wonder. What DOES camo smell like? (Turns out, it smells a little like the woods, in a good way.) Why do we NEED “man candles?” Have men been lacking candles? Do women just secretly want reasons to buy men candles as a way of increasing their own candle supply? Do men want to buy each other candles but feel constrained by the feminine associations with this product? (After all, the usual scents are things like rose, gardenia, pumpkin, cinnamon and so on. Everyone knows those are “woman smells.”).

Candles could be an aid to romance, which might certainly transcend heteronormative gender assumptions, but on the other hand, will prospective consumers find themselves in the mood when they sniff “on tap” or “riding mower?” I’m thinking not. (“On Tap,” one of the man-scented candles, smells truly foul, like the most stale of bars passed by on the street on a Sunday morning).

“Man Town” smells pleasantly of traditional aftershave, clean and fresh, but still, it’s kind of a weird scent for a candle. If none of these fit the bill, there’s always “MMM, Bacon!,” which like all candles, you could purchase as a candle or as a car air freshener (because who wouldn’t want their car to smell like bacon).

The man-candle marketing doesn’t end with the window; a full display inside (looking ahead to Father’s Day) includes an enticing array of these new scents, along with the “Man Candles Toolbox Gift Set,” which packages “tumbler candles” in , you got it, a toolbox. I guess candles seem even less like candles if they come in a glass the man could put liquor in and a container he could pack tools in later. Or perhaps, the candles ARE tools.

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The Father’s Day conceit continues in the store’s seasonal catalog: “give dad what he really wants. . . it’s really not that complicated.”

On another page, options for holding the candles: “Hero’s Boots Jar Candle Holder.” The text proclaims, “Boot, Baseball and Beer. . . Things Dad Loves.” See photo above for the boots in action with some camo candles.

What more is there to say about this? Probably I’ve said enough, except to conclude that this marketing ploy fits a trend I’ve noticed in mainstream consumer culture: products become ever more gender-specific—in the most traditional ways—even as women and men in the United States continue to test gender norms in their own lives, from changing roles in relationships, to changing conceptions of normative relationships, to increasing understanding of transgender identity and genderqueer identity.

Yet mainstream consumer culture holds steadfast to these norms, sometimes in the most farcical ways. Yankee Candle clearly wants to reassure its customers that in their shop, at least, traditional social norms prevail. And since they are (as they claim), “America’s best loved candle,” this message clearly matters.

Feminist History for Sale

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Spotted in a Barnes & Noble women’s studies section: This new “keepsake journal” version of Gail Collins’ 2010 history of “American Women from 1960 to the Present.” This book also comes in a totally regular paperback edition (see below), but you’ll notice something is missing from the original version: a way to make the reader feel involved by contributing her (presumably her) own thoughts and experiences.

The new version nicely synthesizes trends in journaling and scrapbooking with reading. Really, this book is now a sort of DIY coffee table history. Why was this necessary? Do readers need to be guided to “preserve memories of the way things were?” Perhaps so; certainly, the “reading group guides” in the back of so many popular novels nowadays suggest that publishers believe readers need much guidance, indeed.

Here, again (not unlike in the WFM example, below), a particular irony emerges: this book is implicitly and sometimes explicitly a feminist history of a period when women made great advances, some of which centered on questioning dominant societal institutions. This keepsake version plays right into the dominant institutions of marketing and consumerism while reiterating the image of women as keepsake-makers.

It’d be interesting to know the rationale behind this edition. Certainly, this “ Keepsake Edition of the national bestseller, now with space to preserve and share personal memories of the way things were” (Amazon) retails for more ($20 as opposed to $16 for the paperback or 9.99 for the kindle), but it’s safe to assume that generating a wider audience was equally important.

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Old But Still Good: Gender & the Olympics

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Family, family, family, and in particular, MOM: This was the theme that dominated commercials during the Olympics this past winter.
If I had a nickel for every time moms in particular got pointed out in the stands, I’d be…well, you know.
Most noticeably, the announcers talked endlessly about ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie’ White’s moms (and occasionally about the moms of their Canadian competitors, Scott and Tessa). But they talked more about Meryl and Charlie’s moms (and yes, they said moms), by first names, like they were all old friends, with a lot of emphasis on how they’d been there from the beginning, so this was for them too. No mention of dads. Maybe they have no dads? But in fact, a google search of “Charlie White dad” turned up first, a recent People magazine story of headlined with a quote from Meryl, “Our moms are kind of our lucky charms.”
But another headline highlighted Charlie’s dad commenting on the Sochi victory.
In People, an article that pre-dated their gold medal, included this paragraph:

“Charlie is very anti-superstition – we don’t have any concrete good luck charms we rely on,” Davis shares. “But I think our moms are as close to good luck charms as we have.” The pair’s moms, Cheryl Davis and Jacqui White, have never missed a competition, Davis says, “and one tradition we have is that before we compete, we take a moment to give our moms a hug before we warm up.” Davis and White are involved with P&G’s’ “Thank You, Mom” campaign, which gave them the chance to recognize their mothers in a video about their lifelong support. “We’re so grateful to have them with us wherever we go in the world,” Davis says.”
P & G’s 2014 “Thank you Mom” commercial pictured cute, winter-sport-clad children falling over as they practiced with boards, skis, skates, and sticks; their moms there ready to lend a helping hand. “Thank you mom, for teaching us that falling only makes us stronger.”

The children morph into contemporary Olympic athletes, falling, and then, skating, gliding, sticking their way to victory. The final tagline: “P & G : Proud Sponsor of Moms.”

It’s refreshing to see from the comments that many viewers have the same question I do—“ where are the dads?” even if some of them expressed some sexist viewpoints in the process.

This theme was not new; P & G had a similar campaign in 2012 . Loving mothers rousted sleepy and tousled children from their beds in countries across the world; the reflective, lilting sound track accompanied these children braving early morning dark and cold to practice at swimming, running, and more, culminating in their transformation into Olympic athletes.

TD Ameritrade ran a similar series; see this article in Business Insider for details. Athletes contributed their own family videos for the bank’s “Behind every great moment there are lots of small ones” series.

To be sure, nothing wrong in recognizing the role families play in helping young athletes advance and achieve their dreams. But why such a gendered approach? Were these all struggling single mothers?

Unlikely. While on the one hand, this ad gave nice props to the important roles mothers play in encouraging children’s passions, it also reiterated traditional gender norms. But perhaps even more interesting is the way these ads fused concepts of sport, motherhood, and Olympic glory. The intense world of international athletic competition was softened through its connection to misty-eyed mothers.

Motherhood, not national identity, now inspires our loyalty. The competition becomes an opportunity for sentimentalizing childhood, motherhood, athleticism, and even competition itself. What we see here is another example of the way, as historian Gary Cross puts it in his great overview, An All-Consuming Century, consumerism “Won” as the dominant belief system in America during the 20th (and now into the 21st) century.

Applied to P & G, what we see is how consumerism has become totally infused into Americans’ emotional lives. In a completely unironic and unreflective way, family relationships and family love became marketing tools. These Olympic ads are the apotheosis (or nadir?!) of this process.