Gendered Commodities: Identity-Formation by Consumption

“Many have found symbolic interactionism useful for understanding the construction of gender and sexuality. West and Zimmerman’s (1987) ‘Doing gender’ set the stage for the social constructionist research on gender and sexuality. The concept of ‘doing gender’ demonstrates the socially constructed nature of masculinity and femininity as developing out of repeated, patterned interaction and socialization processes.”

Michael J. Carter and Celene Fuller, Symbols, meaning, and action: The past, present, and future of symbolic interactionism

“Foucault points out that juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent. Juridical notions of power appear to regulate political life in purely negative terms–that is, through the limitation, prohibition, regulation, and control and “protection” of individuals related to that political structure through the contingent and retractable operation of choice.”

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

Within the era of pop feminism, the social conception of gender has been more integrated into common conversation. However, without a rich theoretical and foundational knowledge about the unique dynamics of this means of social domination, discussion falls flat and meaningful insights are not generated. Thus, this essay aims to integrate the various philosophical traditions of the past few centuries to provide a background for those unacquainted with the often esoteric and convoluted structural and interactionist understanding behind feminism and other gender liberationist movements.

Symbolic Interactionism

A means of sociological analysis, symbolic interactionism is a well-celebrated field within the study, allowing sociologists to interrogate wider social constructions within manageable analyses of social interaction. As developed by Blumer, Kuhn, and Stryker of various schools of thought, symbolic interactionism focuses on microcosms of society by investigating the minute experiences and interactions between individuals as both agents and subjects. These interactions require communication via language, and this linguistic relay allows for symbols to be transmitted and meanings to be established or re-affirmed. Influenced later by the poststructuralist tradition, it abandons the choking structuralist tradition that focuses on larger cross-sections of society, rather than individuals, often rendering individuals impotent and without the potential to gain meaningful agency. Under the analytical framework for symbolic interactionism, a more personal analysis of wider social formations can be better elucidated. Through this connection to the individual, sociologists have made new strides in articulating how one gains subjectivity and forms identity under the cruel force of hegemony.

Likewise, symbolic interactionism provides a unique foray into discussions of phenomenology. Social interaction requires the essential practices of outside and self-perception and is dominated by the regime of affective politics, and this negotiation is an essential domain of symbolic interactionist analysis. The process of identity formation is well defined by investigating the effects of interactions during the formative period of individuals’ psychological development, complemented by the more structuralist analysis of wider social arrangement. Under a dialectic of order and assemblage versus chaos and disorder, a Hegelian synthesis can be formed by combining structuralist tradition with post-structuralist understandings of social relation and dislocation. This paper aims to construct this ‘higher synthesis’ through the application of a Marxist and post-structuralist lens on gender, commodities, and symbolic transmittance.

Carter and Fuller (2016) cite Ukasonya (2014) and discuss how immigrants must gain awareness of unique cultural scripts with cultural symbols that allow for interaction within the confines of a dominant culture to occur. Only when immigrants become fluent in the language of a dominant culture, can they integrate or “assimilate” themselves within that society. Thus, symbolic interactionism posits the existence of a “cultural linguistics” that provides the structure by which culture is relayed, conveyed, and affirmed through the exchange of accepted symbolic meanings. Applying a feminist lens to this concept, Carter and Fuller (2016) discuss how symbolic interactionism has historically allowed for previously “biological” constructions of gender, etc. to be seen rather as constantly reproduced social constructions created at minute levels of social interaction, pulling from West and Zimmerman’s (1987) ‘Doing gender’.

“According to West and Zimmerman, individuals are constantly assessed for their gender performances in both interactional and institutional contexts; thus, ‘doing gender’ is unavoidable because sex category membership is attached to the allocation of power and resources across various social institutions.”

Michael J. Carter and Celene Fuller, Symbols, meaning, and action: The past, present, and future of symbolic interactionism

Thus, through the lens of symbolic interactionism, gender identification is not a rigid process of ‘sexed’ categorization, but rather a fluid, constantly reproducible process of gender enforcement and regulation via existing social and communal networks. Complemented by Butler (1990), Collins (1990), and Foucault (1975), gender is a juridical system of enforcement, coercion, and prohibition that exists within these aforementioned interactions with society as the wider cosmos wherein these minute, short-lived narratives occur. Collins (1990) discusses the “interpersonal domain of the matrix of domination” from the Black feminist tradition, positing how oppressive stereotyping of U.S. Black women is enforced through the communication of symbols that evoke archetypes and “controlling images” that seek to confine U.S. Black women within predetermined paths of marginalization and invisibility. Likewise, Butler (1990) rejects age-old feminist reification of gender by humanizing gender as a discursive tradition within masculinist societies that is mediated through the formation of symbolic hegemonies reinforced via social interaction. Foucault (1975) provides the philosophical undergirding that supports the work of these feminists by defining the concept of biopower to explain how juridico-political systems control the lives of subjugated populations as means to define their institutional power. Moreover, his idea of “technologies of subjection” complement transhumanist analysis [Heidegger (1927); Souza et al. (2020)] and symbolic interactionism, describing how subjects can use cultural symbols (ie. gender) as technologies to define their subjectivity. Through an understanding of subjective technologies, the symbols discussed by interactionists can be integrated within a well-supported Foucauldian framework that understands symbols as forces with the capacity to provide agency and form identity.

This highlighting of community and culture as the foundation of symbolic transmittance allows for the integration of a postmodernist lens and the disruption of the ‘universal truth’ hypothesis posited by deleterious radical feminists. The concept of a ‘universal’ masculinist culture that is somehow integral to the structure of all human civilizations is absent from any social and cultural contexts and eliminates the individual and the society as integral to the reproduction of certain symbolic associations. The assumption that the categorization of ‘men’ and ‘women’ within the Eurocentric and capitalist conception has existed in all social and economic systems is an unwise, rash, and sloppy postulation that inadvertently enforces Western gendered frameworks on non-Western cultures, societies, and histories. Without a symbolic interactionist framework, those who hold that type of uninterrogated feminism fall into the process of gendering history and enforcing symbols onto objects without those symbolic meanings–establishing a gendered hegemon absent of materialist analysis. Therefore, it is necessary to apply a Marxist/materialist lens to feminist and other gendered analytic frameworks as gender is a manifestation or a “superstructure” of underlying social and economic relations of labor.

Commodity Fetishism and Gendered Commodities

Under the capitalist economic system, all objects with a certain amount of use-value to humans acquire what Marx calls the exchange-value once they become commodities in a system dependent on money, the universal commodity. Once objects ascend into the realm of economic interplay as commodities, they gain an illustrious, near-spiritual nature that transcends the commonly expected use-value tied to that commodity. For example, diamonds would cease to have their all-enchanting nature without the consumerist propaganda of diamond manufacturers. 

Marx describes the “fetishistic aspect” as originating from the dislocation of the object from the origin of its creation, namely labor (Fink, “Marx and Commodity Fetishism”). The social and economic relations that define how labor is organized to produce commodities are hidden, and commodities, divorced from their origin in labor, gain “autonomy” and the capacity to live beyond their material origins. Value is abstracted, and as Jacques Derrida states in his Specters of Marx, the labor of the millions of workers responsible for everyday commodities becomes a “visible invisible” force.

When commodities can acquire this enchanting nature of persistence and life, they gain the capacity to be imbued with symbols and meaning that extends beyond their use-value. The plastic and synthetic paints that form the iconic Barbie brand evoke the ideal woman–thin, heterosexual, white, and upper class–able to participate in the consumer market to acquire wealth and exhibit a certain class character. Like the diamond, commodities can and do have their symbolic language, and the physical acquiring of commodities evokes a subconscious and unspoken accumulation of symbolic authority. For instance, many men today avoid buying, wearing, or even coming into proximity with pink clothes or even everyday items, as if these commodities have a mystical force that presses against their masculinity due to their color and sheen. Ironically, only centuries ago, men across the world adorned their bodies with a pink dress as it was the color of manhood, showing how objects (now commodities) obtain a symbolic language from surrounding cultural attitudes that reflect on the norms and social formations of those cultures. 

These repeating motifs evoke the same language of the symbolic interaction perspective and integrating that sociological theory into a Marxist analysis of commodities, symbols, and meaning precipitates new understandings of what feminism should be. Within the discursive nature of the market, commodities are socialized, and under the process of socialization, accrue the symbolic language integral to the culture it inhabits. Thus, not only physical communication but consumer habits, fashion choices, and aesthetic sensibilities become methods by which the symbolic language is verbalized as the commodities involved in those practices evoke the symbols they represent. 

Despite the truth behind this framework, it leaves a damning stain on the current state of society. How rational is it for individuals to spend an excruciating amount of time meticulously analyzing how the objects around them constantly affect their presentation, and thus, citizenship into society? How acceptable is it for us to lazily defer necessary societal discussions to the realm of consumerism and the “omniscient” and “omnipotent” market? And how reasonable is it for feminists to claim that wealth acquiring and presenting a faux identity constructed by commodities is a path towards the liberation of humanity?

We must establish a new social regime in which the hidden, obscure, and unspoken become visible, commonplace, and in the common conversation where we do not defer the responsibility of interrogating social ills within the realm of the commodity. It is time to pull the curtains from our eyes and do the work to uncover the true relations of power, labor, and struggle within our society.

References (in order of mention)

  • “Symbols, meaning, and action: The past, present, and future of symbolic interactionism” by Carter and Fuller (2016)
  • “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler (1990)
  • “Black Feminist Thought” by Patricia Hill Collins (1990)
  • “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” by Michel Foucault (1975)
  • “Marx and Commodity Fetishism” by Harry Fink (2019)
  • “Specters of Marx” by Jacques Derrida (1993)

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